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

Duterte admitted to ‘racing against time’ to rebuild Marawi City, which was left in ruins after a five-month bloody conflict with Daesh-linked militants in 2017. (AP)
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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.


Franco-American tension over submarine deal puts fresh strain on trans-Atlantic ties

Updated 19 September 2021

Franco-American tension over submarine deal puts fresh strain on trans-Atlantic ties

  • France feels excluded from AUKUS and robbed of chance to land a lucrative submarine deal
  • Macron recalls ambassadors from the US and Australia for consultation in show of anger

LONDON: The reaction of France to the new trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US brings to mind a powerful cartoon published by an American newspaper during the Trump years, when the US president was ruling by executive order to evade Congress.

The cartoon, which appeared in the Buffalo News, depicted the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France to the US, stabbed in the back not with a dagger but with the president’s pen. Just like Lady Liberty in this cutting depiction, the French must feel as though a dagger is buried between their shoulder blades.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Friday likened the new Indo-Pacific security alliance, known as AUKUS, to a “stab in the back” and the sort of betrayal that “is not something allies do to each other.”

Because of “the exceptional seriousness of the announcements made on Sept. 15 by Australia and the United States,” Le Drian announced that Paris would immediately recall its ambassadors to the US and Australia for consultation.

French grievances over the deal relate both to its strategic and financial implications. Paris was not only excluded from the Indo-Pacific strategy but has also lost out on a hugely lucrative contract with Australia to build nuclear submarines. Canberra is tapping American tech instead.

The new alliance, announced during a virtual meeting of US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, has ignited a firestorm of criticism from France.

While many observers in Washington applauded the pact as a clear challenge to China, others warned that the agreement marks the beginning of a new arms race in the region, or perhaps even a strategic blunder hot on the heels of America’s Afghanistan withdrawal debacle.

US President Joe Biden participates is a virtual press conference on national security with British PM Boris Johnson (R) and Australian PM Scott Morrison on Sept. 15, 2021. (AFP)

Since taking office, Biden has sought to reset America’s frigid relations with its oldest European allies, yet the AUKUS move appears to have had the opposite effect, alienating France and the wider EU.

It has also exposed a potential rift between the US and its European allies on how to handle the growing influence of China. Differing positions on whether to confront or cooperate with Beijing might, as the New York Times recently put it, “redraw the global strategic map.”

The timing of the AUKUS deal could not have been more critical, coming as it did on “the eve of the publication of the EU strategy in the Indo-Pacific, and as Paris has risen as the main EU strategic actor in the region,” wrote Benjamin Haddad, director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council.

France's ambassador to the US, Philippe Etienne, has been recalled to Paris for consultations amid a US-France diplomatic row over the sale of submarines to Australia. (AFP file photo)

He predicts the new dynamic will “create a blow to transatlantic strategy in the region and create a lasting hurdle in US-French relations.”

Next week, the White House is due to host the first in-person meeting of leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a strategic alliance between the US, Japan, Australia and India. “The Quad,” as it is known, is another important pillar of Biden’s China policy.

Beijing views the Quad, and the new AUKUS, as a “clique based on a Cold War ideology and detrimental to the international order.” China’s regional rival India, meanwhile, predictably welcomed the new alliance.

Although Biden, Johnson and Scott did not mention China in their AUKUS announcement, the pact was described in the US as part of the president’s policy to “refocus” American national security and to reorient its military posture toward the Chinese threat.

China's increasingly expanding navy and aggressive actions beyond its borders has spurred the US, Japan, Australia and India to form a strategic alliance. (Shutterstock image)

The administration has sought to justify its abrupt departure from Afghanistan on the grounds that it needs to pool its resources to address the threat emanating from China. Critics might have given the Biden team the benefit of the doubt had the new strategic architecture in the Indo-Pacific not come at the expense of US-French relations.

France has good reason to be upset. The new deal with Australia, described as “historic” by the US media and “another step by Western allies to counter China’s strength,” torpedoed the largest military contract Australia has ever awarded — a deal for nuclear submarines worth 90 billion Australian dollars ($65.5 billion), signed in 2017 with the French defense contractor Naval Group.

