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

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.


Mexico moves migrants from southern state; asylum seekers awaited at US border

Mexico moves migrants from southern state; asylum seekers awaited at US border
Updated 23 sec ago

Mexico moves migrants from southern state; asylum seekers awaited at US border

Mexico moves migrants from southern state; asylum seekers awaited at US border
MEXICO CITY: Mexican officials have sped up the transfer of thousands of migrants from southern Mexico to other regions as northern border states prepare to receive asylum seekers sent back to Mexico from the United States.
Dozens of buses full of migrants, mostly from Central America as well as some from Cuba and Venezuela, have the city of Tapachula in Chiapas state in recent days to head to other states, a Reuters witness and an activist said on Monday.
Many of the migrants had waited months in Tapachula, near the Guatemala border, to try to regularize their migration status. Many have left violent and impoverished home countries hoping to eventually seek asylum in the United States.
US President Joe Biden’s administration on Thursday said it would re-instate the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a contentious Trump-era policy that requires asylum seekers to wait out their cases in Mexico, a decision that shelters along the northern border have said could overwhelm their capacity.
The first group of migrants under the revamped program are expected to be returned to Mexico this week.
In Tapachula, 45 buses took migrants out of the city on Saturday, said a government source who requested anonymity.
Migrant rights activist Luis Garcia Villagran said migration officers took 32 full buses of migrants out of the city on Sunday, and another 70 on Monday.
“They are trying to not saturate the northern border now that MPP is starting,” he said. “That’s why they are moving them more quickly, controlling where the migrants are going.”
Mexico’s national migration institute did not respond to a request for comment.
A Nicaraguan migrant who declined to be identified said he was relived to get on a bus to the city of San Miguel de Allende in the central state of Guanajuato.
“I was here for a few months but thank God we are going,” he said.
Large numbers of migrants, especially from Haiti, remained clustered in Tapachula waiting for buses, with some sleeping in a camp outside a stadium that migration officers have used as a processing center.

Omicron v. delta: Battle of coronavirus mutants is critical

Omicron v. delta: Battle of coronavirus mutants is critical
Updated 07 December 2021

Omicron v. delta: Battle of coronavirus mutants is critical

Omicron v. delta: Battle of coronavirus mutants is critical

As the omicron coronavirus variant spreads in southern Africa and pops up in countries all around the world, scientists are anxiously watching a battle play out that could determine the future of the pandemic. Can the latest competitor to the world-dominating delta overthrow it?
Some scientists, poring over data from South Africa and the United Kingdom, suggest omicron could emerge the victor.
“It’s still early days, but increasingly, data is starting to trickle in, suggesting that omicron is likely to outcompete delta in many, if not all, places,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, who monitors variants for a research collaboration led by Harvard Medical School.
But others said Monday it’s too soon to know how likely it is that omicron will spread more efficiently than delta, or, if it does, how fast it might take over.
“Especially here in the US, where we’re seeing significant surges in delta, whether omicron’s going to replace it I think we’ll know in about two weeks,” said Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Many critical questions about omicron remain unanswered, including whether the virus causes milder or more severe illness and how much it might evade immunity from past COVID-19 illness or vaccines.
On the issue of spread, scientists point to what’s happening in South Africa, where omicron was first detected. omicron’s speed in infecting people and achieving near dominance in South Africa has health experts worried that the country is at the start of a new wave that may come to overwhelm hospitals.
The new variant rapidly moved South Africa from a period of low transmission, averaging less than 200 new cases per day in mid-November, to more than 16,000 per day over the weekend. omicron accounts for more than 90 percent of the new cases in Gauteng province, the epicenter of the new wave, according to experts. The new variant is rapidly spreading and achieving dominance in South Africa’s eight other provinces.
“The virus is spreading extraordinarily fast, very rapidly,” said Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute. “If you look at the slopes of this wave that we’re in at the moment, it’s a much steeper slope than the first three waves that South Africa experienced. This indicates that it’s spreading fast and it may therefore be a very transmissible virus.”
But Hanekom, who is also co-chair the South African COVID-19 Variants Research Consortium, said South Africa had such low numbers of delta cases when omicron emerged, “I don’t think we can say” it out-competed delta.
Scientists say it’s unclear whether omicron will behave the same way in other countries as it has in South Africa. Lemieux said there are already some hints about how it may behave; in places like the United Kingdom, which does a lot of genomic sequencing, he said, “we’re seeing what appears to be a signal of exponential increase of omicron over delta.”
In the United States, as in the rest of the world, “there’s still a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “But when you put the early data together, you start to see a consistent picture emerge: that omicron is already here, and based on what we’ve observed in South Africa, it’s likely to become the dominant strain in the coming weeks and months and will likely cause a surge in case numbers.”
What that could mean for public health remains to be seen. Hanekom said early data from South Africa shows that reinfection rates are much higher with omicron than previous variants, suggesting the virus is escaping immunity somewhat. It also shows the virus seems to be infecting younger people, mostly those who are unvaccinated, and most cases in hospitals have been relatively mild.
But Binnicker said things could play out differently in other parts of the world or in different groups of patients. “It’ll be really interesting to see what happens when more infections potentially occur in older adults or those with underlying health conditions,” he said. “What’s the outcome in those patients?”
As the world waits for answers, scientists suggest people do all they can to protect themselves.
“We want to make sure that people have as much immunity from vaccination as possible. So if people are not vaccinated they should get vaccinated,” Lemieux said. “If people are eligible for boosters, they should get boosters, and then do all the other things that we know are effective for reducing transmission — masking and social distancing and avoiding large indoor gatherings, particularly without masks.”


