Taliban agree to new polio vaccination drive across Afghanistan — WHO

FILE - In this June 15, 2021 file photo, a health worker administers a vaccination to a child during a polio campaign in the old part of Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 20 October 2021

Taliban agree to new polio vaccination drive across Afghanistan — WHO

  • In the past Taliban barred UN-organized teams from campaigns out of suspicion they could be spies 
  • Some 3.3 million children over the past three years have not been vaccinated

ISTANBUL: UN agencies are gearing up to vaccinate all of Afghanistan’s children under 5 against polio for the first time since 2018, after the Taliban agreed to the campaign, the World Health Organization says.
For the past three years, the Taliban barred UN-organized vaccination teams from doing door-to-door campaigns in parts of Afghanistan under their control, apparently out of suspicion they could be spies for the government or the West. Because of the ban and ongoing fighting, some 3.3 million children over the past three years have not been vaccinated.
The Taliban’s reported agreement now, after becoming the rulers of Afghanistan, appeared aimed at showing they are willing to cooperate with international agencies. The longtime militant insurgent force has been trying to win the world’s recognition of its new government and re-open the door for international aid to rescue the crumbling economy.
Taliban officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
But WHO and the UN children’s agency UNICEF said in a statement they welcomed the decision by the Taliban leadership supporting the resumption of house-to-house polio vaccinations across the country.
Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the only countries in the world where polio remains endemic. The disease can cause partial paralysis in children. Since 2010, the country has been carrying out regular inoculation campaigns in which workers go door to door, giving the vaccine to children. Most of the workers are women, since they can get better access to mothers and children.
But large sections of the country have been out of their reach in recent years. In parts of the south, particularly, the ban by the Taliban was in effect. In other areas, door-to-door campaigns were impossible because of fighting between the government and the insurgents, or because of fears of kidnappings or roadside bombs. In some places, hard-line clerics spoke out against vaccinations, calling them un-Islamic or a Western plot.
WHO said a new nationwide vaccination campaign will begin on November 8, followed by another synchronized with Pakistan’s polio vaccination campaign in December.
The estimated target population is Afghanistan’s 10 million children under five, including the more than 3.3 million who could not be reached since 2018, Dr. Hamid Jafari, WHO’s director of polio eradication for the Eastern Mediterranean region, told The Associated Press.
“Restarting polio vaccination in all areas of Afghanistan now will prevent a major resurgence of polio outbreaks within the country and ensure there is no international spread,” Jafari said.
“This is an extremely important step in the right direction,” said Dapeng Luo, WHO Representative in Afghanistan. He said it was a good sign that multiple campaigns are planned. “Sustained access to all children is essential to end polio for good.”
Jafari said the Taliban government had agreed on three key aspects — security for health workers and vaccinators, mobilization of health authorities and the new leadership for the campaign, and communications through religious, tribal and community leaders and media to build trust in the campaign.
He urged families not to be suspicious of the vaccinators going house to house, saying the only intention is to protect children. “They should trust the program. They should trust the vaccine.”
On March 30, three women were gunned down in two separate attacks as they carried out door-to-door vaccinations in the eastern city of Jalalabad. It was the first time vaccination workers have been killed in a decade of door-to-door inoculations against the disease in Afghanistan.
Such attacks have been more common in Pakistan, where at least 70 vaccinators and security personnel connected to vaccination campaigns have been killed since 2011.


Pentagon plans stronger US posture toward China, Russia

Updated 24 min 6 sec ago

Pentagon plans stronger US posture toward China, Russia

  • The US Defense Department will be upgrading and expanding military facilities in Guam and Australia

