US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan

drops precision bombs on Taliban training and narcotics facilities in Afghanistan. (US Air Force photo via AP/file)
1 / 2
drops precision bombs on Taliban training and narcotics facilities in Afghanistan. (US Air Force photo via AP/file)
Afghan security personnel and Afghan militia fighting against Taliban stand guard in Enjil district of Herat province on July 30, 2021. (Photo by Hoshang Hashimi / AFP)
2 / 2
Afghan security personnel and Afghan militia fighting against Taliban stand guard in Enjil district of Herat province on July 30, 2021. (Photo by Hoshang Hashimi / AFP)
Short Url
Updated 01 August 2021

US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan

US brings B-52 bombers back into action as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan
  • Washington’s strategy to deploy the heavily armed planes a ‘worrying sign’

KABUL: A US B-52 bomber has pounded Taliban positions in Afghanistan’s western Herat province after the group gained ground near the area amid intense clashes with government forces, officials and lawmakers said on Saturday.

The strike took place on the outskirts of Herat city on Friday, with flights to and from the area suspended after increased violence near its airport.

“Unfortunately, all flights to Herat have been canceled due to the fighting and the information we have received suggest that a B-52 was used in the fighting yesterday (Friday) in Herat,” provincial lawmaker Habib Ur Rahman Pedram told Arab News.

No further details were given, such as the number of casualties or the scale of the attack.

Violence has surged across Afghanistan since May 1, when the Taliban launched a sweeping offensive as the US began its troop withdrawal after 20 years of occupation.

In recent weeks, the group has captured several districts and vital border crossings, with the Pentagon estimating that the group now control more than half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers.

The Taliban have reportedly captured two border crossings in Herat, the second largest city after Kabul, located near the border with Iran and Turkmenistan.

Friday’s attack by the US military marks the second time in less than two weeks that it has deployed the long-range, nuclear-capable plane against the Taliban from distant bases after US-led troops cut vital air support for overstretched Afghan forces.

A B-52 was also sighted in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of southern Helmand province, and the scene of intense fighting between Taliban and government forces, “but appeared to have not carried out any attack on Friday,” Helmand lawmaker Mirwais Khadem told Arab News.

According to security sources from the adjacent Kandahar province, the heavily armed plane hit a group of Taliban fighters in Spin Boldak bordering Pakistan two weeks ago as well, “killing scores of them.”

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid could not confirm whether the B-52 was used to attack the group across Afghanistan.

BACKGROUND

• In recent weeks, Taliban have captured several districts and vital border crossings, with the Pentagon estimating that the group now control more than half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers.

• The group has reportedly captured two border crossings in Herat, the second largest city after Kabul, located near the border with Iran and Turkmenistan.

But he told Arab News that the Taliban had “tightened the net on government forces around Herat city, in Lashkar Gah, and Kandahar city” in recent days.

Khadem confirmed Mujahid’s accounts, adding that the Taliban had taken over two districts within Lashkar Gah after “heavy fighting for successive days.”

“Government helicopters have hit the Taliban,” the lawmaker added. “People have been displaced and largely heading to Taliban-held areas as the situation in the city is not good.”

The US military in Afghanistan was unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Saturday, while Afghan officials refused to discuss the decision to reinstate the B-52 to curb Taliban advances.

But Interior Ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanekzai told Arab News that “government forces had foiled Taliban’s attacks on the three cities and the enemy has suffered heavy losses.”

B-52 bombers played a crucial role in toppling the Taliban from power in late 2001, with the US using its bases in the Gulf to deploy the plane.

The strategy to deploy the B-52 appears to be a military necessity, as over-stretched Afghan troops are struggling to prevent the loss of more territory and provincial capitals to the Taliban and avoid the potential for renewed civil war without foreign forces to protect the Kabul government.

The clashes in Herat and Kandahar have forced tens of thousands of residents to flee to safer grounds, with government estimates placing the number of families displaced by the surge in violence since early May at more than 40,000.

During Friday’s fighting, the UN’s main compound in Herat came under attack by rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire, according to a statement from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

“This attack against the United Nations is deplorable, and we condemn it in the strongest terms,” said Deborah Lyons, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan.

The halt of flights to Herat and the reuse of the B-52 were “worrying signs of an escalation in insecurity” across Afghanistan, according to security analyst and retired colonel Mohammad Hassan.

“It is getting worse day by day here,” he told Arab News. “The cancelation of flights to Herat and the fact that America has back started using B-52 are not good signs. It will cause more panic among people at large and shows the precariousness of the situation.”


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.


Dhaka airport opens COVID-19 test labs for UAE-bound foreign workers

Dhaka airport opens COVID-19 test labs for UAE-bound foreign workers
Updated 26 September 2021

Dhaka airport opens COVID-19 test labs for UAE-bound foreign workers

Dhaka airport opens COVID-19 test labs for UAE-bound foreign workers
  • The privately run PCR labs at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport are aimed at outbound travelers who require proof that they are virus-free on arrival at their destinations

DHAKA: Bangladesh on Saturday opened six COVID-19 testing facilities at its largest airport in the capital Dhaka to facilitate international travel, mainly for its UAE-bound migrant workers impacted by flight restrictions in the wake of the pandemic, a government official said.

