New US special envoy for Afghanistan to meet Taliban in Pakistan – official

Above, Afghan deputy prime minister Abdul Salam Hanafi, left, speaks with acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi during an international conference on Afghanistan in Moscow on Oct. 20, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 10 November 2021

New US special envoy for Afghanistan to meet Taliban in Pakistan – official

  • It will be Thomas West’s first trip to the region since taking over from Zalmay Khalilzad

ISLAMABAD: The new US special envoy for Afghanistan will visit Pakistan this week for a meeting with the Taliban foreign minister and senior diplomats from China and Russia, a Pakistani official and the US State Department said.
It will be Thomas West’s first trip to the region since taking over from Zalmay Khalilzad, the long-serving diplomat who spearheaded the talks that led to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The so-called “troika plus” meeting, due to take place on Thursday in Islamabad, will include the Afghan Taliban’s new foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, a senior Pakistani government official said on condition of anonymity.
The State Department said earlier in the week that West also plans to visit Russia and India.
“Together with our partners, he will continue to make clear the expectations that we have of the Taliban and of any future Afghanistan government,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told a briefing this week.
The senior Pakistani official said the meeting is “primarily aimed at ... finding ways to avert a humanitarian crisis and to look into possibilities of setting up an inclusive government in Afghanistan.”
The United Nations has repeatedly warned that Afghanistan is on the brink of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than half the country facing “acute” food shortages and winter forcing millions to choose between migration and starvation.
West, who was in Brussels this week to brief NATO on US engagements with the Taliban, told reporters that the Islamists have “very clearly” voiced their desire to see aid resumed, as well as to normalize international relations and see sanctions relief.
He called for unity from allies on those issues, noting that Washington “can deliver none of these things on our own.”
That includes China, with whom the United States has clashed in recent months over issues including Taiwan. West said Beijing has a “positive role” to play in Afghanistan.
He said that while he will visit India, he did not plan to attend a regional security dialogue on Afghanistan there on Wednesday.
Indian officials said that meeting involved Russia and Iran as well as Central Asian nations Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Pakistan — India’s arch-rival — was also invited but declined, as did China, Islamabad’s close ally. Indian media cited the foreign ministry in Beijing as blaming “scheduling reasons.”
India was an enthusiastic supporter of the ousted Western-backed government of Afghanistan.
Ajit Doval, the Indian national security adviser, echoed West’s call for close cooperation among regional allies as he opened the meeting in New Delhi.
“I am confident that our deliberations will be productive, useful and will contribute to help the people of Afghanistan and enhance our collective security,” he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a press conference on Wednesday that the group welcomes the various regional meetings.
“We have no worries, the meetings will be for Afghanistan’s benefit because the entire region believes that the security of Afghanistan is for the benefit of all,” he said.
West also touched on security in the region, saying the United States is concerned about a recent uptick in attacks by the Daesh group in Afghanistan.
“We want the Taliban to be successful against them,” he said.
He added that Al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan “is an issue of ongoing concern for us in our dialogue with the Taliban.”


Apple says it will manufacture iPhone 14 in India

Updated 20 sec ago

Apple says it will manufacture iPhone 14 in India

  • Tech giant is moving some of its production away from China
  • Apple could make one out of four iPhones in India by 2025

NEW DELHI: Apple Inc said on Monday it will manufacture its latest iPhone 14 in India, as the tech giant moves some of its production away from China.

The company launched the flagship iPhone 14 at an event earlier this month, where it focused on safety upgrades rather than flashy new technical specifications, with the exception of a new adventure-focused watch.

"The new iPhone 14 lineup introduces groundbreaking new technologies and important safety capabilities. We're excited to be manufacturing iPhone 14 in India," Apple said in a statement.

Analysts at J.P.Morgan expect Apple to move about 5% of iPhone 14 production from late 2022 to India, which is the world's second-biggest smartphone market after China.

Apple could make one out of four iPhones in India by 2025, JPM analysts said in a note last week.


Pro-Kremlin businessman confirms he founded Wagner mercenary group

Updated 26 September 2022

Pro-Kremlin businessman confirms he founded Wagner mercenary group

  • Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin said that he founded the group to send fighters to Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014
  • Critics say it is Putin’s ‘shadow army,’ promoting Russian interests by providing fighters, military instructors and advisers

