Western diplomats meet Afghan activists amid Taliban talks

Western diplomats meet Afghan activists amid Taliban talks
International special representatives and representatives from the Taliban attend a meeting on January 24, 2022 in Oslo, Norway. (AFP)
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Updated 24 January 2022

Western diplomats meet Afghan activists amid Taliban talks

Western diplomats meet Afghan activists amid Taliban talks
  • The EU, the US, Britain, France, Italy and hosts Norway in attendance
  • Taliban expected to lobby for release of $10 billion in assets frozen by US

OSLO: Western diplomats are meeting with Afghan women’s rights activists and human rights defenders in Oslo ahead of the first official talks with the Taliban in Europe since they took over control of Afghanistan in August.
The closed-door meeting was a chance to hear from civil society in Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora about their demands and assessment of the current situation on the ground. The meeting was taking place at a hotel in the snow-capped mountains above the Norwegian capital and was attended by representatives of the EU, the US, Britain, France, Italy and hosts Norway.
The three-day talks opened on Sunday with direct meetings between the Taliban and civil society representatives.
A joint statement tweeted overnight by Zabihullah Mujahid, the Afghan deputy culture and information minister, following the talks reads that “participants of the meeting recognized that understanding and joint cooperation are the only solutions to all the problems of Afghanistan,” and emphasized that “all Afghans need to work together for better political, economic and security outcomes in the country.”
Later on Monday, Western diplomats are set to meet with Taliban representatives who will be certain to press their demand that nearly $10 billion frozen by the United States and other Western countries be released as Afghanistan faces a precarious humanitarian situation.
“We are requesting them to unfreeze Afghan assets and not punish ordinary Afghans because of the political discourse,” said Taliban delegate Shafiullah Azam. “Because of the starvation, because of the deadly winter, I think it’s time for the international community to support Afghans, not punish them because of their political disputes.”
The United Nations has managed to provide some liquidity and allowed the Taliban administration to pay for imports, including electricity. But the UN has warned that as many as 1 million Afghan children are in danger of starving and most of the country’s 38 million people are living below the poverty line.
Faced with the Taliban’s request for funds, Western powers are likely to put the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan high on their agenda, along with the West’s recurring demand for the Taliban administration to share power with Afghanistan’s minority ethnic and religious groups.
Since sweeping to power in mid-August, the Taliban have imposed widespread restrictions, many of them directed at women. Women have been banned from many jobs outside the health and education fields, their access to education has been restricted beyond sixth grade and they have been ordered to wear the hijab. The Taliban have, however, stopped short of imposing the burqa, which was compulsory when they previously ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.
The Taliban have increasingly targeted Afghanistan’s beleaguered rights groups, as well as journalists, detaining and sometimes beating television crews covering demonstrations.
A US delegation, led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West, plans to discuss “the formation of a representative political system; responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises; security and counterterrorism concerns; and human rights, especially education for girls and women,” according to a statement released by the US State Department.
The Scandinavian country, home to the Nobel Peace Prize, is no stranger to diplomacy. It has been involved in peace efforts in a number of countries, including Mozambique, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Colombia, the Philippines, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Syria, Myanmar, Somalia, Sri Lanka and South Sudan.


Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses Cannes Film Festival

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses Cannes Film Festival
Updated 17 May 2022

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses Cannes Film Festival

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses Cannes Film Festival
  • Volodymyr Zelensky referred to the power of cinema during World War II, including the 1940 Charlie Chaplin film ‘The Great Dictator’ which mocked Nazi leader Adolf Hitler
  • Zelensky: ‘We need a new Chaplin to prove today that cinema is not mute. Will cinema keep quiet, or will it speak up? Can cinema stay outside of this?’

