British envoy in Kabul as Taliban seek to break isolation

British envoy in Kabul as Taliban seek to break isolation
Protesters gather around a car with the Taliban flag raised atop it during the anti-Pakistan protest in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Reuters)
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Updated 05 October 2021

British envoy in Kabul as Taliban seek to break isolation

British envoy in Kabul as Taliban seek to break isolation

KABUL: A senior British envoy held talks with top Taliban officials in Kabul on Tuesday — the first since foreign forces evacuated from Afghanistan — as the country’s new masters seek a path out of international isolation.
The hard-line Islamist movement declared a new regime after overrunning the capital in August and ousting the US-backed government.
But after 20 years of war the aid-reliant country faces economic collapse, with major donors pausing funding and no emergency support in place.
The new rulers have been courting hesitant foreign powers in a bid to restart cash flows to the country, where civil servants and health care workers have gone months without salaries.
Taliban officials tweeted pictures of the first meeting between Simon Gass, Britain’s special representative for Afghanistan, and deputy prime ministers Abdul Ghani Baradar and Abdul Salam Hanafi.
The British team, which flew in on a flight facilitated by Qatar, secured the release of Ben Slater, a former British soldier who was detained by the Taliban on the Pakistani border last month as he tried to escort Afghan refugees to safety.
He flew out of Kabul with the British delegation, a UK government official said.
The two sides discussed how Britain can help Afghanistan battle terrorism and a deepening humanitarian crisis — and provide safe passage for those who want to leave the country, a UK government spokesperson said.
“They also raised the treatment of minorities and the rights of women and girls,” the spokesperson added, adding that Gass was joined by Martin Longden, charge d’affaires at the now evacuated UK mission to Afghanistan.
The Taliban, notorious for their brutal and oppressive rule from 1996 to 2001, have faced a backlash after effectively excluding women and girls from education and work across the country.

Abdul Qahar Balkhi, the Taliban’s foreign ministry spokesman, said the meeting “focused on detailed discussions about reviving diplomatic relations between both countries.”
But a UK official was more cautious, stressing that the visit did not represent recognition or “legitimacy” for the Taliban, but rather opening a channel of communication and contact building
“We’re being really realistic,” the official said. “It’s good to be able to get in and get out safely. It’s about pragmatic dialogue, securing safe passage, humanitarian assistance and counter-terrorism.”
Western governments have warned that the Taliban must form an “inclusive” government and respect human and women’s rights if they are to be formally recognized.
Neighbouring Pakistan, however, has been pushing for the international community to engage with the new rulers and help stabilize a country threatened by famine.
The Taliban have made some gestures toward international respectability, while insisting on their right to return to a government based on their hard-line interpretation of Islamic law.
Tuesday saw another example of the kind of practices that feed international concern.
In the western province of Herat the Taliban hung up the bodies of three alleged criminals after a man killed them when they entered his home, deputy governor Mawlawi Shir Ahmad MuHajjir told AFP.
Graphic images posted to social media showed the three corpses hoisted from two cranes in the Obe district in northeast Herat.

But in signs the Islamists may be trying to soften their public image after 50 days in power, the Taliban announced at a stage-managed rally that some women civil servants have been called back to work.
Interior ministry spokesman Qari Sayed Khosti told AFP that all staff of the passport department “including female employees” were asked to return to their offices.
The spokesman said the ministry intended to start issuing Afghan passports again after the system broke down with the fall of the previous government.
Girls also returned to some secondary schools in a northern province, Taliban officials and teachers said, despite them remaining barred from classrooms in much of the country.
A video posted by the group’s spokesman Suhail Shaheen showed dozens of schoolgirls in black, some wearing white head scarves and others with black face veils, sat in chairs waving Taliban flags.
Education ministry official Mohammad Abid said there had been no policy change from the interim central government, telling AFP on Tuesday: “High schools still remain closed for girls.”
The Taliban, which have permitted girls to attend primary school, have said girls will return to secondary schools once their security and strict gender segregation under sharia law can be ensured.
Several teachers and a head teacher in Kunduz city, the provincial capital, told AFP that girls at high schools in some districts had gone back to classes.


