Taliban say they took Panjshir, last holdout Afghan province

Afghan resistance front and anti-Taliban uprising forces patrol on a hilltop in Anaba district, Panjshir province. (AFP)
Afghan resistance front and anti-Taliban uprising forces patrol on a hilltop in Anaba district, Panjshir province. (AFP)
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Updated 07 September 2021

Taliban say they took Panjshir, last holdout Afghan province

Afghan resistance front and anti-Taliban uprising forces patrol on a hilltop in Anaba district, Panjshir province. (AFP)
  • Continued fighting may lead to resurrection of various militant groups in Afghanistan, says Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff

KABUL: The Taliban said on Monday they have taken control of Panjshir province north of Kabul, the last holdout of anti-Taliban forces in the country and the only province the Taliban had not seized during their blitz across Afghanistan last month.

Thousands of Taliban fighters overran eight districts of Panjshir overnight, according to witnesses from the area who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued a statement, saying Panjshir was now under the control of Taliban fighters.

“We tried our best to solve the problem through negotiations, and they rejected talks and then we had to send our forces to fight,” Mujahid later told a press conference in Kabul.

Pictures on social media showed Taliban members standing in front of the gate of the Panjshir provincial governor’s compound.

Taliban forces said had entered deep into Panjshir Valley on Sunday amid calls for a ceasefire from Afghan religious scholars.

Intense fighting between the Taliban and the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan in Panjshir began last week, as US forces officially completed their withdrawal and ended a two-decade presence on Afghan soil.

For the past few days, Taliban forces and the resistance front, which comprises thousands of fighters from regional militias and Afghanistan’s former security forces, have been claiming battle gains. On Friday night, Taliban sources told the media they had seized the mountainous northern region, but resistance leaders quickly denied the claim. New advances were announced by the Taliban on Sunday, after heavy fighting reported a day earlier. A Taliban commander in Panjshir said fighters had entered deeper into the valley and taken control of new districts.

“Now Anaba and Rokha districts are under our control, mujahideen are gaining ground and they are moving to Bazarak,” the commander, Mawlawi Ezatullah Badr told Arab News from Panjshir. “Yesterday, we took Shotol district and now we have stopped the war, the enemy have suffered massive casualties.”

At the same time, the resistance front said the Taliban who had entered the valley were trapped by their forces.

“The Taliban were ambushed in several fronts in Shotol, Khawak and also Dara-e-Tang. During this operation, the Taliban suffered massive casualties and at least 1,600 Taliban fighters has surrendered to NRFA,” resistance commander Zemaray Ahmadyar said.

As the fighting continued, religious scholars who before the Taliban takeover were in the Kabul chapter of Afghanistan’s Ulema Council, called on both sides to return to negotiations.

“Ending the war is urgent, we need to speak with both sides,” the scholars said in a joint statement on Sunday. “This war is harmful to everyone, and it must be stopped immediately. We would continue to negotiate with both sides; first we would discuss this issue with the Taliban and then we would go to Panjshir.”

Earlier negotiations did not stop the fighting.

“We held negotiations, but they failed. The other side welcomed war rather than peace. Now the mujahideen are ordered to continue their offensive operations and we are close to the center of Panjshir,” said Enamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban’s cultural commission.

Resistance front spokesperson Fahim Dashti said last week the Taliban had offered them a 50 percent share of power in Afghanistan, but the offer was declined.

Panjshir has a history of resistance. In the 1980s, its famed commander Ahmad Shah Massoud defended the region from Soviet forces, and in the 1990s led an offensive against the first Taliban regime. He was assassinated in 2001, weeks before the Taliban were ousted by a US-led invasion.

The resistance is led by Massoud’s son, Ahmad Massoud, and Amrullah Saleh, who until the Taliban takeover of Kabul and the collapse of the Afghan government over two weeks ago served as first vice president.

While seizing Panjshir would give the Taliban complete control of Afghanistan — something they did not achieve when they ruled the country between 1996 and 2001 — a top US general warned on Saturday that continued fighting may lead to a wider civil war and resurrection of various militant groups in Afghanistan.

“I think there’s at least a very good probability of a broader civil war,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview with Fox News.

