Thousands flee as Taliban eye full control of northern Afghanistan

Thousands flee as Taliban eye full control of northern Afghanistan
Afghan militiamen join Afghan defence and security forces during a gathering in Kabul. (AP)
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Updated 10 August 2021

Thousands flee as Taliban eye full control of northern Afghanistan

Thousands flee as Taliban eye full control of northern Afghanistan
  • The United States — due to complete a troop withdrawal at the end of the month and end its longest war — has all but left the battlefield

KABUL: The Taliban were in control of six Afghan provincial capitals on Tuesday after a blitz across the north that forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes for the relative safety of Kabul and other centers.
The insurgents now have their eyes on Mazar-i-Sharif, the biggest city in the north, whose fall would signal the total collapse of government control in a region that has traditionally been anti-Taliban.
Government forces are also battling the hard-line Islamists in Kandahar and Helmand, the southern Pashto-speaking provinces from where the Taliban draw their strength.
The United States — due to complete a troop withdrawal at the end of the month and end its longest war — has all but left the battlefield. However, its special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been sent to Qatar to try and convince the Taliban to accept a cease-fire.
Khalilzad “will press the Taliban to stop their military offensive,” the State Department said, and “help formulate a joint international response to the rapidly deteriorating situation.”
Officials from Afghanistan’s most vested neighbors — Pakistan, China and Iran — would also attend meetings there.
But Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said it was down to the Afghan government and its forces to turn the tide, saying there was “not much” the United States could do to help.
Michael Kugelman, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, doubted Washington had the means to anything.
“I fear that the Taliban (are) just so strong and the Afghan military is so beleaguered right now, it’s going to be hard to find some type of momentum-changer from the US,” he said.
The Taliban have appeared largely indifferent to peace overtures, and seem intent on a military victory to crown a return to power after their ouster 20 years ago in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
As fighting raged, tens of thousands of people were on the move inside the country, with families fleeing newly captured Taliban cities with tales of brutal treatment at the hands of the insurgents.
“The Taliban are beating and looting,” said Rahima, now camped out with hundreds of families at a park in the capital Kabul after fleeing Sheberghan province.
“If there is a young girl or a widow in a family, they forcibly take them. We fled to protect our honor.”
“We are so exhausted,” added Farid, an evacuee from Kunduz who did not want to be further identified.
In the northern city of Kunduz that was captured by the Taliban over the weekend, residents said shops had begun to reopen in the center as insurgents focused their attention on government forces who had retreated to the airport.
“People are opening their shops and businesses, but you can still see fear in their eyes,” said shopkeeper Habibullah.
Another resident, living close to the airport, said there has been heavy fighting for days.
“The Taliban are hiding in people’s houses in the area and government forces are bombing them,” said Haseeb, who only gave his first name.
“From the window of my house, I can see women, children and men all leaving. Some of them are barefoot... some are pulling crying children with them.
The Taliban earned notoriety during their first stint in power from 1996-2001 for introducing a harsh interpretation of Islamic rule that barred girls from education and women from work.
Crimes were punished by public floggings or executions, while a host of activities — from playing music to non-religious TV — were also banned.
They have given little indication of how they would rule if they take power again, apart from to say it would be according to the Qur'an, and opponents fear losing hard-won rights.
Following the capture of Aibak on Monday, the insurgents have now overrun five provincial capitals in the north, sparking fears the government has lost its grip on the region.
They have also taken Zaranj, the capital of Nimroz province, in the southwest.
On Monday, the Taliban said they were moving in on Mazar-i-Sharif — the largest city in the north and a linchpin for the government’s control of the region — after capturing Sheberghan to its west, and Kunduz and Taloqan to its east.
But Fawad Aman, spokesman for the ministry of defense, said Afghan forces had the upper hand there.
“Great success,” he tweeted.