The privately run PCR labs at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport are aimed at outbound travelers who require proof that they are virus-free on arrival at their destinations.

They are the first at an airport in Bangladesh, one of three international hubs in the country, with a capacity to carry out more than 5,000 tests a day.

“We have set up all necessary facilities and equipment. We will conduct a test-run tonight and hand over the facilities to the civil aviation authorities,” Dr. Shariar Sazzad, the health officer in charge at the airport, told Arab News.

The tests are not covered by insurance, with each international traveler required to pay for COVID-19 screening.

“Each of the tests will cost around $20 at all six facilities at the airport,” Sazzad said.

Instalment of the testing facilities comes after the UAE in August lifted flight curbs for travelers from a list of previously suspended countries, including Bangladesh, provided they were fully vaccinated with a jab approved by the World Health Organization and tested negative for COVID-19 six hours before departure.

Since then, thousands of Bangladeshi migrant workers had been rallying for authorities to install PCR labs at the airport. On Sept. 6, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina directed authorities to establish PCR testing facilities at all three international airports in Dhaka, Chattogram and Sylhet.

With nearly 1,250 cases a day, Bangladesh has struggled to combat a surge in COVID-19 infections driven by the highly contagious Delta variant. As of this week, only 9.3 percent of its population of 170 million people had received both doses of the COVID-19 jabs.

The South Asian nation’s economy has taken a beating from a lack of foreign remittances after thousands of migrant workers were unable to return to work due to travel curbs imposed by host nations.

The UAE is the second-largest destination for Bangladeshi migrant workers in the Gulf and the Middle East, with more than 1 million employed in the country.

However, tens of thousands of workers were impacted by flight curbs imposed by the Gulf state, with several left stranded in Bangladesh after returning home for a break.

Mohammad Abul Bashar, a 38-year-old construction worker in Dubai, is one example. He traveled to Bangladesh six months ago and is “desperately waiting” to return to the UAE.

“I was supposed to resume duty in the first week of September but couldn’t take the flight since there were no COVID-19 testing facilities at the airport,” he told Arab News.

“Now I am waiting to renew my visa and hope to travel within the next two weeks,” Bashar said, adding he was “so relieved” that PCR labs had finally been launched at the airport.

Salahuddin Chowdhury, another migrant worker, said that the delay in setting up the PCR labs had “caused huge losses for many.”

“I have been working as a salesperson at a shop in the UAE for six years and was supposed to return by mid-August. The delay has cost me around $300, which is a month’s salary,” Chowdhury, 27, told Arab News.

“I’m hoping to fly by the end of this week,” he added.

While workforce recruiting agencies welcomed the move to set up PCR labs at Dhaka airport, they urged authorities to launch more flights “to help as many workers as possible.”

“Every day, around 1,000-1,500 migrant workers would travel to the UAE (before the outbreak). Since more than 35,000 workers are now waiting to return to their workplaces, I think aviation authorities should introduce extra flights from Dhaka for the next few weeks,” Tipu Sultan, president of the Recruiting Agencies Unity Forum, told Arab News.

He also urged authorities to shoulder the costs of the tests.

“A majority of these migrant workers are extremely poor and spend a lot of money to secure a job in the overseas market, incurring huge debts for the visa and tickets. The $20 COVID-19 tests will be an extra burden on them,” he said.

Instead, Sultan suggests that the government either subsidise the cost or pay for it through “the expatriates’ welfare fund, which is also funded by the migrant workers.”

Shariful Hasan, migration program head for BRAC, a Bangladeshi-origin international NGO, agrees and said it was imperative for government ministries to make a “coordinated effort” and ease travel for migrant workers.

“Our migrant workers are desperate to return to work at any cost. Authorities should remain vigilant and ensure the smooth functioning of PCR labs installed at the airport,” Hasan told Arab News.

“These facilities will serve the migrant workers a lot, especially if other host countries also introduce the same travel rules as the UAE.”


Moscow-Ankara tensions on display at Lavrov press conference

Moscow-Ankara tensions on display at Lavrov press conference
Updated 26 September 2021

Moscow-Ankara tensions on display at Lavrov press conference

Moscow-Ankara tensions on display at Lavrov press conference
  • Russian foreign minister criticizes Turkey over Crimea, Syria
  • Lavrov praises ‘wise’ Saudi approach to resolving Israel-Palestine conflict

NEW YORK: Russia’s foreign minister on Saturday accused Turkey of a “lack of diplomatic professionalism,” and announced that his government currently has no intention of recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.

At a press conference held at the UN and attended by Arab News, Sergei Lavrov also reiterated Russia’s support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and praised the Saudi-led approach to immediate Arab-Israeli reconciliation upon the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

Earlier this week, a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman said elections held by Russia in Crimea — which Moscow annexed in 2014 — have “no legal validity” in Ankara’s eyes.

