Taliban capture key Afghan border crossings with Iran, Turkmenistan

Taliban capture key Afghan border crossings with Iran, Turkmenistan
Thousands of Afghan refugees walk as they enter Afghanistan at the Islam Qala border crossing with Iran, in the western Herat Province on March 18, 2020. (File/AP)
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Updated 09 July 2021

Taliban capture key Afghan border crossings with Iran, Turkmenistan

Taliban capture key Afghan border crossings with Iran, Turkmenistan
  • There was no immediate confirmation of the border crossing’s fall from the governmen
  • Islam Qala is one of the major ports through which Kabul conducts most of its official trade with Iran

KABUL: Taliban fighters have seized control of Afghanistan’s major trade gateway with Turkmenistan, hours after capturing a main border crossing with Iran, Afghan officials confirmed on Friday.

In the past week, the Taliban have overrun areas bordering five countries — Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, China and Pakistan — as US-led foreign troops step up their withdrawal from the country.

The fall of Torghundi town in Herat, on Afghanistan’s border with Turkmenistan, after the takeover of the Islam Qala crossing with Iran in the same province on Thursday, is the latest inroad gain by the group. Two weeks ago, they seized the Sher Khan border crossing with Tajikistan.

“First the Taliban captured Islam Qala on Thursday and at around eight last night, they entered Torghundi as well,” Masuada Karokhi, a lawmaker from Herat province, told Arab News.

“Some of the employees of Islam Qala fled to Iran, while from Torghudi’s side they crossed into Turkmenistan. Some of them surrendered to the Taliban. The government troops were under the Taliban’s siege for days and they received no government help at all during this period,” she added.

The Taliban are now in control of 17 out of 19 districts of Herat.

A video that went viral on social media showed a group of men in Afghan military uniform handing over their weapons to the Taliban near Islam Qala.

“The people and troops are exhausted of the war. They happily have welcomed the Taliban in the areas. The Taliban have asked the officials to show up for work on Saturday and they are not harassing people at all,” Karokhi said. “The government is losing ground because they lack any plan and relied on foreigners all this time.”

A senior security official from Herat, who is not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed to Arab News that both crossings, which are key sources of trade revenue for Kabul, are “now under Taliban control.”

“In going after border provinces, the Taliban seem to have a political and a financial strategy here,” Torek Farhadi, a former adviser to ex-President Hamid Karzai told Arab News. “Ports of entry give Taliban control of the flow of goods, imported food and almost all the fuel imported into Afghanistan, a country of 36 million people. The Taliban can now levy taxation and boost their finances,” he said. “Afghanistan is a landlocked country and highly import-dependent. Through occupying border provinces, the Taliban are going to control the economy.”

US-led troops began their last phase of departure in May, almost halting their support for the Afghan forces that have relied on them since 2001, when they invaded the country and toppled the Taliban for protecting Al-Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on America.

The US combat mission in Afghanistan is expected to end by Aug. 31.

While Western officials have warned of a possible civil war in Afghanistan following the exit of foreign forces, US President Joe Biden on Thursday defended the decision, saying that he did not expect the Taliban to take over the whole country.


Japan Foreign Minister condemns attacks by Yemen Houthis

Japan Foreign Minister condemns attacks by Yemen Houthis
Updated 30 sec ago

Japan Foreign Minister condemns attacks by Yemen Houthis

Japan Foreign Minister condemns attacks by Yemen Houthis

TOKYO: Japanese Foreign Minister MOTEGI Toshimitsu on Friday condemned Houthi attacks earlier this month on Saudi Arabia.

“On September 4, a missile attack in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia was launched and repeated transporter attacks by Houthis against Saudi Arabia have been carried out. We strongly condemn such actions,” Motegi told Arab News Japan at a press conference.

Motegi stressed that the Japanese government was attempting to help in negotiations in order for a truce to be reached between the Houthis and various other parties.

“We very much support the activity by Ambassador Grandberg, Special Envoy for Yemen of the United Nations, and various other initiatives to end the disputes in Yemen and in the international community,” Motegi said.

The Japanese minister said during his recent visit to the Middle East, he more firmly supported a peaceful truce in Yemen.

Motegi said Japan will continue to collaborate with the relevant countries within and outside of the Middle East to achieve peace and security in Yemen.

