US ready to take in thousands more Afghans as violence worsens

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about refugee programs for Afghans who aided the US during a briefing at the State Department on August 2, 2021, in Washington, DC. (AFP)
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Updated 03 August 2021

US ready to take in thousands more Afghans as violence worsens

  • Broadens refugee admissions beyond roughly 20,000 Afghans who have applied under a program for interpreters
  • Says greater priority for Afghans employed by US-based media outlets, NGOs, projects backed by US funding

Washington: The United States said Monday it was ready to take in thousands more Afghans whose US links put them at growing risk but acknowledged an arduous path ahead for its allies as Taliban insurgents make gains.
Less than a month before the United States is set to end its longest-ever war, the State Department broadened refugee admissions beyond the roughly 20,000 Afghans who have applied under a program for interpreters who assisted US forces and diplomats.
The State Department said that greater priority will now also go to Afghans employed by US-based media organizations or non-governmental organizations or on projects backed by US funding.
“Afghans who worked with the United States or the International Security Assistance Force at some point since 2001 are facing acute fears of persecution or retribution that will likely grow as coalition forces leave the country,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters.
“We have a special responsibility to these individuals. They stood with us. We will stand with them.”
But he conceded the tough task ahead for asylum-seekers who first need to leave Afghanistan on their own and in most cases must wait more than a year for visa processing.
“You’re right — This is incredibly hard,” Blinken said.
“As we see again and again, people have to do very difficult things to make sure that they can find safety and security, and we will do everything we can to help them, including making these different avenues of arrival to the United States for this group of people possible.”
Blinken said the United States will also let in more Afghans who served as interpreters or in other support roles to forces of the US-led coalition but did not meet earlier requirements on time served.
A second flight of 400 Afghan interpreters and their families arrived Monday in the United States, Blinken said, after 200 landed on Monday as part of what has been dubbed Operation Allied Refuge.
Unlike with the interpreters, the United States said it had no immediate plans to fly out the newly eligible Afghans even as the Taliban seize a growing number of border areas.
The applicants cannot seek directly to come to the United States but need to have referrals by their current or former employers. Once they make it outside Afghanistan, processing will take one year to 14 months, a US official said.
Another US official said that Washington, while not helping the new applicants escape, has asked other countries including Pakistan to keep their borders open to them.
But Pakistan was the historic backer of the Taliban and has also seen violence against Afghans, especially from the Hazara Shiite minority. Just Monday, the United States and Britain jointly accused the Taliban of massacring civilians in a town they recently captured on the Pakistani border.
The other major recipient of Afghan refugees is Iran, which has no diplomatic relations with the United States. The second US official said that potential applicants had started moving on from Iran to Turkey, already the temporary home to millions of refugees from Syria.
The State Department is designating the new refugees under so-called Priority 2, the same level given to persecuted minorities from a number of countries.
President Joe Biden has ordered a withdrawal of remaining US troops by the end of the month despite fears for the stability of the internationally backed government.
He insists that the United States has done all that it can and long ago accomplished its stated mission of eliminating Al-Qaeda extremists who carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks.


