India pulls out staff from Kandahar consulate as Taliban widen control

Afghan Border Police personnel keep watch near the Durand line at Spin Boldak, in southern Kandahar province. (File/AFP)
Afghan Border Police personnel keep watch near the Durand line at Spin Boldak, in southern Kandahar province. (File/AFP)
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Updated 11 July 2021

India pulls out staff from Kandahar consulate as Taliban widen control

India pulls out staff from Kandahar consulate as Taliban widen control
  • Move follows spike in violence in southern Afghan city 
  • New Delhi says evacuation a temporary measure, operations to continue through local staff

KABUL: New Delhi has temporarily evacuated staff from its consulate in Afghanistan’s southern city of Kandahar, where the Taliban have unleashed a series of attacks in recent weeks, official Afghan sources and India’s Foreign Ministry said on Sunday.
“We were informed about this and told that as a precautionary move, India had to pull out the staff temporarily,” one of the sources from Kandahar, requesting anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the media, told Arab News.
Officials from the Interior Ministry in Kabul refused to comment on the evacuation, which comes a week after New Delhi, Turkey, Pakistan and Russia had to either recall staff or halt operations at their consulates in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif due to the Taliban’s rapid territorial gains in the area.
However, Gran Hewad, a spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, told Arab News that the protection of diplomatic missions was “of high importance” for the government and that an “increase in the Taliban’s unprecedented attacks” had prompted some nations to take precautionary measures for security reasons.
New Delhi said on Sunday it was “closely monitoring the evolving security in Afghanistan.”
“The safety and security of our personnel is paramount. Due to the intense fighting near Kandahar city, India-based personnel have been brought back for the time being,” Arindam Bagchi, chief spokesman at India’s Foreign Ministry, said in a statement.
He added that India’s consulate in Kandahar was being run by local staff temporarily.
While the source in Kandahar had no further details about the evacuation, Indian media reports said that around 50 diplomats and security personnel had been pulled out due to the “deteriorating security situation” in the southern region, which is considered to be the group’s birthplace and its main stronghold.
The Taliban have widened control amid the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, which began on May 1 and is expected to be completed next month.
In recent weeks, the group has overrun several areas bordering five countries — Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, China and Pakistan – and captured key border crossings through which Afghanistan conducts most of its trade with Iran and Turkmenistan.
The group said on Friday they had taken control of “85 percent of territory in Afghanistan,” a claim dismissed by Afghan government officials as foreign forces, including the US, withdraw from Afghanistan after almost 20 years of fighting.
According to sources privy to the Kandahar evacuation and as cited by the Indian media, a special Indian Air Force aircraft was sent on Saturday to bring back the staff.
India has remained a key regional player in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted from power in late 2001 and has invested nearly $3 billion in aid and reconstruction activities in the war-torn country.
New Delhi enjoys close ties with Kabul, while Pakistan has played a crucial role in facilitating the Afghan peace process since last year. Both accuse each other of running a proxy war in Afghanistan.
During the Taliban’s five-year rule, an Indian passenger plane was hijacked by a Pakistani militant outfit and brought to Kandahar. It was released days later after a ransom was paid to the group.
In recent years, the Indian mission and other establishments have come under the Taliban’s attack in Kabul and elsewhere.
The Taliban have repeatedly assured foreigners they will not be harmed, vowing to protect foreign missions and NGOs in its controlled and newly captured areas.
“No harm will come from our side to any foreign diplomatic mission. They can stay freely; it is essential. We pose no threat to them, but if any country decides to leave or shut operations, then it is their decision,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, told Arab News.
Experts, however, said other reasons could be at play for India’s decision to evacuate its consulate staff.
“New Delhi’s long skepticism about the Taliban, past attacks against its interests and fear of the presence of Pakistani militants among the Taliban who may harm India have prompted it to evacuate the staff from Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif,” Taj Mohammed, a Kabul-based analyst, told Arab News.
“Other countries have improved their ties with the Taliban, but not India. So, it will take time for India to be assured that the Taliban will not cause them any harm, and that shall happen when both sides engage in dialogue,” he added.