“Ninety percent of the crude oil arriving in Japan comes from the Middle East and from such perspective peace and stability in the region is of crucial importance for Japan.”


Chinese astronauts return after 90 days aboard space station

Chinese astronauts return after 90 days aboard space station
Updated 17 September 2021

Chinese astronauts return after 90 days aboard space station

Chinese astronauts return after 90 days aboard space station
  • The three astronauts emerged about 30 minutes later and were seated in reclining chairs just outside the capsule
  • State broadcaster CCTV showed footage of the spacecraft parachuting to land in the Gobi Desert

BEIJING: A trio of Chinese astronauts returned to Earth on Friday after a 90-day stay aboard their nation’s first space station in China’s longest mission yet.
Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo landed in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship just after 1:30 p.m. (0530 GMT) after having undocked from the space station Thursday morning.
State broadcaster CCTV showed footage of the spacecraft parachuting to land in the Gobi Desert where it was met by helicopters and off-road vehicles. Minutes later, a crew of technicians began opening the hatch of the capsule, which appeared undamaged.
The three astronauts emerged about 30 minutes later and were seated in reclining chairs just outside the capsule to allow them time to readjust to Earth’s gravity after three months of living in a weightless environment. The three were due to fly to Beijing on Friday.
“With China’s growing strength and the rising level of Chinese technology, I firmly believe there will even more astronauts who will set new records,” mission commander Nie told CCTV.
After launching on June 17, the three astronauts went on two spacewalks, deployed a 10-meter (33-foot) mechanical arm, and had a video call with Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.
While few details have been made public by China’s military, which runs the space program, astronaut trios are expected to be brought on 90-day missions to the station over the next two years to make it fully functional.
The government has not announced the names of the next set of astronauts nor the launch date of Shenzhou-13.
China has sent 14 astronauts into space since 2003, when it became only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to do so on its own.
China’s space program has advanced at a measured pace and has largely avoided many of the problems that marked the US and Russian programs that were locked in intense competition during the heady early days of spaceflight.
That has made it a source of enormous national pride, complementing the country’s rise to economic, technological, military and diplomatic prominence in recent years under the firm rule of the Communist Party and current leader Xi Jinping.
China embarked on its own space station program in the 1990s after being excluded from the International Space Station, largely due to US objections to the Chinese space program’s secrecy and military backing.
China has simultaneously pushed ahead with uncrewed missions, placing a rover on the little-explored far side of the Moon and, in December, the Chang’e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s.
China this year also landed its Tianwen-1 space probe on Mars, with its accompanying Zhurong rover venturing out to look for evidence of life.
Another program calls for collecting samples from an asteroid, an area in which Japan’s rival space program has made progress of late.
China also plans to dispatch another mission in 2024 to bring back lunar samples and is pursuing a possible crewed mission to the moon and eventually building a scientific base there, although no timeline has been proposed for such projects. A highly secretive space plane is also reportedly under development.


Jakarta residents win landmark air pollution case against Indonesian president

Jakarta residents win landmark air pollution case against Indonesian president
Updated 17 September 2021

Jakarta residents win landmark air pollution case against Indonesian president

Jakarta residents win landmark air pollution case against Indonesian president
  • Jakarta, home to over 10 million people, is one the world's most-polluted cities with the concentration of PM2.5 regularly exceeding WHO norms
  • Citizen lawsuit was filed by Jakarta residents in July 2019 against the president and six other top government officials

JAKARTA: A Jakarta court on Thursday found Indonesian President Joko Widodo and government officials guilty of neglecting their obligation to fulfill citizens' rights to clean air, in a landmark lawsuit residents hope will force authorities to act on the capital city's notorious pollution.

Jakarta, home to over 10 million people, is one the world's most-polluted cities with the concentration of PM2.5 — inhalable microscopic pollution particularly harmful to human health — regularly exceeding World Health Organization norms, often manifold.

The citizen lawsuit was filed in July 2019 by 32 plaintiffs against the president, ministers of environment, home affairs and health, as well as the governor of Jakarta and two leaders of neighboring provinces. The plaintiffs, including activists and people suffering from pollution-related diseases, did not request compensation but tighter air quality checks.

In a hearing that took place after being adjourned eight times since May, the court ruled the officials had violated environmental protection laws and failed to combat air pollution in the capital and its satellite cities that fall under jurisdiction of Banten and West Java provinces.

