Afghan Taliban warns UK, US against extending troops’ presence beyond deadline

Special Afghan Taliban warns UK, US against extending troops’ presence beyond deadline
An Afghan policeman checks the documentation of a gun owner, at a temporary checkpoint in Kabul on Sunday. All foreign troops are to withdraw from Afghanistan. (AP)
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Updated 07 July 2021

Afghan Taliban warns UK, US against extending troops’ presence beyond deadline

Afghan Taliban warns UK, US against extending troops’ presence beyond deadline
  • Britain hints at retaining ‘small group of special forces’ after withdrawal of all troops

KABUL: The Taliban on Tuesday said they would target all foreign soldiers remaining in Afghanistan beyond a Sept. 11 deadline for the withdrawal of troops.

The group’s warning followed reports that the UK and the US were planning to retain troops to protect diplomatic missions and Kabul’s international airport.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, told Arab News: “The outcome of this will be very bad. The Islamic Emirate representing the nation and people of Afghanistan will not allow America or any other foreign country to keep their troops. We will deal with them as occupiers.”

Media reports on Monday suggested that a “small group of special forces of the British Armed Forces may stay in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the main part of the troops.”

But referring in part to a landmark deal signed with Washington in Doha, Qatar more than a year ago, Mujahid said: “They should know that we are serious in our words, and we do not want to have bad relations with these countries, but they should not use pretexts by violating the commitment.”

As per the agreement, all US-led foreign troops had to withdraw from the war-torn country by May 1, nearly 20 years after an invasion.

The Taliban reiterated their pledge on Tuesday, warning that if troops did not leave, “they will face the same experience that they had in the past 20 years.”

The controversial Doha deal, inked under former US President Donald Trump’s watch, also paved the way for the intra-Afghan peace talks between President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban.

However, after assuming office in January, American President Joe Biden said that all US combat troops would leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11 instead of May 1, ending the US’ “forever war.”

The removal of all foreign troops coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, which resulted in the Taliban’s ouster in a US-led invasion the same year. Biden’s decision angered the Taliban at the time, who warned of consequences but did not attack any foreign forces in keeping with their part of the pledge in the Qatar accord.

The UK played a significant role in combat operations in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014, leading the fight against the Taliban in the southern Helmand province.

At its peak, there were around 130,000 NATO troops deployed in Afghanistan, with British forces reportedly at about 9,500.

More than 2,300 US personnel have been killed and 20,000 injured in Afghanistan since 2001, while tens of thousands of Afghan security forces and more than 50,000 civilians have also died.

Although the UN has repeatedly linked civilian casualties to militant attacks, in recent years it has reported a spike in civilian deaths due to air raids and operations by government and foreign troops.

In its annual Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict report released in February, the UN’s human rights agency and its assistance mission in the country (UNAMA) said there was a “disturbing spike” in civilian deaths, with 3,035 fatalities and 5,785 injuries registered last year.

Recently, the UK, which opposed the exit of all foreign troops in the absence of a peace deal between Kabul and the Taliban, said it wanted a prolonged military presence to train Afghan forces, while Washington said it would retain troops to guard and protect the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.

“They should act on their promise and go; this would be good for them,” Mujahid added on Tuesday.

The halt of vital air support for Afghan forces by US-led troops has partly helped the Taliban gain ground, particularly in northeastern areas of Afghanistan, where the militants failed to establish a stronghold when in power.

Taking advantage of the vacuum created by the foreign troops’ departure since May, the Taliban have overrun dozens of districts, capturing 150 military outposts in the last two months and reigniting concerns that the militants would regain power by force similar to the 1990s.

Hundreds of government forces have surrendered to the Taliban in recent weeks, mainly in the northern and northeastern regions, with thousands fleeing to neighboring Tajikistan.

On Monday, more than 1,000 Afghan troops reportedly escaped to Tajikistan after clashing with Taliban militants to “save their own lives,” a statement by Tajikistan’s border guard said.

Afghan government officials declined to comment on the issue.

However, to block the Taliban’s advances, Ghani’s government began arming and funding local uprising forces two weeks ago.

Mariam Koofi, a former lawmaker for the northeastern Takhar province, told Arab News: “People are surprised about the military developments and loss of districts one after another to the Taliban.

“They worry that there is possibly a deal to allow the Taliban to gain ground, and it shows that US endeavors for building a strong army with so much expenditure did not yield anything good at the end.”

Some experts have claimed that “chronic corruption” in the Afghan government had been a key factor in troops surrendering to the Taliban.

Torek Farhadi, an ex-adviser to former President Hamid Karzai, told Arab News: “Ghani abandoned the frontline soldiers, years before the frontline soldiers abandoned him, by surrendering to the Taliban, complete with their weapons.

