8 killed after deadly rocket attacks tear through Kabul

Alarms could be heard blaring at embassies and businesses in and around the Green Zone. (File/AFP)
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Updated 22 November 2020

8 killed after deadly rocket attacks tear through Kabul

  • Attacks come a day after reports said negotiating teams in Qatar were close to ending stalemate in crucial intra-Afghan peace talks

KABUL: At least eight civilians were killed and dozens injured after more than 20 rockets struck various parts of Kabul during rush hour on Saturday, with officials saying the latest act of violence was “terrorism.”

“The terrorists fired 23 rockets on residential parts of the city today…Initial findings show that at least eight people were martyred and 31 wounded,” Interior Ministry Spokesman Tariq Aryan told Arab News.

Several had been rushed to various hospitals, with the Italian-run Emergency Hospital saying that it alone was treating 28 injured.

The Taliban denied involvement in the attack, which no other group had claimed responsibility for either as of reporting time.

Aryan added that the rockets, “highly likely BM 12s,” were fired from “two vehicles in two parts of the city,” landing in multiple, heavily populated areas, including near the secure Green Zone, which houses several embassies.

Hawkers and pedestrians were among the majority of casualties, public health officials told Arab News. At the same time, a source — requesting anonymity, as he was not authorized to speak to the media — said that two of First Vice President Amrullah Saleh’s guards were also wounded after one of the rockets landed close to his office.

Saturday’s attack is similar to others that took place in Kabul in recent months.

The first one was in March and was aimed at derailing President Ashraf Ghani’s swearing-in ceremony. A few weeks ago, another attack targeted the iconic Kabul University, with more than 30 killed in the strike. Affiliates of Daesh claimed responsibility for both.

This latest attack came amid a surge of violence across Afghanistan in recent months and took place a day after media reports said that a breakthrough was expected to be announced in the intra-Afghan talks in Doha, after more than two months of a deadlock in negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives.

According to the Interior Ministry, more than 1,200 civilians have died in various strikes across the country since the talks began on Sept. 12, despite a pledge by both groups to reduce violence.

While the government blames the Taliban for the spike in attacks, human rights officials have also held Afghan forces responsible for civilian deaths, alleging that most of them were caused by air raids.

Witnesses and residents said that while Kabul has been the scene of “far deadlier and complex raids for years,” an attack where assailants fire rockets from one part of the city to another was “a relatively new method.”

Experts, however, called out the government for its failure to protect civilians from “terrorism.”

“Terrorizing the city. Terrorizing the civilian population. This goes beyond war. This is terrorism,” Shazada Akbar, chairperson of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, tweeted on Saturday.

Others highlighted the growing insecurity in Kabul and the inability of the security forces to curb violence.

“And there is no end to the failure of security and intelligence teams [of the government]. What will be your response to the blood of people?” Tamim Asey, a former deputy defense minister who served in the current government, tweeted on Saturday.

Hours before Saturday’s attack, the Interior Ministry said two small “sticky-bomb” explosions had been reported elsewhere in the capital as well, including one on a police car, killing a policeman and wounding three others.

Aryan said no group had claimed responsibility for it yet.

The uptick in attacks comes amid rising frustration among a majority of residents in Kabul, who are grappling with poverty, inflation, a surge in crime rate, unemployment and long power cuts as the harsh Afghan winter sets in.

Wahidullah Ghazikhail, a spokesman for the former government who now serves in a think tank, said the series of attacks could “damage the prestige” of Ghani’s administration at home and abroad even further.

“This sort of attack harms the government’s image in the eyes of people, creates further distance between them and also discredits the government before the international community as some countries may pull out their diplomats for their own safety,” he told Arab News.

He added that without “inside help,” it would not have been possible for the attackers to drive vehicles around the city “with rockets mounted on them and bypassing security.”

After the incident on Saturday, the US Embassy released a statement warning its citizens against traveling to Afghanistan.

“The security situation in Afghanistan is extremely unstable, and the threat to all US citizens in Afghanistan remains critical,” it said.

To some, the attack served as a reminder of a time after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the late 1980s when cities, including Kabul, came under a barrage of rockets fired by insurgents daily.

Some fear history may repeat itself after the US-led foreign troops leave the country soon as part of a historic accord signed in February to end more than 19 years of war.

