Taliban reject US envoy’s claims of seeking ‘lion’s share’ in future government

Taliban reject US envoy’s claims of seeking ‘lion’s share’ in future government
US Special Representative for Afghanistan's Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (C) sits in a coffee shop ahead of a session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar on July 17, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 05 August 2021

Taliban reject US envoy’s claims of seeking ‘lion’s share’ in future government

Taliban reject US envoy’s claims of seeking ‘lion’s share’ in future government
  • Group aims for accord that ‘observes Islamic aspirations’ of Afghans, spokesman says

KABUL: The Taliban on Wednesday refuted US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s assertions that it was seeking a “lion’s share of power” in a future government, terming it as a “personal view,” as fighting worsens across Afghanistan and foreign troops inch closer to completing a withdrawal mission by month-end.

“That is his personal view. We heard Khalilzad’s comments, but our stance is that we want an accord that can observe the Islamic aspirations of the people,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News, adding that the group was “not after a monopoly of power or eyeing a key share.”

“We do not want anything for ourselves; we have given lofty sacrifices for Islam. The nation is exhausted. There will definitely be a complete Islamic government, and all sides will have to accept this … All Afghans will be given a share in it,” he added.

The comments follow Khalilzad’s remarks during a virtual conference of the Aspen Security Forum on Tuesday when he said: “At this point, (the Taliban) are demanding that they take the lion’s share of power in the next government given the military situation as they see it.”

He added that the Taliban and the Kabul government “are far apart” in US-backed peace negotiations, which began in Doha, Qatar, nearly a year ago.

The intra-Afghan talks were the first formal step to politically settle a decades-old conflict that began after the Taliban were toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Khalilzad was the chief architect of the controversial, behind-the-door negotiations between the US and the Taliban, which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his administration were excluded from.

They led to the signing of a conditional agreement on Feb. 29 in Qatar between former US President Donald Trump’s administration and Taliban representatives based on which US and NATO troops were to pull out of Afghanistan as part of a 14-month process that began on May 1 and is scheduled to complete on Aug. 31.

Since then, Khalilzad has played a crucial role in facilitating the talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government in Doha and, in March, proposed the formation of an inclusive interim government to replace Ghani, whose term ends in 2024.

Both groups have failed to make headway in the Doha talks, which was the subject of a phone call on Tuesday between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ghani, who agreed on the need to accelerate the peace process.

This comes a day after Ghani, during a special parliamentary session, called for a nationwide war against the Taliban, who have made significant gains in several parts of Afghanistan and after an overnight attack in Kabul on the defense minister’s home.

“Eight non-combatants, including a woman, were killed in the attack on the home of Defense Minister Gen. Besmillah Khan in Kabul,” Interior Ministry Spokesman Mirwais Stanekzai told reporters on Wednesday.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the strike.

“We were behind the strike,” Mujahid said. “The attack was in response to the airstrikes by the defense ministry.” 

Ghani blamed the country’s deteriorating security on Washington’s “abrupt” decision to withdraw its troops.

Presenting his security plan before parliament on Monday, Ghani said the situation in the war-torn nation would be “under control within six months,” adding that the US has pledged its full support.

The gap left by departing troops has emboldened the Taliban, who have intensified their insurgency since early May, targeting Afghan government forces and stepping up attacks on Herat in the west, Kandahar, and the adjacent Helmand province in the south — three major regions — since last week.

Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, has taken the brunt of the fighting.

Both Taliban and government officials said fighting was “intense” on Wednesday in various parts of Lashkar Gah, where the group has made significant inroads.

A lawmaker from Helmand, Mirwais Khadem, said the Taliban were “in control of all parts of the city,” except for a series of government buildings, such as the governor’s compound, police and intelligence headquarters and the central prison.

“I can say that there is street-to-street fighting in Lashkar Gah now. The Taliban have taken shelter in people’s homes. Afghan troops fire back on them, and there are bombardments both by the government and US forces,” Khadem told Arab News.

He chided the army’s move asking residents to “flee from their homes” in Taliban-held areas.

“This decision of the government is not appropriate. We urged the government to go instead to a desert where there are no residential homes. Both the Taliban and the government can fight there and decide who will be the winner and will be defeated,” he said.