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Sweden charges Iranian for alleged 1988 ‘war crimes’

Sweden charges Iranian for alleged 1988 ‘war crimes’
Updated 27 July 2021

Sweden charges Iranian for alleged 1988 ‘war crimes’

Sweden charges Iranian for alleged 1988 ‘war crimes’
  • Case against Hamid Noury, arrested in Sweden in 2019, concerns his alleged part in prisoners’ mass killings during 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq
  • Sweden's Prosecution Authority said prisoners had been linked to the "People's Mujahedin of Iran"

STOCKHOLM: Swedish prosecutors said Tuesday they were charging an Iranian man for “war crimes and murder” over the execution of more than 100 political prisoners in 1988 in Karaj, Iran.
The case against 60-year-old Hamid Noury, who was arrested in Sweden in 2019 when he came to visit relatives, concerns his alleged part in the mass killings of prisoners toward the end of the 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq.
Human rights groups have been campaigning for years for justice for what they consider to be the extrajudicial execution of thousands of Iranians, mostly young people, across the country.
Sweden’s Prosecution Authority noted in a statement that the prisoners had been linked to the “People’s Mujahedin of Iran,” a political organization seeking to overthrow the clerical leadership whose armed branch had launched several attacks against Iran.
In the summer of 1988, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini “issued an order to execute all prisoners held in Iranian prisons who sympathized with and were loyal in their convictions to the Mujahedin,” the authority noted.
According to the authority, Noury held the position of “assistant to the deputy prosecutor at the Gohardasht prison,” on the outskirts of Karaj, west of Tehran.
“The accused is suspected of participating, together with other perpetrators, in these mass executions and, as such, intentionally taking the lives of a large number of prisoners, who sympathized with the Mujahedin and, additionally, of subjecting prisoners to severe suffering which is deemed torture and inhuman treatment,” the authority said.
In the charge sheet, seen by AFP, prosecutor Kristina Lindhoff Carleson noted that these actions constituted a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Noury’s lawyer told AFP that he denies the charges against him.
Following the mass executions, and after a cease-fire between Iran and Iraq was enacted, the Iranian leadership also decided that other political prisoners “who sympathized with various left wing groups and were regarded as apostates by the Iranian leadership, should be executed.”
Prosecutors said Noury, in his role at the prison, was also complicit in the killings that followed.
“These acts are classified as murder according to the Swedish Penal Code since they are not considered to be related to an armed conflict,” the authority said.
In May, a group of more than 150 rights campaigners, including Nobel laureates, former heads of state or government and former UN officials, called for an international investigation into the 1988 killings.
The case remains sensitive in Iran as activists accuse officials now in government of being involved.


UK PM urges caution as virus cases fall for six days

UK PM urges caution as virus cases fall for six days
Updated 27 July 2021

UK PM urges caution as virus cases fall for six days

UK PM urges caution as virus cases fall for six days
  • Recorded infection rates across the UK have dropped for six consecutive days
  • Despite the turnaround ministers are warning the long-term situation remains uncertain

LONDON: Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for caution Tuesday after Britain registered nearly a week of lower coronavirus case numbers, a decline that has surprised officials and experts.
Recorded infection rates across the UK have dropped for six consecutive days, with 24,950 new cases announced Monday compared to 46,558 last Tuesday — a fall of 46 percent.
The reversal after weeks of rising rates has coincided with the removal on July 19 of nearly all pandemic rules in England, including legal requirements for social distancing wearing a mask in public indoors.
It has confounded the government and scientists, who had previously warned cases would likely surge to 100,000 a day in the weeks ahead after the restrictions were eased.
Despite the turnaround, which comes after the start of summer school holidays, ministers are warning the long-term situation remains uncertain.
“I have noticed that obviously we have six days of some better figures but it’s very, very important that we don’t allow ourselves to run away with premature conclusions about this,” Johnson said during a visit to a police station in southeast England.
“People have got to remain very cautious and that remains the approach of the government,” he added.
Johnson ended 10 days in self-isolation late Monday after being in close contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this month.
The prime minister argued that Britain’s successful vaccination campaign — which has fully vaccinated 70 percent of adults — allowed for the relaxation of legal curbs last week.
But the move attracted widespread criticism, with fears the National Health Service could again come under severe strain from rising caseloads, even if many fewer people are now dying of Covid.
Experts have struggled to explain why infections appear to have declined so dramatically since early last week.
The end of the Euro 2020 football tournament — which was blamed for a spike in cases among younger men gathering to watch games — as well as the school holidays and a heatwave have all been mooted as factors.
“The recent fall in cases in England is great news, but also puzzling given that progressive relaxation of restrictions has occurred,” said Stephen Griffin of Leeds University’s School of Medicine.
But, echoing Johnson’s call for caution, he added: “I would be surprised if we are likely to see a continuation of this decline.”


