UK minister backed failed probe into SAS war crimes in Afghanistan

A British soldier is pictured in the village of Biabanak, Kandahar province, some 400 km south west of Kabul. (File/AFP)
A British soldier is pictured in the village of Biabanak, Kandahar province, some 400 km south west of Kabul. (File/AFP)
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Updated 09 October 2023
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UK minister backed failed probe into SAS war crimes in Afghanistan

A British soldier is pictured in the village of Biabanak, Kandahar province, some 400 km south west of Kabul. (File/AFP)
  • Johnny Mercer raised concerns in private over conduct of elite unit
  • Investigation into 675 cases of alleged wrongdoing closed with no charges after 5 years

LONDON: The UK’s minister for veterans’ affairs in 2019 raised concerns in private over a decision to shut an investigation into the conduct of UK special forces in Afghanistan, despite supporting the move in public later.

The BBC reported that Johnny Mercer had written to Ben Wallace, the defense minister at the time, to warn against the closure of the probe, on the grounds that war crimes allegations against British forces were credible.

Known as Operation Northmoor, the investigation was launched in 2014 to look into 675 alleged cases of wrongdoing by British forces in Afghanistan.

But the investigation — which explored the conduct of the elite Special Air Service during raids — was closed in 2019 with no resulting charges.

It was alleged that the SAS had been involved in the murders of dozens of unarmed civilians during operations in Afghanistan.

A BBC “Panorama” documentary in 2022 revealed evidence that one SAS squadron had killed 54 people in suspicious circumstances during a single six-month tour of the country. That documentary led to the opening of a public inquiry by the government.

Mercer, when arguing against the closure of Operation Northmoor, highlighted concerns that SAS members may have killed unarmed civilians and planted weapons on corpses to provide false justification for shootings, The Times reported.

He also warned that the government could suffer reputational damage if it failed to investigate the allegations.

The minister had pushed for the government to publicly acknowledge that “things went wrong on such operations” in Afghanistan.

But despite his private concerns over the investigation’s closure, Mercer backed the move publicly.

He told the Sunday Telegraph that the axing was “another significant moment as we retake ground ceded over the years to those who seek to rewrite history and line their own pockets, with no regard at all for the damage they have done to some of our nation’s finest people.”

Mercer also told the House of Commons that the allegations “that our armed forces operated so-called death squads in Afghanistan was simply not true.”

Since its closure, Operation Northmoor has faced criticism over an apparent failure to conduct interviews with central witnesses and gather important evidence.

The Royal Military Police was responsible for the investigation, but its officers told the BBC that they were prevented from conducting interviews with SAS personnel by “senior military figures.”

The public inquiry launched in 2022 in the wake of the “Panorama” documentary was set to begin hearing evidence on Monday.


France teacher faces ‘terror’ charges over religious chants

Updated 38 sec ago
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France teacher faces ‘terror’ charges over religious chants

France teacher faces ‘terror’ charges over religious chants
PARIS: French prosecutors have charged a 26-year-old schoolteacher on suspicion he translated religious chants into French for the Daesh group, the national anti-terror prosecutor’s office said this week.
The man was indicted on February 16 over alleged “terrorist criminal conspiracy with a view to committing crimes against people,” the prosecutor’s office said on Monday.
“He is charged with translating into French, singing and editing at least five religious chants promoting jihad and of sending them to members of Daesh to be broadcast,” it said.
The songs were found on his “personal digital equipment,” it said. He is being held in detention.
A source close to the case, who asked to remain anonymous, said the teacher’s home was searched in December, leading to an investigation being launched.
Le Parisien newspaper said the man, a Franco-Algerian, was a primary school teacher in the Parisian suburb of Drancy.
It said he was “suspected of privately disseminating militant propaganda” online.
Hundreds of French men and women joined the ranks of Daesh after it seized large swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014, before its territorial defeat in 2019.
Daesh followers have claimed responsibility for devastating attacks in France over the last decade.
They include the worst militant attack in French history, which took place in November 2015 in and around Paris and left 130 people dead.

Conservative grassroots in UK angered by MP’s suspension over Islamophobia scandal

Conservative grassroots in UK angered by MP’s suspension over Islamophobia scandal
Updated 27 February 2024
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Conservative grassroots in UK angered by MP’s suspension over Islamophobia scandal

Conservative grassroots in UK angered by MP’s suspension over Islamophobia scandal
  • ‘The government are now owned by fear of Islamic rule’: Conservative Democratic Organisation member
  • Ex-Home Secretary Suella Braverman ‘the only person who can remove the threat of Islam from our country’

LONDON: UK Conservative Party supporters at the grassroots level have expressed anger over Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s suspension of an MP embroiled in an Islamophobia row, The Guardian reported on Tuesday.

