Uzbekistan not keen to admit Afghan refugees fleeing Taliban

Uzbekistan not keen to admit Afghan refugees fleeing Taliban
On Sunday, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry reported that 84 Afghan servicemen crossed into Uzbekistan on Saturday and asked for assistance. (File/AP)
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Updated 18 August 2021

Uzbekistan not keen to admit Afghan refugees fleeing Taliban

Uzbekistan not keen to admit Afghan refugees fleeing Taliban
  • Thousands of Afghans have been looking for ways to escape
  • Experts note that Uzbek authorities have long maintained a tightly closed border with Afghanistan

TERMEZ: When Sami Elbigi heard about the Taliban’s advance toward Mazar-e-Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan that has been the main hub of anti-Taliban resistance, he knew it was time to run.

He took his phones, a suit and some clothing and kissed his mother goodbye. A thought crossed his mind that might be the last time he will ever see her.

Elbigi, 30, left his Afghan hometown of Hairatan and rushed to the Uzbek border. He still had a valid business visa due to his profitable cross-border oil company, so entering Uzbekistan wasn’t a problem. But he was one of the lucky few who managed to find refuge in the ex-Soviet republic in recent days — those without visas have not been allowed in.

“The Taliban takeover happened so fast, we have not expected that. I still cannot believe it,” Elbigi told The Associated Press, sitting in a cafe in Termez, an Uzbek city close to the Afghan border, with numb disbelief on his face.

“My visa expires in one month, and I don’t know what I will do next. I have no plan. I left everything behind,” he said.

As the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in a swift power grab, thousands of Afghans have been looking for ways to escape what they see as a return of a ruthless fundamentalist rule. But neighboring Uzbekistan appears wary about a flood of Afghan refugees.

Afghan citizens who applied for Uzbek visas in recent months told The Associated Press that Uzbekistan has been refusing visas to Afghans, citing coronavirus concerns.

Experts note that Uzbek authorities have long maintained a tightly closed border with Afghanistan, fearing an influx of extremists, and have only accepted a handful of asylum-seekers from its unstable neighbor.

Since the Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s, “the Uzbek government has continually refused to sign and ratify the Refugee Convention — one of the most widely observed treaties in the world — which would require it to provide some type of processing and protection to those seeking asylum out of fear of persecution,” said Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and associate professor of human rights at the University of Southern California.

The Taliban’s advances in Afghanistan in recent months made several Central Asian nations nervous, prompting authorities in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to ramp up border security. Afghanistan borders Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and a tiny strip along China’s Xinjiang region.

Last week, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Russia finished joint military drills in the Tajik region of Khatlon, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Afghan border. On Tuesday, the Russian military started another exercise in Tajikistan. China and Russia held joint military exercises last week in northwest China.

But the slow vibe of the southern Uzbek city of Termez bears few traces of the unfolding crisis across the border. A few Afghans in traditional two-piece garments walk down the streets but city life continues undisturbed.

Termez, a largely Persian-speaking city, has long been a town of choice for many Afghans moving to Uzbekistan.

Together with the UN Development Program, the Uzbek government in 2019 opened the Termez Center for Education in Afghanistan, a place where Afghan girls facing hurdles in education could continue their studies. Men from northern Afghanistan have also set up businesses in the city.

For the past three years, Fayzad Hasanzoda, 20, and his brother successfully ran a restaurant in Termez. They said they invested $1 million in the venture, which makes their stay in Uzbekistan secure. But despite their high social status in Uzbekistan, they were unable to help their family escape from Afghanistan.

“I applied for a visa for my parents, my brother and sister two months ago. Normally it takes a week to receive it, but we still haven’t gotten any response,” Hasanzoda told the AP. “We want them to join us in Uzbekistan, but it’s not easy.”

Since the fighting in northern Afghanistan intensified, there are regular reports about Afghan soldiers fleeing across the highly guarded border but they are routinely sent back.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry reported that 84 Afghan servicemen crossed into Uzbekistan on Saturday and asked for assistance. The ministry said it was in touch with Afghan officials regarding their return.

