US: Afghan evacuees who fail initial screening Kosovo-bound

Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk past a US Air Force plane that they had arrived on at Pristina International Airport, Kosovo, Aug. 29, 2021. (AP Photo)
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Updated 04 September 2021

US: Afghan evacuees who fail initial screening Kosovo-bound

  • The US will use a military camp, Bondsteel, that houses the US army near Pristina for the further screening and processing of evacuees
  • Kosovo considers itself a close ally of the United States since the US spearheaded a 1999 NATO air campaign against Serbian forces

An ardent US ally, Kosovo, has agreed to take in Afghanistan evacuees who fail to clear initial rounds of screening and host them for up to a year, a US official said Saturday, in an intended fix to one of the security problems of the frantic US evacuation from the Kabul airport.
The US plan is likely to face objections from refugee advocates, who already complain of a lack of public disclosure and uncertain legal jurisdiction in the Biden administration’s use of overseas screening sites. Those quickly set-up overseas transit sites are still operating near or at full speed to verify eligibility and look for security issues among thousands of Afghans and smaller numbers of Americans flown out of Taliban-held Afghanistan between Aug. 15 and Aug. 31.
The US official spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the plan. It was the first disclosure of what the US intends to do with Afghans or other evacuees who have failed to clear initial rounds of screening or whose cases otherwise require more processing.
The US Embassy in Kosovo in a statement later Saturday stressed that the arrangement did not mean Kosovo was taking evacuees who had been deemed ineligible for admission to the United States. “Some applicants are still in the process of obtaining needed documents and providing all the information required to qualify under USlaw for immediate entry,” the embassy statement said.
The Biden administration had resisted months of urging from some refugee organizations and veterans groups to bring former Afghan allies or others most vulnerable to targeting by the Taliban to American territory for security screening and other processing.
Several other countries for a time balked at temporarily hosting the United States’ Afghan evacuees, for fear of getting stuck with the Americans’ security problems. That all presented major obstacles in US preparations for evacuation of vulnerable Afghans, even before Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15.
The Taliban’s lightning conquest of Afghanistan set off the chaotic US-military airlift out of the Kabul airport.
The administration within days of the Taliban takeover mobilized thousands of US troops, diplomats, law enforcement agents, border and transportation workers, volunteers and others for screening, processing and caring for evacuees at more than a half-dozen US naval stations, airfields and army bases in Europe and Asia. Officials and volunteers handed stuffed animals and toys to arriving children at many of the transit sites, and set up play areas.
The aim of the mobilization was to get deserving evacuees through to the United States as quickly as possible, and stop possible security risks among evacuees, and other evacuees who failed to qualify for relocation to the United States, before they touched foot on US soil.
Refugee groups criticize the Biden administration evacuation effort as too late, and too little planned. The hastiness of the airlifts after Kabul fell has led to a minority of people among the evacuees getting thousands of miles from the Kabul airport before Americans detected problems, including some evacuees with security issues.
In one instance, a red flag popped up on an evacuee’s case as he was mid-flight between two of the overseas transit sites, another US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the processing. In a comparatively small number of cases, the US transit sites overseas also are dealing with other evacuees who require further investigation, or who lie or destroy their identification in hopes of qualifying for immigration, that US official said.
Some who managed to get through crushing crowds and US and Taliban controls at the airport got put on planes and made it to transit sites, without any apparent eligibility for US relocation as an at-risk Afghan, the official said.
Most Afghan evacuees are clearing processing in a matter of days at large transit sites that US government employees set up quickly at military bases in Qatar, Germany and Italy, along with smaller sites elsewhere. Those evacuees then fly through Philadelphia or Washington Dulles airports for resettling in the United States.
Other US officials have said they expect most or all Afghans whose cases may initially raise red flags or questions to pass further screening.
Eligible Afghans include those who worked for the US government, or women’s advocates, journalists or others vulnerable because of their role in Afghan civil society.
The US official who disclosed the Kosovo plan said the transit centers “provide a safe place for diverse groups ... to complete their paperwork while we conduct security screenings before they continue to their final destination in the United States or in another country.”
The US will use a military camp, Bondsteel, that houses the US army near the Kosovo capital for the further screening and processing of evacuees intended for resettlement in the United States, the US official said. A site down the road that formerly housed road crews is to temporarily house evacuees bound for other NATO countries, under NATO’s management and care.
Germany and Italy each have set time limits of no more than two weeks for US processing of any one evacuee on their soil.
Kosovo considers itself a close ally of the United States since the US spearheaded a 1999 NATO air campaign against Serbian forces brutalizing Kosovo civilians. The two Afghan evacuee sites sit along a highway named after President Joe Biden’s late son, Beau Biden, who helped train local judges and prosecutors after the Kosovo war.
Kosovo leaders have agreed to one-year stays for the evacuees, with a possibility of extensions. Kosovo’s prime minister and other officials turned out at the airport to welcome the first Afghan evacuees.
The majority of Kosovo’s people are Muslim, like Afghans, although Kosovo’s constitution establishes it as a secular state. Kosovo has a substantial minority of Orthodox Christian Serbs.
Refugee organizations say the US hasn’t been open or efficient in its treatment of evacuees at overseas transit centers.
“There’s just a staggering lack of transparency from the administration about what is happening, who is there ... who to contact if there are issues” for evacuees at the sites, said Adam Bates, an attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project, one of the main US refugee working with with Afghans seeking escape from the Taliban.
He spoke before the Biden administration disclosed its plans for the Kosovo site.