Lee Anderson was suspended last week after claiming in a TV interview that Islamists had “got control” of Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim mayor.

Sunak’s decision to sack Anderson has divided the Conservative base, with some supporters labeling the leader “weak and feeble,” and a “snake.”

Leaked WhatsApp messages seen by The Guardian from members of the Conservative Democratic Organisation, a faction on the right of the party launched in 2022, show the extent of anger at Anderson’s sacking.

One member said it was “time for the snake of a PM to go,” while another said Sunak “should never have been” in the leadership position.

Other members appear to support Anderson’s comments, with one saying: “The government are now owned by fear of Islamic rule.”

Controversial former Home Secretary Suella Braverman is also discussed in the WhatsApp conversations after she claimed last week that “the Islamists, the extremists and the antisemites are in charge now.”

One CDO member said: “She is saying the exact same thing as Lee Anderson, just in less colorful language, and importantly in print.

“I am beginning to believe that Suella is the only person who has shown the mettle who can turn the party and remove the threat of Islam from our country.”

Their message was liked by 10 group members on the messaging platform.

In a sign of further rifts within the Conservative Party, the CDO group members shared an online petition calling for Anderson’s reinstatement, which had gathered more than 5,000 signatures overnight.

Members also warned that the party leadership’s decision to sack the MP would threaten its electoral chances.

One member said: “There goes Lee’s voters — wonder what happens when it dawns on them that they actually need voters to keep themselves in power.”

A number of Conservative MPs have said they support Anderson’s reinstatement if he apologizes for his comments.

MP Jonathan Gullis told Times Radio: “I hope that we will see him return to that party sooner rather than later but of course he has to, I think, make that apology to Mayor Khan.”

Another Conservative MP said: “He wants to come back. We want him back.”

But Anderson has so far remained firm in standing by his remarks, describing them as “born out of sheer frustration at what is happening to our beautiful capital city.”

In a statement, he said: “If you are wrong, apologising is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. But when you think you are right, you should never apologise because to do so would be a sign of weakness.”

Despite making the decision to sack Anderson, Sunak has avoided describing the MP’s comments as Islamophobic, saying: “I’ve been very clear that what he said was wrong, it was unacceptable and that’s why we suspended (him).”

Khan said Sunak’s refusal to describe the claims as Islamophobic is “a tacit endorsement of anti-Muslim hatred and can only lead to the conclusion that anti-Muslim bigotry and racism are not taken seriously.”


Conservative MP’s ‘no-go zone’ claim escalates UK’s Islamophobia row

Conservative MP’s ‘no-go zone’ claim escalates UK’s Islamophobia row
Updated 27 February 2024
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Conservative MP’s ‘no-go zone’ claim escalates UK’s Islamophobia row

Conservative MP’s ‘no-go zone’ claim escalates UK’s Islamophobia row
  • Areas of London, Birmingham enforced by Muslims ‘abusing their religion’: Paul Scully
  • Comments condemned by Labour, Conservative figures representing those areas

LONDON: Claims by a former Conservative minister in the UK that Muslim “no-go” zones exist in major British cities have escalated an Islamophobia row within the ruling party.

MP Paul Scully, who previously ran to be his party’s candidate for London mayor, made the claims as the Conservatives were engaged in a fresh row over Islamophobia.

In an interview with the BBC, Scully referenced areas of east London and Birmingham as containing “no-go areas” enforced by local Muslims “abusing their religion,” the Daily Telegraph reported on Tuesday.

“If you look at parts of Tower Hamlets, for example, where there are no-go areas, parts of Birmingham Sparkhill, where there are no-go areas, mainly because of doctrine, mainly because of people using, abusing in many ways, their religion to … because it is not the doctrine of Islam, to espouse what some of these people are saying,” he said. “That, I think, is the concern that needs to be addressed.”

Scully was responding to the recent sacking of MP Lee Anderson, who had claimed that Islamists had “got control” of London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Sully’s comments were condemned by Labour and Conservative figures representing the areas referenced by him.

Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, said “those in Westminster” should “stop the nonsense slurs.”

He added: “The idea that Birmingham has a ‘no-go’ zone is news to me, and I suspect the good people of Sparkhill.”

Labour’ Jess Phillips said: “As one of the MPs for Sparkhill, I am expecting an apology for this utter drivel. My kids hang out in Sparkhill day and night, never had a moment’s worry.

“I go there weekly and live literally a five-minute walk from there and used to live there myself.”

Scully also claimed that the Conservative Party did not have a problem with Islamophobia.


Indonesia calls for end to military support, weapons sales to Israel

Indonesia calls for end to military support, weapons sales to Israel
Updated 27 February 2024
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Indonesia calls for end to military support, weapons sales to Israel

Indonesia calls for end to military support, weapons sales to Israel
  • Jakarta issues call at UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva
  • Transfer of weapons to Israel would likely be used to violate international law, UN experts say

JAKARTA: Indonesia, the current president of the UN Conference on Disarmament, has called for an end to military support and weapons sales to Israel.

