Taliban closing in on strategic city as Afghan leader rallies troops

Taliban closing in on strategic city as Afghan leader rallies troops
Taliban fighters are seen inside the city of Farah, capital of Farah province southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 12 August 2021

Taliban closing in on strategic city as Afghan leader rallies troops

Taliban closing in on strategic city as Afghan leader rallies troops
  • President Ashraf Ghani urges strongmen in Mazar-i-Sharif to curb militant advance
  • Taliban spokesman says Kabul ‘lacks capacity to retake lost territories’

KABUL: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flew to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday to rally support from powerbrokers and halt the Taliban’s rapid advances.

It comes after the militant group captured more than a quarter of the country’s provincial capitals in less than a week.

Ghani met with regional strongmen, including former vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum, Mazar-i-Sharif’s former governor Atta Mohammad Noor and other influential figures “to discuss the security situation.”

Fatima Morchal, a spokesperson for the president, told Arab News: “While assessing the general security situation in the northern zone, he spoke with them with regards to coordination, equipment, supplies and mobilization of public forces under the umbrella of the armed forces.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Ghani chose Dostum “to lead the operation against the Taliban in the northern region.”

The group suffered heavy losses during their advances in 1997 by factions allied to Dostum. Four years later, thousands of the group’s fighters — who had surrendered to Dostum’s forces after the US-led invasion in late 2001 — were left to suffocate in shipping containers while being transferred to prison.

Speaking to reporters after his meeting with Ghani, Dostum said: “The Taliban will be annihilated in the north.”

While recalling the Taliban’s “deadly adventures” in the past, he added that the group “will fall in the trap in the north again.”

However, Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, downplayed the importance of Ghani’s trip to the north.

“These leaders, by taking money from government and formation of militias, have lost ground in recent weeks and lack the capacity to retake the lost territories,” he told Arab News.

Taliban insurgents have made major territorial gains across Afghanistan in recent months as US-led foreign forces withdraw from the country after an almost two-decade presence.

Since Friday, the Taliban have captured nine out of 34 provincial capitals, including Faizabad, Farah, Pul-i-Khumri, Sar-i-Pul, Shiberghan, Aybak, Kunduz, Taloqan and Zaranj, despite an escalation in aerial strikes by Afghan and US forces.

The Taliban’s capture of Mazar-i-Sharif prompted India on Tuesday to temporarily relocate diplomats from its consulate in the strategic city, which lies close to the border with Uzbekistan.

The decision follows New Delhi’s urgent call to evacuate all Indian nationals from the Afghan city on a special flight.

In a separate statement, the embassy in Kabul urged all Indian citizens to make “immediate” travel arrangements before commercial flights are discontinued because of the intensifying conflict.

On Tuesday, experts told Arab News that the eventual loss of Mazar-i-Sharif would be a “heavy blow to the Kabul government,” and would represent a complete collapse of its control over the northern region.

“It will lead to the capture of remaining parts in the north which would eventually also impact the Taliban’s future advances toward Kabul,” Taj Mohammad, a Kabul-based analyst, said.

Earlier on Wednesday, media reports said that hundreds of Afghan soldiers who had retreated to the airport outside Kunduz had surrendered to the Taliban after the group’s seizure of the northern city over the weekend.

The Taliban’s lightning offensive, amid a breach left by departing foreign troops since May, has triggered concerns that the insurgents will regain power by force in a scenario similar to the events of the 1990s, pushing the country toward another civil war.

Wahidullah Ghazikhail, a Kabul-based political analyst, said that Ghani “wanted to raise the morale of the troops by traveling to a city that is under siege.

“Ghani wants to turn Mazar-i-Sharif into the center of resistance against the Taliban. Mazar is important to both sides,” he told Arab News.

The development comes amid a visit to Qatar on Tuesday by US special peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who warned the Taliban against carrying out military activities.

Khalilzad is in Doha, where the Taliban maintain a political office, to “press the group to stop their military offensive and negotiate a political settlement, which is the only path to stability and development in Afghanistan,” the US State Department said.