CANNES, France: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky made a surprise video address at the opening ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday.
“Hundreds of people are dying every day. They won’t get up again after the clapping at the end,” he told the audience, which had reacted with surprise when the pre-recorded message was introduced.
“Will cinema keep quiet, or will it speak up? If there is a dictator, if there is a war for freedom, once again, everything depends on our unity. Can cinema stay outside of this unity?” Zelensky added.
Zelensky referred to the power of cinema during World War II, including the 1940 Charlie Chaplin film “The Great Dictator” which mocked Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
“Chaplin’s dictator did not destroy the real dictator, but thanks to cinema, thanks to this film, cinema did not stay quiet,” Zelensky said.
“We need a new Chaplin to prove today that cinema is not mute. Will cinema keep quiet, or will it speak up? Can cinema stay outside of this?”
His speech received a standing ovation from the crowd in the southern French resort town’s Palais des Festivals.
The war is a dominant theme for the 75th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, with a special day dedicated to Ukraine’s filmmakers at the industry marketplace.
“Mariupolis 2,” a documentary about the conflict by Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravicius, who was reportedly killed by Russian forces in Ukraine last month, will get a special screening.
Zelensky similarly addressed the Grammy awards ceremony in Las Vegas last month, telling the crowd: “Our musicians wear body armor instead of tuxedos. They sing to the wounded in hospitals.”
The opening ceremony in Cannes had introduced the jury and handed an honorary Palme d’Or to actor and peace activist Forest Whitaker.
“The torments of the world, which is bleeding, suffering, burning... they rack my conscience,” French actor and jury president Vincent Lindon said in his speech.


Hundreds of Ukrainians defending Azovstal plant surrender to uncertain fate

Hundreds of Ukrainians defending Azovstal plant surrender to uncertain fate
Updated 17 May 2022

Hundreds of Ukrainians defending Azovstal plant surrender to uncertain fate

Hundreds of Ukrainians defending Azovstal plant surrender to uncertain fate
  • Russian forces pummelled Mariupol, a major port on the Sea of Azov between Russia and Crimea, with artillery for weeks
  • Civilians and Ukrainian fighters had hunkered down in Azovstal

MARIUPOL, Ukraine: Hundreds of Ukrainian fighters surrendered to an uncertain fate on Tuesday after weeks holed up in the bunkers and tunnels below Mariupol’s Azovstal steel works as the most devastating siege of Russia’s war in Ukraine drew to a close.
Russian forces pummelled Mariupol, a major port on the Sea of Azov between Russia and Crimea, with artillery for weeks. After the urban warfare that followed, the city is a wasteland.
Civilians and Ukrainian fighters had hunkered down in Azovstal, a vast Soviet-era plant founded under Josef Stalin and designed with a maze of bunkers and tunnels to withstand nuclear attack.
Russia’s defense ministry said 265 fighters had surrendered, including 51 who were seriously wounded and would be treated at Novoazovsk in the Russian-backed breakaway Donetsk region.
Five buses took wounded fighters there early on Tuesday, and in the evening a Reuters witness saw seven more, escorted by armored vehicles. They brought other Azovstal fighters to a newly reopened prison in Olenivka near the regional capital Donetsk.
The occupants were not visibly wounded. One bore a prominent tattoo on his neck featuring a Ukrainian national trident symbol.
Ukraine’s military command had said in the early hours that it was ending the mission to defend the plant, led by the Azov Regiment, which had previously insisted it would not surrender and appealed to Kyiv to organize an extraction.
“Because Mariupol drew in the Russian Federation’s forces for 82 days, the operation to seize the east and south (of Ukraine) was held up. It changed the course of the war,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said.
It was unclear what would happen to the fighters.
Moscow has depicted the Azov Regiment as one of the main perpetrators of the alleged radical anti-Russian nationalism or even Nazism from which it says it needs to protect Ukraine’s Russian-speakers.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed that the fighters who surrendered would be treated “in accordance with international standards.”
ACCUSATIONS
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said in a video that “an exchange procedure will take place for their return home.”
But Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house, said: “Nazi criminals should not be exchanged.”
The TASS news agency said Russian federal investigators would question the soldiers as part of a probe into what Moscow calls “Ukrainian regime crimes.”
And Russian deputy ambassador to the United Nations Dmitry Polyansky said there had been no deal, tweeting: “I didn’t know English has so many ways to express a single message: the #Azovnazis have unconditionally surrendered.”
Civilians evacuated earlier had spoken of desperate conditions in the bunkers, and some fighters had endured horrific battle injuries with minimal medical assistance.
The Azov Regiment was formed in 2014 as an extreme right-wing volunteer militia to fight Russian-backed separatists who had taken control of parts of the Donbas — the largely Russian-speaking industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine where Russia says it wants to end Ukrainian rule.
The regiment denies being fascist, racist or neo-Nazi, and Ukraine says it has been reformed away from its radical nationalist origins to be integrated into the National Guard.
Kyiv also denies that Russian speakers have been persecuted in Ukraine, and says the allegation that it has a fascist agenda, repeated daily on Russian media, is a baseless pretext for a Russian war of aggression.
Russia’s Prosecutor General’s office asked the Supreme Court to class the regiment as a “terrorist organization,” Interfax news agency reported, citing the Ministry of Justice website.
Lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, one of Russia’s negotiators in talks with Ukraine, called the evacuated combatants “animals in human form” and said they should receive the death penalty.
“They do not deserve to live after the monstrous crimes against humanity that they have committed and that are committed continuously against our prisoners,” he said.