COVID-19 curbs to end in Australian’s Victoria state, continue in Sydney

COVID-19 curbs to end in Australian’s Victoria state, continue in Sydney
Updated 27 July 2021

COVID-19 curbs to end in Australian’s Victoria state, continue in Sydney

COVID-19 curbs to end in Australian’s Victoria state, continue in Sydney
  • Victoria’s 5 million residents will be allowed to leave home freely and schools will reopen
  • Highly infectious Delta variant took hold in the New South Wales capital of Sydney

CANBERRA/SYDNEY: Australia’s Victoria state said on Tuesday it will end lockdown after curtailing the spread of COVID-19, but neighboring New South Wales faced a four-week extension of restrictions according to media reports after new cases hit a 16-month peak.
More than half of Australia’s near 26 million population has been in lockdown in recent weeks after an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant took hold in the New South Wales capital of Sydney and spread to three states.
New South Wales reported 172 COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, up from 145 a day earlier, with at least 60 spending time in the community while infectious.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said a decision whether to lift the five-week lockdown will be taken this week, and local media later reported the state would announce a four-week extension of the order on Wednesday. With less than 13 percent of the state’s population fully vaccinated, curbs are expected to stay.
“We know we’ve put in the hard yards for five weeks and we don’t want to waste all the good work that we’ve done by opening too early and then having the virus spread again,” Berejiklian told a media conference.
A spokesperson was not immediately available to confirm the media reports about the planned lockdown extension.
In contrast, Victoria state said most restrictions imposed on July 15 will be removed from Wednesday after recording just 10 infections of people already in quarantine.
“All in all, this is a good day,” Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters in Melbourne.
Victoria’s 5 million residents will be allowed to leave home freely and schools will reopen, though households will not be permitted to have visitors.
South Australia said it will also lift a lockdown on Wednesday after it recorded zero COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours.
Lockdowns have raised the prospect of Australia recording its second recession in as many years, though Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Tuesday talk of this was premature.
Frydenberg said last week the country’s A$2 trillion ($1.5 trillion) economy is expected to shrink in the latest GDP figures, with lockdowns costing about A$300 million daily.
Easing lockdowns will soften the economic toll, but New South Wales is Australia’s biggest state economy and accounts for about a third of national output.
Swift contact tracing, tough social distancing rules and lockdowns have helped Australia to keep its COVID-19 numbers low, with just under 33,100 cases and 920 deaths since the pandemic first appeared in early 2020.
The outbreak in Sydney, however, has seen a wave of hospitalizations and 10 deaths in recent weeks.
New South Wales said 169 people are in hospital with the virus, of which 46 are in intensive care.
Amid heightened concerns about hospitalizations of younger people, Australia has urged people to take AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine after struggling to secure enough supplies of Pfizer’s inoculations.
Authorities had previously recommended only over 60s should take the AstraZeneca shot after rare but serious blood clotting cases.


