Qatar, Turkey discuss plans to connect Afghanistan, Taliban to outside world

Qatar, Turkey discuss plans to connect Afghanistan, Taliban to outside world
Turkish FM Mevlut Cavusoglu, left, and Qatari FM Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani hold a joint press conference following their meeting in Doha, Dec. 6, 2021. (Getty Images)
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Updated 07 December 2021

Qatar, Turkey discuss plans to connect Afghanistan, Taliban to outside world

Qatar, Turkey discuss plans to connect Afghanistan, Taliban to outside world
  • Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani discussed options for their countries to jointly run Kabul airport
  • Turkish troops have guarded the Afghan capital’s airport for around six years, while Red Crescent groups from Turkey and Qatar have been working to deliver aid to Afghans

ANKARA: The foreign ministers of Turkey and Qatar have reviewed plans for the return to normal operations of Kabul’s international airport in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani on Monday discussed options for their countries to jointly run the airport and ways to deliver further humanitarian aid to the Afghan people under conditions agreeable with the Taliban.

Turkish troops have guarded the Afghan capital’s airport for around six years, Red Crescent groups from Turkey and Qatar have been working to deliver aid to Afghans, and a Turkish overseas education foundation has kept its schools open for girls and boys.

During a joint press conference in Doha, Sheikh Mohammed said Qatar and Turkey were ready to control Kabul airport if the Taliban agreed to it.

“Qatar and Turkey are continuously working with the interim government in Afghanistan to reach an agreement to open the airport (so it can function) normally,” he added.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Doha on Monday for two days of talks to rebuild ties.

In November, the US signed an agreement with Qatar to designate the Gulf country as the power to protect American interests in Afghanistan, considering it a trusted mediator. Qatar and Turkey played significant roles in the evacuation process out of Afghanistan after the Taliban swept to power.

Samuel Ramani, a Middle East analyst at the University of Oxford, told Arab News that Turkey and Qatar could cooperate on calling for limited waivers on US-imposed asset freezes against the Taliban, and leverage their respective bargaining power in Western capitals to achieve that outcome.

He said: “Turkey and Qatar can also coordinate on alleviating Afghanistan’s food security crisis, as Qatar’s experience working with the World Food Program in theaters such as Yemen, could be effective in Afghanistan.”

Ramani noted that Turkey had also been ramping up food aid shipments, such as wheat, to Afghanistan over the past month.

“Neither Turkey nor Qatar is likely to provide the Taliban with recognition as Afghanistan’s legitimate authority, but both will encourage engagement with the new Islamic emirate,” he added.

During Monday’s meeting, Cavusoglu urged the international community to engage in dialogue with the Taliban by “distinguishing” between the political and humanitarian aspects.

Zalmai Nishat, research fellow at the University of Sussex’s Asia Center, said the Taliban wanted Turkey to get involved in the operationalization of Kabul airport alongside Qatar.

He told Arab News: “From a historical perspective, Turkey is seen as the successor of the Ottoman empire and is respected by the people of Afghanistan, with the memories of the Caliphate. Also, Turkey is an ally of the US and the EU being a key country within NATO.”

Nishat pointed out that during peace talks between the former government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, control of Kabul airport had been a critical issue and the parties had looked upon Turkey as an ideal partner.

“Ankara must design a robust policy about Afghanistan, which would enable it to put pressure on the Taliban and their supporters to create a political system where diverse ethnic communities of Afghanistan feel themselves at home and feel included in the political system, with a fair representation,” he added.

Turkey, allegedly having established intelligence contacts with some Taliban-linked militia in the country, also has strong historical and ethnic ties in Afghanistan, with its non-combat troops on the ground in the past as a member of the NATO alliance.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish program at the Washington Institute, told Arab News that the Taliban needed legitimacy at this stage by establishing themselves as credible actors through the channels of Qatar and Turkey and in doing so help connect the group with the rest of the world.

He said: “Turkey is still looking to position itself as a connection between the Taliban and the outside world. Qatar comes first, with closer ties with the Taliban historically and politically. Turkey would come after Qatar in this political play, but the two countries can play a critical role in maintaining the security of flights in the short term.”

In the medium term, Cagaptay added, Turkey had significant soft power on the ground in Afghanistan that had been developed since the beginning of the early years of the Turkish republic, and it could be used to reach out to Afghan society through its local ties.