“But the government did not accept it. Asking civilians in the middle of the war to leave their homes, without arrangements for shelter, food and other necessities in this hot weather is not fair,” Khadem added.

He explained that “there were casualties among civilians both from shelling and air raids in Lashkar Gah” but could not provide the exact fatality count.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders said casualties were “mounting” in Lashkar Gah.

“There has been relentless gunfire, airstrikes and mortars in densely populated areas. Houses are being bombed, and many people are suffering severe injuries,” Sarah Leahy, the aid group’s coordinator for Helmand, said in a statement.

The loss of Lashkar Gah to the Taliban would be a massive blow for Kabul, which has pledged to safeguard provincial capitals “at all costs” after losing much of the countryside to the insurgent group over the summer.

US-led troops have stepped up aerial attacks on suspected Taliban positions to support Afghan forces and block Taliban advances.

Experts say the measures are too little, too late.

“American forces do not want to see the fall of any major city to the Taliban before their exit. That is why they continue providing air support for national forces,” Torek Farhadi, an analyst and former adviser to former President Hamid Karzai, told Arab News.

“But these attacks cause civilian casualties, such as the ones we saw in Helmand. This is not good for the Kabul government,” he added.

Nearly 2,400 Afghan civilians have been killed or injured in May and June amid an uptick in violence between the Taliban and Afghan security forces, the highest number for those two months since records started in 2009, the UN’s Assistance Mission to Afghanistan said in a July report.

By then, it had documented 5,183 civilian casualties between January and June, of which 1,659 were deaths. The number was up 47 percent from the same period last year.


Sri Lanka shaman dies of COVID-19 after touting ‘blessed’ water cure

Sri Lanka shaman dies of COVID-19 after touting ‘blessed’ water cure
Updated 23 September 2021

Sri Lanka shaman dies of COVID-19 after touting ‘blessed’ water cure

Sri Lanka shaman dies of COVID-19 after touting ‘blessed’ water cure
  • Eliyantha White treated sports stars and top politicians including the country’s prime minister
  • But mainstream doctors described White as a fraud and Ayurveda physicians rejected his claims

COLOMBO: A high-profile shaman who tried to end Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 outbreak with “blessed” water has died of the virus, his family said Thursday.
Eliyantha White, 48, who treated sports stars and top politicians including the country’s prime minister, claimed in November he could end the pandemic in Sri Lanka and neighboring India by pouring pots of his “blessed” water into rivers.
Health minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi endorsed the water treatment, but was infected two months later and ended up in a hospital intensive care unit.
She was later demoted, and lost her portfolio, but remains in the cabinet.
White attracted international attention in 2010 when legendary Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar publicly thanked him for treating a knee injury, saying it helped him hit the first-ever one-day international double century against South Africa.
In a 2010 interview, White claimed he had “special powers” since the age of 12.
He has since treated other Indian cricket stars, including Gautam Gambhir and Ashish Nehra.
White’s family said he had refused the Covid-19 vaccine.
His body was cremated at Colombo’s main cemetery on Thursday in line with quarantine regulations.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was among politicians to have consulted White, said on Twitter: “His legacy will continue to live through all the lives, he touched and healed of various ailments.”
But mainstream doctors described White as a fraud and Ayurveda physicians rejected his claims — even though the shaman said he used methods from the 3,000-year-old Indian medical tradition.
Sri Lanka’s total coronavirus deaths exceeded 12,000 with more than half a million people infected so far.
Doctors say the real toll is at least twice as high and authorities have resorted to mass cremations to clear bodies piling up at hospitals and morgues.