The US media played down the French reaction to AUKUS and chose not to ruminate over what sort of message the deal might send to America’s allies elsewhere. Instead it focused on the historic nature of the sharing of US nuclear-propulsion technology with Australia.

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Elysee Palace in Paris on June 15, 2021. (AFP)

Defense News hailed the deal as the first time the US has shared this type of technology with any ally since the US-UK Mutual Defense Agreement of 1958.

Barry Pavel, director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, likewise drew a parallel between the new pact and the Eisenhower administration’s policy of sharing nuclear technology with the UK, a policy that caused French President Charles de Gaulle to decry “Anglo-Saxon nuclear cooperation and propelled France to develop its own nuclear capabilities.”

Indeed, much like de Gaulle, French President Emmanuel Macron might well interpret the AUKUS deal as a deliberate Anglo-Saxon snub that undermines its strategic posture in the Indo-Pacific.

France is not a minor player in the region. It is the only European country with a big presence in the Indo-Pacific, including about 7,000 soldiers on active deployment.

Cutting France out of the new strategic architecture represents a blow both to Paris and to Macron, who had prided himself on fostering a good relationship with Biden. The perceived snub could backfire badly for the Anglo-Saxon trio by pushing the French president to seek alliances elsewhere.

Daphné class French submarine under construction in Lorient, France. (Shutterstock photo)

Many observers had expected more from the Biden administration after its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the damage this caused to America’s global standing and perceptions of its commitment to its allies. Instead, AUKUS looks like more of the same.

Biden’s secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, is a francophone who grew up in Paris and has long enjoyed good relations with the French. This had raised hopes of a new flourishing of ties between the two governments. Instead, relations have hit rock bottom.

US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron meeting like long-lost friends during then G-7 summit in Cornwall, UK on June 13. (GETTY IMAGES/AFP/File Photo)

The perceived betrayal seems all the more cruel when one takes into consideration how much America has gained from its French connection during the war on terror. In Africa especially, it is French forces who have led operations against Daesh affiliates. Only this week, Macron announced the assassination of Adnan Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi, the leader of Daesh in the Sahara, who had been accused of killing four Americans.

In Washington, foreign policy watchers currently interpret the rift with Paris as a “tactical error and not a strategic mistake.” But the French beg to differ.

When Blinken recently posted a tweet calling France a “vital partner” in the Pacific, Gerard Araud, the outspoken French former ambassador to Washington, responded sarcastically: “We are deeply moved.”

As Washington sets about redrawing the strategic map in the Indo-Pacific, it would perhaps be wise not to take its oldest friendships for granted. Indeed, if America cannot be counted on to stand by its allies, Washington could find itself short of friends when push comes to shove.

 


Afghan survivors of US drone strike: Sorry ‘is not enough’

Updated 18 September 2021

Afghan survivors of US drone strike: Sorry ‘is not enough’

  • The driver of the targeted vehicle, Zemerai Ahmadi, was a longtime employee at an American humanitarian organization
  • US Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, called the strike a ‘tragic mistake’