Gunmen kill town mayor, wound another in south Philippines

Gunmen kill town mayor, wound another in south Philippines
Updated 5 sec ago

Gunmen kill town mayor, wound another in south Philippines

Gunmen kill town mayor, wound another in south Philippines
ZAMBOANGA, Philippines: Motorcycle-riding gunmen killed a town mayor and wounded another in a brazen attack Monday that also killed their driver and caused villagers to flee to safety in a coastal village in the southern Philippines, police said.
Mayor Darussalam Lajid of Al-Barka town was killed and Mayor Alih Sali of Akbar town was wounded by at least two men armed with pistols while walking in Zamboanga city shortly after arriving on a speedboat from their island province of Basilan, police said.
A bodyguard of the two mayors was wounded and a driver who came to pick them up was killed, police said.
Investigators were trying to identify the two gunmen and two companions who escaped on motorcycles and determine their motive, including the possibility that it involved a political rivalry.
The two mayors were reportedly running in May 9 elections. Philippine elections have been marred in the past by bloody feuds and accusations of cheating, especially in rural regions with weak law enforcement and a proliferation of unlicensed firearms and private armies.

Italy imposes new COVID-19 rules on unvaccinated

Italy imposes new COVID-19 rules on unvaccinated
Updated 1 min 53 sec ago

Italy imposes new COVID-19 rules on unvaccinated

Italy imposes new COVID-19 rules on unvaccinated
  • Only those who have recently recovered from COVID-19 are exempt from the rules

ROME: People in Italy unvaccinated against COVID-19 can no longer go to the theater, cinemas, live music venues or major sporting events under new rules that came into force Monday.
Only those who have recently recovered from COVID-19 are exempt from the rules, which represent a significant tightening of restrictions in the face of rising infections.
New measures are also being enforced on public transport, with a so-called Green Pass showing proof of vaccination, recent recovery or a negative COVID-19 test now required even on local services.
A man in his 50s was fined $452 (€400) for not having his pass on Monday morning as he got off a bus near Piazza del Popolo in Rome, according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
“I don’t have it because I wanted to get vaccinated in the next few days,” he was reported as saying.
A record 1.3 million Green Passes were downloaded on Sunday ahead of the change.
Meanwhile in Rome at the weekend, new rules requiring face masks to be worn outdoors in the busiest shopping streets came into effect.
Italy was the first European country to be hit by coronavirus in early 2020 and has one of the highest death tolls, at more than 134,000.
However, it is currently faring better than many of its neighbors, with 15,000 cases out of a population of 60 million reported on Sunday.
Almost 85 percent of over 12s have been vaccinated, a booster campaign is in full swing and jabs will soon be available for younger children.
The Green Pass was introduced in August for access to theaters and cinemas, museums and indoor dining, and extended to workplaces in October — a move that sparked widespread protests.
From now until January 15, a new “Super Green Pass,” which can only be obtained through vaccination or recent recovery, will be required for cultural activities — although not museums — and inside restaurants.
However, having a coffee at the bar of a cafe and eating outside is allowed without a Green Pass.
The restrictions will be further tightened in regions at higher risk of coronavirus.
Currently most of Italy is classed as the lowest of four levels, which range from white to yellow, orange and red.
Two regions are yellow — Friuli Venezia Giulia and Bolzano, which both border Austria, a country in partial lockdown over the number of cases there.


Omicron spreads in India, full vaccination in focus

Omicron spreads in India, full vaccination in focus
Updated 06 December 2021

Omicron spreads in India, full vaccination in focus

Omicron spreads in India, full vaccination in focus
  • India has fully vaccinated 51 percent of its 944 million adults and given at least one dose to 85 percent
  • Most other cases have been in people who have recently come from abroad

NEW DELHI: Cases of the omicron coronavirus variant have risen to 21 in India over the weekend and people must step up for vaccination, officials said on Monday.
The western state of Rajasthan reported the most number of omicron cases with nine, followed by eight in Maharashtra, two in Karnataka and one each in Gujarat and the capital New Delhi.
“The people of Delhi must get fully vaccinated, wear a mask and maintain social distancing,” its health minister Satyendar Jain said on Twitter.
He said the city’s first omicron patient was being treated at a state-run hospital. Some 94 percent of its adults had received at lease one dose, he added.
The country has fully vaccinated 51 percent of its 944 million adults and given at least one dose to 85 percent. Tens of millions of people, however, are overdue for their second dose despite ample vaccine supplies, government data shows.
India reported its first two omicron cases in the southern state of Karnataka on Thursday, in one person with no recent travel history.
Most other cases have been in people who have recently come from abroad, but doctors said the mutated virus was already spreading in the local population as well.
“omicron is here, community spread is underway,” surgeon Arvinder Singh Soin, who has been treating COVID-19 patients, said on Twitter. “Mask up. Get FULLY vaccinated.”
India reported 8,895 new COVID-19 cases for the past 24 hours, taking the total to 34.64 million. Deaths rose by 211 to 473,537.
Since a record surge in infections and deaths in April and May due to the Delta variant, new cases have hovered around 10,000 in the past few weeks.


