Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks
In this file photo taken on October 2, 2021, members of the Taliban stand in front of the site where the Shahmama Buddha statue once stood before being destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001, in Bamiyan province. (File/AFP)
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Updated 01 December 2021

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks
  • Taliban government leader Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund is among those targeted by the US sanctions

DOHA: The Taliban renewed its call for the United States to release billions of dollars in frozen funds after two days of talks in Doha as aid-dependent Afghanistan grapples with an economic crisis.
The Afghans also called for an end to blacklists and sanctions in meetings led by Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and Tom West, the US special representative for Afghanistan.
It was the second round of talks between the two sides in Qatar since the US ended its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan and the hard-line Islamists rapidly returned to power.
“The two delegations discussed political, economic, human, health, education and security issues as well as providing necessary banking and cash facilities,” tweeted Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi.
“The Afghan delegation assured the US side of security and urged that Afghanistan’s frozen money should be released unconditionally, blacklists and sanctions must end and human issues be separated from political ones.”
Washington seized nearly $9.5 billion in assets belonging to the Afghan central bank. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank also suspended activities in Afghanistan, withholding aid as well as $340 million in new reserves issued by the IMF in August.
The Afghan economy has effectively collapsed, with civil servants unpaid for months and the treasury unable to pay for imports. The United Nations has warned that around 22 million people, more than half the population, will face an “acute” food shortage in the winter months.
Taliban government leader Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund is among those targeted by the US sanctions. The US side stood firm on the measures and said it was taking steps to get support to ordinary Afghans.
“The United States remains committed to ensuring that US sanctions do not limit the ability of Afghan civilians to receive humanitarian support from the US government and international community while denying assets to sanctioned entities and individuals,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
“The Department of the Treasury has issued general licenses to support the continued flow of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan and other activities that support basic human needs.”
The US also urged the Taliban to provide access to education for women and girls across the country and “expressed deep concern regarding allegations of human rights abuses.”
It reminded the Taliban of its commitment not to allow terrorist organizations to operate on its soil and to guarantee safe passage for US citizens from Afghanistan.
The Americans also called for the release of US citizen Mark Frerichs, who was kidnapped in Afghanistan in February last year.
The Taliban called the talks “positive” and said Muttaqi also met with the Japanese and German ambassadors to Afghanistan in Doha.
bur/th/kir


First aid flight leaves for isolated Tonga after big volcano eruption

First aid flight leaves for isolated Tonga after big volcano eruption
Updated 20 sec ago

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.


Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU

Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU
Updated 19 January 2022

Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU

Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU
  • The men were arrested without incident near Venice before dawn

FOSSALTA DI PIAVE, Italy: Police in Italy and Albania have arrested more than 20 people accused of cashing in several hundred million euros to smuggle hundreds of refugees and migrants into the EU from Turkey on rented yachts and other leisure vessels, authorities said on Wednesday.

Two brothers who are Iraqi citizens are accused of masterminding a smuggling ring that mostly involved people fleeing Iraq and Syria. The men were arrested without incident near Venice before dawn.

The suspects, identified as Alaa Qasim Rahima, 38, and Omar Qasim Rahima, 30, are accused of running a ring that helped bring Syrians from Turkey to the EU using a network of associates in various countries.

They are believed to be part of a wider ring with as many as 80 members that allegedly organized at least 30 smuggling operations that transported at least 1,100 people by boat from Turkey to Europe.


Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival

Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival
Updated 19 January 2022

Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival

Wounds of war cast pall on Ethiopia’s epiphany festival
  • A former seat of the royal empire in Amhara region, Gondar has long been premier spot to mark Timkat

GONDAR, Ethiopia: Growing up, Arega Tekeba’s fondest memories involved the feasts his father would prepare for Ethiopia’s Orthodox epiphany festival Timkat — the way he would lead their family in song while roasting a freshly slaughtered sheep. But those memories are now acutely painful.

