Remains of 4 Filipinos killed by Daesh found in Libyan cemetery

Libyan authorities point to the site at a cemetery where the four Filipinos and their two coworkers were buried. (Supplied)
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Updated 03 March 2021

Remains of 4 Filipinos killed by Daesh found in Libyan cemetery

  • Due to the unstable security situation in Libya, the embassy was unable to send a team to Derna to search for the OFWs

MANILA: The remains of four Filipino oil workers abducted and killed by Daesh in Libya have been located after a search lasting almost six years.

The discovery of the bodies in a Libyan cemetery will pave the way for their final journey back home to the Philippines, officials said.

“We found the gravesite of the four OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) kidnapped and killed by (Daesh) six years ago,” Elmer Cato, Philippine Embassy charge d’affaires and head of mission, told Arab News on Tuesday.

Philippine officials had been working with groups in Libya to locate and recover the remains of the four OFWs – Donato Santiago, Gregorio Titan, Roladan Blaza, and Wilson Eligue – after they, along with two co-workers from Austria and the Czech Republic, were abducted by Daesh militants who attacked the Ghani oilfield in southern Libya on March 6, 2015.

Santiago was from the city of Mandaluyong in Metro Manila, Titan and Blaza from Laguna, and Eligue from Bataan. The victims were employed by Austrian contractor Value Added Oilfield Services (VAOS).

Reports said that Daesh members had broken into the company compound, killing security guards, before kidnapping the foreign workers.

“On Monday – five days before the sixth year of their disappearance – we broke the news to their families in the Philippines that we had finally found them. They were buried in a cemetery in the eastern city of Derna,” Cato said.

Earlier, Cato had revealed that there had been no leads in the case until 2017 when authorities in Derna said that the abducted workers had been executed by retreating Daesh fighters. The news came after a video showing their execution was found on a laptop seized from the slain Daesh fighters in the coastal city of Derna.

However, the victims’ bodies could not be found.

A year later, in 2018, Cato said that the Philippines Embassy had been informed that the remains of the four Filipinos may have been among those recovered by the Libyan Red Crescent in various parts of Derna and later buried there.

But due to the unstable security situation in Libya, the embassy was unable to send a team to Derna to search for the OFWs. It was only in October last year that embassy officials were able to travel to Benghazi in the hope of locating the bodies.

On Monday, Cato and other embassy officials were taken by Libyan military authorities to the Dahr Ahmar Islamic Cemetery, 10 kilometers from Derna, where they said the four OFWs and their Austrian and Czech co-workers were buried.

The embassy interviewed Libyan Red Crescent volunteers who were part of the team that had retrieved and later buried the remains of the six, as well as another volunteer who oversees burials at the cemetery.

“The volunteers were convinced that the bodies they buried there belonged to the six kidnapped foreign oil workers,” an embassy statement said.

Cato added that the Office of Migrant Workers Affairs (OMWA) had been keeping the families of the four OFWs up to date with developments and was arranging for forensic experts to assist in identifying the remains and bring them home.

“Before I left for Tripoli in 2019, I met with the families of our four kababayan (countrymen) who had been waiting for four years for news about the fate of their loved ones. I promised them that I would do everything I could to find them.

“And when we did, with the help of Libyan authorities, I somehow felt relieved knowing that I did not bring those families down, that they will soon be able to find the closure they have been waiting for. After six long years, the families of our four kababayan will finally find closure. We are indebted to our Libyan friends for making this possible,” he said.

As of 2019, there were more than 2,000 Filipinos in Libya, although fighting between rival militias for control of Tripoli and the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has prompted some to return.


Manila summons Chinese envoy over reef dispute

Updated 14 April 2021

Manila summons Chinese envoy over reef dispute

  • Accuses Beijing of stoking tensions with the ‘illegal presence’ of Chinese vessels

MANILA: The Philippines said on Tuesday it had summoned the Chinese ambassador over the “illegal lingering presence” of Chinese militia vessels in the disputed waters of the Whitsun Reef, which Manila said was “stoking tensions in the region.”

