Taliban and US officials to meet amid quake relief efforts

Taliban and US officials to meet amid quake relief efforts
The earthquake struck a remote, deeply impoverished region of small towns and villages tucked among rough mountains near the Pakistani border, collapsing stone and mud-brick homes. (Reuters)
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Updated 29 June 2022

Taliban and US officials to meet amid quake relief efforts

Taliban and US officials to meet amid quake relief efforts
  • Last week’s devastating earthquake in southeastern Afghanistan killed around 770 people
  • Even before the Taliban takeover last year, Afghanistan’s economy had been deeply reliant on foreign aid

ISLAMABAD: Afghan finance and central bank officials from the Taliban-led government departed for Qatar on Wednesday to meet with a US Treasury department official, after last week’s deadly earthquake highlighted how critical relief efforts have stumbled under the weight of the country’s spiraling economic woes.
Last week’s devastating earthquake in southeastern Afghanistan killed around 770 people, according to UN figures, though the Taliban put the death toll at closer to 1,150, with thousands injured. The UN says 155 children are among those killed in what was the deadliest earthquake to hit the impoverished country in two decades.
The quake struck a remote, deeply impoverished region of small towns and villages tucked among rough mountains near the Pakistani border, collapsing stone and mud-brick homes and in some cases killing entire families. Nearly 3,000 homes were destroyed or badly damaged in Paktika and Khost provinces.
News of a meeting between Taliban government officials and US officials was confirmed by Taliban Foreign Ministry spokesman Hafiz Zia Ahmad, who said the Afghan delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Maulvi Amir Khan Muttaqi. He said the officials will meet in Doha, Qatar with the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and officials from the US Treasury Department to discuss Afghanistan’s economic and banking sectors.
The Washington Post first reported Tuesday that senior Biden administration officials are working with Taliban leadership on a mechanism to allow Afghanistan’s government to use its central bank reserves to deal with the country’s severe hunger and poverty crises while erecting safeguards to ensure the funds are not misused.
The Biden administration froze some $9 billion in foreign Afghan central reserves after the Taliban seized power last August, prompting a chaotic and deadly withdrawal of US and NATO allied forces, as well as more than 100,00 Afghans and others.
The international sanctions that followed choked off bank transfers for months into the country, even for many aid groups still operating there. Afghans have since struggled to withdraw money from local banks and tens of thousands of public sector employees continue to see their salaries delayed as the Taliban leadership seeks ways to collect taxes and other fees to keep the government running.
No government has yet recognized the Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan. The former insurgents have resisted international pressure to maintain the previous rights gained by Afghan women, instead imposing restrictions on women’s dress and limiting access to schools for teenage girls.
Even before the Taliban takeover last year, Afghanistan’s economy had been deeply reliant on foreign aid. The UN and an array of overstretched aid agencies in the country have tried to keep Afghanistan from the brink of collapse, including the International Committee of the Red Cross which is paying the salaries of health care staff and the operational costs of more than 30 hospitals across the country.
Overstretched aid agencies said the earthquake underscored the need for the international community to rethink its financial cut-off of Afghanistan since Taliban insurgents seized the country. That policy, halting billions in development aid and freezing vital foreign reserves, has helped push the economy into collapse and plunge Afghanistan deeper into humanitarian crises and near famine.
Authorities and charities are struggling to access the far-flung region where the quake struck, and appear overwhelmed by the scale of the damage and the daunting task of debris removal, let alone reconstruction.
Survivors have had to dig through debris with their bare hands to search for missing loved ones as the ground continues to rumble with more aftershocks.


Wildfires rage in France, thousands evacuated from homes

Wildfires rage in France, thousands evacuated from homes
Updated 10 August 2022

Wildfires rage in France, thousands evacuated from homes

Wildfires rage in France, thousands evacuated from homes
  • Skies darkened from the smoke billowing from forests destroyed by fires that have razed more than 6,000 hectares
  • France, like the rest of Europe, has been struggling this summer with successive heatwaves and its worst drought on record