“The Taliban arrived and gave cash to hungry soldiers, $120 each. Surrendering soldiers were set free … this makes good public relations for the Taliban as well,” he said.

The recent escalation in violence and precarious security status has prompted Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan to shut down their consulates in the northern Mazar-i-Sharif area during the weekend, official sources told Arab News.

Meanwhile, Tajikistan on Monday ordered the deployment of 20,000 troops near the Afghan border to deter a possible spillover of violence amid the Taliban’s advances, which also includes the capture of a port town near its frontier.

The escalation of fighting comes amid harvest season and has forced hundreds of families to flee their homes in various regions.

Teenager arrested on terrorism charges while trying to board flight in UK

Teenager arrested on terrorism charges while trying to board flight in UK
Updated 12 sec ago

Teenager arrested on terrorism charges while trying to board flight in UK

Teenager arrested on terrorism charges while trying to board flight in UK
  • The 16-year-old boy is accused of ‘collecting information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’ and ‘disseminating terrorist publications’

LONDON: A 16-year-old boy has been arrested in the UK on suspicion of terrorism offenses while attempting to board a flight from London Stansted Airport.

He is accused of “collecting information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism” and “disseminating terrorist publications,” according to a report by the Independent newspaper reported on Tuesday. Police said the alleged offenses are “linked to extreme Islamist ideology.”

The teenager was arrested on Monday by the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command under Schedule 7 of the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000, which gives officers the power to stop, question, search and detain suspects to determine any links with terrorism. A search was carried out at an address in east London in connection with the arrest, the report added.

Between April 2021 and March 2022, 15 percent of all terrorism-related arrests in the UK (excluding Northern Ireland) involved people under the age of 18.

On May 17 this year, a 13-year-old boy was arrested in west London on terror-related charges. He is one of the youngest people to be charged with terrorism in the UK. Last week, a 15-year-old was detained in the north of England and charged in connection with extreme right-wing terrorism. He is due to appear at the Old Bailey on July 15.

According to official statistics, of the 233 people who were in custody in the UK at the end of March in connection with terrorism-related offenses, more than two-thirds (68 percent) were accused of holding “extreme Islamist views,” almost a quarter (24 percent) of having “extreme right-wing views,” and the remaining six percent of following other “other ideologies.”

Macron says Russia can't win in Ukraine after strike on mall

Macron says Russia can't win in Ukraine after strike on mall
Updated 42 min 39 sec ago

Macron says Russia can't win in Ukraine after strike on mall

Macron says Russia can't win in Ukraine after strike on mall
  • France’s president has denounced Russia’s fiery airstrike on a crowded shopping mall in Ukraine as a “new war crime” and vowed the West’s support for Kyiv would not waver.

