Uzbekistan not keen to admit Afghan refugees fleeing Taliban

On Sunday, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry reported that 84 Afghan servicemen crossed into Uzbekistan on Saturday and asked for assistance. (File/AP)
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Updated 18 August 2021

Uzbekistan not keen to admit Afghan refugees fleeing Taliban

  • Thousands of Afghans have been looking for ways to escape
  • Experts note that Uzbek authorities have long maintained a tightly closed border with Afghanistan

TERMEZ: When Sami Elbigi heard about the Taliban’s advance toward Mazar-e-Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan that has been the main hub of anti-Taliban resistance, he knew it was time to run.

He took his phones, a suit and some clothing and kissed his mother goodbye. A thought crossed his mind that might be the last time he will ever see her.

Elbigi, 30, left his Afghan hometown of Hairatan and rushed to the Uzbek border. He still had a valid business visa due to his profitable cross-border oil company, so entering Uzbekistan wasn’t a problem. But he was one of the lucky few who managed to find refuge in the ex-Soviet republic in recent days — those without visas have not been allowed in.

“The Taliban takeover happened so fast, we have not expected that. I still cannot believe it,” Elbigi told The Associated Press, sitting in a cafe in Termez, an Uzbek city close to the Afghan border, with numb disbelief on his face.

“My visa expires in one month, and I don’t know what I will do next. I have no plan. I left everything behind,” he said.

As the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in a swift power grab, thousands of Afghans have been looking for ways to escape what they see as a return of a ruthless fundamentalist rule. But neighboring Uzbekistan appears wary about a flood of Afghan refugees.

Afghan citizens who applied for Uzbek visas in recent months told The Associated Press that Uzbekistan has been refusing visas to Afghans, citing coronavirus concerns.

Experts note that Uzbek authorities have long maintained a tightly closed border with Afghanistan, fearing an influx of extremists, and have only accepted a handful of asylum-seekers from its unstable neighbor.

Since the Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s, “the Uzbek government has continually refused to sign and ratify the Refugee Convention — one of the most widely observed treaties in the world — which would require it to provide some type of processing and protection to those seeking asylum out of fear of persecution,” said Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and associate professor of human rights at the University of Southern California.

The Taliban’s advances in Afghanistan in recent months made several Central Asian nations nervous, prompting authorities in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to ramp up border security. Afghanistan borders Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and a tiny strip along China’s Xinjiang region.

Last week, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Russia finished joint military drills in the Tajik region of Khatlon, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Afghan border. On Tuesday, the Russian military started another exercise in Tajikistan. China and Russia held joint military exercises last week in northwest China.

But the slow vibe of the southern Uzbek city of Termez bears few traces of the unfolding crisis across the border. A few Afghans in traditional two-piece garments walk down the streets but city life continues undisturbed.

Termez, a largely Persian-speaking city, has long been a town of choice for many Afghans moving to Uzbekistan.

Together with the UN Development Program, the Uzbek government in 2019 opened the Termez Center for Education in Afghanistan, a place where Afghan girls facing hurdles in education could continue their studies. Men from northern Afghanistan have also set up businesses in the city.

For the past three years, Fayzad Hasanzoda, 20, and his brother successfully ran a restaurant in Termez. They said they invested $1 million in the venture, which makes their stay in Uzbekistan secure. But despite their high social status in Uzbekistan, they were unable to help their family escape from Afghanistan.

“I applied for a visa for my parents, my brother and sister two months ago. Normally it takes a week to receive it, but we still haven’t gotten any response,” Hasanzoda told the AP. “We want them to join us in Uzbekistan, but it’s not easy.”

Since the fighting in northern Afghanistan intensified, there are regular reports about Afghan soldiers fleeing across the highly guarded border but they are routinely sent back.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry reported that 84 Afghan servicemen crossed into Uzbekistan on Saturday and asked for assistance. The ministry said it was in touch with Afghan officials regarding their return.

There are exceptions, however. On Aug. 14, Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Afghan army commander, former northern warlord and vice president, crossed into Uzbekistan with a group of followers, which marked his surrender in the fight with the Taliban for control of Afghanistan’s northern districts. His current whereabouts are unclear, but the commander, an ethnic Uzbek, has a house in Termez and has maintained close ties with the Uzbek government.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry’s news agency, Dunyo, said on Tuesday that media reports about “the alleged presence” of Dostum, as well as another former warlord, Ata Mohammad Noor, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Uzbekistan were, “according to official information, not true.”

On Sunday, an Afghan military plane crashed in Uzbekistan. Two pilots aboard survived and were hospitalized. Official Uzbek reports emerged Monday then were retracted about hundreds of Afghan military troops reaching

Uzbekistan in dozens of aircraft that were forced to land in Termez. The AP could not independently verify those reports.

The “Friendship Bridge” at the Uzbek-Afghan border remains eerily quiet. Local residents say that not even Afghans who live in Uzbekistan are allowed back in these days.