HOSTENS, France: Wildfires tore through the Gironde region of southwestern France on Wednesday, destroying homes and forcing the evacuation of more than 8,000 residents, some of whom had clambered onto rooftops as the flames got closer.
Skies darkened from the smoke billowing from forests destroyed by fires that have razed more than 6,000 hectares (14,826 acres) and were continuing to burn out of control despite the efforts of firefighters backed by water-bombing aircraft.
France, like the rest of Europe, has been struggling this summer with successive heatwaves and its worst drought on record. Dozens of wildfires are ablaze across the country, including at least eight major ones.
“Prepare your papers, the animals you can take with you, some belongings and WAIT FOR THE INVITATION TO LEAVE which will be notified to you by the gendarmerie, officials or volunteers going door-to-door,” the Gironde municipality of Belin-Beliet said on Facebook after authorities decided to evacuate part of the town.
In the nearby village of Hostens, police had earlier been door to door telling residents to leave as the fire advanced. Camille Delay fled with her partner and her son, grabbing their two cats, chickens and house insurance papers before taking flight.
“Everyone in the village climbed onto their rooftops to see what was happening — within ten minutes a little twist of smoke became enormous,” the 30-year-old told Reuters by telephone.
Firefighters said more evacuations were likely. Even so, some Hostens residents were reluctant to abandon their homes.
“It’s complicated to go with the dogs and we cannot leave them here,” said Allisson Horan, 18, who stayed behind with her father.
“I’m getting worried because the fire is in a plot of land behind ours and the wind is starting to change direction.”
Numerous small roads, and parts of a highway, were closed.

HEATWAVES
Sweden and Italy are among countries preparing to send help to France, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
He repeated calls for everyone to be responsible — nine out of 10 fires are either voluntarily or involuntarily caused by people, he said.
The Gironde wildfire is one of many that have broken out across Europe this summer, triggered by heatwaves that have baked the continent and brought record temperatures to some places.
In Portugal, nearly 1,200 firefighters backed by eight aircraft have battled a blaze in the mountainous Covilha area some 280 km (174 miles) northeast of Lisbon that has burned more than 3,000 hectares of forest since Saturday.
Spain and Greece have also had to tackle multiple fires over the past few weeks.
The Gironde was hit by major wildfires in July which destroyed more than 20,000 hectares of forest and temporarily forced almost 40,000 people from their homes.
Authorities believe the latest inferno was a result of the previous fires still smoldering in the area’s peaty soil.
Fires were also raging in the southern departments of Lozere and Aveyron. In the Maine et Loire department in western France, more than 1,200 hectares have been scorched by another fire.


UK Muslim mother grieving after death of daughter in gas explosion

UK Muslim mother grieving after death of daughter in gas explosion
Updated 10 August 2022

UK Muslim mother grieving after death of daughter in gas explosion

UK Muslim mother grieving after death of daughter in gas explosion
  • Sana Ahmad says ‘incredible little girl’ died after gas company’s negligence
  • ‘The explosion was so bad that it almost felt like missiles were dropped on the properties’

LONDON: A Muslim mother is mourning the death of her 4-year-old daughter, who was killed in a gas explosion in London.
Sana Ahmad, 28, said her world has been “torn apart” after the incident that killed Sahara Salman, “her incredible little girl,” the Evening Standard reported on Wednesday.
She accused the gas supplier to her home, Southern Gas Networks, of negligence after it allegedly ignored a complaint about a suspected gas leak in July, despite an engineer inspecting the property.
“I made a phone call to my mum because we had arranged for her to collect the children. My mum was going to make her way to the house at about 7:05 a.m. So, I’m on the phone and within seconds she heard me scream because there was a big bang,” Ahmad said.
“My instinct was to grab all my children but as I’d gone to the hallway Sahara’s room had collapsed already … The explosion was so bad that it almost felt like missiles were dropped on the properties. That’s how quickly the building started to fall down.
“My mum identified the smell on July 30. The first call we made to them was on the same day at 3:57 p.m.
“He (the engineer) said that he would send another guy who was higher up than him to inspect the property because he wasn’t totally sure. Unfortunately other guy never did show up. The work wasn’t fully carried out. They did tell us there were loads of little gas leaks — they said that pipes had been leaking but that they were minor leaks.
“The saddest thing is that we tried to prevent this from happening. The gas people should have ensured the safety of not only us, but every single person who lives in that area.
“Now we’re all suffering — the whole community. And now we all have to live with the trauma of a little girl dying.”
Ahmad’s local MP Siobhain McDonagh said: “This should never have happened, we will get to the bottom of it.”
A spokesman for Southern Gas Networks said: “Our deepest sympathies are with the family of the child who has tragically died as well as those injured.
“We’d like to reassure everyone that our engineers are working closely with the emergency services.
“Given the ongoing police investigation, it is inappropriate to comment any further at this stage.”


