Another east Afghan province falls to Taliban without battle

Another east Afghan province falls to Taliban without battle
Taliban fighters patrol the streets in Herat on August 14, 2021. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 15 August 2021

Another east Afghan province falls to Taliban without battle

Another east Afghan province falls to Taliban without battle
  • The fall of Mazar-i-Sharif hands the insurgents control over all of northern Afghanistan
  • Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor, former warlords who command thousands of fighters, have fled the province

KABUL: An Afghan lawmaker says the Taliban have also taken over the eastern province of Kunar, bordering Pakistan, without a fight.
Neamatullah Karyab, a lawmaker from the area, says the insurgents took over the province on Saturday evening.
The Taliban now control around 23 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and are encircling the capital, Kabul. The lightning advance comes less than three weeks before the US plans to withdraw it’s last forces, ending America’s longest war.

Hours earlier, the Taliban captured Mazar-i-Sharif, a large, heavily defended city in northern Afghanistan in a major setback for the government.
The fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, the country’s fourth largest city, which Afghan forces and two powerful former warlords had pledged to defend, hands the insurgents control over all of northern Afghanistan, confining the Western-backed government to the center and east.
Abas Ebrahimzada, a lawmaker from the Balkh province where the city is located, said the national army surrendered first, which prompted pro-government militias and other forces to lose morale and give up in the face of a Taliban onslaught launched earlier Saturday.
Ebrahimzada said Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor, former warlords who command thousands of fighters, had fled the province and their whereabouts were unknown.
The Taliban have made major advances in recent days, including capturing Herat and Kandahar, the country’s second- and third-largest cities. They now control about 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, leaving the Western-backed government with a smattering of provinces in the center and east, as well as the capital, Kabul.
On Saturday, the Taliban captured all of Logar province, just south of Kabul, and detained local officials, said Hoda Ahmadi, a lawmaker from the province. She said the Taliban have reached the Char Asyab district, just 11 kilometers (7 miles) south of the capital.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had flown to Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday to rally the city’s defenses, meeting with several militia commanders, including Dostum and Noor.
On Saturday, Ghani delivered a televised speech, his first public appearance since the recent Taliban gains. He vowed not to give up the “achievements” of the 20 years since the US toppled the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.
The US has continued holding peace talks between the government and the Taliban in Qatar this week, and the international community has warned that a Taliban government brought about by force would be shunned. But the insurgents appear to have little interest in making concessions as they rack up victories on the battlefield.
“We have started consultations, inside the government with elders and political leaders, representatives of different levels of the community as well as our international allies,” Ghani said. “Soon the results will be shared with you,” he added, without elaborating further.
Insurgents also captured the capital of Paktika, bordering Pakistan, according to Khalid Asad, a lawmaker from the province. He said fighting broke out in Sharana early Saturday but ended after local elders intervened to negotiate a pullout. He said the governor and other officials surrendered and were on their way to Kabul.
Sayed Hussan Gerdezi, a lawmaker from the neighboring Paktia province, said the Taliban seized most of its local capital, Gardez, but that battles with government forces were still underway. The Taliban said they controlled the city.
The Taliban also took control of Maimana, the capital of northern Faryab province, said Fawzia Raoufi, a lawmaker from the province. Maimana had been under siege for a month, and Taliban fighters entered the city days ago. Security forces finally surrendered Saturday, she said.
Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled their homes, with many fearing a return to the Taliban’s oppressive rule. The group had previously governed Afghanistan under a harsh version of Islamic law in which women were forbidden to work or attend school, and could not leave their homes without a male relative accompanying them.
Salima Mazari, one of the few female district governors in the country, expressed fears about a Taliban takeover earlier Saturday in an interview from Mazar-i-Sharif, before it fell to the insurgents.
“There will be no place for women,” said Mazari, who governs a district of 36,000 people near the northern city. “In the provinces controlled by the Taliban, no women exist there anymore, not even in the cities. They are all imprisoned in their homes.”
The withdrawal of foreign troops and the swift collapse of Afghanistan’s own forces — despite hundreds of billions of dollars in US aid over the years — has raised fears the Taliban could return to power or that the country could be shattered by factional fighting, as it was after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. It’s also prompted many American and Afghan veterans of the conflict to question whether two decades of blood and treasure was worth it.
Afghans have been streaming into Kabul’s international airport in recent days, desperate to fly out, even as more American troops have arrived to help partially evacuate the US Embassy.
The first Marines from a contingent of 3,000 arrived Friday. The rest are expected by Sunday, and their deployment has raised questions about whether the administration will meet its Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline.
The US Air Force has carried out several airstrikes to aid its Afghan allies on the ground but they appear to have done little to stem the Taliban’s advance. A B-52 bomber and other warplanes traversed the country’s airspace Saturday, flight-tracking data showed.
The Taliban meanwhile released a video announcing the takeover of the main radio station in the southern city of Kandahar, which fell to the insurgents earlier this week, renaming it the Voice of Sharia, or Islamic law.
In the video, an unnamed insurgent said all employees were present and would broadcast news, political analysis and recitations of the Qur’an, the Islamic holy book. It appears the station will no longer play music. It was not clear if the Taliban had purged the previous employees or allowed them to return to work.
The US invaded shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, which Al-Qaeda planned and carried out while being sheltered by Taliban. After rapidly ousting the Taliban, the US shifted toward nation-building, hoping to create a modern Afghan state after decades of war and unrest.
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden announced a timeline for the withdrawal of all US troops by the end of August, pledging to end America’s longest war. His predecessor, President Donald Trump, had reached an agreement with the Taliban to pave the way for a US pullout.
Biden’s announcement set the latest offensive in motion. The Taliban, who have long controlled large parts of the Afghan countryside, moved quickly to seize provincial capitals, border crossings and other key infrastructure.
“The security situation in the city is getting worse,” said Kawa Basharat, a resident in Mazar-i-Sharif. “I want peace and stability; the fighting should be stopped.”


