Top Taliban leader favors political solution for Afghanistan

Anti-Taliban militants in Balkh region of Afghanistan. Since the drawdown of US-led troops from Afghanistan began, the Taliban have overrun several districts. (AFP)
Anti-Taliban militants in Balkh region of Afghanistan. Since the drawdown of US-led troops from Afghanistan began, the Taliban have overrun several districts. (AFP)
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Updated 19 July 2021

Top Taliban leader favors political solution for Afghanistan

Anti-Taliban militants in Balkh region of Afghanistan. Since the drawdown of US-led troops from Afghanistan began, the Taliban have overrun several districts. (AFP)
  • Akhundzada vows to maintain ‘strong and good ties’ in his Eid message to the world

KABUL: The Taliban is keen on a political settlement for Afghanistan despite its territorial gains in recent weeks, the group’s supreme leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada said on Sunday, as he assured the international community of maintaining “good ties” in the future.

“In spite of the military gains and advances, the Taliban strenuously favors a political settlement in the country, and every opportunity for the establishment of an Islamic system, peace and security,” Akhundzada said in his message to mark the religious festival of Eid Al-Adha.
“(The Taliban sought) good and strong diplomatic, economic and political relations in the framework of reciprocal interaction and mutual agreements with all world countries, including America, following the withdrawal of all foreign forces,” he added.
The Taliban have overrun dozens of districts and border crossings with Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia since the drawdown of US-led troops from Afghanistan began on May 1, causing concern that the group will regain power by force similar to their move in the 1990s.
Akhundzada highlighted how the setting up of the Taliban’s political office in Doha in 2013 was “aimed at finding ways for a peaceful settlement” with Afghan government delegates and national leaders, accusing them of “wasting time” at the US-sponsored intra-Afghan talks that began in Qatar in September.
Launching the peace talks was a critical condition for the signing of a controversial deal between Washington DC and the Taliban in February last year.
On Saturday, Taliban representatives, government-appointed negotiators, and local and factional figures resumed the Qatar talks after a stalemate of several months.
“We are looking for a positive & constructive outcome,” Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, tweeted after the meeting.

BACKGROUND

The Taliban have overrun dozens of districts and border crossings with Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia since the drawdown of US-led troops from Afghanistan began on May 1, causing concern that the group will regain power by force similar to their move in the 1990s.

While the agenda for the current discussions remains unclear, several government sources told Arab News on Sunday that the “enforcement of a ceasefire and formation of a coalition” to replace President Ashraf Ghani’s administration “will likely be among the top issues.”

In a letter to Ghani in March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged an acceleration of peace talks and pushed the Afghan leader to form a new administration.

The proposal drew stern reactions from Ghani, who vowed to pass on the baton “only after the convocation of elections.”

According to the February deal with the Taliban, all foreign troops needed to exit Afghanistan by September, ending nearly 20 years of occupation, but US President Joe Biden announced earlier this month that the withdrawal would conclude by Aug. 31, bringing the country’s longest war to a swift end weeks before the Sept. 11 deadline he had set earlier this year.

Akhundzada, whose whereabouts have been kept secret by the Taliban, reiterated in his message that, based on the Doha deal with the US, the Taliban “will not permit anyone to pose a security threat to any other country using our soil.”

He added that Afghanistan was “our shared home,” and the Taliban “favored no enmity with local factions” provided they accept the group’s demand for “a pure Islamic system.”

However, unlike his past statements, Akhundzada did not repeatedly refer to US-led troops as “occupiers” but vowed to “pay particular attention to and strive to create an appropriate environment for female education within the framework of sublime Islamic law.”

The group was accused of imposing repressive and harsh policies on women when it ruled Afghanistan for five years until it was toppled from power in late 2001.

Since then, Afghan women have regained the right to education, voting, and working outside the home.

It is still not an easy place to be a woman, however, with forced marriages, domestic violence, and maternal mortality continuing to be prevalent across the country, particularly in its rural areas.

But access to public life has improved, especially in Kabul, where thousands of women work, while more than a quarter of parliament is female.

But fears are mounting over the potential degradation of hard-won rights as the Taliban widen their control on several areas in northern and northeastern Afghanistan, which used to be the bastion of the anti-Taliban alliance in the late 1990s.

Experts drew particular attention to the tone of Akhundzada’s latest message.

“He (Akhundzada) has used a reconciliatory tone both for Afghans and foreigners mostly and seeks to allay concerns about (the) Taliban trying to gain power through war,” Taj Mohammad, a Kabul-based analyst, told Arab News. “He has also promised that the Taliban would allow women’s education and has repeated a long-held stance on the formation of a puritanical Islamic government.”