Jailed French tourist to appear in Iran court on spying charges

Jailed French tourist to appear in Iran court on spying charges
Updated 58 min 23 sec ago

Jailed French tourist to appear in Iran court on spying charges

Jailed French tourist to appear in Iran court on spying charges
  • Benjamin Briere was arrested while operating a remote-controlled mini helicopter in a desert area near the Turkmenistan-Iran border
  • Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of dual nationals and foreigners in recent years, mostly on espionage charges

DUBAI: A jailed French tourist in Iran, Benjamin Briere, will appear before a Revolutionary Court on Thursday on spying charges, his lawyer said on Wednesday, over a year after his arrest while operating a remote-controlled mini helicopter in a desert area.
“Benjamin will attend the court to be tried for spying and acting against national security charges,” one of his lawyers Saeid Dehghan told Reuters.
Briere has been held since May 2020, when he was arrested after flying a helicam — a remote-controlled mini helicopter used to obtain aerial or motion images — in the desert near the Turkmenistan-Iran border. He was charged with espionage and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”
His trial comes as the United States and parties to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal including France are trying to restore the pact, which was abandoned in 2018 by then-US president Donald Trump. Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of dual nationals and foreigners in recent years, mostly on espionage charges.
Rights activists have accused Iran of arresting dual citizens and foreigners to try to win concessions from other countries. Tehran denies holding people for political reasons.


US warns against travel to 3 Arab countries over COVID-19

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel warning against three Arab countries. (Shutterstock)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel warning against three Arab countries. (Shutterstock)
Updated 19 January 2022

US warns against travel to 3 Arab countries over COVID-19

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel warning against three Arab countries. (Shutterstock)
  • Countries have been included in “Level 3: High” category, which advises against unvaccinated and non-essential travel

LONDON: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel warning against three Arab countries due to rising COVID-19 cases. 

Bahrain, Egypt, Qatar and 19 other countries have been included in the “Level 3: High” category, which advises against unvaccinated and non-essential travel.

Other countries added to the highest warning level for the first time include Albania, Bolivia, Cape Verde, Grenada, Guyana, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Sao Tome and Principe, Suriname, the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.


Twelve Syrian police wounded in bus blast: state media

Twelve Syrian police wounded in bus blast: state media
Updated 19 January 2022

Twelve Syrian police wounded in bus blast: state media

Twelve Syrian police wounded in bus blast: state media
  • The device exploded near Jisr Saida in Daraa province, SANA said
  • Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 20 attacks have been recorded in Daraa province since the beginning of the year

DAMASCUS: Twelve members of Syria’s internal security forces were lightly wounded Wednesday in a bomb blast on a police bus in the southern province of Daraa, state news agency SANA reported.
The device exploded near Jisr Saida in Daraa province, SANA said.
Daraa province and its capital of the same name, the cradle of Syria’s 2011 uprising, returned to government control in 2018.
However, holdout rebels who stayed on in a southern part of the city called Daraa Al-Balad continued to battle regime forces last year.
A Moscow-brokered 2021 truce saw dozens of opposition fighters bused out of the city, but some have stayed on.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has an extensive network of sources inside Syria, said 20 attacks have been recorded in Daraa province since the beginning of the year.
The war monitor says 16 people have been killed in those attacks, including eight civilians.
In October last year, two bombs planted on an army bus in the capital Damascus killed at least 14 people and wounded three others, the worst such attack there in four years, according to SANA.
The Syria conflict, which broke out in 2011, has killed close to half a million people and spurred the largest conflict-induced displacement since World War II.


Algeria shuts schools for 10 days as COVID-19 infections surge

Algeria shuts schools for 10 days as COVID-19 infections surge
Updated 19 January 2022

Algeria shuts schools for 10 days as COVID-19 infections surge

Algeria shuts schools for 10 days as COVID-19 infections surge
  • University staff and health authorities should decide whether to continue with in-person classes: Statement
  • Tebboune urged officials to set a “robust testing structure” in public heath facilities and in private laboratories

ALGIERS: Algeria's leader on Wednesday ordered all elementary and high schools closed for 10 days because of surging COVID-19 infections in the North African country and authorities tightened entry requirements at airports.
The decision by Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to cancel classes starting Thursday came after an emergency meeting Wednesday of the Council of Ministers, members of the COVID-19 scientific committee and the country's security officials.
The presidential statement said university staff and health authorities should decide themselves whether to continue with in-person classes.
Algeria is battling infections from both the delta variant infections and the fast-spreading omicron variant. On Wednesday, heath officials reported a daily record of 1,359 omicron cases and 12 deaths.
Tebboune urged officials to set a “robust testing structure” in public heath facilities and in private laboratories.
In December, Algeria started requiring a vaccine passport to enter many public venues, seeking to boost the country’s low inoculation rate and overcome vaccine hesitancy that has left millions of vaccines unused. Less than a quarter of Algeria’s population has had even one vaccine dose.
The pass is also required for anyone entering or leaving Algeria, as well as for entering sports facilities, cinemas, theaters, museums, town halls and other sites like hammams — bath houses that are popular across the region.
Official figures show Algeria has seen 6,433 COVID-related deaths since the pandemic began, but even members of the government’s scientific committee admit the real figure is much higher. Out of fears of being blamed for getting the virus, some Algerians keep their infections secret, which then puts others at risk.