KABUL, Afghanistan: Sorry is not enough for the Afghan survivors of an errant US drone strike that killed 10 members of their family, including seven children.
Emal Ahmadi, whose 3-year-old daughter Malika was killed on Aug. 29, when the US hellfire missile struck his elder brother’s car, told The Associated Press on Saturday that the family demands Washington investigate who fired the drone and punish the military personnel responsible for the strike.
“That is not enough for us to say sorry,” said Ahmadi. “The USA. should find the person who did this.”
Ahmadi said the family is also seeking financial compensation for their losses and demanded that several members of the family be relocated to a third country, without specifying which country.
The AP and other news organizations in Kabul reported after the strike that the driver of the targeted vehicle, Zemerai Ahmadi, was a longtime employee at an American humanitarian organization and cited an absence of evidence to support the Pentagon’s assertion that the vehicle contained explosives.
The missile struck as the car was pulling into the family’s driveway and the children ran to greet Zemerai.
On Friday, US Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, called the strike a “tragic mistake,” and after weeks of denials, said that innocent civilians were indeed killed in the attack and not a Daesh extremist as was announced earlier.
The drone strike followed a devastating suicide bombing by the Daesh group — a rival of the Taliban — that killed 169 Afghans and 13 US military personnel at one of the gates to the Kabul airport. For days, desperate Afghans had swarmed the checkpoints outside the airport, trying to leave the country amid the chaotic US and NATO troops pullout, fearing for their future under the Taliban.
McKenzie apologized for the error and said the United States is considering making reparation payments to the family of the victims.
Emal Ahmadi, who said he heard of the apology from friends in America, insisted that it won’t bring back members of his family and while he expressed relief for the US apology and recognition that his family were innocent victims, he said he was frustrated that it took weeks of pleading with Washington to at least make a call to the family.
Even as evidence mounted to the contrary, Pentagon officials asserted that the strike had been conducted correctly, to protect the US troops remaining at Kabul’s airport ahead of the final pullout the following day, on Aug. 30.
Looking exhausted, sitting in front of the charred ruins of Zemarai’s car, Ahmadi said he wanted more than an apology form the United States — he wanted justice, including an investigation into who carried out the strike “and I want him punished by the USA.”
In the days before the Pentagon’s apology, accounts from the family, documents from colleagues seen by The AP and the scene at the family home — where Zemerai’s car was struck by the missile — all sharply contradicted the accounts by the US military. Instead, they painted the picture of a family that had worked for Americans and were trying to gain visas to the US, fearing for their lives under the Taliban.
Zemerai was the family’s breadwinner had looked after his three brothers, including Emal, and their children.
“Now I am then one who is responsible for all my family and I am jobless,” said Emal Ahmadi. The situation “is not good,” said Ahmadi of life under the Taliban. International aid groups and the United Nations have warned of a looming humanitarian crisis that could drive most Afghans below the poverty level.
McKenzie said the decision to strike a white Toyota Corolla sedan, after having tracked it for about eight hours, was made in an “earnest belief” — based on a standard of “reasonable certainty” — that it posed an imminent threat to American forces at the Kabul airport. The car was believed to have been carrying explosives in its trunk, he said.
But Ahmadi wondered how the his family’s home could have been mistaken for a Daesh hideout.
“The USA. can see from everywhere,” he said of US drone capabilities. “They can see that there were innocent children near the car and in the car. Whoever did this should be punished.”
“It isn’t right,” he added.


3 Afghans killed in new Daesh bombings

Updated 18 September 2021

3 Afghans killed in new Daesh bombings

KABUL: At least three people were killed and about 20 injured in a series of five bomb blasts on Saturday targeting Taliban vehicles in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.

The city is the capital of Nangarhar province, a stronghold of the Afghan branch of Daesh that has been active since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in mid-August.

The group carried out a series of bombings at Kabul airport on Aug. 26 that killed more than 180 people trying to flee the country in a Western airlift, but until Saturday there had been no major incidents since US-led NATO troops pulled out of Afghanistan at the end of August.

Meanwhile the US military has admitted that a drone strike targeting suspected Daesh militants in Kabul last month thatinstead killed seven children and three adult civilians was a mistake.

The strike during the final days of the US pullout was meant to target a Daesh vehicle laden with explosives that US intelligence believed with "reasonable certainty" was planning to attack Kabul airport, said US Central Command chiefGen. Frank McKenzie.

In fact, the driver of the vehicle was Zemari Ahmadi, an aid worker for Nutrition and Education International, andthe vehicle was carrying only water containers. Movements that the US military thought suspicious were Ahmadi picking up and dropping off colleagues.

An investigation had concluded that “the strike was a tragic mistake,” McKenzie said, and the US government was looking into how payments for damages could be made to the families of those killed.

“I offer my deepest condolences to surviving family members of those who were killed,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.


France says Australia-US submarine deal ‘huge mistake’

Updated 18 September 2021

France says Australia-US submarine deal ‘huge mistake’

  • The deal scraps a 90 billion Australian dollar contract with French majority state-owned Naval Group,

