UK minister for veterans tells of ‘horrific’ testimony about SAS ‘war crimes’ in Afghanistan

UK minister for veterans tells of ‘horrific’ testimony about SAS ‘war crimes’ in Afghanistan
Britain's Minister of State for Veterans’ Affairs Johnny Mercer arrives to 10 Downing Street in London. (File/AFP)
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Updated 22 February 2024
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UK minister for veterans tells of ‘horrific’ testimony about SAS ‘war crimes’ in Afghanistan

UK minister for veterans tells of ‘horrific’ testimony about SAS ‘war crimes’ in Afghanistan
  • Mercer confirms to public inquiry he is talking about ‘allegations of straight murder’
  • Minister warned of legal consequences if he refuses to name British soldiers who spoke to him

LONDON: The British minister for veterans, John Mercer, spoke on Wednesday of “horrific” stories he heard from former members of the Afghan special forces about alleged executions of unarmed detainees, including children, carried out by members of the UK’s elite Special Air Service.

He was speaking during his second day of testimony at a public inquiry set up to investigate accusations made in media reports that SAS members killed civilians and unarmed prisoners during operations in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013.

In 2022, a BBC investigation alleged that an SAS squadron was involved in questionable killings of at least 54 people, including detainees and children, in a six-month period.

Mercer, himself a former army officer, told the inquiry that discussions he had with former members of Afghan special forces known as the Triples “confirmed my worst fears.”

When asked by the chair of the inquiry whether he was talking about “allegations of straight murder” by members of the SAS, he replied: “Yes.”

He said the accounts given to him included allegations that the SAS executed detainees, including children, who were restrained and posed no threat. There is “no reason why a person under control should lose their life,” he added.

Mercer said that the Triples units, concerned about injuries suffered by children in particular, eventually refused to accompany the British forces on missions. When “Tier 1 Afghan special forces are refusing to go out the door with you,” this should have raised concerns, he said.

If the allegations presented to him are true, the members of the SAS responsible for the actions they described are “criminals,” he said.

Mercer also expressed frustration with the Ministry of Defence for not adequately investigating the allegations, and accused ministry officials of misleading him about the availability of evidence, specifically full-motion video footage from the operations in question.

He said that when he challenged the head of UK Special Forces, Gen. Sir Roland Walker, about this apparent lack of footage, he simply leaned back in his chair and shrugged.

“I don’t disguise the fact that I am angry with these people,” Mercer said. “The fact that I’m sitting here today is because those people, with their rank and privileges, have not done their job.”

During his first day of testimony to the inquiry, on Tuesday, Mercer refused to reveal the names of SAS members who gave him first- and second-hand accounts of incidents in Afghanistan.

Lord Justice Haddon-Cave, who is chairing the inquiry, on Wednesday described the minister’s refusal to reveal the identities as “completely unacceptable,” the BBC reported.

“You need to decide which side you are really on,” Mr. Mercer,” he said. “Is it assisting the inquiry fully, and the public interest and the national interest, in getting to the truth of these allegations quickly, for everyone’s sake? Or is it being part of what is in effect an ‘omerta,’ a wall of silence?”

He warned Mercer that continued refusal to comply with the inquiry’s requests would result in “potentially serious legal consequences that I may need to put in place.”

If Mercer continues to refuse to provide the names, the inquiry has the legal authority to compel him to do so.

In February, BBC current affairs program Panorama reported that UK Special Forces blocked members of Afghan special forces from relocating to the UK after the Taliban reclaimed power in the country in 2021.

Former members of the SAS told Panorama that this veto created a clear conflict of interest because Afghan personnel might be called as witnesses by the public inquiry.


Biden in ‘very tough spot’ trying to stop Middle East escalation

Biden in ‘very tough spot’ trying to stop Middle East escalation
Updated 15 April 2024
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Biden in ‘very tough spot’ trying to stop Middle East escalation

Biden in ‘very tough spot’ trying to stop Middle East escalation
  • Biden has been trying to avoid a regional war that could suck the United States back into the Middle East ever since Hamas’s October 7 attack