The ongoing intra-Afghan talks were part of the February deal, but progress has been slow.

Two Afghan government negotiators told Arab News that the two teams were “working to iron out the differences” and begin the formal round of talks.

“There are ongoing talks and meetings to overcome the deadlock, but no progress has been made yet,” said a source requesting anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

To accelerate the process and amid hopes of the stalemate ending soon, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to travel to Qatar to meet Taliban and Kabul negotiators on Saturday, according to media reports.

Ghazikhail, however, said the measure taken could send out a “tough message” for everyone involved.

“Pompeo is coming with the tough message that the US is withdrawing its troops, that Afghans must engage in serious talks and agree on a future political settlement, and that the US will not be here forever.”


Mayor of Philippine capital to seek presidency

Updated 6 sec ago

Mayor of Philippine capital to seek presidency

  • Manila Mayor Isko Moreno was a child scavenger before becoming an actor then entering politics
  • He said he was pushed to run not by high ambition but by the sorry state of the country
MANILA: The popular mayor of the Philippine capital said Wednesday he will run for president in next year’s elections, the latest aspirant in what is expected to be a crowded race to succeed the controversial Rodrigo Duterte.
Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, a child scavenger before becoming an actor then entering politics, said ahead of his public announcement that he would fight still-raging coronavirus outbreaks and long-entrenched poverty and promote democracy if he triumphs in the May 9 elections. He declared his bid in a speech at a public school in the slum area near where he grew up. With him was his vice presidential running mate, Willie Ong, a cardiologist who provides medical advice to ordinary Filipinos on a Facebook account with more than 16 million followers.
“In all humility, I announce to you my countrymen, this coming May please accept my application as president of the Philippines,” he said to the applause of his supporters.
He said he was pushed to run not by high ambition but by the sorry state of the country, as he criticized the Duterte administration’s pandemic response, including the lack of life-saving medicines to combat COVID-19.
““I have pulled myself out of the gutter with no Daddy Warbucks helping me along,” he said, adding that he believes in hard work and straight talk.
Of the poor, he said: “You give them red carpet treatment, not red tape.”
While the 46-year-old mayor is expected to bank on his rags-to-power life story, movie star looks and widely praised projects in Manila, including cleaning up its filthy main roads and restoring order in its chaotic streets and public markets, Moreno will be up against formidable national politicians and celebrities.
Two senators have declared their intent to run — international boxing star Manny Pacquiao and Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief. At least seven other politicians have said they were considering either a presidential run or lower posts, including Vice President Leni Robredo, who leads the opposition; Duterte’s daughter, who is the mayor of their southern hometown city, and a son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Duterte’s successor stands to inherit enormous problems led by the pandemic, a battered economy, long-entrenched poverty and decades-long communist and Muslim insurgencies.
“This is not about Mr. and Mrs. Congeniality. This is about making hard decisions and sacrifices,” Moreno said. From “a rotten and downtrodden city,” Manila reemerged as a competitive and much-improved capital under him in less than two years “because of fast action and fast decision-making and not getting stuck by digging up past baggage and just moving on,” he said.
Moreno said he picked a doctor instead of a political heavyweight as his running mate so his vice president could focus on the pandemic while he leads efforts for an economic rebound if they win.
“It’s politically unorthodox, but it makes sense,” said Moreno.

Afghanistan’s Taliban want to address UN General Assembly, appoint permanent representative 

Updated 6 min 46 sec ago

Afghanistan’s Taliban want to address UN General Assembly, appoint permanent representative 

  • UN spokesperson says currently accredited ambassador can no longer represent Afghanistan after ouster of last government 
  • Taliban nominate Mohammad Suhail Shaheen as permanent representative, request to participate in General Assembly 

