First evacuation flight brings 221 Afghans, many kids, to US

First evacuation flight brings 221 Afghans, many kids, to US
Former Afghan interpreters, who worked with US troops, demonstrate at US embassy in Kabul in June. First flight evacuating Afghans, who worked alongside Americans, brought over 200 people to new lives in the US on Friday. (Reuters)
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Updated 30 July 2021

First evacuation flight brings 221 Afghans, many kids, to US

First evacuation flight brings 221 Afghans, many kids, to US
  • US President Joe Biden said he was proud to welcome them home
  • Evacuation flights highlights American uncertainty about how Afghanistan’s government and military will fare after U.S. combat forces leave

WASHINGTON: The first flight evacuating Afghans who worked alongside Americans in Afghanistan brought more than 200 people, including scores of children and babies in arms, to new lives in the United States on Friday.
US President Joe Biden said he was proud to welcome them home.
The launch of the evacuation flights, bringing out former interpreters and others who fear retaliation from Afghanistan’s Taliban for having worked with American troops and civilians, highlights American uncertainty about how Afghanistan’s government and military will fare after the last US combat forces leave that country in the coming weeks.
Family members are accompanying the interpreters, translators and others on the flights out. The first evacuation flight, an airliner, carried 221 Afghans under the special visa program, including 57 children and 15 infants, according to an internal US government document obtained by The Associated Press.
It touched down in Dulles, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., after midnight, according to the FlightAware tracking service.
Friday’s flight was “an important milestone as we continue to fulfill our promise to the thousands of Afghan nationals who served shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops and diplomats over the last 20 years in Afghanistan,” Biden said. He said he wanted to honor the military veterans, diplomats and others in the US who have advocated for the Afghans.
“Most of all,” Biden said in a statement, “I want to thank these brave Afghans for standing with the United States, and today, I am proud to say to them: ‘Welcome home.’“
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin lauded the Afghans for their work alongside Americans and said their arrival demonstrates the US government’s commitment to them.
Friday’s flight was all about “keeping promises,” said Will Fischer, an Iraq war veteran and an advocate on veteran’s issues.
But a refugee agency said the Biden administration appeared to be still scrambling to work out the resettlement of thousands more of the Afghans, and it urged Biden to bring them quickly to the US or a US territory, such as Guam.
“To date, there is simply no clear plan as to how the vast majority of our allies will be brought to safety,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service resettlement agency, said of the Afghan interpreters.
“We cannot in good conscience put them at risk in third countries with unreliable human rights records, or where the Taliban may be able to reach them,” the resettlement official said.
The Biden administration calls the effort Operation Allies Refuge. The operation has broad backing from Republican and Democratic lawmakers and from veterans groups. Supporters cite repeated instances of Taliban forces targeting Afghans who worked with Americans or with the Afghan government.
Congress on Thursday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would allow an additional 8,000 visas and $500 million in funding for the Afghan visa program.
The United States has been talking with Qatar and Kuwait about temporarily hosting thousands of other Afghan interpreters who are much further behind in their visa application process than Friday’s arrivals.
But US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, said Friday that no deal had been closed with those two countries. Concerns about housing Afghans who have not completed their security screenings and uncertainty on the American side about finding funding for the massive relocation effort have remained obstacles, the US officials said.
Biden announced earlier this year the US would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, honoring a withdrawal agreement struck by former President Donald Trump. He later said the US military operation would end on Aug. 31, calling it “overdue.” Some administration officials have expressed surprise at the extent and speed of Taliban gains of territory in the countryside since then.
Biden said that although US troops are leaving Afghanistan, the US will keep supporting Afghanistan through security assistance to Afghan forces and humanitarian and development aid to the Afghan people.
The newly arrived Afghan people will join 70,000 others who have resettled in the United States since 2008 under the special visa program.
Subsequent flights are due to bring more of the roughly 700 applicants who are furthest along in the process of getting visas, having already won approval and cleared security screening.
The first arrivals were screened for the coronavirus and received vaccines if they wanted them, said Tracey Jacobson, the US diplomat running the effort. They were expected to stay at a hotel on a base in Fort Lee, Virginia, for about seven days, completing medical exams and other final steps, Jacobson said. Resettlement organizations will help them as they travel to communities around the United States, with some bound for family members already here, she said.