Thailand to resume quarantine waiver for vaccinated arrivals in February

Thailand to resume quarantine waiver for vaccinated arrivals in February
Updated 5 sec ago

Thailand to resume quarantine waiver for vaccinated arrivals in February

Thailand to resume quarantine waiver for vaccinated arrivals in February
  • All arrivals must take a COVID-19 test on arrival and five days later
BANGKOK: Thailand will resume its ‘Test & Go’ quarantine waiver for vaccinated arrivals starting on Feb 1, the country’s coronavirus taskforce said on Thursday.
All arrivals must take a COVID-19 test on arrival and five days later, spokesperson Taweesin Wisanuyothin said at briefing, during which additional “Sandbox” areas were announced, a similar scheme to revive its battered tourism sector, where visitors must stay for one week in a designated location.

Hong Kong shuts secondary schools over COVID-19 fears

Hong Kong shuts secondary schools over COVID-19 fears
Updated 31 min 59 sec ago

Hong Kong shuts secondary schools over COVID-19 fears

Hong Kong shuts secondary schools over COVID-19 fears
  • The government halted classes in primary schools and kindergartens early this month

HONG KONG: Hong Kong will suspend face-to-face teaching in secondary schools from January 24, the Education Bureau said on Thursday, because of a rising number of coronavirus infections in several schools in the Chinese-ruled territory.
The government halted classes in primary schools and kindergartens early this month, and imposed curbs, such as a ban on restaurant dining after 6 p.m. and the closure of venues such as gyms, cinemas and beauty salons.


North Korea suggests it may resume nuclear, missile tests

North Korea suggests it may resume nuclear, missile tests
Updated 20 January 2022

North Korea suggests it may resume nuclear, missile tests

North Korea suggests it may resume nuclear, missile tests
  • N. Korea has not tested nuclear bombs, ICBMs since 2017
  • Politburo says US threats ‘reached a danger line’

SEOUL: North Korea would bolster its defenses against the United States and consider restarting “all temporally-suspended activities,” state media KCNA reported Thursday, an apparent reference to a self-imposed moratorium on testing its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Tension has been rising over a recent series of North Korean missile tests. A US push for fresh sanctions was followed by heated reaction from Pyongyang, raising the spectre of a return to the period of so-called “fire and fury” threats of 2017.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened a meeting of the powerful politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party on Wednesday to discuss “important policy issues,” including countermeasures over “hostile” US policy, the official KCNA news agency said.
The politburo ordered a reconsideration of trust-building measures and “promptly examining the issue of restarting all temporally-suspended activities,” while calling for “immediately bolstering more powerful physical means,” KCNA said.
The politburo decision appears to be a step beyond Kim’s previous remarks at the end of 2019 that he would no longer be bound by the moratorium on testing nuclear warheads and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), after the United States did not respond to calls for concessions to reopen negotiations.
Washington’s policy and military threats had “reached a danger line,” the report said, citing joint US-South Korea military exercises, the deployment of cutting-edge US strategic weapons in the region, and the implementation of independent and UN sanctions.
“We should make more thorough preparation for a long-term confrontation with the US imperialists,” the politburo concluded.
The US State Department and White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Biden made no mention of North Korea during a nearly two-hour news conference on Wednesday held to mark his first year in office.
“We should brace for more sabre-rattling designed to create a warlike atmosphere — and possibly more provocation testing,” said Jean Lee, a fellow at the Washington-based Wilson Center, adding that Kim will use every opportunity to justify further weapons testing.

‘Vicious cycle’
North Korea could possibly test a long-range missile or other powerful weapon in time for the 80th and 110th anniversaries of the birthdays of Kim’s late father and grandfather in February and April, both major holidays in the country, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“It’s possible that the situation could go back to the vicious cycle of provocations and sanctions we saw in 2017,” he said.
After test firing a ballistic missile capable of striking the US mainland in 2017, North Korea launched a flurry of diplomacy and has not tested its ICBMs or nuclear weapons since.
But it began testing a range of new short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) after denuclearization talks stalled and slipped back into a standoff following a failed summit in 2019.
Pyongyang has defended the missile launches as its sovereign right to self-defense and accused Washington of applying double standards over weapons tests.
On Monday, North Korea conducted its fourth missile test this year, following two launches of “hypersonic missiles” capable of high speed and manoeuvring after lift-off, and another one involving a railway-borne missile system.
The unusually rapid pace of launches prompted US condemnation and a push for new UN sanctions, and Pyongyang threatened stronger actions.
Jenny Town, director of the Washington-based Stimson Center’s 38 North program, said despite its strong language, the politburo report left room for Kim to “ratchet rhetoric up or down as he sees fit” depending on future developments.
The Biden administration needs to lead more concerted, high-level international efforts to restart negotiations on step-for-step actions toward peace and denuclearization, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.
“The North Korean nuclear and missile problem has not disappeared and will only grow worse in the absence of active, serious diplomacy,” he said.  