WASHINGTON: The US military will re-inforce deployments and bases directed at China and Russia, while maintaining forces in the Middle East adequate to deter Iran and jihadist groups, the Pentagon said Monday, referencing results of a review.
The US Defense Department will be upgrading and expanding military facilities in Guam and Australia, underscoring its focus on China as the country's leading defense rival, officials said.
The details of the "global posture review," commissioned by President Joe Biden's administration early this year, would remain classified, the officials added, so as not to reveal plans to rivals.
The move comes in the wake of the formation of a new defense alliance, dubbed AUKUS, between the United States, Britain and Australia to counter a rising China, which has been building up its own navy and testing decades of US military dominance across Asia.
That pact was formed as Beijing solidifies its control over the disputed South China Sea and intensifies its military threats towards Taiwan, for which the United States is a key ally and arms supplier.
The review confirmed the priority region for the US military was the Indo-Pacific, said Mara Karlin, a top Pentagon policy official.
The review "directs additional cooperation with allies and partners across the region to advance initiatives that contribute to regional stability and deter potential military aggression from China and threats from North Korea," she told reporters.
In addition, it "strengthens the combat-credible deterrent against Russian aggression in Europe and enables NATO forces to operate more effectively," she said.
The Middle East, however, remains an area of flux for the Pentagon after the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Global responsibilities "require us to make continuous changes to our Middle East posture, but we always have the capability to rapidly deploy forces to the region based on the threat environment," Karlin said.
Speaking separately, a senior Pentagon official who declined to be identified, downplayed any idea of radical shifts.
"In the first year of an administration, it's not the time when we would develop a major strategic-level change to our posture," the official said.
However, the official added, the Biden team felt the review necessary after the disruptive approach of his predecessor Donald Trump, who altered US commitments abruptly.
Under Trump, "there were oftentimes a devaluing of ally and partner input and engagement, which eroded US credibility and hard-won trust," the official said.
The officials declined to answer questions on how the global posture review sees US force presence in ongoing conflict zones like the Middle East, East and West Africa, and Eastern Europe.
But they confirmed previously announced plans to do more in Guam and Australia.
"In Australia, you'll see new rotational fighter and bomber aircraft deployments, you'll see ground forces training and increased logistics cooperation," said Karlin.
In Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Australia there will also be upgrades to airports and fuel and munitions storage facilities, she said.
Asked if the review foresaw more increases in the US presence in the Pacific region, Karlin said: "We're moving the needle a bit."
"And what I'd like to think is, over the coming years, you will see that needle move more," she said.


Ghislaine Maxwell ‘served up’ girls for sex to Epstein: prosecutors

Updated 30 November 2021

Ghislaine Maxwell ‘served up’ girls for sex to Epstein: prosecutors

NEW YORK: Ghislaine Maxwell set young girls up to be abused by “predator” Jeffrey Epstein, prosecutors said Monday as the sex trafficking trial of the British jet-set socialite and heiress began in New York.
Maxwell was the “lady of the house” in financier Epstein’s world who maintained “a culture of silence” over their years-long arrangement to sexually exploit girls under 18 years old, said attorney Lara Pomerantz as she presented the federal case in the first day of the trial.
Maxwell “made those girls feel seen. They made them feel special. But that was a cover,” Pomerantz told a jury.
In fact, she “served them up to be sexually abused,” Pomerantz said.
Two years after Epstein killed himself in jail before he went on trial for similar charges, Maxwell sat in the packed Manhattan courtroom facing six counts of enticing and transporting minors for sex.
Four unnamed women who allegedly suffered at the hands of the two are the key witnesses in the trial, which takes place under intense media attention.
Masked and wearing in a beige sweater and black slacks, the 59-year-old daughter of the late newspaper baron Robert Maxwell stared straight ahead during proceedings.
She faces the possibility of spending the rest of her life in prison if convicted.
Maxwell, whose sister Isabel was also inside the courtroom, has pleaded not guilty to all six counts.
Her attorneys have claimed she is being prosecuted only because US authorities were unable to bring Epstein himself to justice.
But Pomerantz said that during the period the charges against her cover, 1994-2004, she was Epstein’s “right-hand” partner, winning the trust of girls as young as 14 and then conditioning to give nude massages and then sex to Epstein.
Maxwell “knew exactly what Epstein was going to do to those children when she sent them in those massage rooms” in Epstein’s luxurious homes in New Mexico, Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida, as well as her own London home, the prosecutor said.
Epstein was a multi-million-dollar money manager who befriended countless celebrities, including Britain’s Prince Andrew, and was accused of providing them with women, including minors.
The indictment says Maxwell took part in the abuse of the four unidentified women, wooing them with shopping and movie theater trips before coaxing them to engage in sex acts with Epstein before giving them money.
Two of the women say they were just 14 and 15 years old when they were sexually abused.
Epstein, who for years skirted charges with the help of flawed laws, powerful connections and sympathetic law enforcement, was arrested in July 2019.
But a month later he committed suicide while in prison.
Prosecutors vowed to go after anyone who helped him in the abuse of the girls, and arrested Maxwell in July 2020.
The trial is expected to stretch over six weeks, and Maxwell faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
The key witnesses will be the women who allegedly suffered in her and Epstein’s hands. They will be allowed to testify with their identities kep secret.
Due to the threat of Covid-19, and heightened fears of the new Omicron variant, plexiglass boxes with air filters have been set up for the witnesses and questioning attorneys.
Maxwell’s attorneys have indicated they will challenge the accusers’ credibility by referencing alleged previous substance abuse and erroneous memories of what happened.
Days before the trial, fake claims spread across social media, echoed by some prominent political conservatives, that the judge in the case had banned media coverage, ostensibly to protect Epstein’s powerful friends and associates.
While the trial proceedings are not being televised, reporters in fact were in the courtroom as well as watching the trial by video in a separate courthouse media room.