US uncovers Iran ‘plot’ to kill ex-White House official John Bolton

US uncovers Iran ‘plot’ to kill ex-White House official John Bolton
Updated 10 August 2022

US uncovers Iran ‘plot’ to kill ex-White House official John Bolton

US uncovers Iran ‘plot’ to kill ex-White House official John Bolton
  • Justice Department says it uncovered an Iranian plot to kill the former White House national security adviser
  • It announced charges against a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

WASHINGTON: The US Justice Department said Wednesday it had uncovered an Iranian plot to kill former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, and announced charges against a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The Justice Department said 45-year-old Shahram Poursafi, also known as Mehdi Rezayi, had offered to pay an individual in the US $300,000 to kill Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN.
The Justice Department said that plan was likely set in retaliation for the US killing of top Guard commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in January 2020.
Prosecutors say the scheme unfolded more than a year after Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force and an architect of Tehran’s proxy wars in the Middle East, was killed in a targeted airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport in January 2020. After the strike, Bolton, who by then had left his White House post, tweeted, “Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran.”

The allegation came as Iran weighs a proposed agreement in Vienna talks to revive the 2015 agreement that aims to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
For months Tehran has held up the deal, demanding that the US remove its official designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a sponsor of terrorism.
“This is not the first time we have uncovered Iranian plots to exact revenge against individuals on US soil and we will work tirelessly to expose and disrupt every one of these efforts,” said US Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen.
According to the charges, Poursafi tried to arrange Bolton’s murder beginning in October 2021, when he contacted online an unidentified person in the US, first saying he wanted to commission photographs of Bolton.
Poursafi provided the person with Bolton’s office address, including the name and contact information for someone who worked in the office, and took screenshots of surveillance photographs of Bolton’s office, the affidavit says.
He offered $250,000, which was then negotiated up to $300,000.
“Poursafi added that he had an additional ‘job,’ for which he would pay $1 million,” the Justice Department said.


But that second person, court documents say, was a confidential source for the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The ostensible assassin stalled, waiting for an initial payment, but only in late April did Poursafi send money, paying a total of $100 in cryptocurrency.
Poursafi was charged with the use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire, which brings up to 10 years in prison, and with providing and attempting to provide material support to a transnational murder plot, which carries a 15-year sentence.
In his own statement, Bolton thanked the FBI and Justice Department for their work in developing the case and the Secret Service for providing protection.
“While much cannot be said publicly right now, one point is indisputable: Iran’s rulers are liars, terrorists, and enemies of the United States,” he said.
He urged President Joe Biden to not restore the nuclear agreement.
Bolton, one of the leading “hawks” of the US foreign policy establishment and a strong critic of Iran, was national security adviser in the White House of president Donald Trump from April 2018 to September 2019.


In the administration of president George Bush, he was ambassador to the UN from 2005-2006.
He was strongly opposed to the 2015 agreement between Tehran and major powers to limit its nuclear program, and supported the Trump administration’s unilateral pullout from the pact in May 2018.
The court documents indicated Bolton was aware of the plot and cooperated with investigators, allowing photographs of himself outside his Washington office to be sent to Poursafi.
Over the months Poursafi discussed the plot with his US contact, he disclosed that it related to Tehran’s desire for revenge for the US killing of Soleimani.
Since that strike on Soleimani Tehran has vowed to extract revenge, and US officials have said that the country had been looking to kill one or more US officials.
Another official believed on Tehran’s target list was Mike Pompeo, who was secretary of state at the time of the assassination of Soleimani, and before that director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
At the time Pompeo said Soleimani had been plotting large scale attacks on US targets like embassies.
(With AFP and AP)