Scholar Ramadan to face Geneva rape trial: prosecutors

Updated 05 December 2022

Scholar Ramadan to face Geneva rape trial: prosecutors

  • A Swiss national and former professor at Oxford University, Ramadan has faced a string of rape and sexual assault allegations in France and Switzerland since 2017
  • The Swiss investigation has moved slowly, since Ramadan was initially in pre-trial detention in Paris over other rape allegations and could not be questioned

GENEVA: Embattled Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan will go on trial for rape in Geneva next year, over a case dating back more than 14 years, the prosecution said on Monday.
A Swiss national and former professor at Oxford University, Ramadan has faced a string of rape and sexual assault allegations in France and Switzerland since 2017.
The Geneva judiciary said in the current case Ramadan had been charged with rape and sexual coercion, and would be tried before the Geneva criminal court, confirming information first published by Swiss broadcaster RTS.
The accuser in this case, named simply “Brigitte” by Swiss media, has accused the now 60-year-old scholar of brutally attacking her on the evening of October 28, 2008.
The Muslim convert, who had met Ramadan a month earlier during a book signing, accuses him of subjecting her to sexual attacks, beatings and insults in a Geneva hotel room.
She waited a decade before coming forward, filing her complaint in April 2018.
Her lawyer, Francois Zimeray, told AFP his client was fearful as she brought the case.
“She feels no desire for revenge but is relieved and is putting her faith in the institutions,” he said, adding that he expected the trial to take place during the first half of 2023.
Ramadan’s lawyer, Guerric Canonica, meanwhile alleged on Monday that the prosecution had simply “copied the complaint without considering disqualifying elements.”
“It is now up to the judges to re-establish Mr. Ramadan’s complete innocence and we are serenely waiting for our day in court,” he told AFP.
Ramadan, who has previously filed a complaint against Brigitte for slander, is a father of four whose grandfather founded Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
He was a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University until he was forced to take leave when rape allegations surfaced at the height of the “Me Too” movement in 2017.
The Swiss investigation has moved slowly, since Ramadan was initially in pre-trial detention in Paris over other rape allegations and could not be questioned.
After he was released in November 2018, he was put on probation and barred from leaving France.
Swiss prosecutors went to Paris to question him, and once the probation was partially lifted, Ramadan traveled to Geneva for witness hearings in 2020.