Finland’s secret school for children of Daesh fighters in Iraq

Updated 30 November 2021

Finland’s secret school for children of Daesh fighters in Iraq

HELSINKI: At home in the Finnish capital, Ilona Taimela scrolls through hundreds of WhatsApp chats with her former pupils — pictures of animals, maths sums and simple sentences in English and Finnish.
The teacher last year gave lessons to Finnish children imprisoned some 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles) away in Syria’s Al-Hol displacement camp — using only the messaging app.
Al-Hol is a sprawling tent
city housing around 60,000 people, mainly women and children displaced by the US-backed battle to expel the Daesh group from war-torn Syria.
Among them are thousands of children of foreign mothers who traveled to Syria to be the wives of Daesh fighters.
“Some of the children didn’t know what a building is, what a house is, because they’ve always been in a tent,” Taimela told AFP.
“There was so much that they needed to learn.”
Rights observers warn the camp’s children are under constant threat from violence, poor sanitation and fires.
“It’s a miserable place, it’s out of control,” said Jussi Tanner, Finland’s special envoy charged with ensuring the fundamental rights of the Finnish children in Al-Hol, including access to health care and schooling, and eventual repatriation.
Extremist propaganda “is free to roam with no counter-messaging,” he said.
Tanner had the idea of offering lessons by phone to Al-Hol’s Finnish children when schoolchildren everywhere moved to distance learning at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
With the help of Finland’s Lifelong Learning Foundation, officials engaged Taimela, a specialist in teaching Finnish kids abroad, and another teacher, to design and teach a curriculum.
With phones banned in the camp, the lessons would have to be in secret, and the politically sensitive project was also to be kept hidden from the Finnish public.
Tanner forwarded details about the voluntary classes to the mothers.
“That same day ... we got maybe eight children,” Taimela said.
Soon 23 of around 35 Finnish children in the camp had signed up.
“Good morning! Today is Thursday May 7, 2020. The first day of distance school!“
Taimela’s first message to the children included a smiling selfie.
“The sun is shining here in Finland. What kind of weather is it there?“
Soon Taimela and her colleague were exchanging hundreds of text and voice messages a day with the children, who were taught one or two subjects a day.
“The little ones would always get Finnish, and the older ones would get geography or history, and some of them also wanted to learn English.”
Sending photos used too much data, so the teachers relied on emojis, but soon realized there were no symbols for mathematical fractions or the ubiquitous Finnish blueberry.
“During the year the blueberry [emoji] arrived, so we were happy,” Taimela says, laughing.
Despite only knowing scant details about the children, Taimela said she and her colleague were “worried all the time about their welfare.”
“Especially when we heard that they were sick, or there was a storm and the tent had collapsed.”
Communication with some families would periodically stop.
“Some of them escaped the camp,” special envoy Jussi Tanner says, “so they were actually taking part in the school while on the run in northwestern Syria in an active conflict zone.”
Others were suddenly repatriated and left the group for good.
After months of lessons, the mother of one six-year-old revealed her daughter could now read.
“Not all six-year-olds in Finland can do that,” Taimela says, smiling. “It was a eureka moment.”
Daesh fighters declared a “caliphate” in large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, three years into Syria’s civil war.
Taimela says she feels “sadness rather than anger” toward the mothers who led their children into the conflict.
Many were vulnerable and believed the promises of militants that they would live in some “kind of paradise.”
But several military offensives whittled away at the brutal Daesh proto-state, until in 2019 Syrian Kurdish forces declared it defeated.
Reluctant Western nations have since brought home handfuls of their Daesh-linked nationals, mostly children.
Taimela had accepted that she would never know what happened to the repatriated children she had taught, but one day she was called to a reception center in Finland.
“It was an emotional few hours” meeting some of her pupils face to face for the first time, she said.
They “came very close” and Taimela read to them.
“I just wanted to know, ‘How is everything, what can I help with?’,” she said.
Finland’s foreign ministry has now repatriated 23 children and seven adults.
Tanner told AFP that only around 15 “harder-to-reach” individuals, of whom 10 are children, remain in camps in Syria.
The issue originally proved divisive in Finland, but opposition has “become much more muted.”
Taimela’s teaching drew to a natural close in mid-2021 and the ministry later made the project public.
She is now looking at how to use the innovative teaching model in other crisis zones or camps, and has received requests regarding Greece, Myanmar and Colombia.
“The Al-Hol teacher, that’s my label now,” Taimela smiles.
“But I’m proud of what we did.”