US officials defend expulsion of Haitians from Texas town

Updated 2 min 21 sec ago

US officials defend expulsion of Haitians from Texas town

DEL RIO, Texas: More than 6,000 Haitians and other migrants have been removed from an encampment at a Texas border town, US officials said Monday as they defended a strong response that included immediately expelling migrants to their impoverished Caribbean country and using horse patrols to stop them from entering the town.
Calling it a “challenging and heartbreaking situation,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued a stark warning: “If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned. Your journey will not succeed, and you will be endangering your life and your family’s life.”
Isaac Isner, 30, and his wife Mirdege, took wet clothing off their 3-year-old daughter Isadora after crossing the Rio Grande to Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, Monday afternoon. They had been in Del Rio, Texas, for seven days but decided to return to Mexico after a friend showed cellphone video of the US expelling migrants.
“They were putting people on a bus and sent them to Haiti just like that without signing anything,” Isner said.
His family has an appointment this month with Mexico’s asylum agency in the southern city of Tapachula, and they think they could be safe in Mexico.
Most migrants, however, still haven’t made up their minds.
“We don’t know what we’re going to do,” said a second Haitian man, who declined to give his name but said he crossed into Mexico Monday for food, leaving his wife and child in Del Rio. “The US is deporting and now Mexico won’t just sit back and do nothing. We don’t know where to go.”
Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, said about 15 percent of the Haitian migrants in Mexico have accepted refuge there. So far this year, about 19,000 Haitian migrants have requested asylum in Mexico.
“Mexico does not have any problem with them being in our country as long as they respect Mexico’s laws,” he said.
Mexico was busing Haitian migrants from Ciudad Acuña Sunday evening, according to Luis Angel Urraza, president of the local chamber of commerce. Mexico’s immigration agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But a federal official told The Associated Press on Sunday that the plan was to take the migrants to Monterrey, in northern Mexico, and Tapachula, in the south, with flights to Haiti from those cities to begin in coming days.
Mayorkas and US Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said they would look into agents on horseback using what appeared to be whips and their horses to push back migrants at the river between Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio, a city of about 35,000 people roughly 145 miles (230 kilometers) west of San Antonio where thousands of migrants remain camped around a bridge.
Both officials said during an afternoon news conference they saw nothing apparently wrong based on the widely seen photos and video. Mayorkas said agents use long reins, not whips, to control their horses. Ortiz, the former chief of the Del Rio sector, said it can be confusing to distinguish between migrants and smugglers as people move back and forth near the river. The chief said he would investigate to make sure there was no “unacceptable” actions by the agents.
“I don’t think anyone seeing that footage would think it acceptable or appropriate,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said when asked about the images at a nearly simultaneous briefing. She deemed the footage “horrific” and said the matter would be investigated.
Later Monday, the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement calling the footage “extremely troubling” and promising a full investigation that would “define the appropriate disciplinary actions to be taken.”
Mayorkas said 600 Homeland Security employees, including from the Coast Guard, have been brought to Del Rio. He said he has asked the Defense Department for help in what may be one of the swiftest, large-scale expulsions of migrants and refugees from the United States in decades.