MOSCOW: Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, said on Monday he had founded the Wagner mercenary group and confirmed its deployment to countries in Latin America and Africa.
Prigozhin said in a statement from his company, Concord, that he founded the group to send fighters to Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014.
“From that moment, on May 1, 2014, a group of patriots was born, which later acquired the name BTG Wagner,” he said.
Prigozhin, dubbed “Putin’s chef” because of his Kremlin catering contracts, has previously denied links with Wagner.
“I myself cleaned the old weapons, figured out bulletproof vests and found specialists who could help me with this,” Prigozhin added.
“These guys — heroes who defended the Syrian people, other people of Arab countries, destitute Africans and Latin Americans — have become the pillars of our motherland,” he said.
Prigozhin, 61, has been hit with EU and US sanctions, accused of being behind a “troll factory” that attempted to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election.
For years, the Wagner group has been suspected of playing a role in realizing Moscow’s overseas ambitions, with the Kremlin denying any links.
Its presence has been reported in conflict zones including Syria, Mali, Ukraine and the Central African Republic, where it has been accused of abuses and capturing state power.
Critics say it is Putin’s “shadow army,” promoting Russian interests by providing fighters, military instructors and advisers.
Wagner’s presence was forced into the spotlight in 2018 when independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that several Russian-speaking men who killed and mutilated a detainee on video in Syria were Wagner fighters.
Earlier this month, a video was shared on social media seeming to show Prigozhin recruiting inmates of a Russian prison to bolster Wagner’s ranks in Ukraine.
The Russian army has faced difficulties in its seven-month-old military intervention, with Putin last week ordering a partial mobilization of reservists to regain momentum after Kyiv’s forces retook swathes of Moscow-controlled territory in a counter-offensive.
Russian media have reported that Prigozhin controls Wagner’s finances, whereas its operations are managed by Dmitry Utkin, a shadowy figure who allegedly served in Russia’s military intelligence.
Utkin was received at the Kremlin in 2016 for a ceremony paying tribute to “heroes” who served in Syria and has been photographed with Putin.


Finland sees record surge in Russians crossing border

Updated 26 September 2022

Finland sees record surge in Russians crossing border

  • Nearly 8,600 Russians entered Finland via the land border

HELSINKI: Finland said on Monday it had recorded the year’s busiest weekend in terms of Russians entering the country, after Moscow’s military call-up announcement caused a rush for the border.
“Last weekend was the busiest weekend of the year for traffic on the eastern border,” Mert Sasioglu of the Finnish border guard told AFP.
The border agency said nearly 8,600 Russians entered Finland via the land border on Saturday and nearly 4,200 crossed the other way.
On Sunday, more than 8,300 Russians arrived and nearly 5,100 left.
“The arrival rate is about double what it was a week ago,” Sasioglu said.
“The main reason is the mobilization but it is also partly explained by the fact that both Finland and Russia eased Covid-19 restrictions during the summer.”
The Nordic country announced on September 23 it planned to “significantly restrict the entry of Russian citizens” and would finalize the decision in the “coming days.”
While the restriction is not yet in force, the border guard service said it was ready to apply the new rules “within a day.”
Sasioglu said it was preparing for “difficult developments” as the situation evolved.
“It is possible that when travel is restricted, attempts at illegal border crossings will increase,” he explained.
On Saturday, border guards caught four individuals suspected of crossing the border illegally in the Kuusamo region of eastern Finland. They immediately applied for asylum when detained.


Swastika-wearing ex-pupil kills 15 in Russian school shooting

Updated 26 September 2022

Swastika-wearing ex-pupil kills 15 in Russian school shooting

  • Russia’s health ministry said “14 ambulance teams” were working at the scene to help the injured

MOSCOW: A gunman with a swastika on his teeshirt killed 15 people, including 11 children, and wounded 24 at a school in Russia on Monday before committing suicide, investigators said.
The attacker, a man in his early thirties who was named by authorities as Artem Kazantsev, killed two security guards and then opened fire on students and teachers at School Number 88 in Izhevsk, where he had once been a pupil.
Russia’s Investigative Committee, which handles major crimes, said it was looking into the perpetrator’s suspected neo-Nazi links.
“Currently investigators...are conducting a search of his residence and studying the personality of the attacker, his views and surrounding milieu,” the committee said in a statement. “Checks are being made into his adherence to neo-fascist views and Nazi ideology.”
Investigators released a video showing the man’s body lying in a classroom with overturned furniture and papers strewn on the bloodstained floor. He was dressed all in black, with a red swastika in a circle drawn on his teeshirt.