KREMENCHUK: France's president denounced Russia’s fiery airstrike on a crowded shopping mall in Ukraine as a “new war crime” Tuesday and vowed the West's support for Kyiv would not waver, saying Moscow “cannot and should not win" the war.
The strike, which killed at least 18 people in the central city of Kremenchuk, came as leaders from the Group of Seven nations met in Europe. It was part of unusually intense barrage of Russian fire across Ukraine, including in the capital of Kyiv, that renewed international attention as the war drags on.
Speaking at the end of the G-7 summit in Germany, French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to address that concern, vowing that the seven leading industrialized democracies would support Ukraine and maintain sanctions against Russia “as long as necessary, and with the necessary intensity.”
“Russia cannot and should not win,” he said. He called Monday's attack on the mall “a new war crime.”
As they have in other attacks, Russian authorities claimed that the shopping center was not the target.
How to counter Russia and back Ukraine will also be the focus of a summit this week of the western NATO alliance, whose support has been critical to Kyiv's ability to fend off Moscow's larger and better equipped forces. Ukrainian leaders, however, say they need more and better weapons if they are to hold off and even drive back Russia, which is pressing an all-out assault in Ukraine's eastern region of the Donbas.
As Macron spoke, rescuers combed through the charred rubble of the shopping mall that authorities said was struck when more than 1,000 afternoon shoppers and workers were inside.
Kateryna Romashyna, a local resident, told The Associated Press that she had just arrived at the mall when an explosion knocked her down. When another blast came about 10 minutes later, she realized she needed to get away.
“I ran away from the epicenter with all of my strength,” she said. Fighting back tears, she added: “You have to be a real monster” to strike a shopping mall.
Many of those inside quickly fled the building when an air raid siren sounded and took shelter across the street, Ukrainian Interior Minister Denis Monastyrsky said. Several of the bodies of those who didn’t make it out in time are burned beyond recognition, he said.
In addition to the 18 killed, authorities said 59 were wounded. Another 21 people are still missing, Monastyrsky said.
The attack recalled strikes earlier in the war that hit a theater, a train station, and a hospital. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called it “one of the most daring terrorist attacks in European history.”
Rocket attacks continued elsewhere in Ukraine, with authorities in the city of Dnipro reporting that workers at a diesel car repair shop were trapped in rubble after a strike from a cruise missile fired from the Black Sea, Ukrainian news agencies reported. The Ukrainian military managed to intercept and destroy other missiles fired at the city, the agencies said.
At Ukraine’s request, the U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting in New York on Tuesday to discuss the Kremenchuk attack.
As condemnation came in from many quarters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov struck a defiant note, saying Russia would press its offensive until it fulfills its goals. He said the hostilities could stop “before the end of the day” if Ukraine were to surrender and meet Russia's demands, including recognizing its control over territory it has taken by force.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov claimed that warplanes fired precision-guided missiles at a depot that contained Western weapons and ammunition, which detonated and set the mall on fire. Ukrainian authorities said that in addition to the direct hit on the mall, a factory was struck, but denied it housed weapons.
Konashenkov also alleged that the mall was not in use, a false claim that witnesses contradicted.
One survivor, Oleksandr, a mall employee, told the AP from a hospital bed that the shopping center was packed with customers. He recalled stepping outside with a colleague for a cigarette when the air raid siren went off.
“There was a black tunnel, smoke, fire," he said. “I started to crawl. I saw the sun up there, and my brain was telling me I need to save myself.”
Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, said the missile attack was one of Russia’s “crimes against humanity.” She emphasized the need for all Ukrainians to remain alert and expect a similar strike “every minute.”
On Tuesday, Russian forces struck the Black Sea city of Ochakiv, damaging apartment buildings and killing two, including a 6-year-old child. A further six people, four of them children, were wounded. One of them, a 3-month-old baby, is in a coma, according to officials.
The unusually intense spate of fire came as the G-7 leaders pledged continued support for Ukraine and prepared new sanctions against Russia, including a price cap on oil and higher tariffs on goods.
Zelenskyy has called for more air defense systems from his Western allies to help his forces fight back. NATO's support for Ukraine will be a major focus of a summit starting this week in Madrid, and an early signal of unity came Tuesday when Turkey agreed to lift its opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the Nordic pair to abandon their long-held nonaligned status and apply to join NATO. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had blocked the move, insisting the Nordic pair change their stance on Kurdish rebel groups that Turkey considers terrorists.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned the West that “the more weapons are pumped into Ukraine, the longer the conflict will continue and the longer the agony of the Nazi regime backed by Western capitals will last.”
Russia has falsely called the war a campaign to “de-Nazify” Ukraine — a country with a democratically elected Jewish president who wants closer ties with the West.
In a sinister message to NATO leaders, Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos published satellite images and the precise coordinates of the conference hall where their summit will be held.
It also posted images and the coordinates of the White House, the Pentagon and the government headquarters in London, Paris and Berlin — referring to them as “decision-making centers supporting the Ukrainian nationalists" in a message on the Telegram app. That wording echoes Russian President Vladimir Putin's warnings that he could target such centers in response to what he has called Western aggression.
In other developments, the two fighting countries continued a sporadic series of prisoner exchanges. Ukraine exchanged 15 Russian prisoners-of-war for 16 Ukrainian soldiers and one civilian, the Ukrainian Pravda news outlet reported Tuesday.
Ukrainian Pravda also reported that in the Russian-occupied city of Kherson, the mayor was detained Tuesday and occupying authorities seized his computer hard drive and documents after he had refused to cooperate with Russian-appointed local officials. Russia’s Tass news agency confirmed the detention.
Meanwhile, Bulgaria said Tuesday it was expelling 70 Russian diplomats designated “a threat to national security,” ordering them to leave within 5 days.
A Bulgarian foreign ministry statement said this would reduce Russia’s Sofia embassy staff “to up to 23 diplomatic and 25 administrative and technical staff.”

Ghislaine Maxwell sentenced to 20 years for ‘horrific’ sex trafficking

Ghislaine Maxwell sentenced to 20 years for ‘horrific’ sex trafficking
Updated 37 min 14 sec ago

Ghislaine Maxwell sentenced to 20 years for ‘horrific’ sex trafficking

Ghislaine Maxwell sentenced to 20 years for ‘horrific’ sex trafficking
  • Maxwell called Epstein a “manipulative, cunning and controlling man” who fooled everyone in his orbit