Dutch court to rule on Palestinian’s case against Israeli defense minister

Dutch court to rule on Palestinian’s case against Israeli defense minister
Updated 07 December 2021

Dutch court to rule on Palestinian’s case against Israeli defense minister

Dutch court to rule on Palestinian’s case against Israeli defense minister
  • Universal jurisdiction allows countries to prosecute serious offences such as war crimes and torture no matter where they were committed

THE HAGUE: An appeals court in the Netherlands rules on Tuesday in a case alleging war crimes against Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who is blamed by a Dutch Palestinian for the loss of six relatives in an Israeli air strike on Gaza in 2014.
Ismail Ziada filed the civil case against Gantz and another former senior Israeli military official, seeking unspecified damages under Dutch universal jurisdiction rules. His case was thrown out by a lower Dutch court in January 2020.
Universal jurisdiction allows countries to prosecute serious offences such as war crimes and torture no matter where they were committed.
But the lower court ruled that the principles of universal jurisdiction could be applied for individual criminal responsibility, but not in civil cases.
Ziada appealed, arguing that universal jurisdiction should be applied in civil cases if the alleged conduct involved serious violations of international humanitarian law. He asked the appeals judges to reverse the decision, which effectively granted Gantz immunity from prosecution.
Gantz, a career soldier turned politician, was commander-in-chief of the Israeli armed forces during a war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip in 2014, when the incident took place.
About 2,200 Palestinians are estimated to have been killed, up to 1,500 of them civilians, in the conflict, according to U.N. figures. Ziada said he lost relatives when his family home in Gaza was bombed during a June 2014 Israeli air strike. On the Israeli side, 67 soldiers and five civilians were killed.
Gaza is controlled by the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement, regarded by the West as a terrorist organization. Israel says Hamas puts civilians in harm's way by deploying fighters and weaponry inside densely populated areas of Gaza.
Human rights groups have accused both sides of war crimes in the 2014 conflict. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is currently investigating alleged war crimes committed on Palestinian territory since June 2014 by both Israeli defense forces and Palestinian armed groups.