US defense department releases first video of botched Kabul airstrike

US defense department releases first video of botched Kabul airstrike
Updated 20 January 2022

US defense department releases first video of botched Kabul airstrike

US defense department releases first video of botched Kabul airstrike
  • The drone strike killed 10 civilians in the final hours of a chaotic American withdrawal that ended a 20-year war in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON: The Pentagon has declassified and publicly released video footage of a US drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 civilians in the final hours of a chaotic American withdrawal that ended a 20-year war in Afghanistan.
The New York Times obtained the footage through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against US Central Command, which then posted the imagery to its website. It marks the first public release of video footage of the Aug. 29 strike, which the Pentagon initially defended but later called a tragic mistake.

The videos include about 25 minutes of footage from what the Times reported were two MQ-9 Reaper drones, showing the scene of the strike prior to, during and after a missile struck a civilian car in a courtyard on a residential street. Indistinct images show individuals moving in or near the attack zone.
The military has said it struck what it thought was an extremist with the Daesh group’s Afghanistan affiliate who might imminently detonate a bomb near the Kabul airport, where a hurried evacuation was still under way.

Three days earlier a suicide bombing at the airport had killed 13 US troops and more than 160 Afghans. When it later acknowledged its error in the Aug. 29 drone strike, Central Command said it determined that the man driving the car had nothing to do with the Daesh group.
The man was Zemari Ahmadi, who worked for Nutrition and Education International, a US-based aid organization.

 


First aid flight leaves for isolated Tonga after big volcano eruption

First aid flight leaves for isolated Tonga after big volcano eruption
Updated 20 January 2022

First aid flight leaves for isolated Tonga after big volcano eruption

First aid flight leaves for isolated Tonga after big volcano eruption
  • The deliveries will be done with no contact because Tonga is desperate to make sure foreigners don’t bring in the coronavirus

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: The first flight carrying fresh water and other aid to Tonga was finally able to leave Thursday after the Pacific nation’s main airport runway was cleared of ash left a huge volcanic eruption.
A C-130 Hercules military transport plane left New Zealand carrying water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene supplies and communications equipment, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said.
Australia was also preparing to send two C-17 Globemaster transport planes with humanitarian supplies. The flights were all due to arrive in Tonga on Thursday afternoon.
The deliveries will be done with no contact because Tonga is desperate to make sure foreigners don’t bring in the coronavirus. It has not had any outbreaks of COVID-19 and has reported just a single case since the pandemic began.
“The aircraft is expected to be on the ground for up to 90 minutes before returning to New Zealand,” Defense Minister Peeni Henare said.
UN humanitarian officials report that about 84,000 people — more than 80 percent of Tonga’s population — have been impacted by the volcano’s eruption, UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said, pointing to three deaths, injuries, loss of homes and polluted water.
Communications with Tonga remain limited after Saturday’s eruption and tsunami appeared to have broken the single fiber-optic cable that connects Tonga with the rest of the world. That means most people haven’t been able to use the Internet or make phone calls abroad, although some local phone networks are still working.
A navy patrol ship from New Zealand is also expected to arrive later Thursday. It is carrying hydrographic equipment and divers, and also has a helicopter to assist with delivering supplies.
Officials said the ship’s first task would be to check shipping channels and the structural integrity of the wharf in the capital, Nuku’alofa, following the eruption and tsunami.
Another New Zealand navy ship carrying 250,000 liters (66,000 gallons) of water is on its way. The ship can also produce tens of thousands of liters of fresh water each day using a desalination plant.
Three of Tonga’s smaller islands suffered serious damage from tsunami waves, officials and the Red Cross said.
The UN’s Dujarric said “all houses have apparently been destroyed on the island of Mango and only two houses remain on Fonoifua island, with extensive damage reported on Nomuka.” He said evacuations are under way for people from the islands.
According to Tongan census figures, Mango is home to 36 people, Fonoifua is home to 69 people, and Nomuka to 239. The majority of Tongans live on the main island of Tongatapu, where about 50 homes were destroyed.
Dujarric said the most pressing humanitarian needs are safe water, food and non-food items, and top priorities are reestablishing communication services including for international calls and the Internet.
Tonga has so far avoided the widespread devastation that many initially feared.