Top US commander to exit Afghanistan amid Taliban surge

Top US commander to exit Afghanistan amid Taliban surge
The Taliban control more than one-third of Afghanistan’s 421 districts and district centers. (AP)
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Updated 12 July 2021

Top US commander to exit Afghanistan amid Taliban surge

Top US commander to exit Afghanistan amid Taliban surge
  • Gen. Scott Miller was poised to transfer authority to Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie

KABUL, Afghanistan: The top US commander in Afghanistan is to hand over his command at a ceremony in the capital of Kabul on Monday, as America winds down its 20-year military presence and Taliban insurgents continue to gain territory across the country.
Gen. Scott Miller was poised to transfer authority to Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity to confirm the developments.
McKenzie, also a four-star general, will operate from Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida. He will assume authority to conduct possible airstrikes in defense of Afghan government forces, at least until the US withdrawal concludes by Aug. 31.
The handover ceremony was taking place in the heavily fortified Resolute Support headquarters in the heart of Kabul, at a time of rapid territorial gains by Taliban insurgents across Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces, mostly funded by the United States and NATO, have put up resistance in some parts of the country, but overwhelmingly Afghan government troops appear to have abandoned the fight.
In recent weeks, the Taliban have gained several strategic districts, particularly along the borders with Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The Taliban control more than one-third of Afghanistan’s 421 districts and district centers. A Taliban claim that they control 85 percent of the districts is widely seen as exaggerated.
After Miller’s departure, a two-star admiral based at the US Embassy in Kabul will oversee the US military’s role in securing the American diplomatic presence in Kabul, including defending the Kabul airport.
Miller’s departure does not reduce the scope of the US military mission in Afghanistan, since McKenzie will assume the authorities now held by Miller to conduct airstrikes in defense of Afghan government forces under certain circumstances.
The conditions under which such strikes might be used are not clear, nor is it known for how long McKenzie will keep the strike authority.


4 killed in Washington state shooting

4 killed in Washington state shooting
Updated 22 October 2021

4 killed in Washington state shooting

4 killed in Washington state shooting

TACOMA, Washington: Four people were killed in a shooting in Tacoma on Thursday afternoon, police said.
The Tacoma Police Department said on Twitter at about 5:30 p.m. that two females and one male had died at the scene and that a male was taken to a hospital with life-threatening injuries.
At about 6:30 p.m., police said on Twitter that the person taken to a hospital had died from his injuries. The victims appeared to be adults, police told The News Tribune.
Police said the shooting happened on the 4200 block of Everett Street, near the city’s Eastside neighborhood.
Police spokeswoman Wendy Haddow told the newspaper that the shootings happened in an alley behind a residence and that at least one victim was found in the street in front of the residence.
Police called it an active scene and asked people to stay away from the area. Detectives and crime scene technicians were at the scene.
No further information was immediately available.


Eswatini bans protests as African mediation begins

Eswatini bans protests as African mediation begins
Updated 22 October 2021

Eswatini bans protests as African mediation begins

Eswatini bans protests as African mediation begins
  • At least 30 health workers were treated for gunshot injuries, the nurses’ union said
  • At least 30 people have died since June in some of the worst unrest in the southern African country’s history

MANZINI, Eswatini: Africa’s last absolute monarchy Eswatini on Thursday banned protests as regional mediators landed in the kingdom amid rumbling pro-democracy demonstrations.
A demonstrator died in hospital on Thursday from gunshot wounds suffered the day before when security forces opened fire on a protest, according to unions.
At least 30 health workers were treated for gunshot injuries, the nurses’ union said.
Railways workers led new protests on Thursday in the kingdom formerly known as Swaziland.
“Due to the spate of violent cases during protests, I have stopped all city and town municipals from issuing permits to hold protests,” Public Works Minister Prince Simelane told a news conference.
Internet access was limited, with Facebook completely shut off for a second day.
“Images that are coming from Eswatini are very disturbing indeed, and we can see that the political temperature is very hot,” Jeff Radebe, head of the mediators sent to the country by the 16-nation Southern African Development Community, told South Africa’s public broadcaster.
The Swaziland Democratic Nurses Union said in a statement that nurses and other workers who had converged on a public park in Mbabane, “were met with unprecedented show of force by the police and the army.”
“They were brutally dispersed and scattered all over the capital. As they were running, they were shot with live ammunition.”
The 30 injured were among more than 80 reported hurt on Wednesday in pro-democracy protests that have flared nationwide.
Radebe said the kingdom’s “issues are very complex,” and the team was “going there with an open mind, ensuring that we hear all views, so that at the end of the day the people of Eswatini... come up with a lasting solution.”
The latest flare-up in demonstrations has run for more than two weeks, spearheaded by students, civil servants and transport workers.
King Mswati III is Africa’s last absolute monarch, who enjoys flaunting his wealth and showering his 15 wives with lavish gifts.
Yet he rules over one of the poorest countries in the world, where nearly two-thirds of the population lives in poverty and a quarter of adults have HIV.