Fascism is history, Italy’s far-right leader says

Fascism is history, Italy’s far-right leader says
Updated 10 August 2022

Fascism is history, Italy’s far-right leader says

Fascism is history, Italy’s far-right leader says
  • The 45-year-old recorded a monologue in English, Spanish and French that rails at "the left" and defends her fight for "stability, freedom and prosperity for Italy"
  • Meloni has agreed an alliance to form a government with Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini's anti-immigration League

ROME: Fascism is history, Italy’s far-right leader Giorgia Meloni declared Wednesday in a video message aimed at international critics alarmed by her predicted victory in September 25 elections.
The 45-year-old, whose Brothers of Italy party is topping opinion polls, recorded a monologue in English, Spanish and French that rails at “the left” and defends her fight for “stability, freedom and prosperity for Italy.”
“I have been reading that the victory of Fratelli d’Italia in the September elections would mean a disaster, leading to an authoritarian turn, Italy’s departure from the euro and other nonsense of this sort. None of this is true,” she said in the video sent to international journalists.
She also condemned as “absurd” the notion she would put at risk far-reaching structural reforms agreed with the European Union in return for billions of euros in post-pandemic recovery funds.
Brothers of Italy, which Meloni founded in 2012, is a political descendant of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), formed by supporters of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini after World War II.
But she insisted in her video: “The Italian right has handed fascism over to history for decades now, unambiguously condemning the suppression of democracy and the ignominious anti-Jewish laws.”
Brothers of Italy was the only main party not to join the national unity government formed by Prime Minister Mario Draghi in February 2021 — and has since seen its poll ratings soar.
Since the coalition collapsed and Draghi resigned last month, it has remained in pole position with around 23 percent of support.
Meloni has agreed an alliance to form a government with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League, but reiterated this week she plans to be prime minister if her party comes out on top.
Her rise has prompted a slew of negative headlines at home and abroad, to which her team is starting to respond, including with an interview to Fox News in English last month.
Meloni emphasises her Christian and family values, backs more defense spending, lower taxes and an end to mass immigration.
In her video, she says the “Italian conservatives” she leads are “a bastion of freedom and defense of Western values.”
While backing the EU’s tough response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she is highly critical of the bloc and has ties to Spain’s Vox and Poland’s Law and Justice parties.
In her video, she emphasised the “shared values” with Britain’s Conservatives, the US Republicans and Israel’s Likud.


Sri Lanka introduces bill to clip presidential powers

Sri Lanka introduces bill to clip presidential powers
Updated 10 August 2022

Sri Lanka introduces bill to clip presidential powers

Sri Lanka introduces bill to clip presidential powers
  • If passed into law, the amendments would reinstate democratic reforms made in 2015

COLOMBO: A Sri Lankan government minister on Wednesday submitted to Parliament a constitutional amendment bill that would clip the powers of the president, a key demand of protesters calling for political reforms and solutions to the country’s worst economic crisis.
Justice Minister Wijayadasa Rajapakshe presented the bill, which would transfer some presidential powers — including those to appoint independent election commission members, police and public service officials, and bribery and corruption investigators — into the hands of a constitutional council comprising lawmakers and respected non-political persons. The council would then recommend candidates for these appointments that the president could choose from.
Under the proposed amendments, the president also would only be able to appoint a chief justice, other senior judges, an attorney general and a central bank governor on the recommendation of the council. The prime minister would recommend appointments to the Cabinet and the president would not be allowed to hold any ministry positions except defense.
The bill, which will undergo debate, must be approved by two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s 225-member Parliament to become law.
If passed into law, the amendments would reinstate democratic reforms made in 2015. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was ousted as president by angry protests last month, reversed those reforms and concentrated power in himself after being elected to office in 2019.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who succeeded Rajapaksa, has promised to limit the powers of the presidency and strengthen Parliament in response to the protesters’ demands.
Sri Lankans have staged massive street protests for the past four months demanding democratic reforms and solutions to the country’s economic collapse.
Protesters blame the Rajapaksa family’s alleged mismanagement and corruption for the economic crisis that has led to serious shortages of essentials like medicines, food and fuel.
The island nation is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout program.
The protests have largely dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty that ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to Singapore last month after angry protesters stormed his official residence and occupied several key state buildings. His older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister in May and three other close family members resigned from their Cabinet positions before him.