Trapped in ‘cruel’ forest, migrant regrets Belarus-EU crossing

Trapped in ‘cruel’ forest, migrant regrets Belarus-EU crossing
24-year-old Ali Abd Alwareth from Lebanon sits in the woods outside the Emergency State zone at the Polish-Belarusian border and waits for arrival of Border Guard patrol, October 22, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 24 October 2021

Trapped in ‘cruel’ forest, migrant regrets Belarus-EU crossing

Trapped in ‘cruel’ forest, migrant regrets Belarus-EU crossing
  • The EU suspects Belarus is masterminding the unprecedented influx of migrants into Poland as a form of retaliation against EU sanctions

KLESZCZELE, Belarus: Exhausted and trapped in a cold, “cruel” forest, Lebanese barber Ali Abd Alwareth said he regretted his week-long bid to enter the European Union via the Belarus-Poland border.

“It’s miserable. Something that you don’t wish for your worst enemy ... A nightmare,” the soft-spoken 24-year-old with Crohn’s disease told AFP.

Sitting cross-legged on a bed of pine needles and dead leaves near the border town of Kleszczele in eastern Poland, Abd Alwareth described being a ping-pong ball for the guards.

“I tried crossing like five, six times, and every time I got caught and deported back to the border” by Poland, he said in English.

The Belarusian side meanwhile refused to let him return to Minsk to fly home.

Abd Alwareth said security forces told him: “You have only two choices: either you die here or you die in Poland. That’s it.”

One of thousands of migrants — mostly from the Middle East — who have tried to penetrate the 400-km border since August, Abd Alwareth said he left the financial crisis in Lebanon in search of a better life.

The whole journey from his home region of Bekaa cost $4,000 and involved help from a Minsk-based company he found on social media.

The EU suspects Belarus is masterminding the unprecedented influx of migrants into Poland as a form of retaliation against EU sanctions, but the regime has put the blame on the West.

Poland has sent thousands of troops, built a razor-wire fence and implemented a three-month state of emergency that bans journalists and charity workers along the immediate border area.

During his grueling time in the woods, Abd Alwareth said he drank water off of leaves, was too cold to sleep, and was once hit on the head by either the Polish army or police.

Though “exhausted” and “devastated,” he said he understood that the border guards “are doing their job. They are protecting their country. We are illegal.”

On Friday, Abd Alwareth and his Syrian walking companions managed to get in touch with Polish activists, who met them in the forest with warm clothes and food as well as offering support when the guards arrived.

His fate up in the air, Abd Alwareth hopes to receive asylum in Poland — or at the very least, to return to Lebanon.

“Okay, you don’t want me here, you don’t want me in Belarus. Just deport me back home. That’s all I’m asking for,” he said.

“What is happening in the forest is cruel ... I feel like a puppet. It was my decision, I came this way -- but not to be treated like this,” he added.

“I refuse to die at the border. I just want to see my mum.”


US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say

US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say
Updated 9 sec ago

US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say

US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say
  • Analysts refute Taliban claim that Afghanistan branch of terror group poses no threat to country
  • Ismatullah Khalozai’s property and interests in property under US jurisdiction are now blocked, while American citizens are barred from engaging in any transactions with him

ANKARA / KABUL: The US State Department on Monday imposed new sanctions on three leaders of the Afghanistan affiliate of Daesh, widely known as Daesh-K, and another man accused of operating a Turkey-based informal financial network.

The group’s leader, Sanaullah Ghafari, spokesperson Sultan Aziz Azam and Kabul province leader Maulawi Rajab were all named as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, while Ismatullah Khalozai, who is blamed for operating an informal money-moving network, known as a hawala, that has financially supported Daesh-K for the last two years, was also designated.

Khalozai is known as the financial facilitator for the group and has operated a financial scheme that involved the international resale of luxury items, whose earnings were used to finance Daesh-K. The US also accuses him of engaging in human smuggling operations, including bringing a Daesh-K courier from Afghanistan to Turkey.

Last year, Washington identified another critical financial facilitator for Daesh, the Turkey-based Adnan Mohammed Amin Al-Rawi.

Andrea Gacki, director of the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said of this week’s action against Khalozai: “(The) designation underscores the United States’ determination to prevent (Daesh-K) and its members from exploiting the international financial system to support terrorist acts in Afghanistan and beyond… The Biden administration is committed to rooting out terrorist financing networks around the world.”