After divisive presidential campaign, Marcos faces challenge of uniting Philippines

 Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. gestures as he speaks during a campaign rally in  Manila, Philippines.
Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. gestures as he speaks during a campaign rally in Manila, Philippines.
Updated 11 sec ago

After divisive presidential campaign, Marcos faces challenge of uniting Philippines

 Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. gestures as he speaks during a campaign rally in  Manila, Philippines.
  • ‘Candidate for change’ has promised unity to voters weary of years of political polarization and pandemic hardship
  • With initial count largely complete, Marcos has more than 31 million votes, more than double that of his closest rival

MANILA: Days after clinching a landslide victory in one of the most divisive presidential elections in the history of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos now faces the challenge of fulfilling his campaign promise to unite the country.

Marcos, the son and namesake of the late dictator, is set to take over from President Rodrigo Duterte as the country’s leader for the next six years.   

While the election results are still unofficial, over 98 percent of an initial count has been completed, with Marcos having more than 31 million votes, more than double that of his closest rival, the outgoing Vice President Leni Robredo.   

Other contestants included boxing legend Manny Pacquaio, who is now a senator; Isko Moreno, a former actor and current Manila mayor; and Panfilo Lacson, a senator and former police chief.

Marcos’ running mate, Sara Duterte-Carpio, the daughter of the incumbent president, is also leading in the vice-presidential race with more than triple the votes of Senator Francis Pangilinan, who ran in support of Robredo. They are expected to take office on June 30.

During his election campaign, Marcos, who is widely known by his childhood nickname “Bongbong,” has portrayed himself as the candidate for change, promising unity to voters weary of years of political polarization and pandemic hardship.

“He promised unity. I hope he can do that,” Eccleo Gregorio, a taxi driver in Manila who voted for Marcos, told Arab News. “I also expect him to give Filipinos a better life by bringing down the prices of commodities, gasoline, electricity, and making sure to raise workers’ wages.”

Allan Bergonia, a reporter, expects Marcos’ incoming administration to “show us the real change.”

“As they promised, together, we Filipinos will rise again,” Bergonia said, adding that the victory proved that Filipinos wanted a return to “the old style of Marcos system of government.”

In the months leading up to the election, an online campaign portrayed the Marcos regime as a “golden age” in the country’s history.