Sri Lanka Parliament blocks no-confidence motion against embattled president

Sri Lanka Parliament blocks no-confidence motion against embattled president
Updated 17 May 2022

Sri Lanka Parliament blocks no-confidence motion against embattled president

Sri Lanka Parliament blocks no-confidence motion against embattled president
  • Nationwide protests have been demanding Gotabaya Rajapaksa resign over worsening economic crisis
  • New PM warns that upcoming months will be ‘most difficult ones of our lives’

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s ruling party on Tuesday blocked a no-confidence motion against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose removal from office has been central to nationwide protests triggered by the worst economic crisis in the country’s history.

The South Asian island nation is on the brink of bankruptcy, with the government seeking an economic lifeline from other countries and institutions in order to continue importing basic supplies, medicines and fuel.

Mass protests across the island nation have been demanding Rajapaksa’s ouster for over a month, with demonstrators blaming him for leading the country to bankruptcy. 

Tuesday’s motion, tabled by M.A. Sumanthiran of the opposition Tamil National Alliance party, sought to bypass procedure to censure the president for the crisis. It was defeated by the ruling party with a 119-68 vote.

“Your names have been displayed on the board today. The country now knows who is protecting the president, who does not protect you,” Sumanthiran told parliamentarians after the vote. 

Sri Lankan protesters have been demanding that the Rajapaksas, the nation’s most influential political dynasty, be removed from the country’s politics.

The family faces accusations of corruption and mishandling the economy, as the country of 22 million suffers from increasing shortages of essential goods, along with record inflation and lengthy blackouts.

Tuesday’s outcome appears to have strengthened protesters’ demands for the president to quit.

“We are thoroughly disappointed about the appointment of a prime minister who is another stooge of the Rajapaksa family,” Anuruddha Bandara, an activist behind the #GotaGoHome campaign on social media, told Arab News.

“We will not let this go until the president steps down.”

It is unclear whether the no-confidence motion will be taken up again. 

The parliamentary session on Tuesday was the first since clashes between protesters, government supporters and police left nine dead and hundreds injured last week. It was also the first with new PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took office after Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, quit in the wake of the deadly confrontations.

On Monday, Wickremesinghe offered a somber assessment of the nation’s dire outlook, saying that about $75 billion is needed urgently to help provide essential items, while the country’s treasury is struggling to find even $1 billion.

“At the moment, we only have petrol stocks for a single day,” he said in a televised speech. “The next couple of months will be the most difficult ones of our lives.”


Afghan refugees in Pakistan help keep honey business abuzz

Afghan refugees in Pakistan help keep honey business abuzz
Updated 17 May 2022

Afghan refugees in Pakistan help keep honey business abuzz

Afghan refugees in Pakistan help keep honey business abuzz
  • Afghan workers main force behind beekeeping in major honey exporting country Pakistan
  • First generation of beekeepers trained by UN refugee agency in 1980s

PESHAWAR: Four decades ago, when war broke out in Afghanistan, Nazak Mir and his family left their home to seek safety in neighboring Pakistan and soon began a new life as refugees.

When they crossed the border from Gardez in Paktia province to Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 1981, Mir arrived empty handed, but with a skill that in exile unexpectedly gave him a chance to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors as a beekeeper.

“Among other things, we left behind 54 beehive boxes that my elder uncle had kept for years. It was a family business before migration,” he told Arab News.

When the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, offered beekeeping training in the refugee camp where his family had taken shelter, he knew it would be lifechanging.

“I was one of the first people to sign up for the beekeeping training in 1983,” he said. “Today, I am the owner of 150 boxes.”