Olympic host Tokyo hits record 2,848 COVID-19 cases

Olympic host Tokyo hits record 2,848 COVID-19 cases
Updated 27 July 2021

Olympic host Tokyo hits record 2,848 COVID-19 cases

Olympic host Tokyo hits record 2,848 COVID-19 cases
  • The rise in cases threatens to further erode support for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga
  • It also spells trouble for the Olympics, as many Japanese fear the influx of athletes and officials for the event could add to the surge
TOKYO: Tokyo’s 2,848 COVID-19 infections on Tuesday were the Olympic host city’s highest since the pandemic began, officials said, as media reported that authorities had asked hospitals to prepare more beds for patients as the Delta variant drives the surge.
The rise in cases threatens to further erode support for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, whose ratings have slid to their lowest level since he took office last September, in large part because of his haphazard handling of the pandemic.
It also spells trouble for the Olympics, as many Japanese fear the influx of athletes and officials for the event could add to the surge. About 31 percent in a survey by the Nikkei daily on Monday said the Games should be canceled or postponed again.
“It’s the Delta variant,” said Kenji Shibuya, a former director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London, explaining the swift recent surge.
Shibuya added it was impossible to quantify to what extent the Olympics contributed to the surge but blamed the global sports showpiece as “one of the major driving forces.”
“The government has sent signals that people are supposed to stay home at the same time they celebrate the Games. It’s a totally inconsistent message,” said Shibuya, who is now running the vaccine roll-out in a town in northern Japan.
Japan has avoided the devastating outbreaks suffered by other nations such as India, Indonesia and the United States, but the fifth wave of the pandemic fueled by the Delta variant is piling pressure on Tokyo’s hospitals.
By Sunday, only 20.8 percent of the Japanese capital’s 12,635 COVID-19 patients had been able to obtain hospital treatment, government data showed. A government advisory panel says that if the ratio falls below the threshold of 25 percent, a state of emergency should be triggered.
In anticipation of the surge and considering the tough hospital situation, Tokyo has already declared a fourth state of emergency this month to run until after the Olympics.
In a last-minute change of heart, Japan also made the unprecedented decision to hold the Games, postponed from last year by the pandemic, without spectators to stem the spread of the virus.
As hospitals admit more patients, the city aims to boost the number of beds to 6,406 by early next month from 5,967 now, broadcaster TBS said.
Hospitals should look at pushing back planned surgery and scaling down other treatments, the broadcaster said, citing a notice to medical institutions from city authorities.
Health experts had warned that seasonal factors, increased mobility, and the spread of variants would lead to a rebound in COVID-19 cases this summer.
While vaccinations boost protection for the oldest citizens most likely to need emergency care, just 36 percent of the population has received at least one dose, a Reuters vaccination tracker shows.
The inoculation push has recently ebbed amid logistical snags after having picked up steam last month from a sluggish start.
Voter support for Suga slid nine points to 34 percent, its lowest since he took office last September, a July 23-25 Nikkei business daily survey showed on Monday.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents said the country’s rollout of coronavirus vaccinations was not going well.
Suga’s term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president expires in September and his LDP-led coalition faces an election for parliament’s powerful lower house, which must be held by November.
About a third in the Nikkei survey wanted the Games postponed again or canceled, while more than half said Japan’s border steps for incoming Olympics athletes and officials were “inappropriate.”
Despite tight quarantine rules for the Games, 155 cases have emerged involving athletes and others.
A strict “playbook” of rules to avoid contagion requires frequent virus testing, restricted movement and masks worn in most situations.

Blast in Germany industrial park kills one, four others missing

Blast in Germany industrial park kills one, four others missing
Updated 27 July 2021

Blast in Germany industrial park kills one, four others missing

Blast in Germany industrial park kills one, four others missing
  • Emergency services took three hours to extinguish the fire at the Chempark site
  • "We are deeply shaken by the tragic death of one colleague," said Chempark chief Lars Friedrich

BERLIN: An explosion in a German industrial park on Tuesday killed one person and left four others missing, setting off a fierce blaze and sending a pall of smoke over the western city of Leverkusen.
Emergency services took three hours to extinguish the fire at the Chempark site, home to chemicals companies Bayer and Lanxess, that flared up after the blast at 9:40 a.m. (0740 GMT), park operator Currenta said.
"We are deeply shaken by the tragic death of one colleague," said Chempark chief Lars Friedrich, adding that the search was going on for four others who were still missing.
He said 16 people had been injured, with one facing possible life-threatening injuries.
"This is a tragic moment for the city of Leverkusen," said Uwe Richrath, mayor of the city, which lies north of Cologne.
The area was sealed off and surrounded by emergency vehicles. Nearby roads, including motorways, were closed.
Police told residents living nearby to stay indoors and shut doors and windows in case there were toxic fumes. Currenta said locals should also turn off air conditioning systems while it measured the air around the site for possible toxic gases.
Chempark's Friedrich said it was not clear what had caused the explosion the led to the fire that began in a tank containing solvents.
"A precise analysis is not yet available so we have not withdrawn the warning," said Friedrich.
Sirens and emergency alerts on the German civil protection agency's mobile phone app warned citizens of "extreme danger".
Leverkusen is less than 50 km (30 miles) from a region hit last week by catastrophic floods that killed at least 180 people.
More than 30 companies operate at the Chempark site in Leverkusen, including Covestro, Bayer, Lanxess and Arlanxeo, according to its website.
Bayer and Lanxess in 2019 sold Chempark operator Currenta to Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets for an enterprise value of 3.5 billion euros ($4.12 billion).