“That will then in turn lead to conditions that could lead to a reconstitution of Al-Qaeda or a growth of ISIS (Daesh).”

Afghanistan has been without a government since President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the Taliban entered Kabul on Aug. 15.

The power vacuum has thrown Afghanistan’s economy into disarray, as most payments to the country, which for the past two decades has depended on foreign aid, have been suspended.

Plans to unveil a new government were postponed as the Taliban waited for Panjshir to fall, sources say.


US announces easing visa, family remittance restrictions for Cuba

A vintage car passes by the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, October 30, 2020. Picture taken October 30, 2020. (REUTERS)
A vintage car passes by the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, October 30, 2020. Picture taken October 30, 2020. (REUTERS)
Updated 22 sec ago

US announces easing visa, family remittance restrictions for Cuba

A vintage car passes by the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, October 30, 2020. Picture taken October 30, 2020. (REUTERS)
  • To boost the flow of remittances, the US government will lift the current limit of $1,000 per quarter for each sender, and also allow non family remittances to “support independent Cuban entrepreneurs”

WASHINGTON: The United States said Monday it is easing restrictions imposed during former president Donald Trump’s administration on travel to Cuba and sending of family remittances between the United States and the communist island.
“The Cuban people are confronting an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and our policy will continue to focus on empowering the Cuban people to help them create a future free from repression and economic suffering,” the State Department said.
The loosening of the embargo on Cuba will see increased visa processing, including at the Havana consulate, but with most visas still handled at the US embassy in Guyana.
The statement said it will “facilitate educational connections” between the two countries, as well as support for professional research including “support for expanded Internet access and remittance process companies.”
To boost the flow of remittances, the US government will lift the current limit of $1,000 per quarter for each sender, and also allow non family remittances to “support independent Cuban entrepreneurs.”
Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party, denounced the lifting of some restrictions, saying that the Cuban regime “continues its ruthless persecution of countless Cubans from all walks of life” following unprecedented street protests last year.
The easing of travel “risks sending the wrong message to the wrong people, at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons,” he said in a statement. “Those who still believe that increasing travel will breed democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial. For decades, the world has been traveling to Cuba and nothing has changed.”
The thaw comes in the wake of a series of mysterious illnesses suffered by US personnel and family members in Cuba in what has become to be known as “Havana Syndrome.”
US officials say they have yet to determine exactly what happened in the incidents but a senior official told reporters that there is an “appropriate security posture.”


Sri Lanka proposes privatizing national airline amid crisis

Sri Lanka proposes privatizing national airline amid crisis
Updated 51 min 54 sec ago

Sri Lanka proposes privatizing national airline amid crisis

Sri Lanka proposes privatizing national airline amid crisis
  • President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister last Thursday in a bid to quell the island nation’s political and economic crisis