The Conference on Disarmament, consisting of 65 member states including permanent members of the UN Security Council, was established in 1979 and is the world’s only multilateral forum for disarmament negotiations.

Indonesia holds the rotating presidency for a four-week term until March 15 and is leading the high-level segment of the conference in Geneva this week. During the ministerial-level meeting, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi called for a stop to arms shipments to Israel.

“At the end of my statement, I conveyed condemnation of Israel’s plan to use nuclear weapons to threaten the residents of Gaza. I also urged a stop to weapons shipment to Israel to prevent more fatalities,” Marsudi said in a video briefing on Tuesday.

She also attended a side event on Palestine during her time in Geneva, where she highlighted Israel’s human rights violations in Gaza and the fight against double standards within the international community.

“With the current situation in Gaza and Palestine, I asked if we will remain silent. Ideally, the answer should be no … In closing, I conveyed how we need to remain united, we must continue to work together to fight against the injustice that has gone on for so long against the nation of Palestine.”

Nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since October, with about 1.9 million people displaced in the besieged enclave where intense Israeli bombardment from air, land and sea have continued for the last four months.

UN experts called on Feb. 23 for an immediate end to arms exports to Israel, saying that “given the facts or past patterns of behavior,” any weapons or ammunition transferred there would be used to violate international law.

“Such transfers are prohibited even if the exporting State does not intend the arms to be used in violation of the law — or does not know with certainty that they would be used in such a way — as long as there is a clear risk,” the UN experts said.

“The need for an arms embargo on Israel is heightened by the International Court of Justice’s ruling on 26 January 2024 that there is a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza and the continuing serious harm to civilians since then,” the experts said. “All States must not be complicit in international crimes through arms transfers. They must do their part to urgently end the unrelenting humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.


India names four astronauts for first human space flight

India names four astronauts for first human space flight
Updated 27 February 2024
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India names four astronauts for first human space flight

India names four astronauts for first human space flight
  • Uncrewed test flights into space scheduled for 2024-25
  • Astronauts are Indian Air Force pilots who underwent training in Russia

NEW DELHI: India announced on Tuesday the names of four astronauts who will take part in the Gaganyaan mission — the country’s first human space flight program.

Having become the fourth nation ever to soft-land a spacecraft on the moon in August last year, India aims to put an astronaut on the lunar surface by 2040.

The Indian Space Research Organization, the state-run agency spearheading the program, aims to launch the mission in 2024-2025.

The astronauts — Indian Air Force pilots Gp. Capt. P. Balakrishnan Nair, Gp. Capt. Ajit Krishnan, Gp. Capt. Angad Pratap and Wg. Cdr. S. Shukla — were introduced to the public by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

“They are not just four names or four human beings, they are the four powers that are going to take the aspirations of 1.4 billion Indians to space. An Indian is going to space, after 40 years. This time, the time is ours, the countdown is ours and the rocket is also ours,” he said.

“We are witnessing another historic journey at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre.”

Modi was referring to Rakesh Sharma — the only Indian citizen to travel in space, who flew aboard Soyuz T-11 on April 3, 1984, as part of the Soviet Interkosmos program.

Like Sharma, the four astronauts have also undergone training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Zvezdnyi Gorodok near Moscow.

The Gaganyaan mission, estimated to cost over $1 billion, began in 2006 with the aim of developing the technology needed to launch crewed orbital spacecraft into low Earth orbit.

The first crewed flight is expected after three uncrewed ones this and next year. Two or three of the astronauts will be launched to an orbit of 400 km for three days and brought back to Earth — landing in Indian sea waters.

If the mission is successful, India will become the fourth nation to conduct independent human spaceflight after Russia, the US and China.

Before it sends an astronaut to the moon, India’s space agency also intends to start a space station program.

“By 2035, India will have its own space station in space that will help us study the unknown expanses of space,” Modi said.

“This is the beginning of a new era, where India is continuously expanding its space in the global order and this is clearly visible in our space program.”

The Gaganyaan mission adds to India’s status as an emerging space superpower, building on a historic success in August 2023, when it landed the moon rover Chandrayaan-3 on the lunar surface, becoming the first country to land near the lunar south pole and the fourth to land on the moon — after the US, Russia, and China.

Weeks after the soft-landing, India launched the Aditya-L1 spacecraft, which in January reached Lagrange point — 1.5 million km from the Earth — where it can orbit the sun at the same rate as the Earth and observe the photosphere and chromosphere to study solar wind particles and magnetic fields.

To date, the US is the only other country to have explored the sun with the Parker Solar Probe launched in 2021.