In a statement on Tuesday, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it had summoned the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, to reiterate the government’s demands for China to “ensure the immediate departure of all its vessels” from the Whitsun Reef (local name Julian Felipe) and other maritime zones of the Philippines.

“The DFA expressed displeasure over the illegal lingering presence of Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef,” it added.

The latest move comes weeks after the Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest against China over the issue.

During the meeting, DFA Acting Undersecretary Elizabeth Buensuceso told Huang that the reef “lies within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Republic of the Philippines” and that “the continuing presence of Chinese vessels around the reef is a source of regional tension.”

She also reiterated a 2016 ruling by a UN tribunal dismissing China’s claim to virtually all of the South China Sea, although Beijing has refused to recognize the decision.

Beijing claims the Chinese vessels are fishing boats “escaping rough seas by moving within the lagoon, which Beijing calls Niu’e Jiao and claims as part of its territory.

“Due to maritime situation, some fishing boats have been taking shelter from the wind near Niu’e Jiao, which is quite normal. We hope relevant sides can view this in a rational light,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told the media last week.

In a separate message to reporters, the DFA said that “both sides agreed to lower the tensions and handle the issue diplomatically,” but added that “we have yet to see the complete removal of ships.”

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. tweeted on Tuesday that the National Task Force on West Philippines Sea had told him there were only nine ships at Whitsun Reef. The task force had previously said the Chinese vessels were manned by the Chinese maritime militia.

“While it may well be traditional fishing grounds, tradition yields to law and the law on the matter is UNCLOS (UN Convention for the Law of the Sea) and the Arbitral Award and the common rules of statutory construction,” he said in another tweet, before telling China it was “time to go.”

Monday’s meeting is the second time the DFA had summoned a Chinese envoy, with a similar issue raised in 2019 when a Filipino fishing boat was sunk by a Chinese vessel, leaving the fishermen stranded at sea.

Amid the escalating feud between the two countries, a Filipino MP expressed resentment against China’s “bullying and increasingly aggressive territorial expansion in the region” before demanding that the “Chinese completely vacate” the reef.

“Why are they still there? China is becoming the region’s biggest bully,” Sen. Risa Hontiveros told a media forum hosted by the

Philippine Correspondents Association of the Philippines.

“She (China) exploited a global health crisis by executing a series of coordinated incursions into the WPS and insisting her presence even after several diplomatic actions from our end,” Hontiveros said.

The senator added that the latest intrusion “shows China will do what she wants for her own selfish interest, even if it means

threatening peace and stability in the region; even if it means attacking already vulnerable countries, including the Philippines.”

The senator explained that the Philippines’ Department of National Defense (DND) had ordered all Chinese vessels to evacuate Philippine territory after over 200 ships gathered at the Julian Felipe Reef in March.

The DFA vowed to lodge a diplomatic protest every day until China’s vessels vacated the Philippines waters.

“At first, the Chinese Embassy claimed the vessels were just parking due to inclement weather. But Philippine authorities said there was no storm. Then it went as far as insisting that Julian Felipe Reef is Chinese territory. When will the lies, deception, and hypocrisy stop?” Hontiveros asked.

“Our coast guard should also immediately inspect what the Chinese vessels are doing there to see if our environmental and fisheries laws are being observed,” the senator added.

Hontiveros expressed outrage and anger at what she said was a “deliberate, reckless, and unlawful campaign of the Chinese government to use its military and economic might to deprive the Filipino people of the full use of the waters comprising the country’s EEZ and continental shelf.”

“This is a direct challenge to the international rules-based order that has maintained stability in the region for so long,” she

stressed, urging the DND to deploy more naval assets, including the coast guard, to “provide a protective umbrella for

fisherfolk who want to venture out to sea.”

Hontiveros said that the government must assure fishermen that the nation’s defense forces would be able to “safeguard their means of subsistence.”

“We cannot allow ourselves to be kicked out of our own backyard. The West Philippine Sea is part of the patrimony of the Filipino

people — our national dignity is at stake,” she said, urging the government to rethink its “allegiances.”