Besides setting in motion his own career as a businessman, Mir also became a mentor to thousands of other refugees in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The hilly province bordering Afghanistan hosts nearly 800,000 Afghans who fled armed conflict in their country. They are now the main force behind beekeeping in Pakistan, a major exporter of honey.

The South Asian nation currently produces an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 tons of honey annually, and exports more than a fifth of it to Gulf countries, after the industry rebounded from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, according to All Pakistan Beekeepers, Exporters, and Honey Traders Association secretary-general, Sher Zaman Mohmand.

He told Arab News that the number of people involved in the sector, including other production activities than beekeeping, was around 1.6 million, and 95 percent of them lived in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the climate and terrain are conducive to honey production.

“Of them, more than 60 percent are Afghan refugees,” he said.

Some of them, similar to Mir, have already introduced their children to the profession.

“Now, my son has started his own beekeeping business,” he said. But he expressed worries as to whether it would remain lucrative in the future.

Pakistan is one the nations most affected by disasters driven by the changing climate, and for the past few years has endured heightened heatwaves that have upended its natural ecosystems.

With challenges related to climate change and deforestation depriving bees of food, their populations have been decimated in recent years.

“Lack of food causes the bees to fight amongst each other,” Mir’s son, Farhadullah, said. “Hot and cold weather also affects their health and honey production.”

Erratic swings in weather patterns have also changed harvest times.

“Honey producing seasons are defined by different flowering seasons. Timely and enough rains often result in four or five honey producing seasons while drought years reduce the honey seasons to just two,” Mohmand said, adding that he felt the situation could be mitigated if the government introduced strict measures to curb deforestation.

Pakistan has been trying to reforest the country and launched an ambitious five-year tree-planting program, the 10-Billion Tree Tsunami, to counter the rising temperatures, flooding, droughts, and other extreme weather in the country that scientists link to climate change.

While more than 330 million trees have already been planted under the initiative, mostly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Mohmand said the push should extend to other provinces as well, especially around the sites of the $65 billion Beijing-funded China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the largest infrastructure investment project in the country.

“The government could promote forestry, particularly along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor routes,” Mohmand said. “Plants like the Indian rosewood, acacia, and jujube can be grown in many areas, including on barren lands across the country.”


India's top court revokes ban on large prayer gatherings in mosque

India's top court revokes ban on large prayer gatherings in mosque
Updated 17 May 2022

India's top court revokes ban on large prayer gatherings in mosque

India's top court revokes ban on large prayer gatherings in mosque
  • Court order comes a day after a local court in Varanasi ruled Islamic gatherings there should be limited to 20 people
  • Leaders of India's Muslims view survey inside the mosque as attempts to undermine their rights to free worship and religious expression

NEW DELHI: India's Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a local order to ban large Muslim prayer gatherings in a high-profile mosque in north India after a survey team said it found relics of the Hindu god Shiva and other Hindu symbols there.
The top court in an interim order stated Muslims right to prayer should not be disturbed, and simultaneously the area where Hindu religious relics were said to be found should be protected.
The disagreement over rights to worship at the mosque follows a decades-long campaign by Hindu activists to show that key Muslim-built buildings in India sit atop older holy sites. A previous dispute 30 years ago led to fatal rioting.
The Supreme Court order comes a day after a local court in Varanasi - Hinduism's holiest city and the site of the historic Gyanvapi mosque - ruled Islamic gatherings there should be limited to 20 people.
The local court had ordered the survey of the mosque after five women sought permission to perform Hindu rituals in one part of it, saying a Hindu temple once stood on the site.
The Gyanvapi mosque, located in the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is one of several mosques in northern Uttar Pradesh that some Hindus believe was built on top of demolished Hindu temples.
Hardline Hindu groups tied to Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have stepped up demands to excavate inside some mosques and to permit searches in the Taj Mahal mausoleum.
Judges of the top court will continue hearing from Hindu and Muslim petitioners this week.
Leaders of India's 200 million Muslims view the survey inside the mosque as attempts to undermine their rights to free worship and religious expression, with the BJP's tacit agreement.
The BJP denies bias against minorities including Muslims, and says it wants progressive change that benefits all Indians.
In 2019, the Supreme Court allowed Hindus to build a temple at the site of the disputed 16th century Babri mosque that was demolished by Hindu crowds in 1992 who believed it was built where Hindu Lord Ram was born.
The demolition led to religious riots that killed nearly 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, across India.