US military, aid group at odds over Somalia civilian deaths

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A Somali soldier near the wreckage of car in Mogadishu, Somalia, Thursday March 7, 2019. (AP)
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A boy walks past the site of a car bomb attack near a security checkpoint in the Somali capital, not far from the presidential palace in Mogadishu on March 7, 2019. (AFP)
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Rescuers carry a man who was injured in an attack on a restaurant by Somali Islamist group al Shabaab in the capital Mogadishu, Somalia, October 1, 2016. (REUTERS)
Updated 20 March 2019

US military, aid group at odds over Somalia civilian deaths

  • The Somali official said the drone targeted a vehicle carrying suspected militants and apparently hit another vehicle that may have been carrying civilians

WASHINGTON: There is credible evidence that US military airstrikes in Somalia have killed or wounded nearly two dozen civilians, an international human rights group said Tuesday, charging that the Pentagon is not adequately investigating potential casualties.
US Africa Command officials immediately disputed the allegations laid out in a report by Amnesty International, and insisted that the military has investigated 18 cases of possible civilian casualties since 2017 and found that none were credible.
The seemingly contradictory information underscores the complexities of military operations against the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab group in Somalia, involving airstrikes by several allied nations in hostile, remote locations that are difficult to access safely.
The report came the same day that a Somali intelligence official and two local residents said a US drone strike on Monday killed civilians.
The Somali official said the drone targeted a vehicle carrying suspected militants and apparently hit another vehicle that may have been carrying civilians. The official was not authorized to talk with the media and did so on condition of anonymity.
Residents concurred with the official’s assessment.
Mohamed Siyad, an elder in Lanta Buro, a village near the farming town of Afgoye, Somalia, told The Associated Press that four civilians including employees of a telecom company were killed.
“They were known to us — they had nothing to do with Al-Shabab,” he said by phone.
Another resident, Abdiaziz Hajji, said that the drone destroyed the vehicle. “Bodies were burnt beyond recognition,” he said. “They were innocent civilians killed by Americans for no reason. They always get away with such horrible mistakes.”
In a rare move, US Africa Command on Tuesday mentioned those possible casualties in a press release about the strike and said officials will look into the incident. But, more broadly, US defense officials said casualty allegations in Somalia are questionable because Al-Shabab militants make false claims or force local citizens to do the same.
Amnesty International, however, said it analyzed satellite imagery and other data, and interviewed 65 witnesses and survivors of five specific airstrikes detailed in the report. The report concludes that there is “credible evidence” that the US was responsible for four of the airstrikes, and that it’s plausible the US conducted the fifth strike. It said 14 civilians were killed and eight injured in the strikes.
“Amnesty International’s research points to a failure by the US and Somali governments to adequately investigate allegations of civilian casualties resulting from US operations in Somalia,” the report said, adding that the US doesn’t have a good process for survivors or victims’ families to self-report losses.
US Africa Command said it looked at the five strikes and concluded there were no civilian casualties. In the fifth case the command said there were no US strikes in that area on that day.
The group’s report and Defense Department officials also agreed that the strikes usually take place in hostile areas controlled by Al-Shabab militants. And those conditions, the report said, “prevented Amnesty International organization from conducting on-site investigations and severely limited the organization’s ability to freely gather testimonial and physical evidence.”
US defense officials told reporters that American troops were on the ground at strike locations in a very limited number of cases. Even in those instances, they said, US troops ordered strikes to protect local Somali forces they were accompanying, and there was little opportunity to investigate possible civilian casualties at that moment.
Still, the rights group concluded that the US military’s insistence that there have been zero civilian deaths is wrong.
“The civilian death toll we’ve uncovered in just a handful of strikes suggests the shroud of secrecy surrounding the US role in Somalia’s war is actually a smoke screen for impunity,” said Brian Castner, a senior adviser at Amnesty International.
US officials countered that they have access to information not readily available to nonmilitary organizations, including observations from people on the ground at the site and post-strike intelligence gathering from various electronic systems. Those systems can include overhead surveillance and data collected through cyber operations and other intercepted communications and electronic signals.
The defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
They said the US rigorously assesses targets in advance to make sure no civilians will be hurt or killed.
The officials noted that Kenya and Ethiopia also conduct airstrikes in the region, but provided no details. There are 500 to 600 US troops in Somalia at any time.
The pace of US airstrikes in Somalia has escalated during the Trump administration, from 47 in all of 2018 to 28 already this year. So far more than 230 militants have been killed in 2019, compared to 338 killed in all of 2018.
In March 2017, President Donald Trump approved greater authorities for military operations against Al-Shabab, allowing increased strikes in support of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali forces.
Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who heads Africa Command, told reporters in a recent interview that Al-Shabab controls about 25 percent of the country and the key effort is to help the government regain control of its land.
“The intention is to keep the pressure on that network,” he said.
He said there are three categories of strikes: ones to target senior Al-Shabab leaders, ones to take out training camps or involve Daesh militants in the north, and ones aimed at helping the government increase security and regain control of the country. He said the last group involves the most strikes.