All Khalozai’s property and interests in property under US jurisdiction are now blocked, while American citizens are barred from engaging in any transactions with him.

Following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August and rapid Taliban takeover, Daesh-K has gained a wide presence in 34 provinces and has stepped up its bloody attacks. The group most recently claimed responsibility for a double bomb attack in the Afghan capital Kabul this month.

Turkey’s Financial Crimes Investigation Board has been regularly going after Daesh’s illegal money transfer system and it cooperates with the US to track the hawala chain system.

Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a nonprofit organization focusing on violent extremism, said: “Turkey needs to open the books to the US Treasury Department and share intelligence on any terrorist networks known to operate on Turkish soil.”

He added that Turkey and the US should cooperate further to crack down on the financial roots of terror groups, regardless of any powerbroker that may benefit from the current arrangement. “So cracking down on this activity will cause some tensions,” Clarke told Arab News.

“After 9/11, the international community fell into the analytic trap of thinking that failed states like Afghanistan are the ideal safe haven for terrorist groups. However, countries like Turkey are far more valuable because they are connected to the trappings of globalization, from communications to transportation to global finance,” he added.

In 2019, Turkey disrupted another of Daesh’s illegal money transfer systems, which used Turkish and Syrian-based jewelry firms and foreign exchange offices as front companies.

Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey in Ankara, said the illegal mobility of Daesh money did not appear as a result of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, but was ongoing before then.

“As the US began publicly tracking and announcing the origins of these money transfers, (it) means that there is ongoing cooperation between authorities in Ankara and Washington behind the scenes to cope with global financial crimes, because both countries are obliged to respect the relevant international commitments on this issue,” Ozcan told Arab News.

Ozcan said that, when the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August, half of the country’s parliamentarians had Turkish citizenship because of the assets and investments they had previously had in Turkey.

“Therefore, there are great legal and illegal financial flows in Turkey that also eventually involve human smuggling and drug trafficking. It is not a surprise that some illegal groups use the hawala system through Turkey to finance (Daesh-K) because of this global ecosystem of money and human mobility that goes across borders,” he added.

During the course of the summer, hundreds of Afghans crossed from Iran into Turkey every day. Experts underline that such human flows resulted in uncontrollable money movements within the country.

Ozcan expects that, from now on, the US and Turkey, both victims of terrorism, will step up their efforts to track the roots of the illegal transactions that have fed back to terror cells.

“This latest announcement by the US Treasury is just the beginning of a new process and this bilateral cooperation against global financial crimes will not be restricted to Afghanistan but will probably spread to the regions where Daesh is gaining presence,” he said.

An official Taliban spokesperson in Kabul said Daesh-K does not pose a threat to the country. Bilal Karimi, of the Taliban prime minister’s office, said: “They (Daesh-K) don’t have any adverse effect on Afghanistan. Those names in the list are the unknown faces, and one of them has already been killed two or three years ago. So they are not familiar to anyone; overall, Daesh is not a threat for Afghanistan’s Islamic emirate government or the Afghanistan people.”

He added: “You know that this type of criminal activity happens all over the world, but the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan arrested several people involved in those cases, and many of them were killed. Also, we have dismantled many groups of Daesh in Kabul and other provinces. This group (Daesh-K) doesn’t have any support from the people or any other organization. All of these actions are just show-offs for the Daesh group; they are not a threat. So they cannot do anything to Afghanistan’s Islamic emirate.”

However, Ahmad Sayeedi, an international relations expert, told Arab News that Daesh-K was a significant threat to Afghanistan because it has international support. “What I mean is that they have a lot of money and financial support. Daesh will be the most significant danger for Afghanistan. They will be based mainly in Jalalabad (in Nangarhar Province), the main base of Daesh; and in the cities of Sheberghan and Baghlan.”

Qais Zaheer, another international relations analyst, agreed. “Daesh is a potential threat to Afghan peace; they are the ugly face of terrorism in Afghanistan,” he said. “I think the reemergence of this group can provide an opportunity for the intervention of regional and international powers in Afghanistan.

“Unfortunately, due to the (return) of the group and also Taliban mistakes, the group has turned to action and, with the available financial resources of the group, it can pose threats to the Taliban regime. So putting their officials in US sanction lists can help Afghanistan and also the Taliban regime to fight and weaken Daesh-K in Afghanistan,” Zaheer added.