In a statement, the Communist Party of Swaziland said the situation at the largest government hospital in Mbabane on Wednesday resembled a “war zone.”
Hospital floors were “drenched in blood,” said the party, adding that police “invaded the hospital, shooting even nurses as they attended to the injured, worsening the situation.”
The nurse’s union said security forces kept shooting at nurses into the evening, even as they were traveling to work night shifts at hospitals.
“Clearly these blood-thirsty imbeciles, brood of vipers are hell-bent to kill nurses and the nation in defense of an ailing government,” the union said, calling on members not to treat any injured soldiers or police.
Five high-school students arrested during protests were arraigned on terrorism charges on Thursday for their role in the democracy push. Prosecutors accused them of burning down a police post.
At least 30 people have died since June in some of the worst unrest in the southern African country’s history.
 


Biden says US would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked

Biden says US would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked
Updated 22 October 2021

Biden says US would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked

Biden says US would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked

BALTIMORE, Maryland: US President Joe Biden said on Thursday the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense and had a commitment to defend the island China claims as its own territory.
“Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” Biden said at a CNN town hall when asked if the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense.
Biden said people should not worry about Washington’s military strength because “China, Russia and the rest of the world knows we’re the most powerful military in the history of the world,“
“What you do have to worry about is whether or not they’re going to engage in activities that would put them in a position where they may make a serious mistake,” Biden said.
Military tensions between Taiwan and China are at their worst in more than 40 years, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said this month, adding that China will be capable of mounting a “full-scale” invasion by 2025.
China claims Taiwan as its own territory, which should be taken by force if necessary. Taiwan says it is an independent country and will defend its freedoms and democracy.


Governments turn tables on ransomware gang REvil by pushing it offline

Governments turn tables on ransomware gang REvil by pushing it offline
Updated 22 October 2021

Governments turn tables on ransomware gang REvil by pushing it offline

Governments turn tables on ransomware gang REvil by pushing it offline
  • Law enforcement and intelligence cyber specialists were able to hack REvil's computer network infrastructure, obtaining control of at least some of their servers
  • One person familiar with the events said that a foreign partner of the US government carried out the hacking operation that penetrated REvil's computer architecture

The ransomware group REvil was itself hacked and forced offline this week by a multi-country operation, according to three private sector cyber experts working with the United States and one former official.
Former partners and associates of the Russian-led criminal gang were responsible for a May cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline that led to widespread gas shortages on the US East Coast. REvil's direct victims include top meatpacker JBS. The crime group's "Happy Blog” website, which had been used to leak victim data and extort companies, is no longer available.
Officials said the Colonial attack used encryption software called DarkSide, which was developed by REvil associates.
VMWare head of cybersecurity strategy Tom Kellermann said law enforcement and intelligence personnel stopped the group from victimizing additional companies.
"The FBI, in conjunction with Cyber Command, the Secret Service and like-minded countries, have truly engaged in significant disruptive actions against these groups,” said Kellermann, an adviser to the US Secret Service on cybercrime investigations. “REvil was top of the list.”
A leadership figure known as "0_neday," who had helped restart the group's operations after an earlier shutdown, said REvil's servers had been hacked by an unnamed party.
"The server was compromised, and they were looking for me," 0_neday wrote on a cybercrime forum last weekend and first spotted by security firm Recorded Future. "Good luck, everyone; I'm off."
US government attempts to stop REvil, one of the worst of dozens of ransomware gangs that work with hackers to penetrate and paralyze companies around the world, accelerated after the group compromised US software management company Kaseya in July. 
That breach opened access to hundreds of Kaseya's customers all at once, leading to numerous emergency cyber incident response calls.

