US confirms death of second citizen in Ukraine

US confirms death of second citizen in Ukraine
Kyiv says it has “finally” deployed advanced German artillery system, in the latest delivery of the long-range, precision weapons that it has been calling for on Tuesday, when a second American was killed fighting for Ukraine. (AFP)
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Updated 21 June 2022

US confirms death of second citizen in Ukraine

US confirms death of second citizen in Ukraine
  • The State Department said that 52-year-old Stephen Zabielski died in Ukraine
  • Zabielski is the second American known to be killed fighting for Ukraine

WASHINGTON: The United States on Tuesday confirmed that a second American was killed fighting for Ukraine, as it warned of risks amid worries over two other US citizens captured battling Russia.
The State Department said that 52-year-old Stephen Zabielski died in Ukraine and that it was providing his family with consular assistance.
“We once again reiterate US citizens should not travel to Ukraine due to the active armed conflict and the singling out of US citizens in Ukraine by Russian government security officials,” a State Department spokesperson said.
The spokesperson called on US citizens in Ukraine to “depart immediately if it is safe to do so using any commercial or other privately available ground transportation options.”
Zabielski is the second American known to be killed fighting for Ukraine since Russia attacked its neighbor in February.
A 22-year-old former Marine, Willy Joseph Cancel, was confirmed as the first American killed fighting for Ukraine in late April.
A newspaper in upstate New York, where Zabielski used to live, ran an obituary saying that he died on May 15 “while fighting the war in Village of Dorozhniank, Ukraine.”
Zabielski, who went by Steve, was employed in construction for 30 years and was survived by a wife and five stepchildren, said the obituary in The Recorder.
“Steve enjoyed life to the fullest. He enjoyed hunting, fishing, & riding his Harley,” it said.
The obituary said that he was born in Amsterdam, New York, near the state capital Albany, and lived in the area until 2018 before moving to Florida.
The death was confirmed amid US concerns about two US military veterans volunteering for Ukraine who were captured earlier this month in the east of the war-wracked country.
Alexander Drueke and Andy Huynh, who had both been living in Alabama, were seen in videos aired by Russian state media but it was unclear where they were being held.
The State Department has said that Russia is required to treat volunteers humanely as they would other prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, in an interview with NBC News released on Monday, called them “soldiers of fortune” and said they should be “held responsible for those crimes that they have committed.”
Peskov also said the Geneva Conventions would not apply to the pair.


Two more ships depart from Ukraine — Turkey’s defense ministry

Two more ships depart from Ukraine — Turkey’s defense ministry
Updated 7 sec ago

Two more ships depart from Ukraine — Turkey’s defense ministry

Two more ships depart from Ukraine — Turkey’s defense ministry
ANKARA: Two more ships left from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports on Saturday, Turkey’s defense ministry said, bringing the total number of ships to depart the country under a UN-brokered deal to 16.
Barbados-flagged Fulmar S left Ukraine’s Chornomorsk port, carrying 12,000 tons of corn to Turkey’s southern Iskenderun province, it said. The Marshall Island-flagged Thoe departed from the same port and headed to Turkey’s Tekirdag, carrying 3,000 tons of sunflower seeds.
The statement added that another ship would depart from Turkey on Saturday to Ukraine to buy grains.

Taliban violently disperse rare women’s protest in Kabul

Taliban violently disperse rare women’s protest in Kabul
Updated 10 min 24 sec ago

Taliban violently disperse rare women’s protest in Kabul

Taliban violently disperse rare women’s protest in Kabul
  • Some women protesters who took refuge in nearby shops were chased and beaten by Taliban fighters with their rifle butts