He also said the US would increase the pace and capacity of flights to Haiti and other countries in the hemisphere. The number of migrants at the bridge peaked at 14,872 on Saturday, said Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a labor union that represents agents.
“When it was reported that were flights going back to Haiti, it got around almost immediately,” he said. “There has been talk that some of them are going to go back (to Mexico) but we have not seen very much movement.”
The rapid expulsions were made possible by a pandemic-related authority adopted by former President Donald Trump in March 2020 that allows for migrants to be immediately removed from the country without an opportunity to seek asylum. President Joe Biden exempted unaccompanied children from the order but let the rest stand.
Any Haitians not expelled are subject to immigration laws, which include rights to seek asylum and other forms of humanitarian protection. Families are quickly released in the US because the government cannot generally hold children.
More than 320 migrants arrived in Port-au-Prince on three flights Sunday, and Haiti said six flights were expected Tuesday. The US plans to begin seven expulsion flights daily on Wednesday, four to Port-au-Prince and three to Cap-Haitien, according to a US official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. Flights will continue to depart from San Antonio but authorities may add El Paso, the official said.
The only obvious parallel for such an expulsion without an opportunity to seek asylum was in 1992 when the Coast Guard intercepted Haitian refugees at sea, said Yael Schacher, senior US advocate at Refugees International whose doctoral studies focused on the history of US asylum law.
Similarly large numbers of Mexicans have been sent home during peak years of immigration but over land and not so suddenly.
Central Americans have also crossed the border in comparable numbers without being subject to mass expulsion, although Mexico has agreed to accept them from the US under pandemic-related authority in effect since March 2020. Mexico does not accept expelled Haitians or people of other nationalities outside of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
In Mexico, local authorities of border municipalities have asked for help from state and federal authorities. Claudio Bres, the mayor in Piedras Negras, about 62 miles (100 kilometers) southeast of Ciudad Acuña, told local media that the official agreement is to turn back all the buses with migrants to prevent them from reaching the border. He said that last weekend around 70 buses passed through his town.
Haitians have been migrating to the US in large numbers from South America for several years, many having left their Caribbean nation after a devastating 2010 earthquake. After jobs dried up from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, many made the dangerous trek by foot, bus and car to the US border, including through the infamous Darien Gap, a Panamanian jungle.
Some of the migrants at the Del Rio camp said the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti and the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse make them afraid to return to a country that seems more unstable than when they left.
“In Haiti, there is no security,” said Fabricio Jean, a 38-year-old Haitian who arrived in Texas with his wife and two daughters. “The country is in a political crisis.”
But Mayorkas defended his recent decision to grant Haitians temporary legal status due to political and civil strife in their homeland if they were in the United States on July 29, but not to those being sent back now.
“We made an assessment based on the country conditions ... that Haiti could in fact receive individuals safely,” he said.
Six flights were scheduled to Haiti on Tuesday — three to Port-au-Prince and three to the northern city of Cap-Haitien, said Jean Négot Bonheur Delva, Haiti’s migration director.
Some migrants said they were planning to leave Haiti again as soon as possible. Valeria Ternission, 29, said she and her husband want to travel with their 4-year-old son back to Chile, where she worked as a bakery’s cashier.
“I am truly worried, especially for the child,” she said. “I can’t do anything here.”