Decryption key
Following the attack on Kaseya, the FBI obtained a universal decryption key that allowed those infected via Kaseya to recover their files without paying a ransom.
But law enforcement officials initially withheld the key for weeks as it quietly pursued REvil's staff, the FBI later acknowledged. 
According to three people familiar with the matter, law enforcement and intelligence cyber specialists were able to hack REvil's computer network infrastructure, obtaining control of at least some of their servers.
After websites that the hacker group used to conduct business went offline in July, the main spokesman for the group, who calls himself "Unknown," vanished from the internet.
When gang member 0_neday and others restored those websites from a backup last month, he unknowingly restarted some internal systems that were already controlled by law enforcement.
“The REvil ransomware gang restored the infrastructure from the backups under the assumption that they had not been compromised,” said Oleg Skulkin, deputy head of the forensics lab at the Russian-led security company Group-IB. “Ironically, the gang's own favorite tactic of compromising the backups was turned against them.”
Reliable backups are one of the most important defenses against ransomware attacks, but they must be kept unconnected from the main networks or they too can be encrypted by extortionists such as REvil.
A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council declined to comment on the operation specifically.
"Broadly speaking, we are undertaking a whole of government ransomware effort, including disruption of ransomware infrastructure and actors, working with the private sector to modernize our defenses, and building an international coalition to hold countries who harbor ransom actors accountable," the person said.
The FBI declined to comment.
One person familiar with the events said that a foreign partner of the US government carried out the hacking operation that penetrated REvil's computer architecture. A former US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the operation is still active.
The success stems from a determination by US Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco that ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure should be treated as a national security issue akin to terrorism, Kellermann said.
In June, Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General John Carlin told Reuters the Justice Department was elevating investigations of ransomware attacks to a similar priority.
Such actions gave the Justice Department and other agencies a legal basis to get help from US intelligence agencies and the Department of Defense, Kellermann said.
"Before, you couldn't hack into these forums, and the military didn't want to have anything to do with it. Since then, the gloves have come off." 


India marks administering more than 1bn COVID-19 jabs

India marks administering more than 1bn COVID-19 jabs
Updated 22 October 2021

India marks administering more than 1bn COVID-19 jabs

India marks administering more than 1bn COVID-19 jabs
  • PM Narendra Modi hails achievement as ‘triumph of Indian science’

NEW DELHI: India on Thursday hailed administering 1 billion coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine doses as a milestone in its fight against the Delta variant of the virus that caused a deadly surge earlier this year.
The country started its immunization drive in January with two Indian-made vaccines — Covishield, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, and locally developed Covaxin produced by the Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech — and plans to fully vaccinate 944 million of its adult population by the year’s end.
COVID-19 cases have recently fallen sharply in India since a devastating second wave of infections between March and May claimed the lives of more than 450,000 people, when the highly transmissible Delta variant, first detected in India a year ago, was infecting hundreds of thousands daily.
While only 30 percent have so far been fully vaccinated with two vaccine doses, the 1 billion mark was welcomed by the government as a “triumph.”
In a tweet on Thursday, as he marked the occasion with a visit to a government hospital in New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “India scripts history. We are witnessing the triumph of Indian science, enterprise, and the collective spirit of 130 crore (1.3 billion) Indians. Congrats India on crossing 100 crore vaccinations.”
The PM also expressed his “gratitude to our doctors, nurses, and all those who worked to achieve this feat.”
Dr. Vinod Kumar Paul, the man in charge of India’s vaccination drive, described the 1 billion jabs mark as “an achievement” and highlighted the consistency in the vaccination drive. “It’s remarkable to reach the 1 billion dose mark for any nation, an achievement in just over nine months since the vaccination program started in India,” he said in a tweet.
To mark the achievement, the government was holding a series of cultural events throughout the country.
However, some health experts warned that only fully vaccinated people were protected from COVID-19.
Prof. Rama Baru, from Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Center of Social Medicine and Community in New Delhi, told Arab News: “The completion of two doses for protection from the virus has not yet been achieved. And coverage of the second dose is very poor in relatively poor states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
“If you look at the age-related data, we still have 18-plus population in several rural areas like Uttar and Bihar who have not got the first shot yet.
“Besides the vaccination drive the focus should also have been on the drastic improvement of the public health infrastructure. After the second wave you would have expected the government to enhance its investment in the public health service, but in fact that has not happened,” she said.