Arega’s father, an ethnic Amhara militiaman, was shot dead last year while battling ethnic Tigrayan rebels, joining thousands of others killed in the 14-month war ravaging Africa’s second-most populous country.

Wary of spending this year’s Timkat with grieving relatives, Arega instead celebrated alone on Wednesday in the northern city of Gondar, where residents said thoughts of the war dead cast a pall over a typically joyous occasion.

A former seat of the royal empire in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, Gondar has long been the premier spot to mark Timkat, which commemorates Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan.

Donning sparkling white tunics and dresses, worshippers march in a raucous parade each year that culminates in an all-night prayer session, then leap the next morning into 17th-century stone baths filled with holy water. This week, though, the festivities were stained with signs of the war’s toll: Gondar’s hospitals teemed with wounded combatants, while families like Arega’s confronted the absence of the deceased.

“There are people who lost more relatives than me. I know one house where six or seven people are dead,” Arega, also a militia fighter, said.

“It’s the memories that make us sad, even more than the deaths.”

Ethiopia’s war broke out in November 2020 following months of mounting rancor between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the former ruling party of the northernmost Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

After several twists and turns on the battlefield, a government offensive has turned the tide yet again, with the rebels retreating into Tigray.

Foreign powers now hope the two sides can reach a deal to end fighting that has displaced millions and, according to UN estimates, driven hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation.

The US this week sent its top Africa diplomat and its regional special envoy to Addis Ababa, eyeing what it terms an “opening for peace.”

But any push by Abiy for reconciliation would encounter stiff resistance in Gondar, where combatants, politicians and ordinary residents celebrating Timkat told AFP that the TPLF, officially a terrorist group, must now be destroyed.

The mere idea of talks is “an insult for the Amhara people,” said Demoz Kassie Mekonnen, a senior official in the National Movement of Amhara, an opposition party.


Indonesian militant linked to Bali bombings jailed for 15 years

Indonesian militant linked to Bali bombings jailed for 15 years
Updated 19 January 2022

Indonesian militant linked to Bali bombings jailed for 15 years

Indonesian militant linked to Bali bombings jailed for 15 years
  • Zulkarnaen sentenced on terrorism charges after being labeled a ‘key asset’ for radical group
  • Extremist leader with ties to Al-Qaeda arrested in December 2020 after evading capture for 18 years

JAKARTA: A former commander of a militant group linked to the 2002 Bali bombings was sentenced to 15 years in prison on terrorism charges by an Indonesian court on Wednesday.

Arif Sunarso, known as Zulkarnaen, was a commander of Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, a Southeast Asian group with ties to Al-Qaeda.

The group was blamed for bomb attacks on two nightclubs that killed 202 people on the Indonesian holiday island of Bali in 2002.

Zulkarnaen was arrested in December 2020 after evading capture for 18 years.

In its verdict on Wednesday, the East Jakarta District Court said the 58-year-old was “proven guilty of committing terrorism and is sentenced to 15 years behind bars.”

Zulkarnaen was convicted of withholding information and sheltering another militant. The sentencing did not relate directly to the 2002 attacks.

Indonesian prosecutors had demanded a life sentence for Zulkarnaen, describing him as a “key asset” for JI due to his experience in training militants in Afghanistan and the Philippines.

Zulkarnaen became the group’s operations chief following the arrest of his predecessor, Encep Nurjaman, known as Hambali, in Thailand in 2003.

During his trial, which began last September, Zulkarnaen said that he had led JI’s military wing but was not involved in the Bali bombings.

Asludin Hatjani, Zulkarnaen’s defense lawyer, told Arab News that he believed the sentence was disproportionately severe.

“Based on the evidence presented in the trial, the 15-year sentence is too long,” Hatjani said. “In the verdict, (Zulkarnaen) was not convicted because of the Bali bombing case, but rather his involvement as a member of JI, because JI is an illegal organization.”