KABUL: Taliban fighters beat women protesters and fired into the air on Saturday as they violently dispersed a rare rally in the Afghan capital, days ahead of the first anniversary of the hard-line Islamists’ return to power.
Since seizing power on August 15 last year, the Taliban have rolled back the marginal gains made by women during the two decades of US intervention in Afghanistan.
About 40 women — chanting “Bread, work and freedom” — marched in front of the education ministry building in Kabul, before the fighters dispersed them by firing their guns into the air, an AFP correspondent reported.
Some women protesters who took refuge in nearby shops were chased and beaten by Taliban fighters with their rifle butts.
The protesters carried a banner which read “August 15 is a black day” as they demanded rights to work and political participation.
“Justice, justice. We’re fed up with ignorance,” chanted the protesters, many of them not wearing face veils, before they dispersed.
Some journalists covering the protest — the first women’s rally in months — were also beaten by the Taliban fighters.
After seizing power, the Taliban had promised a softer version of the harsh Islamist rule that characterised their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
But many restrictions have already been imposed.
Tens of thousands of girls have been shut out of secondary schools, while women have been barred from returning to many government jobs.
Women have also been banned from traveling alone on long trips, and can only visit public gardens and parks in the capital on days separate from men.
In May, the country’s supreme leader and chief of the Taliban, Hibatullah Azkhundzada, even ordered women to fully cover themselves in public, including their faces — ideally with an all-encompassing burqa.
Some Afghan women initially pushed back against the curbs, holding small protests.
But the Taliban soon rounded up the ringleaders, holding them incommunicado while denying they had been detained.


‘Dead fish everywhere’ in Germany, Poland, after feared chemical waste dump

‘Dead fish everywhere’ in Germany, Poland, after feared chemical waste dump
Updated 13 August 2022

‘Dead fish everywhere’ in Germany, Poland, after feared chemical waste dump

‘Dead fish everywhere’ in Germany, Poland, after feared chemical waste dump
  • In Poland, the government has come under heavy criticism for failing to take swift action
  • Officials believe that the fish are likely to have been poisoned

SCHWEDT, Germany: Thousands of fish have washed up dead on the Oder river running through Germany and Poland, sparking warnings of an environmental disaster as residents are urged to stay away from the water.
The fish floating by the German banks near the eastern town of Schwedt are believed to have washed upstream from Poland where first reports of mass fish deaths were made by locals and anglers as early as on July 28.
German officials accused Polish authorities of failing to inform them about the deaths, and were taken by surprise when the wave of lifeless fish came floating into view.
In Poland, the government has also come under heavy criticism for failing to take swift action.
Almost two weeks after the first dead fish appeared floating by Polish villages, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Friday that “everyone had initially thought that it was a local problem.”
But he admitted that the “scale of the disaster is very large, sufficiently large to say that the Oder will need years to recover its natural state.”
“Probably enormous quantities of chemical waste was dumped into the river in full knowledge of the risk and consequences,” added the Polish leader, as German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke urged a comprehensive probe into what she called a brewing “environmental disaster.”
Standing by the riverbank, Michael Tautenhahn, deputy chief of Germany’s Lower Oder Valley National Park, looked in dismay at the river on the German-Polish border.
“We are standing on the German side — we have dead fish everywhere,” he told AFP.
“I am deeply shocked... I have the feeling that I’m seeing decades of work lying in ruins here. I see our livelihood, the water — that’s our life,” he said, noting that it’s not just fish that have died, but also mussels and likely countless other water creatures.
“It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
The Oder has over the last years been known as a relatively clean river, and 40 domestic species of fish make their home in the waterway.
But now, lifeless fish — some as small as a few centimeters, others reaching 30-40 cm — can be seen across the river. Occasionally, those still struggling to pull through can be seen flipping up in the water, seemingly gasping for air.
Officials believe that the fish are likely to have been poisoned.
“This fish death is atypical,” said Axel Vogel, environment minister for Brandenburg state, estimating that “undoubtedly tons” of fish have died.
Fish death is often caused by the distortion of oxygen levels when water levels are too low, he explained.
“But we have completely different test results, namely that we have had increased oxygen level in the river for several days, and that indicates that a foreign substance has been introduced that has led to this,” he said.
Tests are ongoing in Germany to establish the substance that may have led to the deaths, but there are early indications of extremely high levels of mercury — although authorities said final results are still pending.
In Poland, prosecutors have also begun investigating after authorities came under fire over what critics said was a sluggish response to a disaster.
Tautenhahn said the disaster would likely carry consequences for years to come.
“If it is quicksilver, then it will also stay here for a long time,” he said, noting that mercury does not disintegrate but would then remain in the sediments.