UNITED NATIONS: The Taliban, the country’s new rulers for a matter of weeks, are challenging the credentials of their country’s former UN ambassador and want to speak at the General Assembly’s high-level meeting of world leaders this week, the international body says.
The development comes just over a month after the Taliban, ejected from Afghanistan by the United States and its allies after 9/11, swept back into power as US forces prepared to withdraw from the country at the end of August. The Taliban stunned the world by taking territory with surprising speed and little resistance from the US-trained Afghan military. The Western-backed government collapsed on August 15.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres received a communication on September 15 from the currently accredited Afghan Ambassador, Ghulam Isaczai, with the list of Afghanistan’s delegation for the assembly’s 76th annual session.
Five days later, Guterres received another communication with the letterhead “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” signed by “Ameer Khan Muttaqi” as “Minister of Foreign Affairs,” requesting to participate in the UN gathering of world leaders.
Muttaqi said in the letter that former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani was “ousted” as of August 15 and that countries across the world “no longer recognize him as president,” and therefore Isaczai no longer represents Afghanistan, Dujarric said.
The Taliban said it was nominating a new UN permanent representative, Mohammad Suhail Shaheen, the UN spokesman said. He has been a spokesman for the Taliban during peace negotiations in Qatar.
Senior US State Department officials said they were aware of the Taliban’s request — the United States is a member of the UN credentials committee — but they would not predict how that panel might rule. However, one of the officials said the committee “would take some time to deliberate,” suggesting the Taliban’s envoy would not be able to speak at the General Assembly at this session at least during the high-level leaders’ week.
In cases of disputes over seats at the United Nations, the General Assembly’s nine-member credentials committee must meet to make a decision. Both letters have been sent to the committee after consultations with General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid’s office. The committee’s members are the United States, Russia, China, Bahama, Bhutan, Chile, Namibia, Sierra Leone and Sweden.
Afghanistan is scheduled to give the last speech on the final day of the high-level meeting on September 27. It wasn’t clear who would speak if the committee met and the Taliban were given Afghanistan’s seat.
When the Taliban last ruled from 1996 to 2001, the UN refused to recognize their government and instead gave Afghanistan’s seat to the previous, warlord-dominated government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who eventually was killed by a suicide bomber in 2011. It was Rabbani’s government that brought Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11, to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996.
The Taliban have said they want international recognition and financial help to rebuild the war-battered country. But the makeup of the new Taliban government poses a dilemma for the United Nations. Several of the interim ministers are on the UN’s so-called blacklist of international terrorists and funders of terrorism.
Credentials committee members could also use Taliban recognition as leverage to press for a more inclusive government that guarantees human rights, especially for girls who were barred from going to school during their previous rule, and women who weren’t able to work.


Rare Australia earthquake triggers panic in Melbourne

Updated 22 September 2021

Rare Australia earthquake triggers panic in Melbourne

  • Debris littered roads in the popular shopping area around Melbourne's Chapel Street, with bricks apparently coming loose from buildings
  • Sizable earthquakes are unusual in Australia's populated southeast

MELBOURNE: A rare quake rattled southeastern Australia early Wednesday, shaking buildings, knocking down walls and sending panicked residents running into the streets of Melbourne.
The shallow quake hit east of the country's second-largest city just after 9:00am local time (2300 GMT) and was felt hundreds of kilometres (miles) away.
The US Geological Survey put the magnitude of the quake at 5.8, later revised up to 5.9, and said it struck at a depth of 10 kilometres (six miles).
Debris littered roads in the popular shopping area around Melbourne's Chapel Street, with bricks apparently coming loose from buildings.
Zume Phim, 33, owner of Melbourne's Oppen cafe, said he rushed onto the street when the temblor hit.
"The whole building was shaking. All the windows, the glass, was shaking -- like a wave of shaking," he told AFP.
"I have never experienced that before. It was a little bit scary."
Sizable earthquakes are unusual in Australia's populated southeast.
"It was quite violent but everyone was kind of in shock," Melbourne cafe worker Parker Mayo, 30, told AFP.
Bricks and rubble lay on the ground outside Betty's Burgers in Melbourne, with large sheets of metal hanging off the restaurant awning.
The restaurant said in a Facebook post that everyone was safe: "We were fortunate that nobody was in the restaurant at the time."
At around just under magnitude six this was "the biggest event in south east Australia for a long time" Mike Sandiford, a geologist at the University of Melbourne told AFP.
"We had some very big ones at magnitude six in the late 1800s, though precise magnitudes are not well known."
A quake of this size is expected every "10-20 years in south east Australia, the last was Thorpdale in 2012" he said. "This is significantly bigger."
Sandiford said Australians should expect "many hundreds of aftershocks, most below human sensitivity threshold, but probably a dozen or more that will be felt at least nearby."
The quake "would have caused many billions of dollars in damage had it been under Melbourne," he added.
Geosciences Australia said an aftershock measuring 4.0 struck shortly after the initial temblor.
The mayor of Mansfield, near the quake epicentre, said there was no damage in the small town but it had taken residents by surprise.
"I was sitting down at work at my desk and I needed to run outside. It took me a while to work out what it was," Mark Holcombe told public broadcaster ABC.
"We don't have earthquakes that I am aware of -- none of the locals I spoke to this morning had that experience with earthquakes here before -- so it is one right out of left field."
Emergency services said they had received calls for help as far away as Dubbo, about 700 kilometres from the quake epicentre, with fire and rescue crews dispatched to help.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, speaking from New York, said there were no initial reports of injuries.
"It can be a very, very disturbing event for an earthquake of this nature," he said. "They are very rare events in Australia."