“We must be consistent and firm in standing up for our national interests. We should hold China accountable for the damage she has

done to fragile marine ecosystems within our EEZ,” she said.

She added that the government must ensure that Philippines environmental laws, not China’s, are being implemented and enforced in the West Philippine Sea.

Hontiveros also expressed her indignation against China’s “deliberate, reckless, and unlawful campaign of the Chinese government to use its military and economic might to deprive the Filipino people of the full use of the waters comprising the country’s EEZ and continental shelf.”

“The Chinese like to tell others to refrain from irresponsible behavior, but their recent behavior has been far from honest or responsible,” she said.

Hontiveros further said that President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration should stop tolerating China’s “duplicitous strategy.”

She said that to convince Filipinos of its good intentions, China has given the country its vaccines — “possibly for free, or perhaps, as many people fear, in exchange for our waters.”

Hontiveros added: “We must not allow China to shake our hands on vaccines and procurement, but stab us in the back on the West Philippine Sea. But Malacanang has tolerated China’s duplicitous strategy.

“This isn’t how a friend treats you. This isn’t even the act of a good neighbor. China is the bully pretending to be your best friend. 

It’s time to say enough is enough. Our government must rethink its current alliances — and perhaps its allegiances. We must be

consistent and firm in standing up for our national interests,” she said.


Biden to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by September 11 

Updated 13 April 2021

Biden to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by September 11 

  • Biden’s decision would miss a May 1 deadline for withdrawal agreed with Taliban by the last US administration 
  • There are only about 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan currently, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011 

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden has decided to withdraw the remaining US troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, 20 years to the day after Al-Qaeda’s attacks triggered America’s longest war, US officials said on Tuesday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are expected to brief the decision to NATO allies in Brussels on Wednesday. Biden may also publicly announce his decision, several sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“After a rigorous policy review, President Biden has decided to draw down the remaining troops in Afghanistan and finally end the US war there after 20 years,” a senior administration official told reporters.
Biden’s decision would miss a May 1 deadline for withdrawal agreed with Taliban insurgents by his predecessor Donald Trump’s administration.
In a statement last month, the Taliban threatened to resume hostilities against foreign troops in Afghanistan if they did not meet the May 1 deadline.
But Biden would still be setting a near-term date for withdrawal, potentially allaying Taliban concerns that the United States could drag out the process.
The senior Biden administration official stressed that the pullout would not be subject to further conditions.
“The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe in staying in Afghanistan forever,” the official said.
The May 1 deadline had already started to appear less and less likely in recent weeks, given the lack of preparations on the ground to ensure it could be done in a safe and responsible way. US officials have also blamed the Taliban for failing to live up to commitments to reduce violence and some have warned about persistent Taliban links to Al-Qaeda.
It was those ties that triggered US military intervention in 2001 following Al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks, when Al-Qaeda hijackers slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, killing almost 3,000 people.
Still, the Biden administration said Al-Qaeda does not pose a threat to the US homeland now.
There are only about 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan currently, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011. About 2,400 US service members have been killed in the course of the Afghan conflict and many thousands more wounded.
It remains unclear how Biden’s move would impact upcoming talks in Istanbul from April 24 to May 4 meant to jump-start an Afghan peace process and sketch out a possible political settlement concerning the Central Asian nation. The planned 10-day summit will include the United Nations and Qatar.
US troops have long provided the United States with leverage in peace efforts.
But the senior Biden administration official said the United States would no longer stick to that strategy.
“There is no military solution to the problems plaguing Afghanistan, and we will focus our efforts on supporting the ongoing peace process,” the official said.
The presence of American forces eased concerns in Afghanistan that the United States might turn its back on the government in Kabul.
“We will have to survive the impact of it and it should not be considered as Taliban’s victory or takeover,” said a senior Afghan government source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Till then, we hope there is a clarity,” the source added.
Then-President George W. Bush sent American forces into Afghanistan to topple its Taliban leaders just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. US forces tracked down and killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 during the presidency of Bush’s successor Barack Obama.
With a US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 ordered by Bush, the American military began a period lasting years of fighting two large wars simultaneously, stretching its capabilities. US troops left Iraq in 2011 under Obama, though some were later deployed under President Donald Trump in response to the threat posed by Daesh militants. 