“We ordered the first defendant (the president) to tighten the national air quality standard that is sufficient based on science and technology to protect humans’ health, the environment, the ecosystem, including the health of the sensitive population,” presiding judge Saifuddin Zuhri said.

The court also ordered the second defendant, the environment minister, to supervise the governors of Jakarta, Banten, and West Java in tightening transboundary emissions.

Transboundary pollution from Banten and West Java contributes to the poor and deteriorating quality of Jakarta's air. In 2018, national capital witnessed 101 days with unhealthy air, and 172 in 2019, according to the Center on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). The main contributors to PM2.5 pollution are dozens of industrial facilities and coal power plants located less than 100 kilometers from the city.

Jeanny Sirait, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs said they welcomed the verdict, even though the court did not explicitly rule the government had violated the right to clean but only contravened the law by failing to fulfill it.

"This is a breakthrough verdict," she said. "It is very rare to find judges that have environmental and public interest perspectives."
 

A train moves down its track as the hazy city skyline is seen in the background in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Sept. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana) 

One of the plaintiffs, Istu Prayogi, a 56-year-old tourism lecturer who health has suffered due to air pollution told Arab News he was glad for the victory, although slightly disappointed that the officials' negligence was not classified as a human rights violation.

“We now have a hope for all people to get their rights to clean air fulfilled," he said. "We have a legal standing to oblige the government to do that, even though they should have fulfilled that in the first place, but this is a court ruling and as a rule-based country, it’s the highest order.”

Another plaintiff and environmental activist Khalisah Khalid said the verdict was also an example that court can be an avenue for citizens who seek justice.

“As plaintiffs and regular citizens, we will continue to monitor the defendants to make changes in the government policies as mandated by the verdict," she said. "It is for everyone’s interests, health, and safety including our future generations to have a good quality of life."


‘Great power rivalry’ fuels Pacific arms race frenzy

‘Great power rivalry’ fuels Pacific arms race frenzy
Updated 17 September 2021

‘Great power rivalry’ fuels Pacific arms race frenzy

‘Great power rivalry’ fuels Pacific arms race frenzy
  • China accounts for about half of Asia’s total and has increased defense spending every year for the last 26 years
  • But defense spending in Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere is also gathering pace

SYDNEY, Australia: A quick barrage of missile tests and bumper defense deals in the Pacific have highlighted a regional arms race that is intensifying as the China-US rivalry grows.
“There’s a little frenzy in the Indo-Pacific of arming up,” said Yonsei University professor John Delury. “There’s a sense of everyone’s doing it.”
Within 24 hours this week, North Korea fired off two railway-borne weapons, South Korea successfully tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile, and Australia announced the unprecedented purchase of state-of-the-art US nuclear-powered submarines and cruise missiles.
A remarkable flurry, but indicative of a region spending apace on the latest wonders of modern weaponry, experts say.
Last year alone, the Asia and Oceania region lavished more than half a trillion US dollars on its militaries, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“You’ve really seen an upward trend for the last 20 years,” the institute’s Lucie Beraud-Sudreau told AFP. “Asia is really the region where the uptick trend is the most noticeable.”
She points to a perfect storm of rapid economic growth — which puts more money in the government kitties — and changing “threat perceptions” in the region.

China accounts for about half of Asia’s total and has increased defense spending every year for the last 26 years, turning the People’s Liberation Army into a modern fighting force.
Beijing now spends an estimated $252 billion a year — up 76 percent since 2011 — allowing it to project power across the region and directly challenge US primacy.
But defense spending in Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere is also gathering pace.
Michael Shoebridge, a former Australian defense intelligence official, now with the Australia Strategic Policy Institute, believes that spending is a direct reaction to China.
“The actual military competition is between China and other partners that are wanting to deter China from using force,” he said.
“That reaction has just grown, particularly since Xi (Jinping) has become leader. He’s clearly interested in using all the power that China gains fairly coercively and aggressively.”
Today around 20 percent of the region’s defense spending is on procurement, notably on maritime assets and long-range deterrence designed to convince Beijing — or any another adversary — that the cost of attack is too high.