Inside Afghanistan’s secret schools, where girls defy the Taliban

Inside Afghanistan’s secret schools, where girls defy the Taliban
Updated 13 August 2022

Inside Afghanistan’s secret schools, where girls defy the Taliban

Inside Afghanistan’s secret schools, where girls defy the Taliban
  • Since seizing power a year ago, the Taliban have imposed harsh restrictions on girls and women to comply with their austere vision of Islam
  • To circumvent the restrictions, Afghan women and girls attend secret schools that have sprung up in rooms of ordinary houses across the country

KABUL: Nafeesa has discovered a great place to hide her schoolbooks from the prying eyes of her disapproving Taliban brother — the kitchen, where Afghan men rarely venture.
Hundreds of thousands of girls and young women like Nafeesa have been deprived of the chance of education since the Taliban returned to power a year ago, but their thirst for learning has not lessened.
“Boys have nothing to do in the kitchen, so I keep my books there,” said Nafeesa, who attends a secret school in a village in rural eastern Afghanistan.
“If my brother comes to know about this, he will beat me.”
Since seizing power a year ago, the Taliban have imposed harsh restrictions on girls and women to comply with their austere vision of Islam — effectively squeezing them out of public life.
Women can no longer travel on long trips without a male relative to escort them.
They have also been told to cover up with the hijab or preferably with an all-encompassing burqa — although the Taliban’s stated preference is for them to only leave home if absolutely necessary.
And, in the cruellest deprivation, secondary schools for girls in many parts of Afghanistan have not been allowed to reopen.
But secret schools have sprung up in rooms of ordinary houses across the country.
A team of AFP journalists visited three of these schools, interviewing students and teachers whose real names have been withheld for their safety.
This is their story.

Clandestine classroom
Decades of turmoil have played havoc with Afghanistan’s education system, so Nafeesa is still studying secondary school subjects even though she is already 20.
Only her mother and older sister know about it.
Her brother fought for years with the Taliban against the former government and US-led forces in the mountains, returning home after their victory imbued with the hard-line doctrine that says a woman’s place is the home.
He allows her to attend a madrassa to study the Qur'an in the morning, but in the afternoon she sneaks out to a clandestine classroom organized by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA).
“We have accepted this risk, otherwise we will remain uneducated,” Nafeesa said.
“I want to be a doctor... We want to do something for ourselves, we want to have freedom, serve society and build our future.”

 

When AFP visited her school, Nafeesa and nine other girls were discussing freedom of speech with their female teacher, sitting side-by-side on a carpet and taking turns reading out loud from a textbook.
To get to class, they frequently leave home hours earlier, taking different routes to avoid being noticed in an area made up mostly of members of the Pashtun ethnic group, who form the bulk of the Taliban and are known for their conservative ways.
If a Taliban fighter asks, the girls say they are enrolled in a tailoring workshop, and hide their schoolbooks in shopping bags or under their abaya and burqa overgarments.
They not only take risks, but also make sacrifices — Nafeesa’s sister dropped out of school to limit any suspicions her brother might have.

No justification in Islam

Religious scholars say there is no justification in Islam for the ban on girls’ secondary school education and, a year since taking power, the Taliban still insist classes will be allowed to resume.
But the issue has split the movement, with several sources telling AFP a hard-line faction that advises supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada opposed any girls’ schooling — or at best, wanted it limited to religious studies and practical classes such as cooking and needlework.
The official line, however, remains that it is just a “technical issue” and classes will resume once a curriculum based on Islamic rules is defined.
Primary girls still go to school and, for now at least, young women can attend university — although lectures are segregated and some subjects cut because of a shortage of female teachers.
Without a secondary school certificate, however, teenage girls will not be able to sit university entrance exams, so this current crop of tertiary female students could be the country’s last for the foreseeable future.
“Education is an inalienable right in Islam for both men and women,” scholar Abdul Bari Madani told AFP.
“If this ban continues, Afghanistan will return to the medieval age... an entire generation of girls will be buried.”