After Channel boat disaster, Iraqi families fear worst

Updated 30 November 2021

After Channel boat disaster, Iraqi families fear worst

  • Fate of migrants difficult to know, as the investigation is yet to reveal the identities of the recovered victims

QADRAWA, IRAQ: The last time 20-year-old Mohamed spoke with his father, who lives in Iraqi Kurdistan, he told him that he was about to cross the English Channel.
That was on November 23. The next day, France announced the sinking of a boat in the busy waterway, killing at least 27 people, in a disaster that has made global headlines.
The family now fears the very worst.
“Our last contact was on the eve of the tragedy,” says the father, Qader Abdallah, 49, sitting in his living room in Qadrawa, a small village in Kurdistan, northern Iraq.
“He told us that he was going to go to Britain. He sent us a message on (Facebook) Messenger.
“We told him it was dangerous, that there were risks with this crossing. He tried to reassure us by telling us there had been many crossings ... and that there had been no problems.”
Since then, several families in Qadrawa have desperately waited for news on their family members. Were they onboard the ill-fated boat? Did they arrive in Britain?
It is difficult to know, as the investigation is yet to reveal the identities of the recovered victims, their nationalities or the cause of the capsize.
Immigration ministers from France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands met in the French port of Calais on Sunday and promised to strengthen “operational cooperation” on tackling people smugglers.
France said EU border agency Frontex would deploy a plane to help fight migrant trafficking in the Channel from December 1.
Mohamed flew to Turkey a month ago from the Kurdish region’s Irbil airport.
He made his way illegally to Italy, then to France. He wanted to join his two brothers, who have been living in Britain for two years.
“Our family had agreed that he should go to Europe,” Abdallah admitted. “All young people try to go to Europe to find a better future.”
In the autonomous region of Kurdistan, he said, “living conditions are difficult.”
“The young people have demonstrated because of the deteriorating economic situation that prevents them from finding a job,” he said about recent protests by university students.
Last Wednesday’s tragedy was the worst to date in the English Channel, which is now crossed daily by migrants trying to reach the English coast, usually in flimsy boats.
The crossings have multiplied since 2018 following restrictions at the port of Calais and in the Eurotunnel, which irregular migrants had traversed by hiding in vehicles.
Another father in the Kurdish region, Abu Zaniar, said he too had lost track of his 20-year-old son.
“On November 23 we spoke, but since then there has been no information on his fate,” he said.
A month ago, the young man had left by plane for Turkey, from where he was able to travel illegally to Italy, then France.
“We made an agreement with a smuggler to take him to Britain in exchange for $3,300,” the father said.
During the interview with AFP, the father tried once again to reach the smuggler by phone, but to no avail. The phone was turned off.
The father then called the traffickers’ relatives, telling them: “He had promised us to get Zaniar safely to England.”
“If my son survived this time, I will send him back to Europe,” said Abu Zaniar. “No life is possible in the Kurdistan region; graduates here can’t find work.”
Two years ago, his son had tried to reach Western Europe via Bulgaria, where he was arrested, mistreated in prison, and then deported to Iraq.
According to rescuers, those shipwrecked in the Channel were crammed into a soft-bottomed inflatable boat about 10 meters (32 feet) long.
Only one Iraqi and one Somali were saved.
Could the Iraqi be a man named Mohamed Khaled? His mother, Cheleir Ahmed, thinks so, saying she has received a phone call from her son.
The 22-year-old had gone to Belarus two months ago, before reaching France with the help of smugglers.
“His health is very bad because he stayed in the water for a long time,” his mother said.
“He informed me that he and an African migrant had survived.”
She said her son told her there had been 32 people on the boat, including children and entire families, almost all of whom would have drowned.