Yet for other Filipinos, Marcos’ family name remains a painful reminder of two decades of widespread corruption and human rights abuses committed by his father, who was ousted in a popular uprising 36 years ago.

Jarrah Brillantes, a community development worker, told Arab News that she believed Robredo could solve the country’s woes, not the president-elect of whom she had few expectations.

“Just stabilize the economy, curb inflation and do not kill us,” she said.

Angie, a writer who gave only her first name, said that she was uncertain about what the future would offer under a new Marcos regime.

“I am hoping and praying that the new leadership will be able to bring about their promised peace and unity by digging deep and working hard across political colors to overcome pandemic challenges for the sake of all Filipinos,” she said.

With Marcos promising voters that he will continue Duterte’s policies, Jude, a supporter who works for the current administration, said that he expected the future leader to “sustain the projects and programs” launched by his predecessor.

“The majority of Filipinos have spoken, which should be respected,” he said, requesting that his last name not be revealed. “They want a genuine government, pro-poor, pro-people, that can sustain and further improve what the present administration has implemented.”

Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said that he will reserve his comments until the final count is made public.

But he said that if Marcos takes office, a rapid return of his father’s loyalists is likely.

“The immediate thing that will happen is there will be redeployment of political forces,” Casiple told Arab News.

“But if he does reach out to his political opponents, which is very doubtful, then he might be able to achieve his unifying battle cry … All political forces would have to adjust their strategies vis-a-vis the new Marcos regime.”

 


UNHCR chief arrives in Bangladesh to meet Rohingya refugees

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi attends a news conference at the U.N. in Geneva.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi attends a news conference at the U.N. in Geneva.
Updated 17 min 54 sec ago

UNHCR chief arrives in Bangladesh to meet Rohingya refugees

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi attends a news conference at the U.N. in Geneva.
  • Filippo Grandi will meet with the Rohingyas ‘to discuss their needs, challenges and hopes for the future’
  • Repatriation of the Rohingyas is the highest priority, activists said

DHAKA: UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi arrived in Bangladesh on Saturday to meet Rohingya refugees amid expectations that the visit will help to restart talks over their repatriation.

Bangladesh is host to more than 1 million Rohingya refugees who fled violence and persecution in neighboring Myanmar, the majority of whom have been living in congested camps at Cox’s Bazar, a fishing port in the country’s southeast.

To ease pressure on the overcrowded border camps, officials want to eventually transfer 100,000 refugees to Bhasan Char — an island settlement in the Bay of Bengal several hours’ journey away from the mainland — and have moved about 30,000 Rohingyas since the end of 2020.

Though Bangladesh and Myanmar promised in April 2018 to proceed with safe, voluntary, and dignified repatriations of the Rohingyas, the commitment has yet to become a reality.

Grandi, whose last visit to the South Asian country was in 2019, will meet with Rohingya refugees “to discuss their needs, challenges and hopes for the future,” the UNHCR said in a statement. He will also “highlight the need for sustained international support” during his meetings in Bangladesh.

“Back in Bangladesh on a comprehensive visit including exchanges with the government, partners and civil society, as well as field missions to Rohingya refugee sites,” Grandi said in a tweet.

His visit is expected to reorient focus on repatriation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar, discussions of which have been stalled further since Myanmar’s military took power in a coup in February 2021. Though talks between Bangladesh and Myanmar finally resumed in late January, they have yet to come to an agreement.

“At the moment repatriation for the Rohingyas is our highest priority,” Nur Khan, a prominent human rights activist in Bangladesh, said.

“We need to resume the repatriation discussion soon and the UNHCR may play a vital role here to bring all the stakeholders to the table as soon as possible.”

Bimal Chandra Sarkar, executive director of local NGO Mukti, said financial expenses to address the refugees’ needs are becoming a concern for humanitarian workers.

“Repatriation of the Rohingyas is the most burning issue for us,” Sarkar, whose organization also works in Cox’s Bazar, told Arab News.

“Bangladesh is suffering a lot for allowing these Rohingyas to live here on humanitarian grounds.”