Thailand seeks to slash quarantine period for visitors

Thailand seeks to slash quarantine period for visitors
Updated 23 September 2021

Thailand seeks to slash quarantine period for visitors

Thailand seeks to slash quarantine period for visitors
  • Thailand is keen to welcome back foreign visitors, after nearly 18 months of strict entry policies caused a collapse in tourism

BANGKOK: Thailand’s disease control committee has proposed a halving of a two-week hotel isolation requirement for vaccinated arrivals, amid delays in plans to waive quarantine and reopen Bangkok and tourist destinations from next month.
Thailand is keen to welcome back foreign visitors, after nearly 18 months of strict entry policies caused a collapse in tourism, a key sector that drew 40 million visitors in 2019.
“Reducing the quarantine is not only about tourism, but will help business travel and foreign students,” senior health official Opas Karnkawinpong told a news conference, adding tests would also be required.
Under the proposal, to be presented to government on Monday, those without vaccination proof would be isolated for 10 days if arriving by air, and 14 days if by land.
Authorities this week delayed to November plans to grant vaccinated visitors entry without quarantine, due to the country’s low inoculation rate.
Only Phuket and Samui islands currently waive quarantine for vaccinated tourists, as part of a pilot scheme.
Less than a quarter of the estimated 72 million people living in Thailand have been fully vaccinated.
The country is still fighting its most severe wave of infections, which has accounted for about 99 percent of its 1.5 million cases and 15,884 deaths.


Vaccine inequity comes into stark focus during UN gathering

Vaccine inequity comes into stark focus during UN gathering
Updated 23 September 2021

Vaccine inequity comes into stark focus during UN gathering

Vaccine inequity comes into stark focus during UN gathering
  • Countries slated to give their signature annual speeches on Thursday include South Africa, Botswana, Angola, Burkina Faso and Libya

The inequity of COVID-19 vaccine distribution will come into sharper focus Thursday as many of the African countries whose populations have little to no access to the life-saving shots step to the podium to speak at the UN’s annual meeting of world leaders.
Already, the struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic has featured prominently in leaders’ speeches — many of them delivered remotely exactly because of the virus. Country after country acknowledged the wide disparity in accessing the vaccine, painting a picture so bleak that a solution has at times seemed impossibly out of reach.
“Some countries have vaccinated their populations, and are on the path to recovery. For others, the lack of vaccines and weak health systems pose a serious problem,” Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, said in a prerecorded speech Wednesday. “In Africa, fewer than 1 in 20 people are fully vaccinated. In Europe, one in two are fully vaccinated. This inequity is clearly unfair.”
Countries slated to give their signature annual speeches on Thursday include South Africa, Botswana, Angola, Burkina Faso and Libya.
Also among them will be Zimbabwe, where the economic ravages of the pandemic have forced some families to abandon the long-held tradition of taking care of their older people. And Uganda, where a surge in virus cases have made scarce hospital beds even more expensive, leading to concerns over alleged exploitation of patients by private hospitals.
On Wednesday, during a global vaccination summit convened virtually on the sidelines of the General Assembly, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would double its purchase of Pfizer’s COVID-19 shots to share with the world to 1 billion doses, with the goal of vaccinating 70 percent of the global population within the next year.
The move comes as world leaders, aid groups and global health organizations have grown increasingly vocal about the slow pace of global vaccinations and the inequity of access to shots between residents of wealthier and poorer nations.
The World Health Organization says only 15 percent of promised donations of vaccines — from rich countries that have access to large quantities of them — have been delivered. The UN health agency has said it wants countries to fulfill their dose-sharing pledges “immediately” and make shots available for programs that benefit poor countries and Africa in particular.
During an anti-racism event on Wednesday commemorating a landmark but contentious conference 20 years ago, President Felix Tshisekedi of Congo pointed to the fact that only about 1 in 1,000 people in his country have gotten at least one shot.
The disparity in vaccine availability around the world “clearly does not demonstrate equality between the countries and peoples of this world,” Tshisekedi said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy likewise called out failures in sharing coronavirus vaccines during his speech Wednesday night, his hopes in 2020 of “effective multilateralism and effective international solidarity” dashed a year later, “where one thing is to share objectives and quite another is to share vaccines.”
Also on Thursday, foreign ministers are due to ponder climate change as a security issue when the Security Council, the UN’s most powerful body, meets in the morning.
Climate change has been a major focus during this week’s General Assembly gathering. World leaders made “faint signs of progress” on the financial end of fighting climate change in a special United Nations feet-to-the-fire meeting Monday, but they didn’t commit to more crucial cuts in emissions of the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming.