File photo showing the USS Florida Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine launching a Tomahawk cruise missile during Giant Shadow in the waters off the coast of the Bahamas. (US Navy photo via AFP))

Shoebridge points to Australia’s landmark decision Thursday to acquire at least eight US nuclear-powered submarines and an unspecified number of Tomahawk cruise missiles.
“They’re all focused on raising the cost to China of engaging in military conflict. They’re a pretty effective counter to the kinds of capabilities the PLA has been building.”
But even South Korean spending “is as much driven by China as North Korea,” he said. “There’s no explanation for (Seoul’s decision to build) an aircraft carrier that involves North Korea.”
Similarly, “India’s military modernization is clearly driven by China’s growing military power,” Shoebridge added.
For its part China — fond of describing its relationship with the United States as “great power rivalry” — accuses the United States of fueling the arms race.
In the words of state-backed tabloid the Global Times, Washington is “hysterically polarizing its alliance system.”
If fear of China is the driving force behind regional defense spending, then the United States has appeared happy to speed the process along, actively helping regional allies to beef up.
As China and Japan were “blazing forward” with defense programs, Delury says Washington has been “aiding and abetting” allies “in the name of deterring China.”
“We’re not seeing arms control here, we’re seeing the opposite,” he said.


Florida surpasses 50,000 COVID deaths after battling delta wave

Florida surpasses 50,000 COVID deaths after battling delta wave
Updated 17 September 2021

Florida surpasses 50,000 COVID deaths after battling delta wave

Florida surpasses 50,000 COVID deaths after battling delta wave
  • Florida has the 11th worst per-capita death rate among the 50 states

MIAMI: Florida surpassed 50,000 coronavirus deaths since the pandemic began, health officials reported Thursday, with more than one fourth of those succumbing this summer as the state battled a fierce surge in infections fueled by the delta variant.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tallied 50,811 deaths after adding more than 1,500 COVID-19 deaths provided Thursday by the state’s health department. Those reported deaths occurred over various dates in recent weeks.
Florida has the 11th worst per-capita death rate among the 50 states, the CDC says. New Jersey, Mississippi and New York have had the worst, but Florida has risen from the 17th spot in the past two weeks.
Overall, about one in every 400 Florida residents who were alive in March 2020 has since died of COVID-19. Only cancer and heart disease have killed more Floridians during that period, according to state health department statistics. Those have each killed about 70,000 Floridians.
Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke somberly when asked about surpassing 50,000 COVID-19 deaths during a Fort Lauderdale news conference promoting the use of monoclonal antibodies, a treatment for people infected with the disease that reduces death and hospitalization if given early.
“It has been a really tough year and a half,” DeSantis said.
The Republican governor, who has advocated against mask and vaccine mandates, said the most recent wave, which began in June, has struck younger and healthier people. Numerous police officers and firefighters have died from the disease.
“It is affecting families in ways that we are not used to, so it has been really, really rough,” DeSantis said. Out of about 50 people present at the news conference, DeSantis was the only one who did not wear a mask when not speaking. He has promoted vaccination and has been inoculated, but did not receive his shot publicly as many elected officials did.
Epidemiologists say the state’s rates of vaccination outpaced the national average, but it was not enough to keep the highly contagious variant at bay because of its outsized population of elderly people and low vaccination rates among younger groups they interact with.
On a per-capita basis, rural and semi-rural counties in central and north Florida were hit the hardest. Most of those counties have vaccination rates that are at or below the statewide average of 63 percent of residents 12 and older. Florida counts someone as vaccinated if they have received at least one dose, even though both the Pfizer and Moderna versions both require two doses to be fully effective.
Monroe County, which consists mostly of the Florida Keys, has seen the fewest deaths per capita — one for every 1,115 residents and one of the highest vaccination rates. Another tourist mecca, Orange County, home to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, had the third-lowest per capita death count.
Alachua County, home to the University of Florida, and Leon County, home to the state capital Tallahassee and Florida State University, have been the second- and fourth-least deadly places.
Now, weeks since infections peaked, the state has seen steep drops in hospitalizations and infections. The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals finally dropped below the 10,000 mark on Thursday with 9,917 patients, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. That number reached more than 17,000 COVID-19 people on Aug. 23.
The number of new cases per day is now averaging 12,200, down from 21,700 in mid August.
Deaths are expected to continue to climb for late August and early September because of the way they are logged in Florida and the lags in reporting.