WASHINGTON: Iran’s attack on Israel gives Joe Biden a familiar dilemma, but on steroids — how to balance support for a difficult ally while preventing the nightmare scenario of a wider war?
Tensions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Israel’s war on Gaza were papered over as the US president offered “ironclad” support, including shooting down Iranian drones.
But the White House said it would not support an Israeli counterattack and warned Israel to “think carefully” about escalation that could trigger a full-blown regional conflict.
The question then for Biden, who is facing a tough reelection battle against Donald Trump in November, is what if Netanyahu goes ahead anyway, as he has done in Gaza?
“It puts him in a very tough spot” Colin Clarke, Director of Research at the Soufan Group, told AFP.
“I think he’s suspicious of Netanyahu’s motives here... that Netanyahu is attempting to broaden the war throughout the region to deflect from how poorly the war is going for him in Gaza.”
Biden has been trying to avoid a regional war that could suck the United States back into the Middle East ever since Hamas’s October 7 attack and Israel’s offensive on the Gaza Strip.
The 81-year-old has, however, struggled to use the leverage provided by the United States being Israel’s main military supplier, especially given a long history of tense relations with Netanyahu.
Biden has been increasingly critical of the death toll in the Palestinian territory and even went as far as suggesting the US could limit military aid, but so far to little effect.
Iran’s attack has seen Biden go back to showing overt support — but at the same time scrambling to stop the crisis spiraling.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Netanyahu was “well aware” that Biden did not want a “wider war.”
Biden himself warned Netanyahu of the potential dangers in a call on Saturday night at a time of “heightened emotion.”
“The president had a discussion about trying to slow things down, think through things,” a US official said.
The hope was that “in the light of day” Israel would see it had had a “spectacular success” against Iran’s attack, added the official.
Washington’s calculus looks to be that Iran also got what it wanted, with a show of force in retaliation for Israel’s strike in Damascus earlier this month that killed a key Iranian general, but with minimal damage.
“However, I fear the status quo will be short-lived,” said James Ryan, Executive Director of the Middle East Research and Information Project, warning of a “dangerous spiral.”
“I expect Biden to attempt to restrain Israeli responses, but Netanyahu has already shown a willingness to test any kind of limit Biden wishes to impose,” he added.
“It’s all very cynical now, unfortunately.”
Biden’s options for restraining Israel are likely to be limited at this stage to tough language in private and making threats in public.
“They’ve got themselves into a corner in many ways,” said Clarke.
“I think they’ve overplayed their hand a little bit by saying the administration is considering cutting off weapons to the Israelis. It’s never going to happen — I think it’s an empty threat, especially in an election year.”
The US presidential election in November comes as Biden faces domestic political pressure on all sides when it comes to Israel.
Trump has led a chorus of Republicans accusing Biden of being weak on the issue — while young and left-wing voters in particular are angered by his failure to stop the bloodshed in Gaza.
Netanyahu, facing his own political and legal issues at home, would now be able to use the Iran attacks to “paper over the very real rifts that exist” with Washington on Gaza, said Clarke.
“If he can drag this out until November, he’s hoping for a Trump victory” when he would have “carte blanche” to act however he wanted in the region, said Clarke.
Another possibility, however, is that Netanyahu may decide to “accede to American urgings” for now on Iran — but with a cost, said Paul Salem, President and CEO of the Middle East Institute.
“Politically, I think they can cash in on saying, ‘okay, America, we won’t do anything, we’re being good. But in exchange, you have to, you know, give us more of a free hand in Gaza,’” he said.


G7 ‘ready to take measures’ over destabilization by Iran

G7 ‘ready to take measures’ over destabilization by Iran
Updated 15 April 2024
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G7 ‘ready to take measures’ over destabilization by Iran

G7 ‘ready to take measures’ over destabilization by Iran
  • Going forward we will reflect on additional sanctions against Iran in close cooperation with our partners: Ursula von der Leyen

ROME: G7 leaders offered their full support for Israel on Sunday following an attack by Iran, and said they were ready to “take further measures” in response to “further destabilising initiatives.”
In a statement following a video meeting, the leaders of the Group of Seven powers said they “unequivocally condemn in the strongest terms Iran’s direct and unprecedented attack against Israel.”
“We express our full solidarity and support to Israel and its people and reaffirm our commitment toward its security,” they said, in the statement published by the Italian G7 presidency.
“With its actions, Iran has further stepped toward the destabilization of the region and risks provoking an uncontrollable regional escalation. This must be avoided.
“We will continue to work to stabilize the situation and avoid further escalation.
“In this spirit, we demand that Iran and its proxies cease their attacks, and we stand ready to take further measures now and in response to further destabilising initiatives.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a separate statement: “Going forward we will reflect on additional sanctions against Iran in close cooperation with our partners. Specifically on its drone and missile programs.”
Iran launched the attack, its first ever to directly target Israeli territory, in retaliation for a deadly air strike widely blamed on Israel that destroyed its consular building in Syria’s capital early this month.
The attack came as the Israel-Hamas war raged in besieged Gaza.
The G7 — which groups the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada — also said Sunday they would step up efforts to end that crisis.
“We will also strengthen our cooperation to end the crisis in Gaza, including by continuing to work toward an immediate and sustainable ceasefire and the release of hostages by Hamas, and deliver increased humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in need,” they said.
The Israel-Hamas war began with an unprecedented October 7 attack by the militant group against Israel, resulting in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,729 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry.