Lost generation

It is this fear of a lost generation that spurred teacher Tamkin to convert her home in Kabul into a school.
The 40-year-old was almost lost herself, having been forced to stop studying during the Taliban’s first stint in power, from 1996 to 2001, when all girls’ schooling was banned.
It took years of self-study for Tamkin to qualify as a teacher, only for her to lose her job at the education ministry when the Taliban returned last year.
“I didn’t want these girls to be like me,” she told AFP, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“They should have a better future.”
With the support of her husband, Tamkin first turned a storeroom into a class.
Then she sold a family cow to raise funds for textbooks, as most of her girls came from poor families and couldn’t afford their own.
Today, she teaches English and science to about 25 eager students.
On a rainy day recently, the girls trickled into her classroom for a biology lesson.
“I just want to study. It doesn’t matter what the place is like,” said Narwan, who should be in grade 12, sitting in a room packed with girls of all ages.
Behind her, a poster on a wall urges students to be considerate: “Tongue has no bones, but it is so strong that it can break the heart, so be careful of your words.”
Such consideration by her neighbors has helped Tamkin keep the school’s real purpose hidden.
“The Taliban have asked several times ‘what’s going on here?’ I have told the neighbors to say it’s a madrassa,” Tamkin said.
Seventeen-year-old Maliha believes firmly the day will come when the Taliban will no longer be in power.
“Then we will put our knowledge to good use,” she said.

'We are not afraid'

On the outskirts of Kabul, in a maze of mud houses, Laila is another teacher running underground classes.
Looking at her daughter’s face after the planned reopening of secondary schools was canceled, she knew she had to do something.
“If my daughter was crying, then the daughters of other parents must also be crying,” the 38-year-old said.
About a dozen girls gather two days a week at Laila’s house, which has a courtyard and a garden where she grows vegetables and fruit.
The classroom has a wide window opening to the garden, and girls with textbooks kept in blue plastic folders sit on a carpet — happy and cheerful, studying together.
As the class begins, one by one they read out the answers to their homework.
“We are not afraid of the Taliban,” said student Kawsar, 18.
“If they say anything, we will fight it out but continue to study.”
But the right to study is not the only aim for some Afghan girls and women — who are all too frequently married off into abusive or restrictive relationships.
Zahra, who attends a secret school in eastern Afghanistan, was married at 14 and now lives with in-laws who oppose the idea of her attending classes.
She takes sleeping pills to fight her anxiety — worried her husband’s family will force him to make her stay home.
“I tell them I’m going to the local bazaar and come here,” said Zahra of her secret school.
For her, she says, it is the only way to make friends.


Taliban torn over reforms one year after seizing power

Taliban torn over reforms one year after seizing power
Updated 13 August 2022

Taliban torn over reforms one year after seizing power

Taliban torn over reforms one year after seizing power
  • The group’s hard-line core, composed of battle-hardened veteran fighters, is against any significant ideological change that could be viewed as a sign of capitulation to their enemies in the West

KANDAHAR: One year on from the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, some cracks are opening within their ranks over the crucial question of just how much reform their leaders can tolerate.
Infamous during their first reign for their brutal crackdowns on rights and freedoms, the Islamists vowed to rule differently this time.
On a superficial level at least, they appear to have changed in some respects.
Officials in Kabul have embraced technology, while cricket matches are cheered in full stadiums.
Televisions were banned under the Taliban government’s first incarnation, while Afghans now have access to the Internet and social media.
Girls are allowed to attend primary school and women journalists are interviewing government officials — unthinkable during the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s.
The group’s hard-line core, composed of battle-hardened veteran fighters, is against any significant ideological change that could be viewed as a sign of capitulation to their enemies in the West.
“You have one (Taliban) camp, which is pushing ahead with what they’re seeing as reforms, and another camp that seems to think even these meagre reforms are too much,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan analyst with International Crisis Group.