8.2 magnitude earthquake off Alaskan peninsula, tsunami warning

Updated 34 min 54 sec ago

8.2 magnitude earthquake off Alaskan peninsula, tsunami warning

  • Tsunami warning sirens could be heard on Kodiak, an island with a population of about 6,000 people
  • Alaska was hit by a 9.2-magnitude earthquake in March 1964, the strongest ever recorded in North America

WASHINGTON: An 8.2 magnitude earthquake struck off the Alaskan peninsula late Wednesday, the United States Geological Survey said, prompting a tsunami warning.
The earthquake hit 56 miles (91 kilometers) southeast of the town of Perryville, the USGS said. The US government issued a tsunami warning for south Alaska and the Alaskan peninsula.
“Hazardous tsunami waves for this earthquake are possible within the next three hours along some coasts,” the US Tsunami Warning System said in a statement.
Perryville is a small village about 500 miles from Anchorage, Alaska’s biggest city.
Tsunami warning sirens could be heard on Kodiak, an island with a population of about 6,000 people, along Alaska’s coastline.
The quake struck at 10:15 p.m. Wednesday (0615 GMT Thursday).
A broadcaster on local radio station KMXT said a tsunami, if it was generated, would hit Kodiak at 11:55 pm.
Videos posted on social media by journalists and residents in Kodiak showed people driving away from the coast as warning sirens could be heard.
A tsunami watch was also issued for Hawaii, meaning residents are required to stay away from beaches.
Five aftershocks were recorded within 90 minutes of the earthquake, the largest with a magnitude of 6.2, according to the USGS.
Alaska is part of the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire.
Alaska was hit by a 9.2-magnitude earthquake in March 1964, the strongest ever recorded in North America.
It devastated Anchorage and unleashed a tsunami that slammed the Gulf of Alaska, the US west coast, and Hawaii.
More than 250 people were killed by the quake and the tsunami.
A 7.5 magnitude earthquake also caused tsunami waves in Alaska’s southern coast in October, but no casualties were reported.

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India, US push for peace in Afghanistan, decry Taliban’s military advances

Updated 29 July 2021

India, US push for peace in Afghanistan, decry Taliban’s military advances

  • Blinken, Jaishankar agree to expand multilateral security partnership

NEW DELHI: Growing concerns over China and turmoil in Afghanistan dominated talks between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in New Delhi on Wednesday, with both officials urging the Taliban and Kabul to resolve issues to create a country that is “at peace with itself and its neighbors.”

Jaishankar said in a joint press conference in New Delhi at the end of a two-hour meeting with his US counterpart: “We spoke at length about regional concerns, multilateral institutions and global issues.”

It is Blinken’s first visit to India after assuming charge as US President Joe Biden’s secretary of state.

“Regarding Afghanistan, it is essential that peace negotiations are taken seriously by all parties,” Jaishankar said, adding: “The world wishes to see an independent, sovereign, democratic and stable Afghanistan at peace with itself and with its neighbors.”

Blinken appreciated India’s contributions to Kabul’s development and talked about working together to stabilize the war-ravaged country.

“We discussed regional security scenarios, including Afghanistan,” Blinken said in his opening statement.

“India and the US share a common view on a peaceful, secured and stable Afghanistan. India has made and continues to make vital contributions to Afghanistan’s stability and development,” he added.

New Delhi has spent billions on development projects in Afghanistan in recent years and is a firm backer of the Kabul government.

However, the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan forced India to evacuate 50 staff from two consulates in the country as the Taliban gained even more territory amid a drawdown of US-led foreign forces.

In April, President Biden ordered the complete withdrawal of about 3,000 US troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, effectively ending the US’ longest war.

Earlier this month, Biden gave an updated timeline and said that the US military mission would end by Aug. 31.

Taliban fighters have swept across the country in recent weeks, with the Pentagon admitting on July 21 that half of all district centers — surrounding 17 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals — were now in the hands of the Taliban.