How many Afghan refugees have been taken in by Uzbekistan remains unclear. On Monday, the country’s Prosecutor General’s office said 158 Afghan civilians and soldiers tried to illegally enter Uzbekistan across a river. In the same statement, officials alleged that 22 Afghan warplanes and 24 military helicopters with 585 Afghan troops illegally entered Uzbekistan’s airspace and were forced to land at Termez.

Shortly after, the Prosecutor General’s office withdrew the statement, claiming it wasn’t based on “verified data from relevant authorities.”

On Tuesday, Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry warned that any attempts to violate the border would be “harshly suppressed.” The ministry said Uzbek authorities maintained “close contacts” with the Taliban on border issues.

A drive past the Termez Airport showed locals stopping along the road to look at numerous helicopters that were not there the day before — even though it’s impossible to tell from the distance whether they were Uzbek or Afghan military aircraft.

Swerdlow, the human rights lawyer, thinks Uzbekistan should open its borders to desperate Afghan refugees.

“This unfolding crisis — and Tashkent’s current seat on the UN Human Rights Council — underlines how important it is for the US government and other international partners to urge Uzbekistan to implement the (refugee) convention, provide proper aid, and refrain from pushing persons who fear persecution or torture back into Afghanistan,” he said.


Indian jets scramble after false bomb scare on Iran airliner

Updated 4 sec ago

Indian jets scramble after false bomb scare on Iran airliner

  • Indian jets followed Iranian plane at safe distance, offered landing options at two airports in north-western India
  • Data from FlightRadar24 showed flight from Tehran to Guangzhou flying in circles a handful of times above northern India

NEW DELHI: Iranian airliner Mahan Air's Tehran to Guangzhou flight arrived safely and on time at its Chinese destination, Iran's semi-official ISNA news agency said on Monday, after a report of a bomb scare onboard.

India's air force (IAF) said it had scrambled fighter jets after receiving information of a bomb scare on an airline bearing Iranian registration passing through Indian airspace.

The air force said it later received information from Iran's capital Tehran to disregard the bomb scare and the flight continued its journey.

"Our Airbus 340 passenger plane was travelling from Tehran to Guangzhou in China, and as soon as the pilot learned about the possibility of an in-flight bomb, he informed relevant authorities. The Mahan operation control centre discerned that the threat was fabricated and the flight continued its journey in full safety," Mahan Air said in a statement.

"It seems that reports of a bomb onboard the plane during current international and domestic conditions were aimed at disrupting security and peace of mind," the statement added.

Following the death in police custody of a young woman who was arrested for failing to follow the Islamic Republic's strict dress code, Iran has seen nationwide anti-government protests over the last three weeks. 

The Indian jets followed the Iranian aircraft at a safe distance and the plane was offered the option to land at two airports in north-western India.

"However, the pilot declared his unwillingness to divert to either of the two airports," the IAF said in a statement.

Data from FlightRadar24 showed Mahan Air flight W581 from Tehran to Guangzhou flying in circles a handful of times above northern India, west of New Delhi, before continuing across the country and into Myanmar.

An Indian Air Force spokesman did not confirm the number of the flight for which fighter jets were scrambled.


Chechnya’s Kadyrov says sending teenage sons to Ukraine front

Updated 15 min 17 sec ago

Chechnya’s Kadyrov says sending teenage sons to Ukraine front

  • Ramzan Kadyrov, a former warlord who leads the Muslim-majority Chechnya republic, has been one of the most vocal supporters of Putin’s Ukraine offensive
  • Kadyrov’s post on Telegram concering his sons came as the Kremlin dismissed his call to use low-yield nuclear weapons in Ukraine after a series of military defeats

MOSCOW: Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, said Monday he was sending three of his teenage sons — aged 14, 15 and 16 — to the Ukraine front.
“It’s time to prove themselves in a real fight, I can only welcome this desire,” Kadyrov wrote on Telegram, posting a video of the young boys firing missiles in a shooting range.
“Soon they will go to the front line and will be on the most difficult sections of the contact line.”
He said Akhmat (16), Eli (15) and Adam (14) have been trained for combat “almost from their youngest years” and insisted he was “not joking.”
The video showed the boys in camouflage clothing and dark glasses, on tanks, guns strapped to their waists, shooting rocket launchers and machine guns.
At times the teenagers smile while shooting or made a thumbs-up gesture.
Kadyrov, a former warlord who leads the Muslim-majority Chechnya republic, has been one of the most vocal supporters of Putin’s Ukraine offensive.
The post came as the Kremlin on Monday dismissed his call to use low-yield nuclear weapons in Ukraine after a series of military defeats.
“This is a very emotional moment,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said during a daily briefing with journalists, referring to his statements.
“In our country, the use of nuclear weapons happens only on the basis of what is stated in the relevant doctrine,” Peskov said.
Peskov nevertheless hailed the “heroic contributions” of the Chechen leader to the military operation in Ukraine.
Kadyrov called on the nuclear option after Moscow withdrew from the town of Lyman, which took weeks to gain control of earlier this year.
“In my personal opinion, more drastic measures should be taken, up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and use of low-yield nuclear weapons,” Kadyrov said on his Telegram channel.
He also criticized Colonel-General Alexander Lapin, who is in charge of Russia’s forces fighting in the region, calling him “mediocre.”