Shooting in Russian university leaves at least eight dead

Shooting in Russian university leaves at least eight dead
Updated 40 min 47 sec ago

Shooting in Russian university leaves at least eight dead

Shooting in Russian university leaves at least eight dead
  • Students and staff of the university locked themselves in rooms, and the university urged those who could leave the campus to do so

MOSCOW: A gunman opened fire in a university in the Russian city of Perm on Monday morning, leaving at least eight people dead and others wounded, according to local health officials.
Other reports meanwhile put the number of deaths at five, citing investigators.
The unidentified perpetrator used a non-lethal gun, according to the Perm State University press service. Students and staff of the university locked themselves in rooms, and the university urged those who could leave the campus to do so.
The gunman was later detained, Russia’s Interior Ministry said, adding that the shooting left some people dead, but not clarifying how many.
The state Tass news agency cited an unnamed source in the law enforcement as saying that some students jumped out of the windows of a building.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether those reported wounded sustained injuries from the shooting or from trying to escape the building.
Russia’s Investigative Committee has opened a murder probe in the aftermath of the incident.


Philippines to reopen 120 schools for in-person classes

Philippines to reopen 120 schools for in-person classes
Updated 20 September 2021

Philippines to reopen 120 schools for in-person classes

Philippines to reopen 120 schools for in-person classes
  • Up to a hundred public schools in areas considered ‘minimal risk’ for coronavirus transmission will be allowed to take part in the two-month trial

MANILA: The Philippines will reopen up to 120 schools for limited in-person classes for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in a pilot approved by President Rodrigo Duterte, officials said Monday.
While nearly every country in the world has already partially or fully reopened schools for face-to-face lessons, the Philippines has kept them closed since March 2020.
“We have to pilot face-to-face (classes) because this is not just an issue for education, it’s an issue for the children’s mental health,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters.
“It’s also an issue for the economy because we might lose a generation if we don’t have face-to-face (classes).”
Under guidelines approved by Duterte Monday, up to a hundred public schools in areas considered “minimal risk” for virus transmission will be allowed to take part in the two-month trial.
Twenty private schools can also participate.
Classrooms will be open to children in kindergarten to grade three, and senior high school, but the number of students and hours spent in face-to-face lessons limited.
Schools wanting to take part will be assessed for their preparedness and need approval from local governments to reopen. Written consent from parents will be required.
“If the pilot class is safe, if it is effective, then we will gradually increase it,” said Education Secretary Leonor Briones.
Duterte rejected previous proposals for a pilot reopening of schools for fear children could catch Covid-19 and infect elderly relatives.
But there have been growing calls from the UN’s children fund and many teachers for a return to in-person learning amid concerns the prolonged closure was exacerbating an education crisis in the country.
It is not clear when the pilot will begin or which schools will be included.
A “blended learning” program, which involves online classes, printed materials and lessons broadcast on television and social media, will continue.
France Castro of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers said the decision was “long overdue.”
Fifteen-year-olds in the Philippines were at or near the bottom in reading, mathematics and science, according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Most students attend public schools where large class sizes, outdated teaching methods, lack of investment in basic infrastructure such as toilets, and poverty have been blamed for youngsters lagging behind.


‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero to learn verdict in terror trial

‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero to learn verdict in terror trial
Updated 20 September 2021

‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero to learn verdict in terror trial

‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero to learn verdict in terror trial
  • Rwandan prosecutors have sought a life sentence for Paul Rusesabagina
  • The trial of 67-year-old former hotelier and 20 other defendants began in February

KIGALI: A court is set to deliver its verdict Monday against Paul Rusesabagina, the “Hotel Rwanda” hero turned government critic who is charged with terrorism in a trial supporters say is politically motivated.
Rwandan prosecutors have sought a life sentence for Rusesabagina, the 67-year-old former hotelier credited with saving hundreds of lives during the 1994 genocide, and whose actions inspired the Hollywood film.
Rusesabagina, who used his subsequent fame to denounce Rwandan leader Paul Kagame as a dictator, was arrested in August 2020 when a plane he believed was bound for Burundi landed instead in the Rwandan capital Kigali.
He is accused of supporting a rebel group blamed for deadly gun, grenade and arson attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019.
His family say Rusesabagina was kidnapped and dismiss the nine charges against him, including terrorism, as payback by a vengeful government for his outspoken views.
Kagame has in turn rejected criticism of the case, saying Rusesabagina was in the dock not because of his fame but over the lives lost “because of his actions.”
“He is here being tried for that. Nothing to do with the film. Nothing to do with celebrity status,” Kagame said in television interview earlier this month, declaring that he would be “fairly tried.”
The trial of Rusesabagina and 20 other defendants began in February.
But the Belgian citizen and US green card holder has boycotted it since March, accusing the court of “unfairness and a lack of independence.”
The United States — which awarded Rusesabagina its Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 — along with the European Parliament and Belgium have raised concerns about his transfer to Rwanda and the fairness of his trial.
US rights group the Lantos Foundation this month urged Britain to reject the credentials of Kigali’s new ambassador to London, Johnston Busingye, saying that when he was justice minister he played a “key role in the extraordinary rendition and kidnapping” of Rusesabagina.
Presiding judge Antoine Muhima has defended the proceedings, saying none of the accused has been denied the right to speak.
The verdict was initially due in August but was put back until Monday.
Rusesabagina was the former manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, where he sheltered hundreds of guests during the genocide that left 800,000 people dead, mostly ethnic Tutsis.
A decade later the American actor Don Cheadle played Rusesabagina, a moderate Hutu, in the Oscar-nominated blockbuster that brought his story to an international audience.
Rusesabagina soon became disillusioned with the new Tutsi-dominated government led by Kagame, the rebel leader-turned president whose forces ended the mass killings.
He accused Kagame of authoritarian tendencies and left Rwanda in 1996, living in Belgium and then the United States.
Abroad, he used his global platform to crusade for political change in Kigali, and developed close ties with opposition groups in exile.
Kagame’s government accuses Rusesabagina of supporting the National Liberation Front (FLN), a rebel group which is blamed for the attacks in 2018 and 2019 that killed nine people.
Rusesabagina has denied any involvement in the attacks, but was a founder of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition group of which the FLN is seen as the armed wing.
Prosecutors in June said Rusesabagina “encouraged and empowered the fighters to commit those terrorist acts.”
But his co-defendants gave conflicting testimony about the level of Rusesabagina’s involvement with the FLN and its fighters.
His family, who have campaigned globally for his release, say Rusesabagina is a political prisoner and accuse the Rwandan authorities of torturing him in custody.
According to the Hotel Rwanda Foundation, which supports him, they regard the trial as a “farce from start to finish... put in place by the Rwandan government to silence critics” and discourage “future dissent.”
In July, a media investigation claimed that Rusesabagina’s daughter, Carine Kanimba, was spied on using Pegasus malware developed by Israeli company NSO.
Investigators confirmed that a cell phone belonging to Kanimba, a US-Belgian dual national, had been compromised multiple times.
For opposition official Victoire Ingabire, who spent six years in prison for terrorism, the verdict is not in doubt.
“In a country where freedom is limited, all power is in the hands of the executive,” she said.
“How could a judge dare to take a decision incompatible with the wishes of the president?”


Sydney COVID-19 cases fall as curbs ease in coronavirus hotspots

Sydney COVID-19 cases fall as curbs ease in coronavirus hotspots
Updated 20 September 2021

Sydney COVID-19 cases fall as curbs ease in coronavirus hotspots

Sydney COVID-19 cases fall as curbs ease in coronavirus hotspots
  • Nearly half of Australia’s 25 million people is in lockdown after the Delta variant spread rapidly in Sydney and Melbourne

SYDNEY: Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) state on Monday reported its lowest rise in daily COVID-19 cases in more than three weeks as some lockdown restrictions were eased in Sydney, the state capital, amid higher vaccination levels.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said 935 new cases had been detected in the state, the lowest daily tally since Aug. 27, and down from 1,083 on Sunday. The state reported four more deaths.
“We’re feeling more positive than we have in a couple of weeks ... but I don’t want any of us to sit back and think the worst is behind us,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney, warning of more deaths in the days ahead.
“Because we have seen the accumulation of so many cases, we know that October is going to be very challenging for our hospital system.”
Nearly half of Australia’s 25 million people is in lockdown after the Delta variant spread rapidly in Sydney and Melbourne, its largest cities, forcing officials there to abandon a COVID-zero target and shift to rapid vaccinations to ease curbs.
As the vaccine rollout gathers speed, with 53 percent of NSW’s adult population fully vaccinated, some restrictions were relaxed on Monday in 12 of the worst-hit suburbs in Sydney’s west. Time limits for outdoor exercise were lifted, while fully vaccinated people can gather outside in groups of five.
Neighboring Victoria state, which includes Melbourne, logged one new death and 567 new infections, its biggest daily rise this year, a day after revealing its roadmap back to freedom when vaccinations reach 70 percent, expected around Oct. 26.
So far, 44 percent of people in the state have been fully vaccinated, below the national average of 47 percent.
Meanwhile, several workers protested outside a union office in Melbourne against Victoria’s mandatory vaccination rule in the construction sector, local media reported.
The New Zealand Breakers basketball team, which play in Australia’s National Basketball League, released guard Tai Webster on Monday after he decided not to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Australia has largely lived in COVID-zero for much of the pandemic, recording 1,167 deaths and some 87,000 cases. About 56,000 cases have been registered since mid-June when the first Delta infection was detected in Sydney.
While NSW and Victoria bear the brunt of the Delta outbreak, most other states with little or no community transmission fear opening up too soon could overwhelm their hospital systems.


New Zealand’s Auckland COVID-19 restrictions eased slightly

New Zealand’s Auckland COVID-19 restrictions eased slightly
Updated 20 September 2021

New Zealand’s Auckland COVID-19 restrictions eased slightly

New Zealand’s Auckland COVID-19 restrictions eased slightly
  • The city will move to alert level 3 from alert level 4 starting midnight on Tuesday

WELLINGTON: Coronavirus restrictions in New Zealand’s largest city Auckland will be eased slightly from Wednesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a news conference.
The city, which is at the center of the latest Delta variant outbreak, will move to alert level 3 from alert level 4 starting midnight on Tuesday, Ardern said. Schools and offices will still remain closed at level 3 but businesses can operate contactless services.
The rest of the country will remain at alert level 2, she said.

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