Blinken said that he disapproved of the Taliban’s “military adventure” as it “does not serve the objective of peace” in Afghanistan.

“Taking over the country by force and abusing the rights of the people is not the path to achieve those objectives. There is only one path, and that is at the negotiation table to resolve the conflict peacefully,” the US official said.

He emphasized that the Taliban’s military advances were “troubling” and that Washington remains engaged in Afghanistan.

“The Taliban is making advances in district centers; there are reports of them committing atrocities in Afghanistan. It’s deeply troubling. It certainly doesn’t speak well about their intentions for the country. We remain engaged in Afghanistan,” he added.

India’s human rights issues was also brought up in discussions, with Blinken holding talks with civil society leaders in Delhi ahead of his meeting with Jaishankar.

“Shared values — freedom and equality — are key, and none of us have done enough. We need to strengthen our democratic institutions. This is at the core of our relationship, beyond strategic and economic ties,” Blinken said.

Since being elected to office in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government have faced allegations of suppressing dissent, pursuing divisive policies to appeal to Hindu voters and enacting the Citizenship Amendment Law two years ago, which Muslims argue is discriminatory.

Debate over India’s human rights record became even more pronounced following the death in custody of 87-year-old Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, who was arrested on charges of supporting ultra-Maoists while awaiting bail.

“One of the elements Americans admire most is a fundamental freedom and human rights. That’s how we define India. India’s democracy is powered by free-thinking citizens,” Blinken said.

The US secretary of state also met a Tibetan delegation in Delhi and ended his short visit to the capital by meeting with Modi.

Both sides also discussed the upcoming meeting in September of the Quad group of countries comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US. The Quad will hold the summit in Washington, which Modi is expected to attend.

Blinken, however, denied that the Quad had been created to counter China’s interests in the Indo-Pacific region following Beijing’s accusations that the “Asian NATO” group was designed to harm China.

The US has long viewed India as a key partner in efforts to overpower China’s economic and military might in the Indo-Pacific region, but Blinken rejected the view that the Quad was a “military alliance.”

He said: “What is Quad? It’s quite simple but important. Its purpose is to advance cooperation on regional challenges while reinforcing international rules and values that we believe together underpin peace, prosperity, and stability in the region.

“We share a vision — India and the US — of a free, open and secure atmosphere in the Indo-Pacific and will work together to make that a reality,” he added.

Foreign policy experts see Blinken’s visit as a “sign of maturity” in India-US ties.

“The press conference was indicative of how the US-India relationship has matured,” Pranay Kotasthane, deputy director of the Takshashila Institution based in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, told Arab News.

“There was no mention of our western neighbor, and the focus was on regional security, economic recovery and global issues such as climate change,” he added, before noting the convergence between the two countries on the situation in Afghanistan.

“On Afghanistan, both countries seem to agree that a Taliban that forces itself on the people of Afghanistan will face the consequences in terms of international recognition and access, and both the countries feel the need for resolution through the intra-Afghan dialogue,” Kotasthane said.


Official ‘confident’ Marawi will get back on its feet before Duterte steps down

Updated 29 July 2021

Official ‘confident’ Marawi will get back on its feet before Duterte steps down

  • Displaced residents ask Philippines leader to make good on his promise and rebuild war-torn city during last months of presidency

MANILA: The head of a task force leading rehabilitation efforts in the Philippines’ southern city of Marawi said on Wednesday he was confident that the war-torn region would “rise again” before President Rodrigo Duterte steps down from office in June next year.

This follows Duterte’s comments during his final state of the nation address (SONA) on Monday when he admitted to “racing against time” to rebuild the city, which was left in ruins after a five-month bloody conflict between government forces and Daesh-linked militants in 2017.

“Rebuilding a better Marawi remains today still not completed,” Duterte said as he called on authorities to hasten reconstruction efforts.

“To Task Force Bangon Marawi (TBFM), we need to race against time. And you have to finish the necessary work to rehabilitate the war-torn city and bring its displaced families back home,” he added.

Over 100,000 residents were forced to flee their homes at the height of the conflict that left an estimated 1,200 people dead.

Four years after Duterte announced the liberation of Marawi, the only city in the Philippines with a Muslim majority, and set up TBFM, many displaced residents continue to live in squalid conditions in temporary shelters.

TBFM was given a deadline until 2021 to get the city back on its feet, with its head, Eduardo Del Rosario, saying on Wednesday that reconstruction of the city would be completed within 11 months of Duterte’s presidency.