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka’s new prime minister on Monday proposed privatizing the country’s loss-making national airline as part of reforms aimed at solving the country worst economic crisis in decades.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in a message to the people that he plans to propose a special relief budget that will take the place of the development-oriented budget earlier approved for this year, He said it would channel funds previously allocated for infrastructure development to public welfare.
He said the country’s financial health is so poor that the government has been forced to print money to pay the salaries of government workers and buy other goods and services.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister last Thursday in a bid to quell the island nation’s political and economic crisis.
The president’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, stepped down as prime minister on May 9 amid violence that left nine people dead and more than 200 wounded. Protesters have demanded the powerful Rajapaksa family resign to take responsibility for leading the country into the economic crisis.
For months, Sri Lankans have been forced to wait in long lines to purchase scarce imported essentials such as medicines, fuel, cooking gas and food because of a severe shortage of foreign currency. Government revenues have also plunged.
Wickremesinghe said Sri Lankan Airlines lost about $123 million in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which ended in March, and its aggregate losses exceeded $1 billion as of March 2021.
“Even if we privatize Sri Lankan Airlines, this is a loss that we must bear. You must be aware that this is a loss that must be borne even by the poor people of this country who have never stepped on an airplane,” Wickremesinghe said.
Sri Lankan Airlines was managed by Emirates Airlines from 1998 to 2008.
Sri Lanka is nearly bankrupt and has suspended repayment of about $7 billion in foreign loans due this year out of $25 billion to be repaid by 2026. The country’s total foreign debt is $51 billion. The finance ministry says the country currently has only $25 million in usable foreign reserves.
Wickremesinghe said about $75 billion is needed urgently to help provide people with essential items, but the country’s treasury is struggling to find even $1 billion.
Shortages of medicines are so acute that it is difficult to buy anti-rabies medicines and drugs to treat heart disease, he said.
“I have no desire to hide the truth and to lie to the public. Although these facts are unpleasant and terrifying, this is the true situation. For a short period, our future will be even more difficult than the tough times that we have passed,” Wickremesinghe said.
“We will face considerable challenges and adversity. However, this period will not be long,” he said, adding that countries with which he has spoken have pledged to help in the next few months.
Wickremesinghe is struggling to form a new Cabinet, with many parties reluctant to join his government. They say Wickremesinghe’s appointment goes against tradition and the people’s will because he was defeated in 2020 elections and joined Parliament only through a seat allocated to his party.
However, parties have said they will support positive measures by Wickremesinghe to improve the economy while they remain in the opposition.
The main opposition United People’s Force party has introduced a no-confidence motion against the president for “not having properly exercised, performed and discharged the powers of the president under the constitution.”
The motion, to be taken up Tuesday, accuses Rajapaksa of being responsible for the economic crisis by introducing untimely tax cuts and prohibiting the use of agrochemicals, which resulted in crop failures.
Passage of the motion would not legally bind Rajapaksa to quit, but his refusal to do so could intensify anti-government protests and rock negotiations with other countries on economic aid. A challenge of Wickremesinghe’s appointment could also endanger the negotiations, which he leads.


Somalia’s foreign partners hail peaceful election of president

Newly elected Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud waves after he was sworn-in, in Mogadishu, on May 15, 2022. (AFP)
Newly elected Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud waves after he was sworn-in, in Mogadishu, on May 15, 2022. (AFP)
Updated 16 May 2022

Somalia’s foreign partners hail peaceful election of president

Newly elected Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud waves after he was sworn-in, in Mogadishu, on May 15, 2022. (AFP)
  • Somalia’s international partners had repeatedly warned the election delays were a dangerous distraction from the fight against Al-Shabab terrorists, who have been trying to overthrow the government for over a decade

MOGADISHU: Somalia’s international partners on Monday welcomed the election of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who takes office after months of political instability and faces crises including a violent insurgency and devastating drought.
Residents in Mogadishu raced through the streets banging metal cans and fired guns into the air in celebration as the result of the marathon poll was announced around midnight.
Many hope the vote — which concluded peacefully but was dogged by claims of irregularities — will draw a line under a political crisis that has lasted well over a year.
Outgoing President Mohammed Abdullahi Mohamed’s term ended in February 2021 without an election and the protracted tussle for power that followed turned violent at times and caused divisions at the highest levels of government.
Somalia’s international partners had repeatedly warned the election delays were a dangerous distraction from the fight against Al-Shabab terrorists, who have been trying to overthrow the government for over a decade.
On Monday, the UK’s minister for Africa congratulated Mohamud, who ruled Somalia between 2012 and 2017, and is the first president to win a second term in the troubled Horn of Africa nation.
The UK “looks forward to continuing its close work to support on building stability, tackling Al-Shabab and supporting those affected by the devastating drought,” Minister Vicky Ford tweeted.
Mohamud has promised to transform Somalia into “a peaceful country that is at peace with the world.”
The East African regional bloc IGAD said Mohamud’s victory was “a clear testimony of the trust and confidence that the people of Somalia have in his leadership qualities.”

 


Indonesians celebrate Vesak Day at world’s largest Buddhist temple

Indonesians celebrate Vesak Day at world’s largest Buddhist temple
Updated 16 May 2022

Indonesians celebrate Vesak Day at world’s largest Buddhist temple

Indonesians celebrate Vesak Day at world’s largest Buddhist temple
  • Devotees at scaled-down event commemorate the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha
  • Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, over 40,000 would gather at Borobudur each year for the festivities

JAKARTA: Indonesian Buddhists on Monday marked the religious holiday of Vesak at the faith’s largest temple in the world, as celebrations returned to the holy site after two years of the coronavirus pandemic.