Lavrov said the Turkish position exhibited “a lack of diplomatic professionalism, a lack of professionalism in foreign policy, because professionals understand full well that the Crimean issue has been put to rest once and for all.”

He also defended Russia’s recent assault on rebel-held territory in Syria’s Idlib province, saying there needs to be an “uncompromising assault on terrorism on Syrian soil.”

He added: “There was a special agreement on Idlib between the presidents of Russia and Turkey, and our Turkish colleagues took upon themselves the obligation to separate normal opposition forces from terrorists. This was to have been done a long time ago now, but it has not happened to date.”

Lavrov also said Russian recognition of the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan is “not currently on the table.”

He added: “The reality that is currently unfolding (in Afghanistan) is based on statements by the Taliban, who have proclaimed their intent to combat extremism, to combat terrorism, including the Islamic State (Daesh) and Al-Qaeda, (and) not to project instability on neighbors. What’s most important, probably, is for these promises to be honored.”

For Moscow, he added, the top priority is that the Taliban fight terrorism. “They (the Taliban) announced that they’re determined to fight ISIL (Daesh) and other terrorist groups, and we’ll do everything possible to support them to ensure that this be made a reality,” he said.

Lavrov reiterated Russia’s longstanding position that a two-state solution is the only viable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and supported US overtures in this regard.

“It’s very important that the Biden administration has reaffirmed its commitment to a two-state solution,” said Lavrov, adding that the conflict remains of paramount importance to regional stability. 

He endorsed the Saudi-led approach of the early 2000s toward resolving the conflict and its resulting regional tensions.

“At the initiative of the king of Saudi Arabia, an Arab Peace Initiative was adopted which stipulated that as soon as a viable Palestinian state is established, which meets all the criteria set out at the UN, then immediately the Arab states would normalize relations with Israel. I think this was a very wise approach,” said Lavrov.


Gwadar attack on Chinese nationals was planned in Iran, claims Pakistan

Gwadar attack on Chinese nationals was planned in Iran, claims Pakistan
Updated 26 September 2021

Gwadar attack on Chinese nationals was planned in Iran, claims Pakistan

Gwadar attack on Chinese nationals was planned in Iran, claims Pakistan
  • Chinese mission warns citizens to be vigilant amid ‘severe’ security situation

KARACHI: A suicide bomber who targeted Chinese nationals in the Pakistani port city of Gwadar last month came from Iran, counterterrorism police in the southwestern Balochistan province said on Friday, adding that the mastermind behind the attack was a resident of Chahbahar in the neighboring country.

Earlier in August, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed had said that the Gwadar attack was carried out by a young suicide bomber who ran toward a vehicle carrying Chinese citizens as it neared a fishermen’s colony before detonating himself.

The Chinese diplomatic mission in Islamabad also issued a statement soon after the incident, seeking “practical and effective measures” to ensure the safety of its workers in Pakistan.

On Friday, the counterterrorism department of the Balochistan police said it had arrested three members of the Balochistan Liberation Army, a proscribed separatist outfit that claimed responsibility for the Gwadar attack after one suspect shared details of the incident during the investigation.

“He … disclosed that Rasool Bux, resident of the Sheeran Chahbahar area of Iran, is the mastermind of the attack,” the department said in a statement.

It added: “Arif s/o (son of) Dur Muhammad alias Dura disclosed that his brother Ahmed transported the suicide bomber from the Ramin area of Iran. He (Arif) received the suicide bomber on his arrival on (the) night (of) 10/11 August and provided a place for him to stay near (the) customs warehouse.”

A counterterrorism department spokesperson said its officials “along with a sensitive law enforcement agency” conducted an intelligence-based operation in Balochistan’s Turbat city and arrested three militants suspected of facilitating the attack.

“On 21 September 2021, Counterterrorism Department Balochistan had got credible source information that one terrorist of … The Baloch Liberation Army was present at Turbat Bazar,” the statement said.

“He intended to carry out terrorist activity on the General Public, LEAs (law enforcement agencies) and Govt Installations. On this information, (a) raid was conducted, and one Terrorist namely Shoaib s/o Izzat Ali R/o (resident of) Gwadar was arrested. Another raid was conducted on his pointation, and two more arrests were made with the recovery of explosive material.”

The department’s officials said the arrested individuals also told interrogators that Rasool Bux, the alleged mastermind of the Gwadar attack, had transported four other militants who had targeted Gwadar’s Pearl Continental Hotel in 2019.

A spokesperson said more raids were being planned to arrest remaining members of the network.

According to Pakistani officials, two local children were killed and a Chinese national injured in last month’s Gwadar attack, which came a few weeks after another strike that killed nine Chinese workers at a hydroelectricity dam in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The Chinese diplomatic mission in Pakistan condemned the incident in Gwadar and offered its condolences to the victims’ families.

It also described the security situation in Pakistan as “severe” in a statement, asking its citizens “to be vigilant (and) strengthen safety precautions.”

Related