27 still missing after Indonesia volcanic eruption kills 15

27 still missing after Indonesia volcanic eruption kills 15
Updated 06 December 2021

27 still missing after Indonesia volcanic eruption kills 15

27 still missing after Indonesia volcanic eruption kills 15
  • Mount Semeru spewed thick columns of ash as high as 12,000 meters into the sky in a sudden eruption triggered by heavy rain

SUMBERWULUH, Indonesia: Rescuers dug out the body of 13-year-old boy with their bare hands on Monday, as improved weather conditions allowed them to resume their search after the highest volcano on Indonesia’s Java island erupted with fury, killing at least 15 people with searing gas and ash and leaving 27 others missing.
Mount Semeru in Lumajang district in East Java province spewed thick columns of ash as high as 12,000 meters into the sky in a sudden eruption Saturday triggered by heavy rain. Villages and nearby towns were blanketed by tons of volcanic debris.
Searing gas raced down the sides of the mountain, smothering entire villages and killing or seriously burning those caught in its path.
National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesperson Abdul Muhari said 56 people had been hospitalized, mostly with burns. He said rescuers were still searching for 27 villagers reported missing. Nearly 3,000 houses and 38 schools were damaged, Muhari said.
The body of the 13-year-old boy was recovered in the worst-hit village of Sumberwuluh, where houses were buried to their rooftops and cars were submerged. Crumpled roofs, charred carcasses of cattle and broken chairs covered in gray ash and soot dotted the smoldering landscape.
Search and rescue efforts were temporarily suspended Sunday afternoon because of fears that heavy rain would cause more hot ash and debris to fall from the crater.
The eruption of the 3,676-meter-high mountain eased pressure that had been building under a lava dome in the crater. But experts warned that the dome could further collapse, causing an avalanche of blistering gas and debris trapped beneath it.
More than 1,700 villagers escaped to makeshift emergency shelters after Saturday’s powerful eruption, but many others defied official warnings and chose to remain in their homes to tend their livestock and protect their property.
Semeru, also known as Mahameru, has erupted many times in the last 200 years. Still, as on many of the 129 volcanoes monitored in Indonesia, tens of thousands of people live on its fertile slopes. It last erupted in January, with no casualties.
Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 270 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity because it sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a horseshoe-shaped series of fault lines.


Next pandemic could be more lethal than COVID-19, Oxford vaccine creator says

Next pandemic could be more lethal than COVID-19, Oxford vaccine creator says
Updated 06 December 2021

Next pandemic could be more lethal than COVID-19, Oxford vaccine creator says

Next pandemic could be more lethal than COVID-19, Oxford vaccine creator says

LONDON: Future pandemics could be even more lethal than COVID-19 so the lessons learned from the outbreak must not be squandered and the world should ensure it is prepared for the next viral onslaught, one of the creators of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine said.
The novel coronavirus has killed 5.26 million people across the world, according to Johns Hopkins University, wiped out trillions of dollars in economic output and turned life upside down for billions of people.
"The truth is, the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both," Sarah Gilbert said in the Richard Dimbleby Lecture, the BBC reported. "This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods."
Gilbert, a professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford, said the world should make sure it is better prepared for the next virus.
"The advances we have made, and the knowledge we have gained, must not be lost," she said.
Efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic have been uneven and fragmented, marked by limited access to vaccines in low-income countries while the "healthy and wealthy" in rich countries get boosters, health experts say.
A panel of health experts set up by the World Health Organisation to review the handling of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has called for permanent funding and for greater ability to investigate pandemics through a new treaty.
One proposal was for new financing of at least $10 billion a year for pandemic preparedness.
The COVID-19 outbreak was first detected in China in late 2019. Vaccines were developed against the virus in record time.
Gilbert said the omicron variant's spike protein contained mutations known to increase the transmissibility of the virus.
"There are additional changes that may mean antibodies induced by the vaccines, or by infection with other variants, may be less effective at preventing infection with omicron," Gilbert said.
"Until we know more, we should be cautious, and take steps to slow down the spread of this new variant."