“On behalf of TFBM and our 56 implementing agencies, I would like to assure our president and our Maranaw brothers and sisters that we will complete the rehabilitation of all major infrastructures in Marawi City within his administration,” Del Rosario, who is also the Housing Settlements and Urban Development secretary, told Arab News.

He added that the overall rehabilitation work was “70 to 75 percent complete,” while more projects will conclude by December as per the master development plan.

“We have already awarded 279 permanent shelters since February, and two mosques inside the most affected area have been inaugurated,” Del Rosario said, adding: “More housing units will be awarded soon while other projects are scheduled to be inaugurated in the coming months.”

The TBFM head acknowledged that the limitations posed by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and heavy rains in Marawi in the past few months had slowed the rebuilding process but stressed that “rehabilitation remains on track.”

“We are committed to finishing all public infrastructures within the term of President Duterte,” he said.

Earlier, a statement released by his office said that Del Rosario had been conducting monthly inspections of the rehabilitation work in Marawi since construction went into full swing in July 2020.

In his recent visit to the city last week, the TFBM chief spearheaded an initiative to award 170 permanent shelters to displaced families.

Displaced residents from sectors 1 to 3 inside ground zero returned home in August last year, while those in sectors 4 to 7 can expect to come back by October after all the road network projects are completed, Del Rosario said.

“Returning internally displaced persons (IDPs) only need to secure the necessary permits from the city government to ensure their smooth return as there are overlapping claims to some lots. We need to establish legal ownership to avoid conflict,” he added.

Besides the housing units, work on a 19-km transcentral road; the Tolali village complex with a health station and an Islamic seminary; the fully-equipped Rorogagus health station; a central material recovery facility; the Lilod Guimba, Banggolo and Mapandi bridges; and the Disomangcop Mosque has been completed as well.

“This is in addition to the sustained livelihood and other assistance programs being implemented by various government and non-government organizations,” the TFBM chief said.

Despite the assurances, however, many affected families expressed dissatisfaction over the government’s recovery efforts.

Rumblings about massive delays, poor planning and the lack of consultation, plus allegations of corruption, have hounded the government since day one of the initiative.

In the first week of July, a newly established coalition of 15 civil society organizations (CSOs) and alliances in Marawi called on both houses of Congress to expedite the passage of the Marawi compensation bill.

They also urged the president to extend his unequivocal support for the compensation in his final SONA speech.

Much to their disappointment, however, Duterte made no mention of the Marawi compensation bill in his speech.

“This is our plea to our president and lawmakers — to certify the passing of the compensation bill as urgent, so that we might have some justice for what happened in Marawi,” peacebuilding NGO International Alert Philippines wrote in an email to Arab News, quoting Ding Cali, member of the newly established CSO Marawi Compensation Advocates (CSO-MCA) and director of the Kalimudan sa Ranao Foundation.

Meanwhile, Saripada Pacasum Jr., member of the Marawi Reconstruction Conflict Watch, challenged lawmakers by saying: “If you really care for us, prove it through this compensation bill. It’s not the only solution, but it will help alleviate our pain from the loss of lives and livelihood.”

Leaders of the organizations representing the evacuees said they wanted Duterte “to demonstrate that he is a man of his word” by delivering on his promise to rebuild Marawi and turn it into a prosperous city.

“President Duterte promised that Marawi will rise again as it was before. But how can it rise again if the people do not have support?” Sultan Hamidullah Atar of RIDO, Inc., said in a statement.

The coalition also urged TBFM to prioritize installing necessities such as water and electricity “rather than build structures that people do not need.”

IDPs, according to the CSO-MCA, have “absolutely no need for a modern convention center, sports stadium, or museum at present. The focus must be on the needs of the displaced people rather than just infrastructure alone.”

“The government is focusing too much on infrastructure facilities. Even if all government infrastructures were installed in ground zero, if there are no people because they have no resources [to go back], these would just be a waste. Who will use the cultural center and the mosques that they build if people cannot go back because the government has not supported them?” Atar said.

The coalition said a compensation package would enable IDPs to rebuild their lives and re-establish trust in the government. “Not all of the suffering experienced by the people of Marawi will be addressed by the bill, but it is a tool for them to bounce back,” Atar added.