Taliban regime won’t ‘interfere’ in other countries’ affairs: PM

Taliban regime won’t ‘interfere’ in other countries’ affairs: PM
Updated 27 November 2021

Taliban regime won’t ‘interfere’ in other countries’ affairs: PM

Taliban regime won’t ‘interfere’ in other countries’ affairs: PM
  • Mohammad Hassan Akhund: ‘We ask all the international charity organizations to not withhold their aid and to help our exhausted nation’
  • Inflation and unemployment have surged in Afghanistan, while the country’s banking sector has collapsed since the Taliban takeover

KABUL: The Taliban co-founder and now prime minister of Afghanistan Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund pledged Saturday that his government will “not interfere” in other countries’ internal affairs, and urged international charities to continue offering aid to the war-ravaged country.
Hassan’s audio speech broadcast on state television — his first address to the nation since the Taliban seized power in August — came ahead of next week’s meeting between the United States and the Taliban in Doha.
“We assure all the countries that we will not interfere in their internal affairs and we want to have good economic relations with them,” said Hassan in a nearly 30-minute speech that came amid criticism on social media for remaining silent since they took power, even as the nation faced severe challenges.
The Taliban seized power on August 15 after ousting the previous US-backed government, as Washington hurriedly withdrew its troops from the country after a 20-year war.
The Taliban’s previous regime was toppled in a US-led invasion after the 9/11 attacks in the United States that were carried out by Al-Qaeda, whose now-killed founder Osama bin Laden lived in Afghanistan at that time.
Hassan is a Taliban veteran who was a close associate and political adviser to Mullah Omar, the founder of the movement and its first supreme leader.
Said to be in his 60s, Hassan served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister in the movement’s previous regime between 1996-2001.
He was placed on a UN Security Council sanctions list connected to the “acts and activities” of the Taliban.
Hassan’s government faces a series of challenges, in particular reviving the country’s dilapidated economy that has been dried of international aid, which used to make up 75 percent of the national budget under the previous US-backed governments.
“We ask all the international charity organizations to not withhold their aid and to help our exhausted nation... so that the problems of the people could be solved,” Hassan said in his speech.
Inflation and unemployment have surged in Afghanistan, while the country’s banking sector has collapsed since the Taliban takeover.
The financial crunch was aggravated after Washington froze about $10 billion of assets held in its reserve for Kabul, and deteriorated further after the World Bank and International Monetary Fund halted Afghanistan’s access to funding.
The United Nations’ aid agencies have warned that a major humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Afghanistan, with more than half of the country’s 38 million population expected to face hunger this winter.
The rapidly worsening situation has forced Afghans to sell their household goods to raise money for food and other essentials, with the local currency crashing and prices skyrocketing.

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UK toughens Covid-19 rules as new strain arrives

UK toughens Covid-19 rules as new strain arrives
Updated 27 November 2021

UK toughens Covid-19 rules as new strain arrives

UK toughens Covid-19 rules as new strain arrives
  • The new rules add the requirement for isolation pending a negative result, significantly toughening the regime
  • Downing Street said the new testing regime and masks mandate would enter into force “next week”

LONDON: Britain on Saturday announced tougher entry rules for all arriving passengers and the return of a masks mandate, after confirming its first two cases of the new Omicron strain of Covid-19.
The cases were both linked to travel from southern Africa, and the government also expanded travel restrictions on the region with the addition of four countries to a “red list.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said face masks would again be required in shops and on public transport, after controversially ditching the mandate in July when he reopened the UK economy after a prior nationwide lockdown.
He signalled no new lockdown now, vowing a review of the new measures in three weeks and expressing hope that Britons could look forward to a more festive Christmas than last year.
“But we now need to go further and implement a proportionate testing regime for arrivals from across the whole world,” Johnson told a hastily arranged news conference, hours after the government confirmed the first two Omicron cases.
“So we are not going to stop people traveling... but we will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival, and to self-isolate until they have a negative result,” he said.
Currently, all Britons and foreigners entering the UK are required to take a PCR test on day two after their arrival.
The new rules add the requirement for isolation pending a negative result, significantly toughening the regime, in a bid to curb the spread of the new strain.
“I very much hope that we will find that we continue to be in a strong position and we can lift these measures again,” Johnson said. “But right now this is a responsible course of action.”
Downing Street said the new testing regime and masks mandate would enter into force “next week,” along with a requirement for all contacts of suspected Omicron cases to self-isolate, regardless of their vaccination status.