French FM applauds Middle East diplomacy, warns of Iranian transgressions

Updated 18 min 23 sec ago

French FM applauds Middle East diplomacy, warns of Iranian transgressions

  • Le Drian lauds August’s Baghdad Convention but warns Iran has repeatedly breached its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA
  • Minister laments ‘breach of trust’ by the UK and US over scuppering of a French submarine deal with Australia

NEW YORK: French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has celebrated progress in diplomacy in the Middle East and promised that France will continue to take an active role in ensuring the region remains stable.

In a wide-ranging press conference held on Monday and attended by Arab News, Le Drian also lamented the recent “breach of trust” by the UK and US over the sale of submarines to Australia.

France had originally been slated to supply submarines to Australia as part of that deal, but Canberra did a U-turn in favor of an agreement with the US and UK, in what some have called an embarrassment for the French.

“In the Middle East, stability and security shall be the heart of our priorities. These require a regional dialogue, including in the unprecedented format of the Baghdad Conference on Aug. 28,” Le Drian said.

The Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership brought together many of the key powers in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Qatar, and Iran for dialogue aimed at easing security tensions in the region. France also attended the summit and has taken an active role in mediating conflict and disputes in the Middle East, in some form, for centuries.

“It was an exceptional meeting because those who attended were not used to sitting at the same table,” said Le Drian, who is currently in New York for the UN General Assembly’s week of high-level meetings.

“We managed to launch some sort of new spirit and to gather some support for a willingness to reduce regional tensions in an unprecedented format.”

Iran’s presence at the conference, he continued, may be seen as a “positive signal,” but he said that he would convene a meeting of the joint commission of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) because, “regarding Iran, we note that the negotiations were interrupted at the request of Iran and we need to make sure that, this week, we try to launch some positive momentum or negotiations to resume.”

The JCPOA, widely referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, saw heavy restrictions and monitoring placed on Tehran’s nascent nuclear program in return for much-needed sanctions relief. Iran and the US, which also left the deal, have been in negotiations for years over a bilateral return to the deal, but those have stalled in recent months.