Caught on camera: Kremlin releases photos of Putin’s Siberian fishing trip

Caught on camera: Kremlin releases photos of Putin’s Siberian fishing trip
Updated 5 sec ago

Caught on camera: Kremlin releases photos of Putin’s Siberian fishing trip

Caught on camera: Kremlin releases photos of Putin’s Siberian fishing trip
  • Vladimir Putin has cultivated a macho image, appealing to many Russians
MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin spent several days hiking and fishing in Siberia in early September, the Kremlin said on Sunday as it published pictures of the president on the holiday.
A caption under one of the 20 pictures published on the Kremlin web site said the president stopped for a few days in Siberia after a working trip to Russia’s Far East in early September.
Several days later, in the middle of September Putin said he would have to spend “a few days” in self-isolation after dozens of people in his entourage fell ill with COVID-19. He had to cancel his trip to Tajikistan for a security summit.
Putin has cultivated a macho image, appealing to many Russians, and has previously been pictured riding a horse barechested and in sun glasses, as well as carrying a hunting rifle and piloting a fighter jet.
This time, his outings were more mundane.
The Kremlin published photos of Putin standing in a river and catching a fish, walking through lush meadows and talking to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, his usual holiday companion.
Putin, 68, has had two shots of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. The Kremlin has said he was feeling healthy.

Behave normally, UK transport minister tells Britons queuing for fuel

Behave normally, UK transport minister tells Britons queuing for fuel
Updated 26 September 2021

Behave normally, UK transport minister tells Britons queuing for fuel

Behave normally, UK transport minister tells Britons queuing for fuel
  • Long lines of vehicles formed at petrol stations in recent days as motorists waited in line to fill up with fuel

BRIGHTON, England: Transport Minister Grant Shapps on Sunday called on Britons to behave normally when buying petrol, saying there was no shortage of fuel and the government was stepping in to ease a shortage of drivers bringing it to petrol stations.
In recent days long lines of vehicles formed at petrol stations as motorists waited in line, some for hours, to fill up with fuel after oil firms reported a lack of drivers was causing transport problems from refineries to forecourts, leading some operators to ration supplies and others to close gas stations.
“There’s plenty of fuel, there’s no shortage of the fuel within the country,” he told Sky News.
“So the most important thing is actually that people carry on as they normally would and fill up their cars when they normally would, then you won’t have queues and you won’t have shortages at the pump either.”
The government on Sunday announced a plan to issue temporary visas for 5,000 foreign truck drivers.
But business leaders have warned it is a short-term fix that will not solve an acute labor shortage that risks major disruption beyond fuel deliveries, including for retailers in the run-up to Christmas.
Shapps called the panic over fuel a ‘manufactured situation’ and blamed it on a hauliers’ association.
“They’re desperate to have more European drivers undercutting British salaries,” he said.


Afghanistan’s Taliban warn their soldiers: stop taking selfies

Afghanistan’s Taliban warn their soldiers: stop taking selfies
Updated 26 September 2021

Afghanistan’s Taliban warn their soldiers: stop taking selfies

Afghanistan’s Taliban warn their soldiers: stop taking selfies

DUBAI: Taliban fighters have been told by their government’s defense minister, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, to refrain from sightseeing at tourist attractions and sharing selfies on social media, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Several pictures have been seen since the Taliban takeover of Kabul showing the fighters playing at amusement parks and going out for picnics – there was even photos shared of Taliban riding on paddle boats that looked like swans. 

The WSJ report said many of the fighters had not been into a city before.  

“When not on duty, they sightsee, picnic and visit amusement parks, in a tangle of guns and turbans. Taliban fighters from elsewhere in Afghanistan have also come to gawk at Kabul on tourist trips,” the report said. 