Switzerland reports first monkeypox case

Switzerland reports first monkeypox case
Updated 18 min 30 sec ago

Switzerland reports first monkeypox case

Switzerland reports first monkeypox case
  • Bern's health authority said the patient had been treated as a walk-in case and was now isolating at home
  • Health officials became aware of the case on Friday, and it was confirmed as monkeypox the following day

GENEVA: Swiss health officials on Saturday reported the country’s first case of monkeypox in a person living in the canton of Bern but who was exposed while abroad.
Bern’s health authority said the patient had been treated as a walk-in case and was now isolating at home. Everyone who had come into contact with him had been informed, it added in a statement.
“As far as we know, the person concerned was exposed to the virus abroad,” the statement added.
Health officials became aware of the case on Friday, and it was confirmed as monkeypox the following day.
Switzerland thus joins several western countries, including Britain, Germany, Spain, Sweden the United Kingdom and the United States in reporting cases, raising fears the virus may be spreading.
Symptoms of the rare disease include fever, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills, exhaustion and a chickenpox-like rash on the hands and face.
The virus can be transmitted through contact with skin lesions or droplets from a contaminated person, as well as through shared items such as bedding or towels.
Monkeypox usually clears up after two to four weeks, according to the World Health Organization.
The World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe Hans Kluge warned on Friday that cases could accelerate in the coming months, as the virus spread across Europe.
Most initial cases of the disease have been among men who have sex with men and sought treatment at sexual health clinics, Kluge said, adding “this suggests that transmission may have been ongoing for some time.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it is investigating the fact that many cases reported were people identifying as gay, bisexual or men who have sex with men.


WHO working on more monkeypox guidance as cases rise — senior adviser

WHO working on more monkeypox guidance as cases rise — senior adviser
Updated 21 May 2022

WHO working on more monkeypox guidance as cases rise — senior adviser

WHO working on more monkeypox guidance as cases rise — senior adviser
  • The WHO's working theory based on the cases identified so far is that the outbreak is being driven by sexual contact
  • Monkeypox is an infectious disease that is usually mild, and is endemic in parts of west and central Africa

LONDON: The World Health Organization is working on further guidance for countries on how to mitigate the spread of monkeypox, amid concerns cases could spike further in the summer months, a senior adviser for the UN agency told Reuters.
The WHO’s working theory based on the cases identified so far is that the outbreak is being driven by sexual contact, said David Heymann, chair of the WHO’s Strategic and Technical Advisory Group on Infectious Hazards with Pandemic and Epidemic Potential. He led a meeting on the outbreak on Friday.
Monkeypox is an infectious disease that is usually mild, and is endemic in parts of west and central Africa. It is spread by close contact, which means it can be relatively easily contained through such measures as self-isolation and hygiene once a new case is identified.
The outbreak in 11 countries where it is not endemic is highly unusual, according to scientists. More than 100 confirmed or suspected cases have been reported, most of them in Europe.
Heymann, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said experts were likely to give more guidance to countries in the coming days. Health officials in several countries have warned that cases could rise further at major summer gatherings and festivals.
“What seems to be happening now is that it has got into the population as a sexual form, as a genital form, and is being spread as are sexually transmitted infections, which has amplified its transmission around the world,” Heymann said.
He said the WHO’s meeting was convened “because of the urgency of the situation.” The committee is not the group that would suggest declaring a public health emergency of international concern, WHO’s highest form of alert, which currently applies to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead Heymann said the international committee of experts, which met via video conference, looked at what needed to be studied about the outbreak and communicated to the public, including whether there is any asymptomatic spread, who are at most risk, and what the various routes of transmission are.
He said close contact was the key transmission route for the virus as the lesions that are typical of the disease are very infectious. For example, parents caring for sick children are at risk, as well as health workers, which is why some countries have started inoculating the teams treating monkeypox patients using vaccines for smallpox, a related virus.
Many of the current cases have been identified at sexual health clinics.
Early genomic sequencing of a handful of the cases in Europe has suggested a similarity with the strain that spread in a limited fashion in Britain, Israel and Singapore in 2018.
Heymann said it was “biologically plausible” that the virus had since been circulating outside of the countries where it is endemic, but had not led to major outbreaks as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, social distancing and travel restrictions.
He stressed that the monkeypox outbreak did not resemble the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic because it does not transmit as easily. Those who suspect they may have been exposed or who are showing symptoms, including the typical bumpy rash and fever, should avoid close contact with others, he said.
“There are vaccines available, but the most important message is, you can protect yourself,” he added.


Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs
Updated 21 May 2022

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs
  • Trapani judge Samuele Corso must rule whether or not to proceed to trial after a five-year investigation mired in controversy
  • The charities are accused of coordinating their actions with smugglers just off Libya

ROME: Charities running migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean faced a pre-trial hearing in Sicily Saturday over alleged collusion with people traffickers after a controversial probe that involved mass wiretapping.
Twenty-one suspects, including crew members of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Save the Children and German NGO Jugend Rettet rescue ships, are accused of “aiding and abetting unauthorized entry into Italy” in 2016 and 2017.
“Our crews rescued over 14,000 people in distress from unseaworthy and overcrowded boats... and are now facing 20 years in prison,” Kathrin Schmidt, who sailed with Jugend Rettet’s ship Iuventa, said ahead of the hearing.
Trapani judge Samuele Corso must rule whether or not to proceed to trial after a five-year investigation mired in controversy for the mass wiretapping of charity workers, lawyers and journalists in what critics say is a politically motivated bid to stop sea rescues.
Italy has long been on the front line of seaborne migration from Africa to Europe, with a record 180,000 arrivals in 2016, dropping to 120,000 in 2017.
It has registered some 17,000 arrivals so far this year, according to the interior ministry.
Prosecutor Brunella Sardoni told AFP she expected the preliminary hearings process to last “several months, considering the complexity” of a case file with some 30,000 pages and hundreds of CDs.
Corso set the date for the next hearing as June 7.
Supporters of the rescue charities held a sit-in at the port in Trapani featuring large paper boats bearing the date and location of shipwrecks, and the number of victims.
The charities are accused of coordinating their actions with smugglers just off Libya, returning inflatable dinghies and boats to them to be reused, and picking up people whose lives had not been in danger.
The rescuers say anyone attempting the central Mediterranean crossing to Europe — the “world’s deadliest” according to the UN — on rickety boats or unseaworthy dinghies is at risk, and should be saved.
At least 12,000 people have drowned on this route since 2014. Many shipwrecks go unrecorded.
The charities also deny ever communicating with smugglers, who are sometimes armed and can be spotted loitering near rescues in the hope of retrieving valuable engines from migrant boats.
Save the Children told AFP it “strongly rejects” the accusations, as did MSF, which slammed a “period of criminalization of humanitarian aid” it hoped would soon end.
The Iuventa was impounded in 2017 shortly after Jugend Rettet and others refused to sign a new and contentious interior ministry “code of conduct” accord, and as the European Union scaled up surveillance and policing in the Mediterranean.
“Despite the fact that mobile phones and computers were seized and analyzed, not a single contact with Libyan smugglers... has been found,” said Nicola Canestrini, lawyer for the Iuventa crew members.
Pre-trial hearings are held behind closed doors, but representatives from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Amnesty International have requested the judge allow them to sit in for transparency.
ECCHR senior legal adviser Allison West has condemned “improper investigative practices” in the investigation, led by a prosecutors’ office more used to exposing Mafia crimes.
The probe was launched after ex-policeman Pietro Gallo, working as a security contractor on Save the Children’s Vos Hestia ship, sent allegations against the charities in October 2016 to Italy’s secret services, Canestrini told AFP.
He and a fellow ex-policeman also sent them to the head of the anti-immigration League party, Matteo Salvini, before reporting their suspicions to the police.
Gallo has since said in an interview that he regrets it. Asked if he ever saw any contact between the charities and traffickers, he replied “no, never.”
The damage was done. Police placed an undercover agent on the Vos Hestia in May 2017, who would provide information including elements used to charge the four Iuventa crew members, Canestrini said. Those included alleged hand signals between the crew and smugglers.
Iuventa’s case has been studied by Forensic Architecture, an agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, which uses advanced reconstruction techniques to investigate police, military and state facts.
It discredited the police theories for all three Iuventa rescues in question.