“In the meantime, Iran keeps breaching some commitments that they made within the JCPOA,” said Le Drian, who also warned that “time is playing against the potential (nuclear) agreement because, as time goes by, the Iranian authorities are speeding up their nuclear activities.”

The minister also addressed the latest developments in Afghanistan, recently seized by the Taliban after 20 years of US presence in the country.

He said that France and its European partners had sent across a number of “very clear requirements” of the Taliban. Those include allowing people to leave the country if they wish, preventing the country from becoming a haven for terrorists, facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the country, and ensuring the rights of minorities, women, and journalists are upheld.

“Should the Taliban fail to meet these requirements, they will ban themselves from the international community,” Le Drian said.

He also supported the allocation by the UN of €100 million ($117,289,000) to Afghanistan and pointed out that the Europeans had already pledged over €600 million in humanitarian aid for Afghans.

Much of Le Drian’s attention throughout the conference, however, was focused on the recent news that Australia would scrap a lucrative deal with France to buy French-made submarines, and instead form a pact with the UK and US to purchase nuclear submarines.

That deal has proved highly controversial in France and across mainland Europe, and resulted in a diplomatic row between the longtime allies.

Le Drian said that Presidents Macron and Biden will “discuss the matter very frankly” when they speak.


FBI searches Florida home of Gabby Petito’s boyfriend

FBI agents begin to take away evidence from the family home of Brian Laundrie, who is a person of interest after his fiancé Gabby Petito went missing on September 20, 2021 in North Port, Florida. (AFP)
Updated 51 min 35 sec ago

FBI searches Florida home of Gabby Petito’s boyfriend

  • Laundrie has been named a person of interest in the case, but his whereabouts in recent days were unknown

NORTH PORT, Florida: FBI agents and police Monday searched the home of the boyfriend wanted for questioning in the death of 22-year-old Gabby Petito, whose body was discovered over the weekend at a Wyoming national park months after the couple set out on a cross-country road trip.
The FBI gave no details on the search by at least a dozen law enforcement officers, but agents removed several boxes and towed away a car that neighbors said was typically used by 23-year-old Brian Laundrie’s mother. Local media said Laundrie’s parents were seen getting into a police vehicle.
Laundrie and Petito had been living with his parents at the North Port home before the road trip on which she died.
The young couple had set out in July in a converted van to visit national parks in the West. They got into a fight along the way, and Laundrie was alone when he returned in the van to his parents’ home on Sept. 1, police said.
In Wyoming, the FBI announced on Sunday that agents had discovered a body on the edge of Grand Teton National Park, which the couple had visited. No details on the cause of death were released. An autopsy was set for Tuesday.
“Full forensic identification has not been completed to confirm 100 percent that we found Gabby, but her family has been notified,” FBI agent Charles Jones said.
Laundrie has been named a person of interest in the case, but his whereabouts in recent days were unknown.
Petito’s father, Joseph, posted on social media an image of a broken heart above a picture of his daughter, with the message: “She touched the world.”
In an interview broadcast Monday on TV’s “Dr. Phil” show, Joseph Petito said Laundrie and his daughter had dated for 2 1/2 years, and Laundrie was “always respectful.” During the interview, which was recorded before his daughter’s body was found, Petito said the couple had taken a previous road trip to California in her car and there were no problems.
“If there were, I would have discouraged going on the trip,” Petito said.
Petito said his family began worrying after several days without hearing from their daughter.
“We called Brian, we called the mom, we called the dad, we called the sister, we called every number that we could find,” Petito said. “No phone calls were picked up, no text messages were returned.”
Petito said he wants Laundrie to be held accountable for whatever part he played in Gabby’s disappearance, along with his family for protecting him.
“I hope they get what’s coming, and that includes his folks,” Petito said. “Because I’ll tell you, right now, they are just as complicit, in my book.”
The FBI said investigators are seeking information from anyone who may have seen the couple around Grand Teton.
Police looking for Laundrie searched a 24,000-acre Florida nature preserve over the weekend without success. Investigators had focused intently on the area after Laundrie’s parents told police he may have gone there.
Petito and Laundrie were childhood sweethearts who met while growing up on New York’s Long Island. His parents later moved to North Port, about 35 miles (55 kilometers) south of Sarasota.
A man who saw Petito and Laundrie fighting in Moab, Utah, on Aug. 12 called 911 to report a domestic violence incident, according to a recording of the call obtained from the Grand County Sheriff’s Office. The man said that he saw Laundrie slap Petito while walking through the town and proceeded to hit her before the two got in their van and drove off.
Video released by the Moab police showed that an officer pulled the couple’s van over on the same day after it was seen speeding and hitting a curb near Arches National Park. The body-camera footage showed an upset Petito.
Laundrie said on the video that the couple had gotten into a scuffle after he climbed into the van with dirty feet. He said he did not want to pursue a domestic violence charge against Petito, who officers decided was the aggressor.
Moab police separated the couple for the night, with Laundrie checking into a motel and Petito remaining with the van.
In the footage, Gabby Petito cried as she told the officer that she and Laundrie had been arguing over her excessive cleaning of the van. She told the officer she has OCD — obsessive compulsive disorder.
On “Dr. Phil,” her father said that wasn’t literally true. She just likes to keep her living area orderly and was using slang, he said.