NEW YORK: Ghislaine Maxwell was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Tuesday for helping the sex offender and globetrotting financier Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse teenage girls, in what a judge called a “horrific scheme” that inflicted “incalculable” harm on victims.
The British socialite, 60, was convicted in December of five charges, including sex trafficking a minor, for recruiting and grooming four girls to have sexual encounters with Epstein, then her boyfriend, between 1994 and 2004.
Speaking at her sentencing hearing in Manhattan federal court before learning the sentence, Maxwell called Epstein a “manipulative, cunning and controlling man” who fooled everyone in his orbit. She said she was “sorry” for the pain that his victims experienced.
“It is the greatest regret of my life that I ever met Jeffrey Epstein,” Maxwell said.
Maxwell’s month-long trial in late 2021 was widely seen as the reckoning that Epstein — who killed himself in a Manhattan jail cell in 2019 at age 66 while awaiting his own sex trafficking trial — never had.
It was one of the highest-profile cases in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which encouraged women to speak out about sexual abuse, often at the hands of wealthy and powerful people.
In imposing the sentence, US Circuit Judge Alison Nathan said Maxwell did not appear to express remorse or accept responsibility.
“Maxwell directly and repeatedly and over the course of many years participated in a horrific scheme to entice, transport and traffic underage girls, some as young as 14, for sexual abuse by and with Jeffrey Epstein,” Nathan said. “The damage done to these young girls was incalculable.”
Bobbi Sternheim, a lawyer for Maxwell, said Maxwell would appeal, arguing the public scrutiny of the case before the trial “left little room for her to be treated fairly.”
“We all know that the person who should have been sentenced today escaped accountability, avoided his victims, avoided absorbing their pain and receiving the punishment he truly deserved,” Sternheim told reporters.

Maxwell’s lawyers had proposed she serve no more than 5-1/4 years, arguing she was being scapegoated for Epstein’s crimes. Prosecutors had last week suggested she serve between 30 and 55 years in prison, but on Tuesday said the 20-year sentence would hold Maxwell accountable for “heinous crimes against children.”
“This sentence sends a strong message that no one is above the law and it is never too late for justice,” Damian Williams, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, said in a statement.
Nathan said Maxwell’s statements showed a “pattern of deflection of blame.”
“Although Epstein was of course central to this criminal scheme, Ms. Maxwell is not being punished in place of Epstein or as a proxy for Epstein,” Nathan said. “Ms. Maxwell was instrumental in the abuse of several underage girls.”
In often emotional and explicit testimony during the trial, Annie Farmer, a woman known as “Kate,” and two other women testified that Maxwell, who was found guilty on five counts, was a central figure in their abuse by Epstein.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Farmer, now a psychologist, said her experience being exploited by Maxwell “resulted in significant shame” that sometimes left her feeling like she wanted to “disappear.”
Kate said she was proud to help hold Maxwell accountable.
“Today, I can look at Ghislaine and tell her that I became what I am today in spite of her and her efforts to make me feel powerless and insignificant, and I will cast that empowerment on my daughter,” Kate said.

Belgium busts drug lab on air base housing US nukes

Belgium busts drug lab on air base housing US nukes
Updated 28 June 2022

Belgium busts drug lab on air base housing US nukes

Belgium busts drug lab on air base housing US nukes
  • Two suspects -- not military personnel -- were arrested during the raid
  • Local police had discovered the drug lab on military land on June 22

BRUSSELS: Belgian police raided an illegal lab producing the rave drug ecstasy on an air base that reputedly houses part of the US nuclear arsenal in Europe, investigators said Tuesday.
Two suspects — not military personnel — were arrested during the raid, according to a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office in the Belgian province of Limburg.
The Kleine-Brogel base in northeast Belgium is best known for housing a stock of US nuclear weapons.
Belgian officials are discreet about the deployment, having briefly confirmed its role in the 1980s, but in 2019 a Green MP told parliament that US forces hold ten to 20 warheads there.
Prosecutors said that local police had discovered the drug lab on military land on June 22 and that it had been dismantled by specialist federal officers.
The lab was found to produce MDMA, a synthetic recreational drug most commonly known as ecstasy.
The Kleine-Brogel air base is often a target of Belgian anti-nuclear and anti-NATO protesters.
It is in a rural area between the port city of Antwerp and the border with Germany’s industrial heartland, an area dotted by labs and hideouts used by international drug gangs.

UK FM fails to say how many British detainees still held by Iran

UK FM fails to say how many British detainees still held by Iran
Updated 28 June 2022

UK FM fails to say how many British detainees still held by Iran

UK FM fails to say how many British detainees still held by Iran
  • Questions raised over Britain’s response to Tehran ‘hostage-taking’

LONDON: UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss has struggled to reveal the exact number of British detainees still being held in Iran.

During a Foreign Affairs Committee meeting, Truss was asked how many detainees are being held hostage by Tehran and what progress the UK government is making in freeing them.

She claimed that the government is “continuing to press Iran on the release of all detainees.”

But concerns have been raised that families of detained individuals may avoid publicizing their cases out of fear of the UK Foreign Office’s reaction.

Pressure from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International was said to be behind the UK government push to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori earlier this year.

During the committee meeting, Conservative MP Alicia Kearns said: “The purpose of the Foreign Office is to keep British nationals safe abroad.”