There are exceptions, however. On Aug. 14, Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Afghan army commander, former northern warlord and vice president, crossed into Uzbekistan with a group of followers, which marked his surrender in the fight with the Taliban for control of Afghanistan’s northern districts. His current whereabouts are unclear, but the commander, an ethnic Uzbek, has a house in Termez and has maintained close ties with the Uzbek government.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry’s news agency, Dunyo, said on Tuesday that media reports about “the alleged presence” of Dostum, as well as another former warlord, Ata Mohammad Noor, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Uzbekistan were, “according to official information, not true.”

On Sunday, an Afghan military plane crashed in Uzbekistan. Two pilots aboard survived and were hospitalized. Official Uzbek reports emerged Monday then were retracted about hundreds of Afghan military troops reaching

Uzbekistan in dozens of aircraft that were forced to land in Termez. The AP could not independently verify those reports.

The “Friendship Bridge” at the Uzbek-Afghan border remains eerily quiet. Local residents say that not even Afghans who live in Uzbekistan are allowed back in these days.

How many Afghan refugees have been taken in by Uzbekistan remains unclear. On Monday, the country’s Prosecutor General’s office said 158 Afghan civilians and soldiers tried to illegally enter Uzbekistan across a river. In the same statement, officials alleged that 22 Afghan warplanes and 24 military helicopters with 585 Afghan troops illegally entered Uzbekistan’s airspace and were forced to land at Termez.

Shortly after, the Prosecutor General’s office withdrew the statement, claiming it wasn’t based on “verified data from relevant authorities.”

On Tuesday, Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry warned that any attempts to violate the border would be “harshly suppressed.” The ministry said Uzbek authorities maintained “close contacts” with the Taliban on border issues.

A drive past the Termez Airport showed locals stopping along the road to look at numerous helicopters that were not there the day before — even though it’s impossible to tell from the distance whether they were Uzbek or Afghan military aircraft.

Swerdlow, the human rights lawyer, thinks Uzbekistan should open its borders to desperate Afghan refugees.

“This unfolding crisis — and Tashkent’s current seat on the UN Human Rights Council — underlines how important it is for the US government and other international partners to urge Uzbekistan to implement the (refugee) convention, provide proper aid, and refrain from pushing persons who fear persecution or torture back into Afghanistan,” he said.


Father of migrant Channel victim calls on France to stop ‘mafia’ traffickers

Father of migrant Channel victim calls on France to stop ‘mafia’ traffickers
Updated 25 sec ago

Father of migrant Channel victim calls on France to stop ‘mafia’ traffickers

Father of migrant Channel victim calls on France to stop ‘mafia’ traffickers
  • Protests break out in London demanding safer route for migrants following deaths of 27 at sea
  • UK and France war of words escalates over plans to stop flow of migrant dinghies to England

LONDON: The father of an Iraqi Kurdish woman who drowned attempting to cross the English Channel has called for the “mafia” people traffickers responsible to be stopped, amid protests in London demanding safer passage for people attempting to reach the UK.

Maryam Nuri Mohamed Amin, 24, was among 27 people who died on Wednesday. She had been trying to reach her fiance who was already in the UK.

Speaking from Soran in Iraqi Kurdistan, Maryam’s father, Nuri Mohammed Mohammed Amin, called the people smugglers “butchers,” saying the disaster was a tragedy “not only for me but for the whole of Kurdistan and the world.”

He added: “I ask the French government to tighten their borders and stop those butchers. They are not smugglers, they are mafias. This is my only request.

“Those boats that they are using are not made for that purpose. They treat those poor people like animals. Where were her human rights?

“It is the role of the French government to have a strict procedure to stop those butchers to avoid further tragedies, and I hope our people stop even thinking about migrating using similar ways,” he said.

Maryam’s journey to join her fiance, which saw her travel to France via Turkey, Italy and Germany, was meant to be a surprise. Her cousin, Krmanj Ezzat Dargali, told UK radio station LBC that she had been “glowing with hope” to start a new life in the UK.

About 150 people gathered outside Downing Street in London on Saturday to protest the tragedy, which it is thought could have been caused when the dinghy being used — meant to carry 10 people at most — collided with another vessel, possibly a container ship.

Several protesters held banners calling for “safe passage now” for migrants, with others stating “migrants and refugees welcome here,” adding that politicians had blood on their hands.

The protest was in part a response to the proposed nationalities and borders bill, which will include new powers to deport people with no right to remain in the UK.