EU ministers voice “solidarity” with France on submarine deal: Borrell

Updated 51 min 28 sec ago

EU ministers voice “solidarity” with France on submarine deal: Borrell

UNITED NATIONS: European Union foreign ministers voiced solidarity Monday with France, which was angered by Australia’s cancelation of a submarine contract, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.
“The ministers expressed clear solidarity with France. This announcement ran counter to calls for greater cooperation with the European Union in the Indo-Pacific,” Borrell told reporters after EU ministers met on the sidelines of the United Nations.


Canadians vote in pandemic election that could cost Trudeau

Updated 21 September 2021

Canadians vote in pandemic election that could cost Trudeau

  • A combination of high expectations, scandal and calling the vote during the pandemic hurt the brand of the 49-year-old Trudeau
  • Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s campaign chair said holding Trudeau to a minority government would be a win for O’Toole.

TORONTO: Canadians voted Monday in a pandemic election that could weaken Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or reward his government’s handling of the pandemic.
Trudeau gambled on an early election to try to capitalize on the fact that Canada is now among the most fully vaccinated countries in the world. But the opposition has been relentless in accusing him of calling an unnecessary early vote — two years before the deadline — for his own personal ambition.
Polls before the election showed Trudeau’s Liberal Party in a neck-and-neck race with the rival Conservatives. The Liberals appeared likely to win the most seats in Parliament, but not a majority, forcing the party to rely on an opposition partner to pass legislation. However, an extremely close outcome could raise questions about Trudeau’s judgment in calling the vote and whether he should continue to lead the party long-term. A majority win would cement his legacy and leave him in power for another four years.
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s campaign chair said holding Trudeau to a minority government would be a win for O’Toole.
“Even without a plurality (of seats) today, we will have achieved our objective,” Walied Soliman told the Toronto Star on Monday. “At the start of this race, nobody would’ve expected that we’d be in a knife fight in strongly held Liberal (districts). And today we are. And we are very proud of Erin O’Toole and the incredible campaign that has been run here.”
Jenni Byrne, who served as campaign manager and deputy chief of staff to former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told The Associated Press she was “stunned” by Soliman’s comments and said Soliman made a big mistake when Canadians are still voting.
Soliman later tried to clarify. “My comments in the Star are being misrepresented unfortunately. Let me be very clear: this election is too close to call. We may not know the result for days. Every vote will count,” he tweeted.
Polls have closed in Atlantic Canada. Early results have begun to trickle in, with the Liberals appearing poised to hang on to most of their seats in the four easternmost provinces but the Conservatives making some gains.
A combination of high expectations, scandal and calling the vote during the pandemic hurt the brand of the 49-year-old Trudeau, who channeled the star power of his father, the Liberal icon and late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when he first won election in 2015.
Still, Trudeau is betting that Canadians don’t want a Conservative government during a pandemic. Trudeau’s government spent hundreds of billions of dollars to prop up the economy amid lockdowns and he argues that the Conservatives’ approach, which has been skeptical of lockdowns and vaccine mandates, would be dangerous and says Canadians need a government that follows science.
O’Toole hasn’t required his party’s candidates to be vaccinated and won’t say how many are unvaccinated. O’Toole describes vaccination as a personal health decision, but a growing number of vaccinated Canadians are becoming increasingly upset with those who refuse to get vaccinated.
“We do not need a Conservative government that won’t be able to show the leadership on vaccinations and on science that we need to end this,” Trudeau said at a campaign stop in Montreal on Sunday.
Trudeau supports making vaccines mandatory for Canadians to travel by air or rail, something the Conservatives oppose. And Trudeau has pointed out that Alberta, run by a Conservative provincial government, is in crisis.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, an ally of O’Toole, said the province might run out of beds and staff for intensive care units within days. Kenney has apologized for the dire situation and is now reluctantly introducing a vaccine passport and imposing a mandatory work-from-home order two months after lifting nearly all restrictions.
A Conservative win would represent a rebuke of Trudeau against a politician with a fraction of his name recognition. O’Toole, 47, is a military veteran, former lawyer and a member of Parliament for nine years.
O’Toole advertised himself a year ago as a “true-blue Conservative.” He became Conservative Party leader with a pledge to “take back Canada,” but immediately started working to push the party toward the political center.
O’Toole’s strategy, which included disavowing positions held dear by his party’s base on issues such as climate change, guns and balanced budgets, was designed to appeal to a broader cross section of voters in a country that tends to be far more liberal than its southern neighbor.
The son of a long-time politician has faced criticism he will say and do anything to get elected.
Whether moderate Canadians believe O’Toole is the progressive conservative he claims to be and whether he has alienated traditional Conservatives have become central questions of the campaign.
Byrne, the campaign manager for Conservative Prime Minister Harper, said there is a lack of enthusiasm among Conservatives across the country.
“We will know on Tuesday morning whether the Erin O’Toole version of the Conservative Party is connecting with voters, but if there is any truth to the polls, it’s something that I don’t think is connecting in numbers that we have connected with in the past, including in the last election,” Byrne said.
The wild card could be a politician who narrowly lost the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2017 but who now leads a far-right party that opposes vaccines and lockdowns. Polls suggest as many as 5 percent to 10 percent support for Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada — potentially bleeding support from O’Toole’s Conservatives and helping the Liberals retain power.
Adrian Archambault, a 53-year-old Vancouver resident, voted Liberal and said he didn’t mind the election was held during a pandemic. He noted provincial elections have also happened during the pandemic.
“Everybody has been so preoccupied with COVID the last few years it wasn’t maybe a bad thing to sort of do a re-check,” he said.
Trudeau’s legacy includes embracing immigration at a time when the US and other countries closed their doors. He also legalized cannabis nationwide and brought in a carbon tax to fight climate change. And he preserved free trade deal with the US and Mexico amid threats by former US President Donald Trump to scrap the agreement.
Former US President Barack Obama and ex-Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton tweeted support for Trudeau.
There won’t be a Trump endorsement of O’Toole. Soliman, the Conservative co-chair of the campaign, said there is no alignment whatsoever between O’Toole and Trumpism.
But if O’Toole wins, he has promised to take a tougher stand against China, including banning Chinese technology giant Huawei from Canada’s next generation of telecommunication networks.
O’Toole has also said he’ll move the Canadian Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem just as Trump moved the US Embassy, upending decades of policy.