The United States and its allies — which had bankrolled Afghanistan for 20 years — have locked the country out of the global banking system and billions in frozen assets abroad, as they hold out for reforms from the Taliban.
Without significant progress, it is the Afghan people who suffer as the country reels under a massive economic crisis that has seen some families choose between selling their organs or their infant daughters.
On whether the Taliban are even capable of reform, analysts are wary that recent policy changes amount to little more than “tokenism.”
“There are some cases where we could point to an evolution in policy, but let’s be very clear... We’re still looking at an organization that has refused to move beyond very retrograde, dogmatic views,” said Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan specialist with the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank.
Most secondary schools for girls remain closed. Many women have been forced out of government work, while many fear venturing out and being chastised by the Taliban.
Simple joys such as music, shisha and card games are strictly controlled in the most conservative areas, while protests have been crushed and journalists regularly threatened or detained.
Demands from the West for an inclusive government were ignored, and the assassination of Al-Qaeda’s leader in Kabul last week underlined the Taliban’s ongoing ties with jihadist groups.
It is from the Taliban’s power base of southern Kandahar that the secretive supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada gathers his powerful inner circle of veteran fighters and religious clerics to impose a harsh interpretation of sharia.
And for them, ideological concerns outweigh any political or economic drivers to effect change.
“The needs of the Afghans remain the same as 20 years ago,” Mohammad Omar Khitabi, a member of a council of clerics who advise Akhundzada in Kandahar, told AFP.
His thoughts are echoed by Kandahar’s Vice and Virtue Director Abdul Rahman Tayabi, another close aide of the supreme leader.
“Our people do not have too many demands, like people in other countries might have,” he told AFP.
Afghan families were left stunned in March when Akhundzada overturned the education ministry’s decision to reopen secondary schools for girls.
Some analysts believe he felt uneasy over what could be seen by hard-liners as an act of surrender to the West on girls’ rights.
Hopes of restoring international money flows were shattered — to the dismay of many Taliban officials in Kabul, some of whom spoke out against the decision.
Relations with Western diplomats — who meet regularly with Taliban ministers but have no access to Akhundzada — suffered a major setback.
A slew of directives that harked back to the first reign of the Taliban quickly followed.
“The decisions that (Akhundzada) has made so far are all based on the opinions of religious scholars,” said Abdul Hadi Hammad, the head of a madrassa and member of the supreme leader’s advisory council.
Akhundzada has stressed the need for unity in the movement as he carefully seeks to balance several factions — including competing groups that claim the credit for the 2021 victory over US-led forces.
While advisers to Akhundzada claim the Taliban can survive without foreign income, unlocking billions of dollars in frozen assets abroad would be a crucial lifeline.
“We know the Taliban can be transactional, but they cannot appear to be transactional,” a Western diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Within the movement, no one dares openly challenge Akhundzada’s power, but discontent is quietly growing among the lower ranks.
“Taliban guards are getting their salaries late, and their salaries are low too. They are unhappy,” said one mid-level Taliban official based in northwestern Pakistan, who asked not to be named.
Many have returned to their villages or traveled to Pakistan to take up different work, another Taliban member added.
Attempts by the movement to shore up revenue through lucrative coal mining have sparked infighting in the north, exacerbated by ethnic divisions and religious sectarianism.
With winter only a few months away, food security and freezing temperatures will put even more pressure on the leaders of one of the world’s poorest countries.
These mounting stresses have the potential to worsen divisions, Kugelman said, though likely not enough to force any dramatic shift in policy.
“If the Taliban leadership start to feel very real threats to their political survival, then could they change?” he asked.
“Given that they are ideologically focused, that may not be the case.”