And effective early Sunday, the government said it was placing another four African countries on its travel ban — Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola.
Britain has already said it is banning travel from six southern African nations because of the emergence of Omicron: South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
“After overnight genome sequencing, the UK Health Security Agency has confirmed that two cases of Covid-19 with mutations consistent with B.1.1.529 (Omicron) have been identified in the UK,” a government statement said.
“The two cases are linked and there is a link to travel to southern Africa,” it said.
One case was detected in the central English city of Nottingham, and the other in Chelmsford east of London, officials said.
“We have moved rapidly and the individuals are self-isolating while contact tracing is ongoing,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.
The government was widely criticized for its travel and quarantine policy earlier in the pandemic, when it kept borders open to foreign travelers even as infection rates spiralled.
“This is a stark reminder that we are not yet out of this pandemic,” Javid said, urging the public to get follow-up booster jabs of vaccines.
Johnson said he planned to expand the program for booster vaccine shots, with the hope that government scientists will agree a government request to shorten the time-frame between second and third jabs, which is currently set at six months.
“It’s more vital than ever that people get their jabs, and we get those boosters into arms as fast as possible,” the prime minister said.


Greece opens two more ‘closed’ migrant camps

Greece opens two more ‘closed’ migrant camps
Updated 27 November 2021

Greece opens two more ‘closed’ migrant camps

Greece opens two more ‘closed’ migrant camps
  • The 'closed' camps feature barbed wire fencing, surveillance cameras, x-ray scanners and magnetic doors and gates remain closed at night
  • Greece was the main point where more than one million asylum seekers — mainly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans — entered Europe in 2015

KOS, Greece: Greece on Saturday opened two more of its new “closed” migrant camps that have been criticized by rights groups for their restrictive measures.
“A new era is beginning,” Minister of Migration Notis Mitarachi said announcing the opening of the camps on the islands of Leros and Kos.
“We are extricating our islands from the migration problem and its consequences,” he said. “The images that we all remember from 2015-2019 are now in the past.”
Greece was the main point where more than one million asylum seekers — mainly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans — entered Europe in 2015 and its islands in the Aegean Sea are the main port of call from people arriving via Turkey in search of a better life in Europe.
The crisis in Afghanistan has prompted fears of a new migration wave.
The “closed” camps feature barbed wire fencing, surveillance cameras, x-ray scanners and magnetic doors and gates remain closed at night.
They also have many features, like running water, toilets and more security, that were absent from the previous facilities that became infamous for their living conditions.
Greece inaugurated the first such camp on the island of Samos in September and plans to open two more, on the islands of Lesbos and Chios.
The EU has committed 276 million euros ($326 million) for the new camps.
But NGOs and aid groups have raised concerns about the new camps’ structure in isolated places and residents’ confinement, saying that the movement of people in the camps should not be restricted.
According to latest UN estimates, there are currently around 96,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Greece.


South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting Omicron Covid variant: Government

South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting Omicron Covid variant: Government
Updated 27 November 2021

South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting Omicron Covid variant: Government

South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting Omicron Covid variant: Government
  • The ministry pointed out that new variants had been discovered in other parts of the world

JOHANNESBURG: South Africa complained Saturday that it is being “punished” for detecting a new Covid-19 variant Omicron which the World Health Organization has termed a “variant of concern” and is more transmissible than the dominant Delta strain.
The decision by a number of countries around the world to ban flights from southern Africa following the discovery of the variant “is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” the foreign affairs ministry said in a statement.
“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” it said.
The ministry pointed out that new variants had been discovered in other parts of the world.
“Each of those cases have had no recent links with Southern Africa, but the reaction to those countries is starkly different to cases in Southern Africa,” it said.
Israel and Belgium announced after South Africa that they also had detected cases of Omicron.
Government insisted that South Africa’s “capacity to test and its ramped-up vaccination program, backed up by a world-class scientific community should give our global partners the comfort that we are doing as well as they are in managing the pandemic.”
With more than 2.95 million cases and 89,783 deaths, South Africa is the worst-hit country in Africa by the pandemic.