CANBERRA, Australia: France’s ambassador to Australia has described as a “huge mistake” Australia’s surprise cancelation of a major submarine contract in favor of a US deal, as the diplomat prepared to leave the country in an unprecedented show of anger among the allies.
French envoy Jean-Pierre Thebault delivered his comments Saturday as he left his residence in the capital of Canberra.
“This has been a huge mistake, a very, very bad handling of the partnership,” Thebault said, explaining that the arms agreement between Paris and Canberra was supposed to be based “on trust, mutual understanding and sincerity.”
Paris recalled its ambassadors to Australia and the United States on Friday to protest a deal among the United States, Australia and Britain to supply Australia with a fleet of at least eight nuclear-power submarines.
The deal scraps a 90 billion Australian dollar ($66 billion) contract with French majority state-owned Naval Group, signed in 2016, to build 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines.
“I would like to be able to run into a time machine and be in a situation where we don’t end up in such an incredible, clumsy, inadequate, un-Australian situation,” the French ambassador added.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s office earlier had issued a statement responding to the diplomat’s recall and noting Canberra’s “regret” over its ally’s withdrawal of its representative.
“Australia understands France’s deep disappointment with our decision, which was taken in accordance with our clear and communicated national security interests,” the statement said. It added that Australia values its relationship with France and looked forward to future engagements together.
Payne and Defense Minister Peter Dutton are currently in the United States for annual talks with their US counterparts and their first with President Joe Biden’s administration.
Before he was recalled, French envoy Thebault said on Friday he found out about the US submarine deal: “Like everybody, thanks to the Australian press.”
“We never were informed about any substantial changes,” Thebault said. “There were many opportunities and many channels. Never was such a change mentioned.”
After the US deal was made public this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he told French President Emanuel Macron in June that there were “very real issues about whether a conventional submarine capability” would address Australia’s strategic security needs in the Indo-Pacific.
Morrison has not specifically referred to China’s massive military buildup which had gained pace in recent years.
Morrison was in Paris on his way home from a Group of Seven nations summit in Britain where he had talks with soon-to-be-alliance partners Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Thebault said he had also been at the meeting with Macron and Morrison.
Morrison mentioned “there were changes in the regional situation,” but gave no indication that Australia was considering changing to nuclear propulsion, Thebault said.
“Everything was supposed to be done in full transparency between the two partners,” he added.
Thebault said difficulties the project had encountered were normal for its scale and large transfers of technologies.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement on Friday that recalling the two ambassadors, on request from Macron, “is justified by the exceptional seriousness of the announcements” made by Australia and the United States.
Le Drian said Australia’s decision to scrap the submarine purchase in favor of nuclear subs built with US technology is “unacceptable behavior between allies and partners.”
Senior opposition lawmaker Mark Dreyfus called on the Australian government to fix its relationship with France.
“The impact on our relationship with France is a concern, particularly as a country with important interests in our region,” Dreyfus said.
“The French were blindsided by this decision and Mr. Morrison should have done much more to protect the relationship,” he added.


Australian police clash with anti-lockdown protesters, arrest nearly 270

Updated 18 September 2021

Australian police clash with anti-lockdown protesters, arrest nearly 270

  • In Sydney, riot squad officers, highway patrol, detectives and general duties police were deployed

MELBOURNE: Australia’s police arrested 235 people in Melbourne and 32 in Sydney on Saturday at unsanctioned anti-lockdown rallies and several police officers were injured in clashes with protesters.
Victoria police said six officers required hospitalization. Several officers were knocked to the ground and trampled, the police said and television footage showed.
About 700 people managed to gather in parts of Melbourne, as 2,000 officers made the city center virtually a no-go zone, setting up checkpoints and barricades. Public transport and ride shares into the city were suspended.
In Sydney, riot squad officers, highway patrol, detectives and general duties police were also deployed to the streets, preventing large gatherings.
Australia has been grappling with an outbreak of the Delta variant of the coronavirus since mid-June, with both Sydney and Melbourne, and the capital Canberra, in strict lockdowns for weeks now. On Saturday, there were 1,882 new coronavirus cases reported, most of them in Sydney.
Most of the restrictions in Victoria, New South Wales and Canberra are to remain until at least 70 percent of those 16 and older are fully vaccinated, which based on the current pace of inoculations could be in late October or early November.
A high rate of compliance with public health orders has helped Australia keep the number of infections relatively low, with just under 85,000 total cases and 1,145 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
The vast majority of Australians support vaccinations and the public health measures, but there have been sporadic and sometimes violent protests against the management of the pandemic.
“It was extremely disappointing to see another example of a small minority of the community showing a complete disregard for the health and safety of not only police, but each and every other Victorian,” Victoria Police said in a statement.