Lara Bishop, a volunteer for the asylum-seeker support charity Care4Calais said: “No one should have to die on our border. We are a first-world nation.

“We are the sixth biggest economy in the world but we only take 1 percent of refugees and we make it so difficult for people to cross and it’s not OK for people to be dying in the Channel.

“I think the British and the French governments need to remember humanity. At the moment they’re using them as political pawns — throwing them between themselves — but these are humans.”

So far about 25,000 people are thought to have crossed the English Channel via dinghies from Northern France this year, which has led to tensions between London and Paris.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned in a letter that more migrants would die unless France returned to talks over a plan to reduce the number of boats attempting the crossing, which led to an angry response from French President Emmanuel Macron after the letter was posted on social media platform Twitter.

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel was subsequently disinvited from talks with her EU counterparts this weekend aimed at finding a joint solution.


13 cases of omicron variant in Dutch testing of travelers

13 cases of omicron variant in Dutch testing of travelers
Updated 28 min 57 sec ago

13 cases of omicron variant in Dutch testing of travelers

13 cases of omicron variant in Dutch testing of travelers
  • The 61 people who tested positive for the virus after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam before a flight ban was put in place were immediately put into isolation
  • The public health institute said in a statement that testing was continuing on the samples

THE HAGUE, Netherlands: The Dutch public health authority confirmed Sunday that 13 people who arrived in the Netherlands on flights from South Africa on Friday have so far tested positive for the new omicron coronavirus variant.
The 61 people who tested positive for the virus on Friday after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport before a flight ban was put in place were immediately put into isolation while sequencing was carried out to establish if they had the new variant.
The public health institute said in a statement that testing was continuing on the samples.
Most of the 61 people who tested positive were put into isolation at a hotel near the airport, while a small number were allowed to sit out their quarantine at home under strict conditions.
Health authorities appealed to all travelers who returned from southern Africa in the past week to get tested, and set up a test center at Schiphol Airport for Dutch citizens returning from the region. The tests are voluntary, and travelers can wait for the results in isolation at home.
 


Ethiopia PM Abiy says military will ‘destroy’ Tigray rebels

Ethiopia PM Abiy says military will ‘destroy’ Tigray rebels
Updated 28 November 2021

Ethiopia PM Abiy says military will ‘destroy’ Tigray rebels

Ethiopia PM Abiy says military will ‘destroy’ Tigray rebels
  • On Friday, state media showed what it described as the first footage of Abiy, a former lieutenant-colonel, in uniform at the front
  • The war erupted in early November 2020 when Abiy deployed troops into Tigray to topple the TPLF

ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said his soldiers would “destroy” rebels from the northern Tigray region, in the latest instalment of footage which state media said shows him at the war front.
“You are comprehensively destroying the enemy, there is no going back without winning,” Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, said in the 34-minute clip posted Saturday to his office’s Twitter page, which AFP could not independently verify.
“We will win, the enemy is dispersing, there are areas we have to control,” he added.
“Until we destroy the enemy there is no rest.”
Abiy announced this week he would start leading operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which once dominated national politics but has been locked in a war with his government for the past year.
The announcement has spurred new recruitment in Addis Ababa.
The country’s most famous distance runner, Haile Gebreselassie, told AFP he was determined to “sacrifice and stand for Ethiopia.”
The TPLF, he added, “is destabilising our country beyond its region.”
On Wednesday state-affiliated media announced Abiy had handed over regular duties to his deputy.
His move came after the TPLF reported major territorial gains, claiming this week to have seized a town just 220 kilometers (135 miles) from the capital Addis Ababa.
The TPLF has aligned itself with other armed groups including the Oromo Liberation Army, which is active in the Oromia region surrounding the city.