Adding that some of the top urban site attractions for “relaxing” Taliban fighters are Qargha lake, where pedal boats are available for riding, the Kabul zoo, and the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood which has a grassy hill overlooking the city.

However, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob said in an audio message that patrols should be restricted to areas where they were assigned and criticised some fighters for going into government offices where they had no business and taking selfies.

"This is highly objectionable as everyone is taking out mobile phones and taking snaps in the important and sensitive ministries without any reason," he said as quoted by Reuters. 

"Such hanging out and taking snaps and videos will not help you in this world, and also in the hereafter." 

He also urged them according to the report to improve their appearance and comply to what he described as Islamic rules.


Top Russian diplomat defends mercenaries’ presence in Mali

Top Russian diplomat defends mercenaries’ presence in Mali
Updated 26 September 2021

Top Russian diplomat defends mercenaries’ presence in Mali

Top Russian diplomat defends mercenaries’ presence in Mali
  • France has announced it is reducing its force fighting extremists in Mali and the region
  • Mali has been trying to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012.

UNITED NATIONS: Russia’s top diplomat on Saturday defended the Mali government’s right to hire a private Russian military company to help fight terrorists, accusing French troops in the country of failing to get rid of them and scolding the European Union for demanding that the Russian mercenaries leave.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the company has a “legitimate” right to be in the West African nation because it was invited by the transitional government, and insisted Russian government is not involved.
France and Germany have both objected to the presence of mercenaries from the Wagner Group, which reportedly is linked to the Kremlin, in Mali, which also hosts a more than 18,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission. Wagner has been accused of human rights abuses in the Central African Republic and involvement in the conflict in Libya.
Lavrov said France has announced it is reducing its force fighting extremists in Mali and the region. And in a stinging rebuke of their performance, he said, the French forces “should have been combating terrorists who have established a presence in Kidal (in northern Mali), but they didn’t manage to do that.”
“Terrorists continue to reign in that area,” he told a news conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s annual meeting of world leaders.
Mali has been trying to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels were forced from power in Mali’s northern cities with the help of a 2013 French-led military operation. However, the insurgents quickly regrouped in the desert and began launching frequent attacks on the Malian army and its allies fighting the insurgency.
The extremists have expanded their reach well into central Mali, where their presence has inflamed tensions between ethnic groups in the area.
Lavrov said the European Union has been announcing that Russia will be “pushed away, deterred and engaged with.”
So, he said, he asked EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s high-level gathering: “What will you engage in with us?”
In June, Col. Assimi Goita was sworn in as president of a transitional government in Mali after carrying out his second coup in nine months. Mali faces increasing isolation from the international community over the junta’s power grab.


US agency to probe Amtrak derailment that killed 3 in Montana

US agency to probe Amtrak derailment that killed 3 in Montana
Updated 26 September 2021

US agency to probe Amtrak derailment that killed 3 in Montana

US agency to probe Amtrak derailment that killed 3 in Montana
  • People trapped aboard soon after the derailment have all been taken off the train

At least three people died on Saturday and some passengers were injured after an Amtrak train derailed in north-central Montana, an official at the local sheriff’s office said.

The National Transportation Safety Board said late on Saturday it will investigate the incident.

The Seattle-bound Empire Builder train had about 141 passengers and 16 crew aboard when eight cars derailed near the town of Joplin, Amtrak said in a statement.

People trapped aboard soon after the derailment have all been taken off the train, said the official at the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

There were multiple injuries but no final count, the official added. A social media user posted photos of train cars on their side after the incident and other damaged train cars.

The cause of the incident was not immediately clear.

The 10-car train with two locomotives had departed from Chicago.

Amtrak said Empire Builder trains originating on Saturday are canceled between Minot, North Dakota, and Shelby, Montana, while on Sunday the westbound Empire Builder train will terminate in Minneapolis and an eastbound Empire Builder train will originate in Minneapolis.