The Investigative Committee said that of the 24 people wounded, all but two were children. Regional governor Alexander Brechalov said surgeons had carried out a number of operations.
He said the attacker had been registered with a “psycho-neurological” treatment facility. Investigators said the man was armed with two pistols and a large supply of ammunition.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin “deeply mourns” the deaths. He described the incident as “a terrorist act by a person who apparently belongs to a neo-fascist organization or group.”
He said doctors, psychologists and neurosurgeons had been sent on Putin’s orders to the location of the shooting in Izhevsk, about 970 km (600 miles) east of Moscow.
Russia has seen several school shootings in recent years.
In May 2021, a teenage gunman killed seven children and two adults in the city of Kazan. In September last year, a student armed with a hunting rifle shot dead at least six people at a university in the Urals city of Perm.
In April 2022, an armed man killed two children and a teacher at a kindergarten in the central Ulyanovsk region before committing suicide.
In 2018, an 18-year-old student killed 20 people, mostly fellow pupils, in a mass shooting at a college in Russian-occupied Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.


Religious hymns cause concern among Kashmiris

Updated 26 September 2022

Religious hymns cause concern among Kashmiris

  • Viral clip shows Muslim students practicing Hindu hymn for Gandhi's birthday celebrations
  • The hymn is not controversial, says a leader of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party

NEW DELHI: Kashmiri communities are raising concerns over alleged attempts to “undermine the Muslim identity” in the valley after a clip showing Muslim students in public schools reciting a Hindu hymn sparked controversy among religious and political leaders in the region.

New Delhi revoked the constitutional semi-autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, its portion of the region contested by India and Pakistan, into two federally governed territories in 2019.

The abrogation of its autonomy, which was followed by a total communications blackout, severe restrictions on freedom of movement, the detention of hundreds of local political leaders and the deployment of thousands of additional troops, has since compounded fears that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to alter the Muslim-majority region.

When Muslim students earlier this month were instructed to recite a Hindu hymn as part of preparations to celebrate the birth of Mahatma Gandhi on Oct. 2, a clip of the activity triggered new concerns among communities in the valley, such as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Ulema Jammu and Kashmir, a collective of 30 religious and educational bodies in the region.

“MMU appeals to the government and concerned authorities to immediately withdraw its orders and stop these practices in schools and educational institutions, which deeply hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims and cause them grief,” they said in a statement.

The collective issued the statement after a meeting was held over the weekend “in the wake of unfortunate attempts being made to undermine the Muslim identity of Kashmir.”

Mohd Ashraf Rather, chief education officer of the region’s Kulgam district, told Arab News on Sunday that the hymn was practiced in school “because it is an all-faith prayer” and had been part of a “one-day activity” ahead of Gandhi’s birthday celebrations.

“This is the same hymn that Mahatma Gandhi used to sing and the prayer invokes both Ishwar (Hindu address to God) and Allah,” Rather said.

The Hindu hymn controversy appears to be part of a “deliberate” plan, said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, who has been held under house arrest since August 2019.

“It is becoming clear that there seems to be a deliberate plan to push our young generation through state-run educational institutions towards apostasy, to wean them away from Islamic beliefs and identity, to speed their so-called ‘integration’ with the Hindu majoritarian idea of India,” Farooq told Arab News.

Though recitations of Hindu hymns are not something new in Kashmir, the questions raised in the valley were triggered by concerns over the intention of the ruling BJP party, the region’s political leader Ghulam Mir of the Apni Party, told Arab News.

“Prayers can be performed in any language but the important thing is to look at the intention. If the intention is an ulterior motive, then anyone can raise an objection,” Mir said.

“Earlier also people used to recite Hindu hymns, but that time (the) intention was different, but the majoritarian politics of the BJP looks like (being) against Muslims — their profile is anti-Muslim so whatever they do, Muslims feel it’s against them.”

Imran Nabi Dar, spokesperson of Kashmir’s oldest political party, National Conference, urged the government to provide an explanation.

“The government needs to come out with clarification. What is the intent behind it?” Dar told Arab News.

“There is a serious attempt to hurt the sentiments of the majority community of Kashmir. There is an attempt to provoke the people,” he added.

Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, a senior leader and convenor of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration — a political alliance between several regional parties in Jammu and Kashmir campaigning to restore its special autonomous status — stressed the importance of secular education in Kashmir.

“Any encroachment compromising the secular spirit of the constitution is dangerous,” Tarigami said. “Whatever is happening in Kashmir is part of the program to ‘Hindunize’ education and this will provoke and promote other varieties of extremism.”

Dr. Hina Bhat, a local leader and spokesperson for the BJP based in Srinagar, told Arab News the hymn is not controversial.

“What is controversial about the hymns?” Bhat asked. “They should stop politicizing the issue where kids are not allowed to grow in an open space.”

Kapil Kak, former Indian air marshal and member of the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, said “there should be no changes” in the patterns of prayers and school songs in Kashmir.

“The issue can turn into a potential trouble spot. Kashmiris have been very patient; they have gone through multiple types of assaults on their identity for the last three years but they have borne it.”