US to pull out troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11

Updated 14 April 2021

US to pull out troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11

  • Taliban attendance at US-backed summit in Turkey still ‘under consideration’

KABUL: President Joe Biden plans to withdraw the remaining 2,500 US troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, 20 years to the day after the Al-Qaeda attacks that triggered America’s longest war, US officials said on Tuesday.

The disclosure of the plan came as the Taliban said on Tuesday that the group’s participation in a US-backed summit in Turkey later this week was still “under consideration.”

Dr. Muhammad Naeem, the Taliban’s Qatar-based spokesman, told Arab News: “Our lack of participation is due to the fact that consultations and deliberations are still going on.”

He added that “no agreement has been made” for the April 16 talks and that “the issue (meeting) is still under our consideration.”

On whether or not the Taliban had set any conditions for taking part in the meeting, Naeem said: “We will announce whatever decision is made based on the consultations.”

Turkey, along with the UN and Qatar, is hosting the meeting as part of an American-backed push to jump-start the stalled Afghan peace talks, which began in the Qatari capital Doha between the government and Taliban representatives in September and have been riddled with disputes.

Striking an optimistic note on Tuesday, officials from an Afghan government-appointed team said they expected to ink key agreements at the Istanbul summit, including forming a transitory administration with the Taliban.

Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation, on Tuesday told Arab News: “Our expectation is that we will agree on major, important, and fundamental agreements which are cessation of war, restoration of the ceasefire, issues related to the transitory period, and over national and Islamic issues.

“The agenda for the talks will be set by the two sides (government and Taliban delegates).” However, he did not provide the names of government participants at the meeting.

The discussions in Turkey come ahead of a May 1 deadline for the complete withdrawal of US-led foreign troops from Afghanistan based on a deal signed between the Taliban and Washington more than a year ago.

American President Joe Biden said recently that the pullout of troops by May 1 would be a “tough move” without elaborating on how long he intended to retain forces in Afghanistan, throwing the validity of the Qatar deal into doubt.

HIGHLIGHT

Turkey, along with the UN and Qatar, is hosting the meeting as part of an American-backed push to jumpstart the stalled Afghan peace talks.

The Taliban have warned that violence would escalate in Afghanistan if the US failed to abide by the accord, which aimed to end America’s most protracted conflict in its history, which began with the Taliban’s ousting in late 2001.

Some experts believe that the reason for the Taliban buying more time to confirm their participation in the Turkey summit was because their demands had not been met based on the Qatar accord.

Toreq Farhadi, an adviser for the former Afghan government, told Arab News: “(These include a) firm date on US withdrawal (of troops), now that we know May 1 can’t be that date, and deleting names of their leaders from the UN sanctions list.”

He said that the Taliban would “attend in the last days of the conference” and that “it is just a negotiating technique, a postponement, not a cancellation.”

Nazar Mohammad Mutmaen said that the group would not participate in the Turkey meeting “until Biden makes his stance clear on the timetable for the extension of US troops’ presence in the country, the release of remaining Taliban prisoners, and delisting of their leaders from the sanction list.”

He noted that Biden’s refusal to withdraw troops had “created doubts about the US’ intentions in Afghanistan,” adding, “the Turkey meeting won’t happen, and if it does, it will produce no major results.”

In March, Biden’s administration also proposed the formation of an interim government in Afghanistan, which would include Taliban members. This was communicated by US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been travelling the region to drum up support for a ceasefire and a peace settlement.

US-based Afghan analyst Said Azam blamed “spoilers in Afghanistan and the region who were trying to derail the peace process,” and said the “wisdom and constructivism” of the Afghan people was “the key to success.”

Farhadi added: “Peace spoilers on all sides are already busy sabotaging the post-Turkey arrangements.”

With accusations of corruption rife in the government, insurmountable debt accumulated in foreign aid, ethnic tensions, and talk of NATO and the US “losing interest in Afghanistan,” Farhadi said that the Turkey meeting was “all about passing the Afghan hot potato.”

Tameem Bahiss, a regional expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that Washington’s new administration was after a quick fix.

“It appears Biden is trying to find a quick political solution for the Afghan war. The US is proposing a conference in Turkey, where Washington wishes to see the Afghan warring sides agree on a new political roadmap for Afghanistan.

“Unfortunately, this proposal by the US administration has many problems. A quick fix for the Afghan problems will not last. It is very difficult to get (Afghan President) Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban, and the Afghan political elites on the same page. I see it very difficult for the Taliban to agree to any political settlement prior to the departure of foreign troops.”

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Germany opens trial of far-right ‘terrorist’ group

Updated 13 April 2021

Germany opens trial of far-right ‘terrorist’ group

  • The suspects planned to spark ‘a civil-war-like situation’ by carrying out ‘attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and people of Muslim faith’
  • Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has declared far-right extremism the ‘biggest security threat’ facing Europe’s largest economy

STUTTGART, Germany: Twelve alleged far-right conspirators went on trial in Germany on Tuesday, suspected of planning attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and Muslims as part of a plot to overthrow the country’s democracy.
Eleven of the men, arrested in February last year, stand accused of membership of a terrorist organization and weapons law violations. The 12th has been charged with supporting a terrorist group.
The suspects, known as Gruppe S (Group S) after one of the founders, planned to spark “a civil-war-like situation” by carrying out “attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and people of Muslim faith,” according to federal prosecutors.
The group’s eight founding members had the goal of “destabilising and ultimately overthrowing” Germany’s democratic order, they said.
Those on trial, aged 33 to 62 and all German citizens, had an “openly National Socialist attitude,” referring to the Nazi party, and made no secret of their hatred of foreigners, Muslims and Jews, according to prosecutors.
One of them is accused of using an offensive slur against black people and calling them “subhumans, so up for a massacre” in a Telegram chat group.
When talking on the phone, they are said to have used code words for weapons such as “battery” and “bicycle.”
Investigators say the two main ringleaders of the group, named only as Werner S. and Tony E., organized three meetings where members took part in discussions and shooting exercises.
The group is said to have arranged to buy weapons worth 50,000 euros ($60,000) through a handler known to one of the members, and several other weapons were found during raids when the arrests were made.
The group had links to several right-wing extremist networks and are accused of using their connections to recruit members “whom they considered to be fast, clever and brutal fighters.”
They were also planning attacks against politicians including Robert Habeck, one of the co-leaders of Germany’s Green party, according to prosecutors.
The trial in Stuttgart comes as concern grows in Germany over the rise of violent right-wing extremism.
The number of crimes committed by far-right suspects in Germany jumped to its highest level for at least four years in 2020, according to provisional police figures released in February.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has declared far-right extremism the “biggest security threat” facing Europe’s largest economy.
A series of high-profile attacks have also rattled the country.
In January, German neo-Nazi Stephan Ernst was sentenced to life in prison for murdering pro-migration politician Walter Luebcke.
In February 2020, a far-right extremist killed 10 people and wounded five others in the central German city of Hanau.
And in 2019, two people were killed after a neo-Nazi tried to storm a synagogue in Halle on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
The Gruppe S trial is taking place under high security at Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart and is due to wrap up in August.


Johnson & Johnson delays vaccine rollout in Europe

Updated 13 April 2021

Johnson & Johnson delays vaccine rollout in Europe

  • Company decided to proactively delay the rollout of vaccine in Europe
  • Hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses were due to be shipped to Europe in coming weeks

BERLIN: Johnson & Johnson says it is delaying the rollout of its coronavirus vaccine in Europe amid a US probe into rare blood clots.
The company announced the decision Tuesday after regulators in the United States said they were recommending a “pause” in administration of the single-dose shot to investigate reports of potentially dangerous blood clots.
“We have been reviewing these cases with European health authorities,” the company said. “We have made the decision to proactively delay the rollout of our vaccine in Europe.”
Hundreds of thousands of doses of the vaccine were due to be shipped to Europe in the coming weeks.