Seoul: North Korea fires over 100 artillery rounds in military drill

Updated 05 December 2022

Seoul: North Korea fires over 100 artillery rounds in military drill

  • Some of the shells landed in a buffer zone near the sea border
  • South Korea and the United States have also stepped up military drills this year

SEOUL: North Korea fired around 130 artillery shells into the sea off its east and west coasts on Monday, South Korea’s military said, in the latest apparent military drill near their shared border.
Some of the shells landed in a buffer zone near the sea border in what Seoul said was a violation of a 2018 inter-Korean agreement designed to reduce tensions.
The South Korean military sent several warning communications to the North over the firing, the ministry of defense said in a statement.
North Korea did not immediately report on the artillery fire, but it has been carrying out an increasing number of military activities, including missile launches and drills by warplanes and artillery units.
South Korea and the United States have also stepped up military drills this year, saying they are necessary to deter the nuclear-armed North.
The 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) was the most substantive deal to come from the months of meetings between leader Kim Jong Un and then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
With those talks long stalled, however, recent drills and shows of force along the fortified border between the Koreas have cast doubts on the future of the measures. South Korea has accused the North of repeatedly violating the agreement with artillery drills this year.
This year North Korea resumed testing of its long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for the first time since 2017, and South Korea and the United States say it has made preparations to resume nuclear testing as well.


Chinese cities relax testing rules as zero COVID-19 policy eases

Updated 05 December 2022

Chinese cities relax testing rules as zero COVID-19 policy eases

  • Local authorities have begun a slow rollback of the restrictions that have governed daily life for years
  • Chinese authorities on Monday reported 29,724 new domestic COVID-19 cases

BEIJING: Businesses reopened and testing requirements were relaxed in Beijing and other Chinese cities on Monday as the country tentatively eases out of a strict zero COVID-19 policy that sparked nationwide protests.
Local authorities across China have begun a slow rollback of the restrictions that have governed daily life for years, encouraged by the central government’s orders for a new approach to fighting the coronavirus.
In the capital Beijing, where many businesses have fully reopened, commuters from Monday were no longer required to show a negative virus test taken within 48 hours to use public transport.
Financial hub Shanghai — which underwent a brutal two-month lockdown this year — was under the same rules, with residents able to enter outdoor venues such as parks and tourist attractions without a recent test.
Neighboring Hangzhou went a step further, ending regular mass testing for its 10 million people, except for those living in or visiting nursing homes, schools and kindergartens.
In the northwestern city of Urumqi, where a fire that killed 10 people became the catalyst for the recent anti-lockdown protests, supermarkets, hotels, restaurants and ski resorts reopened on Monday.
The city of more than four million in the far-western Xinjiang region endured one of China’s longest lockdowns, with some areas shut from August until November.
Authorities in Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019, and Shandong scrapped the testing requirement for public transport on Sunday.
And Zhengzhou — home to the world’s largest iPhone factory — on Sunday said people will be allowed to enter public places, take public transport and enter their residential compounds without a 48-hour negative test result.
The World Health Organization has cheered China’s loosening of its zero COVID-19 policy, which came after hundreds took to the streets across the country to call for greater political freedoms and an end to lockdowns.
While some COVID-19 rules have been relaxed, China’s vast security apparatus has moved swiftly to smother further rallies, boosting online censorship and surveillance of the population.
And as officials have dismantled testing facilities, long queues have appeared around those that remain, forcing residents to wait in cold temperatures to get tests that remain obligatory across much of China.
“Students can’t go to school without a 24-hour negative test,” wrote a user on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.
“What’s the point in closing testing booths before dropping the need to show test results completely?” another asked.
Chinese authorities on Monday reported 29,724 new domestic COVID-19 cases.


Growth in arms trade stunted by supply issues: report

Updated 05 December 2022

Growth in arms trade stunted by supply issues: report

  • The growth was severely impacted by widespread supply chain issues
  • Companies in the US continue to dominate global arms production