Biden vows to ‘break cycle of war and destruction’ in dramatic appeal to UN

Updated 22 September 2021

Biden vows to ‘break cycle of war and destruction’ in dramatic appeal to UN

  • US leader’s message gets mixed response as Washington faces growing rivalry for global dominance

NEW YORK: In what could prove to be his most important moment on the world stage to date, US President Joe Biden stood before the UN General Assembly in New York to declare an end to two decades of war, and a recalibration of US resources toward issues such as climate change, technology and infrastructure development.

In his first address to the UN General Assembly as president, Biden emphasized a list of policy priorities that also included preparations for the next pandemic and greater efforts to combat global warming.

However, the US president faces serious challenges in his bid to convince world leaders that foreign policy under his helm seeks greater global partnerships.

The reception to Biden’s message has been mixed at best, with the speech overshadowed by the chaos of the Afghanistan withdrawal, which drew significant criticism from allies who believe they were not properly consulted.

Biden told the international body: “Our collective future means we must break the cycle of war and destruction. Now we must again come together to affirm the inherent humanity that unites us is more than outward disagreements. We must be prepared for the next pandemic and climate change.”

He declared that the US has “turned a page” and for the first time in 20 years is not at war. Biden declared that there would be no “new cold war” for national resources to be marshaled on and said that the nation is looking at “what’s ahead of us, not what is behind.”

Biden’s message to the world and to America’s competitors comes at a time when serious questions hang over the ability and willingness of his administration to work in tandem with traditional allies and regional partners.

The US leader sought to lay out a new paradigm for America’s place in the world, saying: “We will lead with the power of our example, not just the example of our power. We will defend ourselves, including against terror threats, and we will use force as necessary. The mission must be clear and achievable, and taken under consent of the American people and whenever possible with our allies. Using military power should be the last resort. The America of 2021 is not the country it was in the immediate wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.”

But there have been grumblings over whether the US is prepared to seriously shift focus toward “big power” competition with near-peer competitors.

The administration is facing a particularly turbulent few months of foreign policy challenges that have been viewed with concern by America’s partners across the globe. From Afghanistan to the diplomatic imbroglio with France, and pulling out key US defense systems from the Middle East, Biden’s foreign policy has raised alarm bells in key world capitals.

Complicating efforts to shift focus to a sweeping new vision for foreign affairs, Biden’s approval ratings are the lowest since the start of his presidency, with an average of 46 percent of respondents approving and 50 percent disapproving.

Many allied capitals have privately grumbled that former president Trump and his foreign policy team were, in fact, more keen to consult and coordinate with them behind the scenes compared with Biden. “America First” may have been Trump’s most recognizable campaign and governing slogan, but analysts and diplomats in Europe and elsewhere view Biden as continuing rather than repudiating his predecessor’s foreign policy approach on a number of sensitive multilateral issues.

The lofty ideals of Biden’s “build back better world” blueprint, which he attempted to rally world leaders to to collectively work toward, are likely to ultimately clash with China’s competing vision for global governance.

Prof. Brenda Shaffer, a senior adviser to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Arab News that “If the US was really interested in limiting China’s actions, it would not have given up a base in Bagram next to Xinjian. In recent decades, every administration comes in and says it is going to focus on major powers and not engage in nation-building, and every administration in the end continues in its nation-building attempts.”

She added: “Washington is likely to focus at the UN on issues of broad international agreement that all support on the rhetorical level — climate change, energy transition, eradicating poverty, justice, etc.”

Biden’s speech emphasized that with the Afghanistan war supposedly behind it, the US must treat climate change and the pandemic as the new national priorities.