Over 1,000 people, mostly dressed in all-white, attended a ceremony at Borobudur temple in Central Java to mark this year’s event, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha.

Monday’s celebrations mark the first time in two years that a public procession of this scale has been held again at the 9th-century temple, following restrictions imposed to curb coronavirus transmissions.

Prior to the public health outbreak, more than 40,000 Buddhist devotees from across the country and abroad would gather at Borobudur each year to celebrate Vesak.

“Naturally, as Buddhist devotees we are very happy we can celebrate the holy day of Vesak at Borobudur Temple, because the temple is the world’s biggest mandala,” Tanto Soegito Harsono, lead organizer of the event and regional leader of the country’s biggest Buddhist organization WALUBI, told Arab News.

Mandala, which is Sanskrit for circle or center, is a significant spiritual symbol in Buddhism.

“Let us realize the teachings of the Buddha in our daily lives,” Harsono said, alluding to the event’s theme.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, is also home to sizable Buddhist, Christian and other religious minorities. Centuries ago, this part of central Java was ruled by Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms, whose cultural legacies remain through scattered temples and statues across the region.

In this year’s scaled-down celebrations, organizers say participants are capped at around 1,200 for the day’s ceremony, during which health protocols are mandatory.

Borobudur, made up of platforms that form a pyramid shape and topped with several stupas and Buddha statues, is also hosting a festival in the evening, which will see participants releasing 2,022 lit lanterns into the evening sky above the temple.

Christina, a 20-year-old college student visiting from Tangerang, a city near the capital Jakarta, had taken part in Vesak Day celebrations twice previously. She hopes this year will mark the return of the annual festivities in Borobudur.

“This year I get to participate as WALUBI’s marching band member during the procession,” Christina told Arab News.

“Celebrating Vesak in Borobudur is very meaningful for me.”


Chinese teachers leave Pakistan after deadly bombing at university

A security guard walks after a blast near a passenger van (not pictured) at the entrance of the Confucius Institute University o
A security guard walks after a blast near a passenger van (not pictured) at the entrance of the Confucius Institute University o
Updated 16 May 2022

Chinese teachers leave Pakistan after deadly bombing at university

A security guard walks after a blast near a passenger van (not pictured) at the entrance of the Confucius Institute University o
  • Four were killed in a suicide bombing at Karachi University’s Confucius Institute last month
  • Chinese nationals have frequently been targeted by separatists from Balochistan

KARACHI: Chinese teachers have left Pakistan’s port city of Karachi, a university official has confirmed, weeks after a targeted suicide blast killed their colleagues. 

Three Chinese language teachers and their Pakistani driver were killed in late April when a blast that also injured several others ripped through their van near Karachi University’s Confucius Institute. The attack was later claimed by the separatist Balochistan Liberation Army. 

Chinese nationals have frequently been targeted by separatists from Balochistan, where Beijing is involved in mega infrastructure projects as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. 

Academic activities were suspended at the university following the attack last month, and all Chinese teachers were moved outside the campus. 

“On Sunday, all remaining 12 teachers at the institute left along with the remains of the deceased teachers for China,” Dr. Nadir Uddin, the Pakistani director of the Confucius Institute, told Arab News. 

“The institute has not been closed. It will go on, and academic activities here may soon be resumed through other methods.”

Launched in 2013, the Confucius Institute is a Chinese government-run body that offers language and cultural programs overseas conducted by Karachi University and the Sichuan Normal University in Chengdu. The institute’s Chinese director was among those killed in the bombing last month. 

Another Karachi university official said the Chinese teachers may not return. 

“The return of Chinese teachers is unlikely,” the official told Arab News on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press. 

“The administration has decided to resume academic activities in distance learning mode, in which teachers in China will teach Mandarin online.”

The Chinese Consulate in Karachi did not immediately respond to Arab News’ queries for this story. 

The bombing at the Confucius Institute was the first major attack on Chinese nationals in Pakistan since last year when a suicide bomber blew up a passenger bus. That incident killed 13 people, including nine Chinese workers employed at the Dasu Hydropower Project in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. 

Beijing has pledged over $60 billion for infrastructure projects in Pakistan under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor framework that is central to China’s initiative to forge new “Silk Road” land and sea ties to markets in the Middle East and Europe.

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