WHO advises against blood plasma treatment for COVID-19 patients

This photo taken on February 18, 2020 shows a doctor (R) who has recovered from the COVID-19 coronavirus infection donating plasma in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. (AFP)
This photo taken on February 18, 2020 shows a doctor (R) who has recovered from the COVID-19 coronavirus infection donating plasma in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. (AFP)
Updated 07 December 2021

WHO advises against blood plasma treatment for COVID-19 patients

This photo taken on February 18, 2020 shows a doctor (R) who has recovered from the COVID-19 coronavirus infection donating plasma in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. (AFP)
  • A US-based trial was halted in March after it was found that plasma was unlikely to help mild-to-moderate COVID-19 patients

GENEVA: The World Health Organization on Monday advised against using the blood plasma of patients who have recovered from COVID-19 to treat those who are ill, saying current evidence shows it neither improves survival nor reduces the need for ventilators.
The hypothesis for using plasma is that the antibodies it contains could neutralize the novel coronavirus, stopping it from replicating and halting tissue damage.
Several studies testing convalescent blood plasma have shown no apparent benefit for treating COVID-19 patients who are severely ill. A US-based trial was halted in March after it was found that plasma was unlikely to help mild-to-moderate COVID-19 patients.
The method is also costly and time-consuming to administer, the WHO said in a statement on Monday.
A panel of international experts made a strong recommendation against the use of convalescent plasma in patients with non-severe illness, the WHO said. They also advised against its use in patients with severe and critical illness, except in the context of a randomized controlled trial.
The recommendation, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), is based on evidence from 16 trials involving 16,236 patients with non-severe, severe and critical COVID-19 infection.


Pakistani clock collector records passage of time

Pakistani clock collector records passage of time
Updated 07 December 2021

Pakistani clock collector records passage of time

Pakistani clock collector records passage of time
  • Gul Kakar’s collection of 18th, 19th-century timepieces range from small pocket watches to grandfather clocks

QUETTA: Bells, whistles, chimes, and gongs sound every minute. Hands tick, pendulums swing.

Welcome to the museum of Gul Kakar, a 44-year-old Balochistan Levies Force officer, who has collected thousands of ancient clocks from around the world.

Housed in his small museum in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, the collection of 18th- and 19th-century timepieces includes exhibits ranging from small pocket watches to tall free-standing wooden case grandfather clocks accumulated over two decades.

“My passion toward antique clocks started when I found two old clocks in my house, which were in my father’s possession. After repairing them, I started my search for more antique clocks,” Kakar told Arab News.

“The majority of clocks in my museum have been acquired from people in the UK, Germany, Holland, France, and the US.

“I have a rare French-made Morbier grandfather clock, which was produced in 1850, and a pocket watch manufactured in 1820. When I learnt that a French family wanted to sell these rare clocks, I contacted a friend in France who purchased them for me and sent them six years ago.”

Kakar said he had not counted how many clocks he had but reckoned there were thousands in his two-room museum, located on the city’s Joint Road. There are no guided tours, but visitors are always welcome.

“I never thought that I would be able to build a museum. With the passage of time, my antiques including all forms of old clocks started arriving and turned my place into a clock museum,” he added.

HIGHLIGHT

Gathered from around world, Kakar has never counted, calculated value of his museum contents.

In a world increasingly oriented toward technology, Kakar said his museum had become a portal to another time. He also has a number of vintage radios and old gramophones in his collection.

“When I hear the sounds of these clocks or play songs on gramophones, it gives me immense comfort and pushes me into the historical lifestyle of the people back in the 18th and 19th centuries who had used these items. I am able to recognize the chimes of all clocks.”

The models he owns are unfamiliar to Pakistani clocksmiths, so Kakar has to carry out any repairs himself.

“I service them and wind them once a week, and I’m able to repair minor issues with my clocks,” he said.

And he has recently started looking into the history of some of his exhibits.

“I know the background of some of these clocks and I am in contact with some families in England and France and have asked them to share the histories of these clocks used by their great grandfathers during the 18th and 19th centuries. I am hopeful I will get more details in the coming months,” he added.

Kakar has not attempted to calculate how much his collection is worth. “I have never sold items from my collection to anyone. If I started counting the sum, I would not be able to carry on with my enthusiasm.”