King Charles III in first engagement since queen’s death

Updated 03 October 2022

King Charles III in first engagement since queen’s death

  • Large crowds turned out on the streets of Dunfermline in Fife, north of Edinburgh, hoping to get a glimpse of the new monarch
  • Charles wore a kilt for the visit and greeted Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and other leaders

LONDON: King Charles III and his wife Camilla, the queen consort, visited Scotland Monday in their first joint public engagement since the royal mourning period to remember Queen Elizabeth II ended.
Large crowds turned out on the streets of Dunfermline in Fife, north of Edinburgh, hoping to get a glimpse of the new monarch. Charles, who wore a kilt for the visit, spent some time shaking hands with well-wishers after he greeted Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and other leaders.
The royal couple were visiting to formally give city status to Dunfermline, the birthplace of another King Charles: Charles I, who reigned in the 17th century before his execution, was the last British monarch born in Scotland.
Dunfermline was among towns that won city status as part of Platinum Jubilee celebrations to mark Elizabeth’s 70 years on the throne.
Later Monday, Charles and Camilla will host a reception for around 300 guests at Edinburgh to celebrate the British South Asian community. The royals will meet British Indians, Pakistanis, and many others and pay tribute to the contributions they made to the UK
Charles became sovereign immediately upon the death of his mother Elizabeth in Balmoral Castle, Scotland, on Sept. 8. Britain held 10 days of national mourning, while the royal family extended the mourning period for a week after the queen’s funeral on Sept. 19.

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Top Al-Shabab leader killed in joint operation: Somalia govt

Updated 03 October 2022

Top Al-Shabab leader killed in joint operation: Somalia govt

  • Abdullahi Yare was one of seven leaders named by the United States on its most-wanted list in 2012

MOGADISHU: The Somali government announced on Monday a top Al-Shabab militant, who had a $3.0-million US bounty on his head, had been killed in a joint air strike in southern Somalia.
The drone strike on October 1, launched by the Somali army and international security partners, killed Abdullahi Yare near the coastal town of Haramka, the ministry of information said in a statement dated Sunday but posted online on Monday.
“This leader... was the head preacher of the group and one of the most notorious members of the Shabab group,” it said.
“He was former head of the Shoura council and the group’s director for finances,” the ministry said, referring to a powerful consultation body within Al-Shabab.
A co-founder of the Al-Qaeda-linked group, Yare was believed to be next in line to take over the leadership of the movement from its ailing chief Ahmed Diriye, according to the ministry.
“His elimination is like a thorn removed from Somalia as a nation,” the ministry said.
Yare was one of seven leaders named by the United States on its most-wanted list in 2012. Washington offered three million dollars for his capture.
The announcement of the strike comes weeks after Somalia’s recently elected President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud vowed to stage all-out war on the jihadists, following a string of deadly attacks. They include a 30-hour hotel siege in the capital, Mogadishu, that killed 21 people.
Mohamud last month urged citizens to stay away from areas controlled by Al-Shabab as he vowed to ratchet up offensives against the militants.
US forces have in the past partnered with African Union soldiers and Somali troops in counterterrorism operations, and have conducted frequent raids and drone strikes on Al-Shabab training camps throughout Somalia.
Last month, the US military said it had killed 27 jihadist fighters in an air strike near Bulobarde, the main town on the road linking Mogadishu to Beledweyne, a key city on the border with Ethiopia.
It said the air strike was carried out “at the request” of the Somali government.
Al-Shabab, which espouses a strict version of sharia or Islamic law, has waged a bloody insurrection against the Mogadishu government for 15 years and remains a potent force despite an African Union operation against the group.
Its fighters were ousted from the capital in 2011 but continue to stage attacks on military, government and civilian targets.
The group last week claimed responsibility for a bomb blast that killed a top Somali police officer near the Al-Shabab-controlled village of Bursa, some 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Mogadishu.


India scrambles fighter jets after report of bomb scare on flight from Iran

Updated 03 October 2022

India scrambles fighter jets after report of bomb scare on flight from Iran

  • The air force said it later received information from Iran’s capital Tehran to disregard the bomb scare

NEW DELHI: India’s air force (IAF) said on Monday it had scrambled fighter jets after receiving information of a bomb scare on an airline bearing Iranian registration transiting through Indian airspace.
The air force said it later received information from Iran’s capital Tehran to disregard the bomb scare and the flight continued its journey.
The jets followed the aircraft at a safe distance and the aircraft was offered the option to land at two airports in north-western India.
“However, the pilot declared his unwillingness to divert to either of the two airports,” the IAF said in a statement.
Data from FlightRadar24 showed Mahan Air flight W581, which originated from Tehran and was destined for China’s Guangzhou, fly in circles a handful of times above northern India, west of New Delhi, before continuing to fly across the country and into Myanmar.
An Indian Air Force spokesman did not confirm the flight number for which fighter jets were scrambled.