STOCKHOLM: Sales of arms and military services grew in 2021, researchers said Monday, but were limited by worldwide supply issues related to the pandemic, with the war in Ukraine increasing demand while worsening supply difficulties.
The top 100 arms companies sold weapons and related services totalling $592 billion in 2021, 1.9-percent more than the year before, said the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
However the growth was severely impacted by widespread supply chain issues.
“The lasting impact of the pandemic is really starting to show in arms companies,” Nan Tian, a senior researcher at SIPRI, told AFP.
Disruptions from both labor shortages and difficulties in sourcing raw materials were “slowing down the companies’ ability to produce weapons systems and deliver them on time.
“So what we see really is a potentially slower increase to what many would have expected in arms sales in 2021,” Tian said.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also expected to worsen supply chain issues, in part “because Russia is a major supplier of raw materials used in arms production,” said the report’s authors.
But the war has at the same time increased demand.
“Definitely demand will increase in the coming years,” Tian said.
By how much was at the same time harder to gauge, Tian said pointing to two factors that would impact demand.
Firstly, countries that have sent weapons to Ukraine to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars will be looking to replenish stockpiles.
Secondly, the worsening security environment means “countries are looking to procure more weapons.”
With the supply crunch expected to worsen, it could hamper these efforts, the authors noted.
Companies in the US continue to dominate global arms production, accounting for over half, $299 billion, of global sales and 40 of the top companies.
At the same time, the region was the only one to see a drop in sales: 0.9 percent down on the 2020 figures.
Among the top five companies — Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics — only Raytheon recorded an increase in sales.
Meanwhile, sales from the eight largest Chinese arms companies rose 6.3 percent to $109 billion in 2021.
European companies took 27 of the spots on the top 100, with combined sales of $123 billion, up 4.2 percent compared to 2020.
The report also noted a trend of private equity firms buying up arms companies, something the authors said had become increasingly apparent over the last three or four years.
This trend threatens to make the arms industry more opaque and therefore harder to track, Tian said, “because private equity firms will buy these companies and then essentially not produce any more financial records.”


US intel chief thinking ‘optimistically’ for Ukraine forces

Updated 04 December 2022

US intel chief thinking ‘optimistically’ for Ukraine forces

  • Russia’s military focus has been on striking Ukrainian infrastructure and pressing an offensive in the east

KYIV: The head of US intelligence says fighting in Russia’s war in Ukraine is running at a “reduced tempo” and suggests Ukrainian forces could have brighter prospects in coming months.
Avril Haines alluded to past allegations by some that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advisers could be shielding him from bad news — for Russia — about war developments, and said he “is becoming more informed of the challenges that the military faces in Russia.”
“But it’s still not clear to us that he has a full picture of at this stage of just how challenged they are,” the US director of national intelligence said late Saturday at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California.
Looking ahead, Haines said, “honestly we’re seeing a kind of a reduced tempo already of the conflict” and her team expects that both sides will look to refit, resupply, and reconstitute for a possible Ukrainian counter-offensive in the spring.
“But we actually have a fair amount of skepticism as to whether or not the Russians will be in fact prepared to do that,” she said. “And I think more optimistically for the Ukrainians in that timeframe.”
In recent weeks, Russia’s military focus has been on striking Ukrainian infrastructure and pressing an offensive in the east, near the town of Bakhmut, while shelling sites in the city of Kherson, which Ukrainian forces liberated last month after an 8-month Russian occupation.
In his nightly address on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky lashed out at Western efforts to crimp Russia’s crucial oil industry, a key source of funds for Putin’s war machine, saying their $60-per-barrel price cap on imports of Russian oil was insufficient.
“It is not a serious decision to set such a limit for Russian prices, which is quite comfortable for the budget of the terrorist state,” Zelensky said, referring to Russia. He said the $60-per-barrel level would still allow Russia to bring in $100 billion in revenues per year.
“This money will go not only to the war and not only to further sponsorship by Russia of other terrorist regimes and organizations. This money will be used for further destabilization of those countries that are now trying to avoid serious decisions,” Zelensky said.
Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, the United States and the 27-nation European Union agreed Friday to cap what they would pay for Russian oil at $60 per barrel. The limit is set to take effect Monday, along with an EU embargo on Russian oil shipped by sea.
Russian authorities have rejected the price cap and threatened Saturday to stop supplying the nations that endorsed it.
In yet another show of Western support for Ukraine’s efforts to battle back Russian forces and cope with fallout from the war, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland on Saturday visited the operations of a Ukrainian aid group that provides support for internally displaced people in Ukraine, among her other visits with top Ukrainian officials.
Nuland assembled dolls out of yarn in the blue-and-yellow colors of Ukraine’s flag with youngsters from regions including northeastern Kharkiv, southern Kherson, and eastern Donetsk.
“This is psychological support for them at an absolutely crucial time,” Nuland said.
“As President Putin knows best, this war could stop today, if he chose to stop it and withdrew his forces — and then negotiations can begin,” she added.