Related


Death toll of children in Afghanistan quake rises to 155

Death toll of children in Afghanistan quake rises to 155
Updated 8 sec ago

Death toll of children in Afghanistan quake rises to 155

Death toll of children in Afghanistan quake rises to 155
  • Annother 250 children were injured in the magnitude 6 temblor that struck the mountainous villages in the Paktika and Khost provinces
GAYAN, Afghanistan: The death toll of children in last week’s devastating earthquake in southeastern Afghanistan has risen to at least 155, the United Nations said as the scope of the deadliest quake to hit the impoverished country in two decades comes into focus.
The UN’s humanitarian coordination organization, OCHA, said on Sunday that another 250 children were injured in the magnitude 6 temblor that struck the mountainous villages in the Paktika and Khost provinces near the country’s border with Pakistan, flattening homes and triggering landslides. Most of the children died in Paktika’s hard-hit Gayan district, which remains a scene of life in ruins, days after the quake.
Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers have put the total death toll from the quake at 1,150, with hundreds more injured, while the UN has offered a slightly lower estimate of 770, although the world body has warned the figure could still rise.
The quake has also left an estimated 65 children orphaned or unaccompanied, the UN humanitarian office added.
The disaster — the latest to convulse Afghanistan after decades of war, hunger, poverty and an economic crash — has become a test of the Taliban’s capacity to govern and the international community’s willingness to help.
When the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan as the United States and its NATO allies were withdrawing their forces last August, foreign aid stopped practically overnight. World governments piled on sanctions, halted bank transfers and froze billions more in Afghanistan’s currency reserves, refusing to recognize the Taliban government and demanding they allow a more inclusive rule and respect human rights.
The former insurgents have resisted the pressure, imposing restrictions on the freedoms of women and girls that recall their first time in power in the late 1990s, triggering Western backlash.
Aware of their limitations, the Taliban have appealed for foreign aid. The UN and an array of overstretched aid agencies in the country that have tried to keep Afghanistan from the brink of starvation have swung into action. Despite funding and access constraints, convoys of aid have trickled into the remote provinces.
The UN children’s agency said on Monday it was working to reunite children that had been separated from their families in the chaos of the quake. It also has set up clinics to offer mental health and psychological support to children in Gayan traumatized by the disaster.

Pakistan orders masks on domestic flights as COVID numbers rise

Pakistan orders masks on domestic flights as COVID numbers rise
Updated 35 min 55 sec ago

Pakistan orders masks on domestic flights as COVID numbers rise

Pakistan orders masks on domestic flights as COVID numbers rise

KARACHI: Pakistan’s aviation regulator has made masks mandatory on domestic flights given a gradual rise in the number of COVID-19 cases across the country, it said a statement.
The order comes a day after Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi, reported that its COVID-19 positivity ratio, or the rate of positive cases out of all tests conducted, rose to 21 percent compared with a national rate of 2.8 percent.
“With immediate effect, mask wearing will be mandatory onboard domestic flights,” the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) said in the statement late on Sunday.
Pakistan has had very few COVID cases over recent months and had done away with almost all precautions.
But over the past 24 hours, the national COVID positivity ratio had risen to 2.85 percent with 382 positive cases and two deaths, according to data released on Monday by the National Institute of Health, Islamabad (NIH).
A month ago, the positivity ratio was 0.54 percent with 79 positive cases and no deaths. According to the NIH, 85 percent of eligible Pakistanis have been fully vaccinated against COVID.
Pakistan disbanded the National Command and Operations Center, which was overseeing the COVID response, on March 31 as infections fell to the lowest since the outbreak began in 2020.


Google hit with antitrust complaint by Danish job search rival

Google hit with antitrust complaint by Danish job search rival
Updated 55 min 25 sec ago

Google hit with antitrust complaint by Danish job search rival

Google hit with antitrust complaint by Danish job search rival
  • The complaint could accelerate EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager’s scrutiny of Google for Jobs