Norway’s election winners to meet in bid to form majority government

Norway’s election winners to meet in bid to form majority government
Updated 23 September 2021

Norway’s election winners to meet in bid to form majority government

Norway’s election winners to meet in bid to form majority government
  • Norway’s incumbent government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, conceded the election on Sept. 13

OSLO: Norway’s center-left election winners meet on Thursday for three-way talks to determine whether they can form a majority coalition government, with oil, taxes and EU relations among the sticking points.
Labour, the Socialists and the Center Party won a majority of seats in Norway’s parliament on Sept. 13, beating the ruling Conservative-led government, with a transfer of power likely to take place next month.
Labour leader Jonas Gahr Stoere, who is expected to become Norway’s next prime minister, has during the last week held individual meetings with Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum and the Socialist Left’s Audun Lysbakken.
But Thursday’s gathering at a resort an hour’s drive north of Oslo is believed to be the first time the three will sit down together since the election.
Billed as exploratory talks, the initial phase is set to determine whether detailed negotiations should be opened next week, or if Stoere has to settle for ruling in a minority.
Norway’s status as an oil and gas producer, contributing to climate change, was at the heart of the election campaign, although a transition away from petroleum is likely to be gradual despite progress by pro-environment parties.
Norway’s oil and gas industry pumps around 4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, accounting for over 40 percent of export revenues, although output is projected to fall from 2030 onwards.
The Socialist Party wants to halt all exploration for new resources, which would hasten the oil industry’s decline, but Labour and Center have rejected this position.
Labour is wary of potential job losses from petroleum’s demise, and champions state-sponsored policies to encourage a transfer of engineering know-how from oil production to renewable energy.
Norway’s incumbent government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, conceded the election on Sept. 13 and will step down as soon as Labour is ready to form a cabinet.


Court case of 47 Hong Kong democracy activists to resume on Nov. 29

Court case of 47 Hong Kong democracy activists to resume on Nov. 29
Updated 23 September 2021

Court case of 47 Hong Kong democracy activists to resume on Nov. 29

Court case of 47 Hong Kong democracy activists to resume on Nov. 29
  • National security crimes are punishable by up to life in prison
  • Hong Kong laws prohibit media from publishing the contents of such proceedings
HONG KONG: A closely monitored national security case involving 47 Hong Kong democracy activists charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, most of whom have been in custody for more than six months, will resume on Nov. 29, a judge ruled on Thursday.
Magistrate Peter Law in the Western Kowloon Court ruled more time was needed for pre-trial legal proceedings to be finalized. Hong Kong laws prohibit media from publishing the contents of such proceedings.
The case is then expected to move to the High Court.
National security crimes are punishable by up to life in prison, but only higher courts have the authority to give such long sentences. The West Kowloon Court can only give sentences of up to three years.
The 47, who include opposition politicians, are among more than 100 people who Hong Kong police have arrested under a national security law that Beijing imposed on the former British colony last year that critics say erodes the freedoms promised when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing and the city’s government say the law is necessary to ensure stability, safeguard prosperity and guard against outside interference.
The 47, of whom only 14 have been given bail, were arrested on charges of participating in an unofficial, non-binding and independently organized primary vote last year to select candidates for a since-postponed city election, which authorities say was a “vicious plot” to subvert the government.
Diplomats and rights groups are closely watching the case amid mounting concerns over the independence of Hong Kong’s judicial system, which is seen as the foundation on which its financial reputation was built.
Authorities have repeatedly said the judiciary is independent and upholding the rule of law. They have also said prosecutions are independent, based on evidence and had no relation with the background or profession of the suspects.
Bail hearings in March for the 47 went on for four days and dragged late into the night. Several of the defendants became ill and most of their appeals for bail have been denied.
The security law sets a high threshold for defendants seeking bail to demonstrate they would not break the law, a departure from common law practice, which puts the onus on prosecutors to make their case for detention.
Reasons for denying bail included unanswered emails from the US Consulate and WhatsApp messages with foreign journalists, which were taken as proof there was a risk that defendants could endanger national security if released on bail.
The protracted hearings and the reasons for rejecting bail have stunned diplomats and rights groups, who see it as a dramatic display of the Chinese-ruled city’s authoritarian turn.