However, Thiolina Marpaung, a survivor of the 2002 attack, said the verdict came as a disappointment.

“He should have been given life in prison,” Marpaung said. “He spent 18 years as a fugitive and didn’t surrender of his own accord. That means he still had bad intentions.”

Nasir Abbas, a former senior member of JI who is working with the Indonesian government on deradicalization programs, said it was important that Zulkarnaen be deradicalized as he was still a respected figure among JI militants. “It’s important to deradicalize him before he is allowed to mingle with other terrorism convicts or general prisoners,” Abbas told Arab News.
Noor Huda Ismail, a former member of the militant group Darul Islam and now an expert on militancy and deradicalization, said Zulkarnaen’s case demonstrates JI’s vast network and its determination to protect key members. 

"JI threat will not go away with this verdict," he added.


Pakistani capital on high alert after deadly militant attack

Pakistani capital on high alert after deadly militant attack
Updated 19 January 2022

Pakistani capital on high alert after deadly militant attack

Pakistani capital on high alert after deadly militant attack
  • On late Monday, two militants on a motorbike opened fire, killing a police officer and injuring two others in the center of Islamabad
  • Militants often target security forces in Pakistan, but the country’s capital has been largely peaceful in recent years

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistani government has put the federal capital Islamabad on high alert after a recent militant attack in which an officer was killed and two others injured, police said on Wednesday.

Militants often target security forces in Pakistan, but the country’s capital has been largely peaceful in recent years.

On late Monday, two militants on a motorbike opened fire on police officials who were patrolling the city. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who on Tuesday attended the funeral of the officer killed in the attack, said both militants were killed during the shootout.

The minister did not share more details about the incident, but the proscribed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan issued a statement claiming responsibility for the assault.

Inspector Naeem Iqbal, a spokesperson for the Islamabad Police, told Arab News on Wednesday that the Pakistani capital “has been put on high alert after the terrorist attack.”

“A comprehensive strategy has been devised to avoid recurrence of the attacks on police officials,” he said, adding that 55 police have been killed in the city in different militant attacks in the past seven years.

“The overall law and order in the federal capital is under control,” Iqbal said. “We are implementing snap-checking and carrying out combing operations in different areas of the city to apprehend the criminals.”

The TTP, which are a separate movement from the Afghan Taliban, have fought for years to overthrow the government in Islamabad and rule with their own brand of Islamic law. In December, the group declared an end to a month-long ceasefire, accusing the Pakistani government of breaching terms including a prisoner release agreement and the formation of negotiating committees.
Earlier this month, the head of the Pakistani army’s media wing said armed operations against the group had been relaunched since the end of the ceasefire.

Khawaja Khalid Farooq, a former chief of the National Counter-Terrorism Authority, told Arab News that the militants are now trying to show their strength after talks with the government had failed.

“They have adopted a hit-and-run approach to target Islamabad police to create a scare in the federal capital,” he said, adding that different militant groups have joined their hands lately to target security forces across the country.

He expressed doubt over the possibility of any major attacks but said militants were still a challenge for the country’s security apparatus.

“Militant groups in Pakistan have weakened over the years in the wake of military operations, but we should acknowledge that their sleeper cells still exist to carry out sporadic terror activities,” Farooq said.

“Regular operations against the militants based on intelligence information can help deal with the challenge.”

Security analyst retired Gen. Ejaz Awan said the Islamabad attack was an isolated incident.

“This is neither a trend nor a fresh wave of militancy in Pakistan,” he told Arab News. “People should not panic. Our vigilant and brave security forces have already broken the backbone of the militants.”

Best known in the West for attempting to kill Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl who went on to win the Nobel Prize for her work promoting girls’ education, the TTP have killed thousands of military personnel and civilians over the years in bombings and suicide attacks.

Among their attacks was a 2014 assault on a military-run school in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which killed 149 people, including 132 children.

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