Heavy rain and flash floods kill 33 in Afghanistan

Heavy rain and flash floods kill 33 in Afghanistan
Updated 14 April 2024
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Heavy rain and flash floods kill 33 in Afghanistan

Heavy rain and flash floods kill 33 in Afghanistan
  • Most casualties were from roof collapses while some 600 houses were damaged or destroyed
  • Some 20 of the nation’s 34 provinces were lashed by heavy rains after an unusually dry winter

KABUL: At least 33 people have been killed over three days of heavy rains and flash flooding in Afghanistan, the government’s disaster management department said Sunday.
“From Friday onward, because of the rains there were flash floods which caused high human and financial losses,” department spokesman Janan Sayeq said.
“The primary information shows that, unfortunately, in the floods, 33 people were martyred and 27 people got injured.”
Most casualties were from roof collapses while some 600 houses were damaged or destroyed, nearly 600 kilometers (370 miles) of road demolished, and around 2,000 acres of farmland “flooded away,” Sayeq said.
Some 20 of the nation’s 34 provinces were lashed by the heavy rains, which have followed an unusually dry winter season which has parched terrain and forced farmers to delay planting.
Since the Taliban returned to power in 2021 the flow of foreign aid into the impoverished country has drastically diminished, hindering relief responses to natural disasters.
At least 25 people were killed in a landslide after massive snowfall in eastern Afghanistan in February, whilst around 60 were killed in a three-week spate of precipitation ending in March.
The United Nations last year warned “Afghanistan is experiencing major swings in extreme weather conditions.”
Scientists say harsh weather patterns are being spurred by climate change and after being ravaged by four decades of war Afghanistan ranks among the nations least prepared to face the phenomenon.


Pope warns against ‘spiral of violence’ after Iran attack

Pope warns against ‘spiral of violence’ after Iran attack
Updated 14 April 2024
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Pope warns against ‘spiral of violence’ after Iran attack

Pope warns against ‘spiral of violence’ after Iran attack
  • The Pope once again repeated earlier calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and negotiation

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis on Sunday made a “pressing appeal” against a “spiral of violence” after Iran’s unprecedented missile and drone attack on Israel, warning of a potential regional conflagration.
“I make a pressing appeal for an end to any action which could fuel a spiral of violence that risks dragging the Middle East into an even greater conflict,” the Argentinian pontiff declared following his traditional Sunday prayer in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican.
“I am praying and following with concern, but also pain, the news that has come in recent hours about the worsening situation in Israel due to Iran’s intervention,” the pope told worshippers.
“No one should threaten the existence of others. All countries must, however, side with peace and help Israelis and Palestinians to live in two states, side by side and in security,” he said.
“That is their right,” Francis insisted as he once again repeated earlier calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and “negotiation.”
The pontiff futhermore demanded the world “help the population facing a humanitarian crisis” in Gaza and urged the “immediate release of the hostages kidnapped months ago” by Hamas, setting in train the latest chapter of violence in the region.


India’s Modi vows to boost social spending, make country into a manufacturing hub ahead of election

India’s Modi vows to boost social spending, make country into a manufacturing hub ahead of election
Updated 14 April 2024
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India’s Modi vows to boost social spending, make country into a manufacturing hub ahead of election

India’s Modi vows to boost social spending, make country into a manufacturing hub ahead of election
  • Modi has been campaigning extensively across the country, promising to expand India’s economy to $5 trillion by 2027 from around $3.7 trillion

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday vowed to boost social spending, develop infrastructure and make India into a global manufacturing hub as companies shift away from China, as he unveiled his Hindu nationalist party’s election strategy.
Modi hopes to return to power for a third five-year term. He and other leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party unveiled their promises in the world’s largest democracy days before the start of a multi-phase general election.
Modi promised to expand social programs introduced during his party’s 10-year rule, including millions of free homes for the poor, along with healthcare, cooking gas and free grain. His government has been paying 6,000 rupees ($73) a year to poor farmers.
He said his government’s policies have pulled 250 million people out of poverty since he came to power in 2014. India is the world’s most populous country with over 1.4 billion people. The BJP’s president, J.P. Nadda, said less than 1 percent of Indian people now live in extreme poverty.

HIGHLIGHT

Voting for the country’s parliament will begin on April 19 and run until June 1, and results will be announced on June 4.

India holds its elections on different days in different parts of the country, stretching over weeks. Voting for the country’s parliament will begin on April 19 and run until June 1, and results will be announced on June 4.
Most polls have predicted a victory for Modi and the BJP. But the opposition Congress Party argues that Modi has undermined India’s democracy and favored the interests of the rich.
Modi has been campaigning extensively across the country, promising to expand India’s economy to $5 trillion by 2027 from around $3.7 trillion. He also promises to put India on track to become a developed country by 2047, when the country celebrates 100 years of independence from British colonialists.
On Sunday, he said his party would develop India as a hub for the pharmaceutical, energy, semiconductor and tourism industries. He also said India will modernize its infrastructure, including its railways, airways, and waterways. And he said he will seek to increase jobs for young people and access to cheap loans for young entrepreneurs.
Modi is broadly popular in India, where he’s considered a champion of the country’s Hindu majority and has overseen rapid economic growth.
But critics say another term for the BJP could undermine India’s status as a secular, democratic nation, saying its 10 years in power have brought attacks by Hindu nationalists against the country’s minorities, particularly Muslims, and a shrinking space for dissent and free media.