UN launches $1.6bn appeal to support Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

UN launches $1.6bn appeal to support Palestinian refugees in Lebanon
Updated 19 January 2022

UN launches $1.6bn appeal to support Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

UN launches $1.6bn appeal to support Palestinian refugees in Lebanon
  • The number of Palestinian refugees displaced from Syria to Lebanon had decreased from more than 40,000 to 18,000, according to a census by the Palestine Liberation Organization

BEIRUT: The UN on Wednesday launched a special international appeal for $1.6 billion to help improve living conditions for Palestinian refugees in crisis-hit Lebanon.

Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner general of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, made the donations plea for “vital humanitarian assistance” as part of the agency’s focus on this year’s “funding requirements and priorities.”

Addressing a press conference at the UN’s Beirut office, he said: “UNRWA is seeking to obtain $1.6 billion from the international community in 2022 to support Palestinian refugees.

“This funding will enable UNRWA to cover the needs of millions of Palestine refugees and provide them with vital lifesaving services and programs, which include education, health, and food aid, as well as additional emergency funding to meet the humanitarian needs arising from crises in Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, Syria, and Lebanon,” he added.

The appeal came in the wake of an open sit-in carried out by dozens of Palestinian refugees in front of the UNRWA headquarters in the Lebanese capital. The demonstrators have been protesting the agency’s decision to cancel a rental allowance for Palestinians displaced from Syria to Lebanon during the Syrian war.

They set up a tent dubbed Tent 194, in reference to the international resolution that stipulates the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes.

The number of Palestinian refugees displaced from Syria to Lebanon had decreased from more than 40,000 to 18,000, according to a census by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Some had returned to Syria, while others had legally migrated from Lebanon to Europe, specifically in the context of family reunification, and a number had drowned off the Lebanese coast while trying to escape by boat.

Lazzarini said: “UNRWA is facing a chronic funding shortfall that undermines its efforts to provide humanitarian support to some of the most vulnerable refugees in the world, whose needs are constantly increasing, while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose serious health risks and exacerbate economic difficulties across the region.

“An estimated 2.3 million Palestinian refugees are now believed to live in poverty. Anguish and despair prevail among the Palestinian refugees, and many in Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon have expressed their willingness to use any means to try to emigrate outside the region,” he added.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, similar to Lebanese citizens, are having to contend with the fallout from the country’s economic collapse.

Hisham Debsi, director of the independent Palestinian center Tatweer for Strategic Studies and Human Development, told Arab News: “There is no food crisis in the Palestinian refugee camps because more than 16,000 Palestinians receive their salaries from the PLO in US dollars, and employees of UNRWA and Islamic organizations in the camps receive high salaries in US dollars.

“A large number of refugees receive social benefits in US dollars, and those who are not paid by the Palestinian factions, are provided financial assistance by the active Palestinian civil society organizations.

“Refugees struggle with health and educational services. The beds allocated to UNRWA in hospitals in various Lebanese areas are limited, and the Palestinian health insurance is limited to Red Crescent hospitals, whose health services the refugees find questionable, and the UNRWA budget, as it claims, does not allow it to increase health coverage.

“The greatest harm is in the education sector because UNRWA services do not cover all tuition fees, so schools are being merged, which leads to overcrowding, thus resulting in a decline in the educational services,” he said.

The biggest issue being faced by the latest generation of Palestinians has been a lack of job opportunities. Debsi noted that a Tatweer study had found that most young Palestinians were looking to immigrate to a third country to obtain another nationality that would secure them a better life, while many no longer had plans to return to Palestine.

“These young people have recently launched movements in search of resettlement in a third country. They succeeded in collecting the files of 10,000 Palestinian youth, and they delegated a group on their behalf to transfer their files from the UNRWA to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as individuals who want to emigrate and not as Palestinian refugees.

“This action has provoked the Palestinian factions, that tried to suppress these movements,” Debsi added.

Ayham Sahli, an assistant researcher at the Institute for Palestinian Studies in Lebanon and an activist for Palestinian refugees who fled from Syrian to Lebanon, told Arab News: “The reduction in the UNRWA budget allocated to Palestinian refugees who fled from Syria to Lebanon was unjustified. It reduced the aid from $115 per person to $25, citing lack of funding.

“Not all Palestinian refugees in Lebanon receive aid; many suffer under extreme poverty, especially those who are not affiliated with any Palestinian faction and are not in contact with any civil society organization.”