UN marks International Day of Solidarity with Palestinian people

Updated 29 November 2021

UN marks International Day of Solidarity with Palestinian people

  • OIC, Arab League, and Palestinian activists addressed UN delegates on Monday
  • ‘If the judge is your enemy, to whom do you complain?’ prominent activist asks UN delegates

NEW YORK: The president of the UN General Assembly and heads of various international organizations marked the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people and called on the international community to recognize their aspirations for self-determination and sovereignty.

Taking place on Nov. 29 every year, the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people is not only an opportunity for parties to express their concern for the plight of the Palestinians, but also an opportunity for the international community to assess progress in resolving the Palestinian question.

Abdulla Shahid, president of the UN General Assembly, said: “Peace in the Middle East has remained at the forefront of the global agenda since the foundation of the UN, and much of that conversation has revolved around implementing a just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

“Scattered across the Middle East and beyond, Palestinian families, uprooted in 1948, are losing hope of ever returning to their original homes, especially as illegal settlements outside of Israel’s demarcated borders proliferate.

“Palestinians in the Gaza strip continue to live in appalling conditions, with limited access to basic amenities and services, including running water, electricity, medicine, and education.”

He added: “Deprived of statehood, they cannot even advocate on their own behalf as a peer member of the global community,” alluding to the fundamental issue for many Palestinians: The lack of a country to call their own.

A representative for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation expressed support for the Palestinian cause in their “struggle to recover their legitimate rights.

He said: “The International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people comes this year at a critical juncture over the Palestinian cause, given the continued practices of Israel, the occupying power, to perpetrate its colonial occupation on Palestinian land.”

Israel does this, he continued, by way of policies based on “aggression, forced displacement, ethnic cleansing, settlement Judaization, land confiscation, destruction of property, and denial of the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people.”

He also specifically highlighted the plight of Palestinian families in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem, many of whom are at risk of imminent eviction by Israeli authorities, warning that Israeli actions “fuel violence and extremism” and threaten to “ignite a religious conflict with unpredictable repercussions.”

Representatives from the Arab League and African Union also spoke, expressing their support for a two-state solution based on 1967 borders.

Also present was Mohammed El-Kurd, a prominent Palestinian activist from Sheikh Jarrah, who told delegates: “Our lives are consumed by the anxiety of living on the brink of homelessness. The UN has called this a war crime, but more importantly: I know this is theft.”

El Kurd expressed his dismay at coming to the platform as one of “countless Palestinians” who have spoken before him at the UN, but have failed to end the colonization of their land — or even make any discernible progress.

He lamented the “quasi-democratic” way in which the Israeli judicial system legitimizes settler claims to Palestinian land and recalled a question asked by his own grandmother, who was expelled from her home during the Nakba, a period in the 1940s of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Israelis.

According to El-Kurd, his grandmother asked: “If the judge is your enemy, to whom do you complain?”