On Friday, state media showed what it described as the first footage of Abiy, a former lieutenant-colonel, in uniform at the front, including an interview in which he vowed to “bury the enemy.”
He also said the military had secured control of Kassagita and planned to recapture Chifra district and Burka town in Afar region, which neighbors Tigray, the TPLF’s stronghold.
The World Food Programme tweeted that 79 trucks carrying food and other lifesaving humanitarian supplies had arrived in Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region this week.
“More are on the way,” the WFP added.
Independent media have largely been denied access to war-affected regions in recent weeks.
On Saturday officials in Addis Ababa held a ceremony for athletes and artists heading north to visit troops.
Among those pledging to fight is Feyisa Lilesa, a distance runner and Olympic silver medallist.
The war erupted in early November 2020 when Abiy deployed troops into Tigray to topple the TPLF, a move he said came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps.
Though he promised a swift victory, by late June the TPLF had regrouped and retaken most of Tigray, and it has since pushed into the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions.

The African Union’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo, is leading a diplomatic push for a cease-fire, but there have been few signs of progress so far.
International alarm is growing over a possible rebel assault on the capital, with the US, the UK, Germany and Italy among countries urging their citizens to leave Ethiopia.
France joined the group this week and on Sunday plans to ferry some citizens out on a charter flight.
The government insists rebel gains are overstated, blaming what it describes as sensational media coverage and alarmist security adviseries from embassies for creating panic.


7.5-magnitude earthquake strikes northern Peru: USGS

7.5-magnitude earthquake strikes northern Peru: USGS
Updated 28 November 2021

7.5-magnitude earthquake strikes northern Peru: USGS

7.5-magnitude earthquake strikes northern Peru: USGS

LIMA: A 7.5-magnitude quake struck northern Peru on Sunday, the United States Geological Survey said, but there was no tsunami warning issued.
The offshore quake hit at at 5:52 am (1052 GMT) at a depth of 112.5 kilometers (70 miles), about 42 kilometers northwest of Barranca, USGS said.


Travel curbs aimed at COVID-19 variant tighten across the world

Travel curbs aimed at COVID-19 variant tighten across the world
Updated 44 min 10 sec ago

Travel curbs aimed at COVID-19 variant tighten across the world

Travel curbs aimed at COVID-19 variant tighten across the world
  • The tighter restrictions in the Asia-Pacific region echoed steps rapidly taken by countries around the world to limit the spread of the omicron
  • The United States’ top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he would not be surprised if the omicron variant was already in the US, too

HONG KONG: Australian officials were racing Sunday to conduct further tests on passengers arriving from southern Africa who tested positive for COVID-19 to determine if they were carrying the omicron variant as nations around the world tightened controls against the worrying new strain.
Neighboring New Zealand announced it was restricting travel from nine southern African countries because of the threat posed by the variant, and Japan widened its border controls to include more countries from the region. Tourist-dependent Thailand, which only recently began loosening its tight border restrictions to leisure travelers from certain countries, announced a ban of its own on visitors from eight African counties. Similar restrictions took effect in the business hub of Singapore, which is barring entry and transit to anyone with a recent history of travel to seven southern African nations.
The tighter restrictions in the Asia-Pacific region echoed steps rapidly taken by countries around the world to limit the spread of the omicron variant just days after it was identified by researchers in South Africa. The act first, ask questions later approach reflected growing alarm about the emergence of a potentially more contagious variant nearly two years into a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people, upended lives and disrupted economies across the globe.
While much remains to be learned about the new variant, researchers are concerned that it may be more resistant to the protection provided by vaccines and could mean that the pandemic lasts for longer than anticipated.
Cases involving the omicron variant have already been confirmed on multiple continents, with Germany, Italy, Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong all reporting cases in recent days.
The United States’ top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he would not be surprised if the omicron variant was already in the US, too.
“We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility ... it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over,” Fauci said on NBC television.
In Australia, the New South Wales health department said Sunday that urgent genomic testing was being done on samples taken from two passengers who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa the day before and tested positive on arrival.
The department said the travelers were from one of nine African countries that are now required to quarantine in a hotel upon arrival in Sydney. The countries are South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini, Malawi and the Seychelles.
New Zealand’s COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the island nation was taking a precautionary approach. From late Sunday, only New Zealand citizens from nine African countries will be allowed entry to New Zealand, and they will be required to spend two weeks in a quarantine hotel run by the military.
Hipkins said officials were confident the variant hadn’t entered New Zealand and they were well placed to keep it out.
Many countries have slapped restrictions on various southern African countries over the past couple of days, including the UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran and the US, in response to warnings over the transmissibility of the new variant. This goes against the advice of the World Health Organization, which has warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied.