More than 60 Taliban fighters killed by troops after US base takeover, Kabul says

An Afghan soldier keeps watch outside the US base in Bagram outside Kabul.
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Updated 04 May 2021

More than 60 Taliban fighters killed by troops after US base takeover, Kabul says

  • Afghan authorities say operations were in response to Taliban’s ‘provocations’ as Taliban accuses government of ‘testing its force’

KABUL: The Afghan government on Monday said that it had killed more than 60 Taliban insurgents in a series of offensives against the group after assuming control of a key US military base a day earlier.

“Backed by aerial support, the operations were conducted independently by local forces without any aid, cooperation or involvement of foreign troops,” Fawad Aman, a defense ministry spokesman, told Arab News.

“During the past 24 hours, 62 Taliban were killed, and 58 others were wounded in these operations,” he said.

The assaults covered several provinces in the south, northeast and eastern regions of the war-torn country, with a focus on the Ghazni province, to the southwest of Kabul, and the southern Helmand province where the US military formally handed over control of the Camp Antonik base to the government on Sunday.

Aman said that the operations were in response to the Taliban’s “provocations” and were aimed at “destroying their planning centers, used for attacking government forces.”

He declined to share the exact number of casualties suffered by the Afghan forces during the clashes. However, two security sources, requesting anonymity, said that more than 40 Afghan police and troops had died in the crackdown.

Meanwhile, in comments to Arab News on Monday, Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, accused Kabul of “showing and testing its force by launching the operations on Taliban-held areas, forcing the Taliban to prevent and respond.”

He refused to comment on how many Taliban members had been killed in the attacks.

With the fate of the US-sponsored peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in limbo, there has been an escalation of violence in recent weeks.

It is expected to spike in the coming months as US-led troops prepare to leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, amid fears of the country descending into another civil war.

By formally ending its most protracted conflict in history, which Washington started in late 2001 by ousting the Taliban from power, the US military began withdrawing the remaining 2,500 troops from Afghanistan on Saturday, based on a directive issued by American President Joe Biden last month.

All foreign troops were expected to exit the country by May 1 — the original deadline set by the Taliban before signing a landmark deal with Washington in Doha, Qatar, more than a year ago.

The Taliban have blamed Washington for violating the key condition of the Doha accord, which also pushes Kabul and the Taliban to hold talks and draw a political roadmap for a future government in Afghanistan.

Based on the deal — which also required the Taliban to cut ties with Al-Qaeda and other militants and not use Afghan soil to launch attacks on any other country, including America — the insurgents had halted attacks on foreign troops, but not on Afghan forces.

In comments to reporters last week, Afghan spy chief, Ahmad Zia Saraj, said that the Taliban had ramped up attacks by 24 percent since the Doha deal was signed, highlighting a spike in violence after Biden extended the troops’ presence to Sept.11, the 20th anniversary of the 2001 attacks on US soil by suspected Al-Qaeda members.

The same year, US troops invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban from power for refusing to hand over Al-Qaeda leaders, which Washington accused of staging the twin tower bombings.

In a statement on the 10th anniversary of the raid that killed Al-Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden, Biden said that the US would “remain vigilant about the threat from terrorist groups that have metastasized around the world.”

“As we bring to an end America’s longest war and draw down the last of our troops from Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda is greatly degraded there. We will continue to monitor and disrupt any threat to us that emerges from Afghanistan,” he said.

Taliban spokesman, Mujahid, however, said that “the threat to America is clear,” adding: “We have repeatedly said and want to say again that we will allow no side to harm from Afghanistan the near, the far countries and the United States.”

“This (future threat posed from Afghanistan) is a propaganda for the continuation of occupation and keeping of the troops here,” he told Arab News.

He added that the Taliban were “willing to settle Afghanistan’s more than four decades of crisis through talks,” provided “Kabul shows sincerity” after the departure of foreign troops.

Washington’s withdrawal has created concerns both at home and abroad that the Taliban may seize power by force again and step up their attacks on the Afghan government, which has long relied on the US for financial, logistical and defense aid.

Ghulam Wali Afghan, a lawmaker from Helmand, a part of the Taliban’s main bastion, said that the insurgent group had “increased pressure on Helmand and there is a risk it will fall.”

“With the withdrawal of foreign forces, they will gain control of towns, highways and provinces such as Helmand. The government does not have the means to supply and provide aid (to the troops) on the ground,” he told Arab News.

Retired Gen. Attiqullah Amarkhail agrees. “Afghan forces were vulnerable to Taliban attacks due to lack of coordination, the prevalence of corruption in the system and absence of military doctrine,” he said.

“We have sufficient troops, which is unprecedented in our history, but those factors will play a big role in the future war. There is disunity in government on a peace plan, like other matters, while the Taliban speak with one voice,” he told Arab News.

Amarkhail added that Kabul needed to convince the US that “without putting pressure on Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to join the peace talks,” Washington’s rivals such as Iran, Russia and China will consolidate their influence in Afghanistan.

“But America cannot push Pakistan much either because Russia has managed to establish heavy influence in Pakistan, and if America loses Pakistan, then it will lose its presence in the region to a large extent,” he said.

Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char observe first ‘isolated’ Eid Al-Fitr

Updated 14 May 2021

Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char observe first ‘isolated’ Eid Al-Fitr

  • Families receive food aid, new clothes as Ramadan draws to a close amid health restrictions

DHAKA: Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char island observed their first Eid Al-Fitr on Thursday, May 13, in an “isolated state” far away from their relatives.  

Most of the people relocated to the new island facility left their friends and relatives in 34 camps at Cox’s Bazar, which is home for more than 1 million Rohingya refugees.  

Bangladesh began the relocation of refugees, 18,000 to date, to Bhasan Char, some 63 km from the mainland, at the end of last year, explaining that it would ease pressure on the congested camps at Cox’s Bazar.

“We are observing a different kind of Eid this year, far away from friends and relatives. Usually we get together with relatives on Eid days,” Rohingya refugee Abdur Rahman, 37, told Arab News. 

“On this special occasion, I am not seeing any friends and relatives around me. Sometimes I feel isolated.”

Rahman said: “Mobile phones are the only way of communication for us but it’s not always affordable.”

Another refugee, Morium Begum, 29, said her children are missing the Eid festivities in Cox’s Bazar. 

“My children used to visit their friends’ houses and Eid fairs on these days at Cox’s Bazar. But here they don’t have any friends,” Begum told Arab News. 

“Probably, the ongoing coronavirus lockdown added more to our isolation. Otherwise authorities may have allowed some Eid fairs for the children,” she added. 

Mohammad Hossain, 19, said this Eid was a new experience to him. “The congregation field is prepared with makeshift tents and decorated in a befitting manner, which created much festivity on the island,” Hossain told Arab News. “I never saw this sort of arrangement in my days at Cox’s Bazar’s refugee camps.”

On marking Eid Al-Fitr, authorities have provided special food aid to the refugees on the island. 

“A food package containing vermicelli, powdered milk, sugar, edible oil, rice, lentil, spices etc have been provided on the occasion of Eid,” Moazzam Hossain, Bangladesh’s additional refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told Arab News. 

“All the families received this aid according to their family size and need,” he said, adding that 5,000 new clothing items were also distributed to Rohingya children.

For maintaining social distancing and health and safety guidelines, authorities have organized three separate Eid congregations on the island. 

“Since the beginning of the Rohingya exodus in 2017, this is the first time the refugees on the island got the opportunity to celebrate the Eid festival in a comfortable environment, free from the threat of landslides, rough weather and the highly congested environment of the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps,” Hossain added. 

Emergency health services are also open during Eid, and there are eight government health officials currently serving on the island, he said.

UN and international aid agencies are yet to begin aid operations on the island.

Currently, more than 40 local NGOs are providing humanitarian support to the relocated refugees. 

“Here the refugees are fully dependent on relief support, since there is no other source (of aid) on the island,” Saiful Islam Chowdhury, chief executive of Pulse Bangladesh Society, told Arab News. 

“We made a need assessment for each of the families, and supplied aid accordingly, so that all of them can enjoy the festival,” he added.

UK’s Johnson: New variant could disrupt route out of lockdown

Updated 14 May 2021

UK’s Johnson: New variant could disrupt route out of lockdown

  • Johnson also said he would accelerate the provision of second doses of COVID-19 vaccines

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the spread of a new variant of coronavirus first detected in India could disrupt plans to move to eliminate most remaining lockdown measures in June, although it would not delay the next step in easing.
"We will proceed with our plan to move to step three in England from Monday, but I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress, and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June," Johnson told a Downing Street briefing on Friday.

Johnson also said he would accelerate the provision of second doses of COVID-19 vaccines.
“It’s more important than ever therefore that people get the additional protection of a second dose,” he told a news conference.
“So following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, we will accelerate remaining second doses to the over 50s and those clinically vulnerable right across the country, so those doses come just eight weeks after the first dose,” he said.

Vaccinated should still mask up in high Covid areas: WHO

Updated 14 May 2021

Vaccinated should still mask up in high Covid areas: WHO

  • "Vaccines are life-saving but on their own, they are not enough," WHO told AFP in an email
  • The comment followed US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to lift mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people

GENEVA: Even after receiving Covid-19 jabs, people should wear face masks in areas where the virus is spreading, the WHO said Friday, after the US decided the vaccinated do not need masks.
“Vaccines are life-saving but on their own, they are not enough,” the World Health Organization told AFP in an email.
The comment followed a decision by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday to lift mask-wearing guidance for people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
Almost 60 percent of US adults now have one or both doses, while cases are falling fast, down to a seven-day-average of 38,000, or 11 per 100,000.
The WHO refrained from commenting specifically on the US situation, but experts highlighted that the decision to remove Covid restrictions, including mask recommendations, should rely on more than just the vaccination rate.
“It’s about how much virus is circulating,” WHO Covid-19 lead Maria Van Kerkhove told reporters.
“It’s about the amount of vaccines and vaccinations that are rolling out, it’s about the variants... that are circulating.”
The vaccines in use against Covid-19 have been shown to be highly effective in preventing serious illness and death, and there is also increasing evidence that they provide high protection against infection and transmission of the virus.
But WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan stressed they are “not 100 percent effective against preventing infection.”
“You can have asymptomatic or mild illness or even moderate symptoms even after being vaccinated,” she said, warning that “vaccination alone is not a guarantee against infection or against being able to transmit that infection to others.”
It may be rare, but could still occur, she said.
“That’s why we need the other protective measures like the mask wearing, and the distancing and so on until countries get to the level at which a large number of people are protected and virus circulation and the transmission goes to very low levels.”
So far, she warned, “very few countries are at the point now where they can drop these measures by individuals and by governments.”
WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan agreed.
Relaxing measures and taking away mask mandates, he said, “should only be done in the context of considering both the intensity and transmission in your area, and the level of vaccination coverage.”
“Even in situations where you have high vaccine coverage, if you’ve got a lot of transmission, then you wouldn’t take your mask off.”

UK stands by Eid immigration raid in Glasgow

Updated 14 May 2021

UK stands by Eid immigration raid in Glasgow

  • Thursday’s deportation raid targeted a property housing two illegal immigrants from India, who were not themselves believed to be Muslim
  • A UK Home Office van was blockaded by hundreds of chanting protesters

LONDON: The UK government on Friday defended an immigration raid that inflamed tensions in Glasgow’s Muslim community at the start of Eid Al-Fitr, insisting there was no connection to the Islamic festival.
Thursday’s deportation raid targeted a property housing two illegal immigrants from India, who were not themselves believed to be Muslim.
A UK Home Office van was blockaded by hundreds of chanting protesters, and the pair were eventually released on bail as Glasgow police intervened in a bid to defuse tensions.
“The operation was routine and in no way connected to Eid. We are tackling illegal immigration and the harms it causes,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman told reporters.
“We will continue to tackle illegal immigration,” he added.
The area in Scotland’s biggest city is home to a large Muslim community, and is part of the constituency of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
“The Home Office needs to ask itself hard questions,” she said.
“Doing this on Eid, in the heart of our Muslim community, and in the midst of a serious Covid outbreak, was staggeringly irresponsible — but the even deeper problem is an appalling asylum and immigration policy.”
The incident came after Sturgeon’s pro-independence party and allies secured a majority in the Edinburgh parliament in elections last week, and it fueled anti-UK sentiment in sections of the Scottish media.
Friday’s front-page headline on the pro-independence National newspaper read: “Glasgow 1 ‘Team UK’ 0.”
The raid also caused trouble for Britain’s main opposition Labour party, after a prominent union official tweeted that London-born Home Secretary Priti Patel, who is of Indian descent, should herself be “deported.”
Labour leaders suspended the Unite union’s Howard Beckett, who apologized for the tweet but said he stood by his criticism of the government’s “racist” policies.

Germany slams ‘anti-Semitic’ demos and Hamas ‘terrorist attacks’

Updated 14 May 2021

Germany slams ‘anti-Semitic’ demos and Hamas ‘terrorist attacks’

  • Merkel’s government stressed “Israel’s right to self-defense against these attacks”
  • Germany has seen scattered demonstrations this week over the escalating conflict

BERLIN: Germany on Friday said rockets fired by Hamas at Israel amount to “terrorist attacks” and warned it would not tolerate “anti-Semitic” demonstrations on its own soil as the conflict intensified in the Middle East.
“These are terrorist attacks that have only one goal: to kill people indiscriminately and arbitrarily and to spread fear,” Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert told a government press conference.
Merkel’s government stressed “Israel’s right to self-defense against these attacks,” he added.
Palestinian militants have fired some 1,800 rockets, and the Israeli military has launched more than 600 airstrikes, toppling at least three high-rise apartment buildings, and has shelled some areas with tanks stationed near the frontier.
The Gaza Health Ministry says the toll from the fighting has risen to 119 killed, including 31 children and 19 women, with 830 wounded. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a 6-year-old boy and a soldier.
The most intense hostilities in seven years were triggered by weekend unrest at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
Germany has seen scattered demonstrations this week over the escalating conflict, with protesters shouting anti-Semitic slogans and burning Israeli flags.
Flags were burned outside synagogues in Muenster and Bonn, with 16 people arrested.
On Wednesday evening, around 180 people shouted anti-Jewish slogans at a march in Gelsenkirchen, also in the west.
On Thursday around 1,500 people gathered in the northern city of Bremen calling for “freedom for Palestine” in a protest which proceeded without incident, according to local police.
Seibert said Friday that Germany would not tolerate “anti-Semitic” demonstrations.
“Anyone who attacks a synagogue or defiles Jewish symbols shows that for them it is not about criticizing a state or the policies of a government, but about aggression and hate toward a religion and the people who belong to it,” he said.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had on Thursday also condemned the protests.
“Those who burn Star of David flags in our streets and shout anti-Semitic slogans not only abuse the freedom to demonstrate, but are committing crimes,” he told the popular Bild daily.
“Nothing justifies threats against Jews in Germany or attacks on synagogues in German towns,” he said.