According to Shaffer, the administration’s emphasis on climate change diplomacy “puts China in an excellent position. China just needs to agree to some goal to be implemented well down the road, and in exchange for this can get a real strategic concession from Washington.”

And while Biden stressed that the US must continue to support democracy and repudiate authoritarian systems, it is unclear whether the US is ideally positioned to counter a resurgent China that seeks to make its own mark on the international stage, particularly in the developing world.

According to Matthew Kroenig, of Georgetown University, “China presents a comprehensive threat to the rules-based international system, including in international institutions. China has gained influence within institutions with the purpose of undermining these bodies’ founding mission. China vetoes UN Security Council resolutions that are contrary to its interests, prevents the WHO from conducting an adequate investigation into the pandemic’s origins, and blocks the UNHRC from taking action on the genocide in Xinjiang. I would like to see Biden articulate this challenge from Beijing and for him to call on responsible powers to come together to address the threat.”

Biden’s policy ethos has the US sharing a common responsibility with the international community to find new ways to end conflict, and “break the cycle of war and destruction.”

That may be easier said than done. Disrupting such a cycle will require a clear-eyed approach that takes into account domestic considerations as well.

Kroenig said: “The major shift in US strategy toward great power competition and away from terrorism and insurgency happened in the Trump administration, but Biden is continuing this trajectory. Whereas Trump focused heavily on competition and confrontation, Biden is attempting a more balanced approach that includes, first, strengthening the US at home, and, second, seeking engagement with China on common challenges, like climate change.”

Biden urged the international community to “get to work” on the common tasks ahead to make a better world for all. Competition with China is increasingly likely to heat up on a number of fronts, regardless of the US leader’s intent to seek dialogue rather than confrontation. Biden said that the US and the international community now stand at an “inflection point” and must decide how the world can “come together to affirm the inherent humanity that unites us.”

Looking beyond the nobility of such a goal, many of America’s traditional allies will still wonder whether Biden’s administration will live up to the grand ideals and sweeping calls for improving lives across the world, or whether his speech will become a footnote in a line of foreign policy blunders.


Biden, UK's Johnson talk trade and trains in White House meeting

Updated 22 September 2021

Biden, UK's Johnson talk trade and trains in White House meeting

  • Johnson took the Amtrak train from the United Nations General Assembly in New York to Washington for the meeting

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson discussed the dangers of climate change and bantered about the joys of rail travel on Tuesday during an Oval Office meeting aimed at highlighting the US-British alliance.
Biden told the visiting prime minister, who once worried his warm relationship with former President Donald Trump would hurt relations under the US Democratic leader, that he looked forward to coming to the United Kingdom for a conference on global warming later this year.
"It's fantastic to see the United States really stepping up and showing a lead, a real, real lead," Johnson said, referring to the issue of global warming. Under Biden, the United States has renewed pledges to cut greenhouse gases and promised to finance projects to combat climate change.
Johnson took the Amtrak train from the United Nations General Assembly in New York to Washington for the meeting. "They love you," Johnson said to Biden, seemingly referring to the US railway staff. Biden was a regular train commuter for over 30 years.
"We're going to talk about trade," Biden said when asked about a potential UK-US trade agreement, which would be of great significance for post-Brexit Britain.
Johnson first met Vice President Kamala Harris, who said the United States and Britain are more interconnected than ever before. Tackling the pandemic, dealing with climate change and upholding democracy around the world remained top priorities for both countries, Harris said.
Johnson praised the US military's role in the "Kabul airlift" and thanked the US government for lifting a ban last year on imports of British beef imposed after an outbreak of mad cow disease.
"I want to thank the US government, your government, for the many ways in which we are cooperating now, I think, at a higher and more intense level than at any time I can remember," Johnson said.
Johnson's team regards the visit as a triumph, demonstrating that Britain can thrive on the world stage after its divorce last year from the European Union. It comes amid a US rift with EU rival France, in which Britain played a crucial part.
A submarine deal the United States and Britain recently announced with Australia came at France's expense, prompting France to withdraw its ambassadors to the United States and Australia and cancel a defense meeting with Britain.
France continues to see Britain as the junior partner in the long-running "special relationship" between the United States and Britain, some say, years after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was ridiculed for supporting US President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in March 2003.