Blinken on official visit issues veiled critique on Indian democracy, rights

Updated 28 July 2021

Blinken on official visit issues veiled critique on Indian democracy, rights

  • Rights groups say civil liberties and dissent under increasing attack in world's biggest democracy under Modi
  • The government denies cracking down on criticism and says people of all religions have equal rights

NEW DELHI: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a veiled warning Wednesday about Indian democracy backsliding in his first official visit to Washington's important ally.

Rights groups say civil liberties and the space for dissent are under increasing attack in the world's biggest democracy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.

Blinken told a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar that the US and India "take seriously our responsibility to deliver freedom, equality and opportunity to all of our people."

But he added that "we know that we must constantly do more on these fronts, and neither of us has achieved the ideals that we set for ourselves."

Democracies should "always seek to strengthen our democratic institutions, expand access to justice and opportunity, stand up forcefully for fundamental freedoms," Blinken said.

Under Modi, India has made growing use of anti-terrorism legislation and "sedition" laws to arrest campaigners, journalists, students and others, critics say.

The Hindu nationalist administration has also brought in legislation that detractors say discriminates against India's 170-million-strong Muslim minority.

The government denies cracking down on criticism and says people of all religions have equal rights.

Behind closed doors, Indian officials were expected to express alarm over Taliban gains in Afghanistan and to press Blinken for more support in the border standoff with China.

US-India relations have historically been prickly but China's growing assertiveness has pushed them closer, particularly since deadly clashes last year on the disputed Indo-Chinese Himalayan frontier.

But according to Brahma Chellaney, strategic affairs expert at India's Centre for Policy Research, US backing has "slipped a notch" since Joe Biden took over from Donald Trump as president in January.

"India is locked in a military standoff with China but unlike top Trump administration officials who publicly condemned China's aggression and backed India, no one in Team Biden has so far lent open support to India," Chellaney told AFP.

Biden has further riled New Delhi with Washington's "rushed and poorly planned exit from Afghanistan", Chellaney added.

India is worried that a possible takeover by the Taliban, which it sees as backed by its arch-rival Pakistan, will turn the country into a base for militants to attack India.

India, a firm backer of the Afghan government with billions of dollars in development aid, recently evacuated 50 staff from its Kandahar consulate due to the worsening security situation.

Blinken told the news conference that despite withdrawing troops, the United States "remain very engaged" in support of the beleaguered Afghan government, providing security support and other assistance.

"There has to be a peaceful resolution which requires the Taliban and the Afghan government to come to the table," Blinken added.

Afghanistan after a Taliban takeover would be a "pariah state," he said.

India is part of the Quad alliance with the United States, Japan and Australia, seen as a bulwark against China.

Blinken and Jaishankar sought to blunt Chinese criticism of the grouping, with Blinken saying it was not a "military alliance".

"Its purpose... is just to advance cooperation on regional challenges while reinforcing international rules and values that we believe together underpin peace, prosperity and stability in the region," Blinken said.

Jaishankar said that "people need to get over the idea that somehow other countries doing things is directed against them. I think countries do things (that) are in their interest for their good and for the good of the world, and that is exactly what is the case with the Quad."

The talks in a monsoon-soaked New Delhi were also set to cover joint efforts on making Covid-19 vaccines and climate change.


England to allow unquarantined travel from US and EU if jabbed: govt

Updated 28 July 2021

England to allow unquarantined travel from US and EU if jabbed: govt

  • "We're helping reunite people living in the US and European countries with their family and friends," Transport Minister Grant Shapps tweeted
  • Separate rules will continue to apply for those arriving from France

LONDON: People fully vaccinated in the United States and European Union — except France — will be allowed to travel to England without having to quarantine on arrival, the UK government announced on Wednesday.
“We’re helping reunite people living in the US and European countries with their family and friends,” Transport Minister Grant Shapps tweeted, adding that the policy will come into force from 4:00 am (0300 GMT) on August 2.
Travelers fully jabbed with a vaccine approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration or the European Medicines Agency will be able to travel from any country on the British government’s “amber” traffic light list without having to self-isolate at home for 10 days.
They will still need to do a pre-departure test and take another test on day two after arriving in England.
Separate rules will continue to apply for those arriving from France.
Those traveling from an amber list country, which includes most of Europe and the US, who are not fully vaccinated will still have to quarantine on arrival.
The government also confirmed the restart of international cruises.
“This is progress we can all enjoy,” wrote Shapps.
Britain is in the midst of another wave of the virus due to the so-called delta variant, although case numbers have dropped over the past week, while its vaccine drive has seen more than 70 percent of adults fully jabbed.
The devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set their own health policies, and decide their own foreign travel rules.