BRUSSELS: Google was hit with an antitrust complaint on Monday after a Danish online job-search rival took its grievance to EU regulators, alleging the Alphabet unit had unfairly favored its own job search service.
The complaint could accelerate EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager’s scrutiny of the service, Google for Jobs, three years after it first came under her microscope. Since then the EU has taken no specific action relating to the online job-search sector.
The European Commission and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment sent out of office hours.
Google, which has been fined more than $8.4 billion (€8 billion) by Vestager in recent years for various anti-competitive practices, has previously said it made changes in Europe after complaints from online job-search rivals.
Launched in Europe in 2018, Google for Jobs triggered criticism from 23 online job-search websites in 2019. They said they had lost market share after the online search giant had allegedly used its market power to push its new service.
Google’s service links to postings aggregated from many employers, allowing candidates to filter, save and get alerts about openings, though they must go elsewhere to apply. Google places a large widget for the tool at the top of results for ordinary web searches.
Jobindex, one of the 23 critics three years ago, said Google had skewed what had been a highly competitive Danish market toward itself via anticompetitive means.
Jobindex founder and CEO Kaare Danielsen said his company had built up the largest jobs database in Denmark by the time Google for Jobs had entered the local market last year.
“Nevertheless, in the short time following the introduction of Google for Jobs in Denmark, Jobindex lost 20 percent of search traffic to Google’s inferior service,” Danielsen told Reuters.
“By putting its own inferior service at the top of results pages, Google in effect hides some of the most relevant job offerings from job seekers. Recruiters in turn may no longer reach all job seekers, unless they use Google’s job service,” he said.
“This does not just stifle competition among recruitment services but directly impairs labor markets, which are central to any economy,” Danielsen said, urging the Commission to order Google to stop the alleged anti-competitive practices, fine the company and impose periodic payments to ensure compliance.
Jobindex said it had seen examples of free-riding, with some of its own job ads copied without its permission and marketed through Google for Jobs on behalf of Jobindex’s business partners. It also cited privacy risks to job applicants and its clients.


‘Crime not to help’: South Korean ex-SEAL has no Ukraine regrets

‘Crime not to help’: South Korean ex-SEAL has no Ukraine regrets
Updated 27 June 2022

‘Crime not to help’: South Korean ex-SEAL has no Ukraine regrets

‘Crime not to help’: South Korean ex-SEAL has no Ukraine regrets
  • Ken Rhee signed up the moment President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for global volunteers
  • Former South Korean Navy SEAL was born in South Korea but raised in the United States

SEOUL: A former South Korean Navy SEAL turned YouTuber who risked jail time to leave Seoul and fight for Ukraine says it would have been a “crime” not to use his skills to help.
Ken Rhee, an ex-special warfare officer, signed up at the Ukrainian Embassy in Seoul the moment President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for global volunteers and was fighting on the front lines near Kyiv by early March.
To get there, he had to break South Korean law — Seoul banned its citizens from traveling to Ukraine, and Rhee, who was injured in a fall while leading a special operations patrol there, was met at the airport by 15 police officers on his return.
But the celebrity ex-soldier, who has a YouTube channel with 700,000 followers and documented much of his Ukraine experience on his popular Instagram account, says he has no regrets.
“You’re walking down the beach and you see a sign by the water saying ‘no swimming’ — but you see someone drowning. It’s a crime not to help. That’s how I see it,” he said.
Rhee was born in South Korea but raised in the United States. He attended the Virginia Military Institute and planned to join the US Navy SEALS, but his father — a “patriot,” he says — convinced his son to return to South Korea to enlist.
He served for seven years, undergoing both US and Korean SEAL training and doing multiple stints in war zones in Somalia and Iraq before leaving to set up a defense consultancy.
“I have the skillset. I have the experience. I was in two different wars, and going to Ukraine, I knew I could help,” he said, adding that he viewed breaking South Korea’s passport law to leave as equivalent to a “traffic violation.”
But the reaction in South Korea — where Rhee shot to fame as a trainer in the popular YouTube series “Fake Men” — was swift and unforgiving.
“It was instant. People in Korea, they just criticized me about breaking the law,” said Rhee.
His critics claim the 38-year-old’s decision was criminally irresponsible, and point to his posting of war footage on his YouTube and Instagram accounts as evidence of showboating.
Rhee says he tries not to let the furor get to him. “I think it’s pretty obvious who the good guys are and who the bad guys are,” he said of Russia and Ukraine.
On his first day on the frontline in Irpin — which he describes as “the Wild West” and “chaos” — he says he witnessed Russian war crimes.
“I saw a civilian get shot. He was driving... and they shot him through the windshield and he died in front of us,” he said.
“It was like: there’s my proof. There’s definitely war crimes going on. It reminded me and my teammates what we were doing and why we were there,” he said.
Because of his military training, Rhee was told to set up his own team, so he recruited other volunteers with combat experience and set up a multi-national special operations group.
“I was eating Canadian MREs. My gun was from the Czech Republic. I have a Javelin missile from the United States. I have a rocket that’s from Germany... but nothing is Korean,” he said.
He tried to take his Korean-made night vision goggles but was not given government export permission. Seoul has provided non-lethal aid to Kyiv, but Rhee said they could do more.
“Korea has state-of-the-art equipment... they’re very good at making weapons,” he said.
Russia said earlier this month that 13 South Koreans had traveled to Ukraine — including four who were killed. Seoul said it was trying to verify the claims.
Although Rhee did not know the fate of all his teammates, he said “a lot of my friends have died.”
“I don’t want my friends’ sacrifices to be forgotten,” he said, adding that he plans to write a book — and maybe a screenplay — about his team’s experiences.
But first, he needs to deal with the official repercussions of his trip. He is quietly optimistic South Korea’s new conservative administration won’t put him in jail.
Rhee is not allowed to leave the country until his case is resolved, and is receiving treatment for his injuries. But he hopes one day to fight alongside his teammates again, for a cause they believe in.
The joke as people left the frontline was: “See you in Taiwan,” he said, referring darkly to the risk that Beijing will follow Moscow’s lead and invade a neighboring democracy.


From pariah to president: Marcos Jr takes over Philippines’ top job

From pariah to president: Marcos Jr takes over Philippines’ top job
Updated 27 June 2022

From pariah to president: Marcos Jr takes over Philippines’ top job

From pariah to president: Marcos Jr takes over Philippines’ top job
  • His campaign was bolstered by teaming up with Sara Duterte as well as the backing of other political elites

MANILA: Ferdinand Marcos Jr has reached the end of a decades-long campaign to rehabilitate the family brand: the presidency.
Marcos Jr, known by his nickname “Bongbong,” will succeed Rodrigo Duterte in the top job on Thursday after his landslide victory in last month’s elections.
In the 36 years since a popular uprising toppled the patriarch and chased the family into US exile, the Marcoses have been rebuilding their political fortunes.
After narrowly losing the vice presidential race to Leni Robredo in the 2016 election, he was determined their rematch in the presidential contest on May 9 would end differently.
Vowing to unify the country, Marcos Jr made sweeping promises on the campaign trail to boost jobs and tackle rising prices in the lower-middle-income country.
Marcos said last month he was “humbled” by his success at the ballot box and vowed to “always strive to perfection.”
“I want to do well, because when a president does well the country does well, and I want to do well for this country,” he told reporters after Congress formally ratified the results.
Growing up in the presidential palace in Manila, Marcos Jr wanted to be an astronaut before he followed his father’s footsteps into politics.
He served as vice governor and twice as governor of the family’s northern stronghold of Ilocos Norte province, and also had stints in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
His 92-year-old mother, Imelda, said she had dreamed of him becoming the country’s leader.
Marcos Jr’s links to his father, whose rule was marked by the bloody repression of the martial law years, have made him one of the nation’s most polarizing politicians.
He has benefited from a deluge of misinformation on social media targeting a largely young electorate with no memory of the corruption, killings and other abuses committed during the elder Marcos’s 20-year rule.
His campaign was bolstered by teaming up with Sara Duterte — who won even more votes than Marcos to easily secure the vice presidency — as well as the backing of other political elites.
While he describes his father as a “political genius,” Marcos Jr has distanced himself from the charges of pillaging state coffers and economic mismanagement that later impoverished the nation.
“To the world, he says: Judge me not by my ancestors, but by my actions,” Vic Rodriguez, a close aide, said in a statement after Marcos Jr claimed victory.
After the fallen dictator’s death in Hawaii in 1989, the Marcoses returned home and began their remarkable revival, getting elected to a succession of higher positions.
The family’s turnaround has been aided by public disenchantment over an enduring gulf between rich and poor, and graft allegations that marred post-Marcos administrations.