US says it will resume talks with Taliban next week 

Head of the Taliban delegation Abdul Salam Hanafi (R), accompanied by Taliban officials (2R to L) Muttaqi, Shahabuddin Delawar and Abdul Latif Mansour, walks down a hotel lobby in Qatar's capital Doha on August 12, 2021. (AFP/FILE)
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Updated 24 November 2021

US says it will resume talks with Taliban next week 

  • US special representative for Afghanistan met Taliban representatives two weeks ago in Pakistan
  • United States would continue to have dialogue with the Taliban and for now provide only humanitarian aid — Tom West

WASHINGTON: The United States will resume talks with the Taliban next week in Qatar, addressing among other issues the fight against terrorism and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
The American delegation will be led by the US special representative for Afghanistan, Tom West, for the planned two weeks of discussions, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday.
The two sides will discuss “our vital national interests,” which include counterterrorism operations against the Daesh group and Al-Qaeda, humanitarian assistance, Afghanistan’s devastated economy, and safe passage out of Afghanistan for US citizens and Afghans who worked for the United States during the 20 year war.
West met two weeks ago in Pakistan with representatives of the hard-line Islamist movement that seized power in August as US forces completed their withdrawal.
A first session between the two sides was held October 9-10 in the Qatari capital Doha, where US diplomats overseeing relations with Afghanistan transferred after the Taliban takeover.
West on Friday reiterated US conditions for the Taliban to receive US financial and diplomatic support: fight terrorism install an inclusive government, respect the rights of minorities, women and girls, and provide equal access to educations and employment.
He said the United States would continue to have dialogue with the Taliban and for now provide only humanitarian aid.
Amir Khan Muttaqi, foreign minister of the Taliban government, which is not recognized by the international community, called last week in an open letter to the US Congress for the release of Afghan assets frozen by the US.


US Secretary of State Blinken to visit Ukraine amid Russia invasion fears

Updated 4 sec ago

US Secretary of State Blinken to visit Ukraine amid Russia invasion fears

  • Top US official to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky and ‘reinforce the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’
WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will fly Tuesday to Ukraine in a show of support amid fears of a Russian invasion, the State Department said.
Blinken, who will meet Wednesday in Kyiv with President Volodymyr Zelensky, will “reinforce the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Blinken will also head Thursday to Berlin for four-way talks with Britain, France and Germany on the Ukraine crisis.
The four transatlantic powers will discuss “joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine, including allies’ and partners’ readiness to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia,” Price said in a statement.
Blinken’s trip “follows extensive diplomacy with our European allies and partners about a united approach to address the threat Russia poses to Ukraine and our joint efforts to encourage it to choose diplomacy and de-escalation in the interests of security and stability,” Price said.
It comes as Blinken’s German and French counterparts also visit Ukraine, following travel to the frontlines by top EU diplomat Josep Borrell.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Tuesday was also holding talks in Moscow in hopes of defusing the crisis.
Russia last year sent tens of thousands of troops to the borders with Ukraine, according to Western officials who fear a new invasion.
Russia denies plans to invade but has demanded security guarantees from the West, including promises that NATO will not be expanded to Ukraine.
The United States and its allies last week held extensive talks with Russia, including in a meeting of the two countries’ senior diplomats in Geneva.
Russia has publicly said that it is disappointed with the results, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying Tuesday that Moscow needs answers before continuing dialogue.
The United States says that Russian demands are non-starters and that Ukraine, where thousands have died in a pro-Russian insurgency launched in 2014, has the right to make its own decisions.
European allies are cautious about admitting Ukraine to the alliance for fear of angering Russia.
The United States has warned of major economic consequences and has voiced hope that Germany would sever the soon-to-open Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline if Russia invades.

Thailand to lower COVID-19 alert, ease curbs as infections slow

Updated 18 January 2022

Thailand to lower COVID-19 alert, ease curbs as infections slow

  • Among measures being considered are establishing more ‘sandbox’ areas for tourists
  • Thailand has recorded 2.3 million cases of COVID-19 and almost 22,000 deaths overall

BANGKOK: Thailand will lower its COVID-19 alert level and is considering easing more restrictions to boost its economy, its health minister said on Tuesday, in response to a slower infection rate.
Among measures being considered are establishing more “sandbox” areas for tourists, who can skip quarantine if they stay in specified areas for seven days and undergo two COVID-19 tests.
Nightclubs, pubs and bars will remained closed for now, however, Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul told reporters, adding the COVID-19 alert level will be lowered to 3, from 4, on the government’s 5-level system.
New Sandbox areas could include Chiang Mai, Chonburi, Khon Kaen and Samut Prakan provinces, he said.
The scheme, a calibrated move to rebuild Thailand’s decimated tourism sector, currently operates in Phuket, Phang Nga, Krabi and Koh Samui.
Anutin on Monday said he would propose the return of a ‘Test and Go’ scheme that allows free movement to tourists who pass one COVID-19 test on arrival.
Thailand has recorded 2.3 million cases of COVID-19 and almost 22,000 deaths overall. Nearly two-thirds of its residents are vaccinated and 13.5 percent have received boosters.


Hong Kong to cull 2,000 animals after hamsters get COVID-19

Updated 18 January 2022

Hong Kong to cull 2,000 animals after hamsters get COVID-19

  • Customers who bought hamsters in Hong Kong from Dec. 22 will also be subject to mandatory testing

HONG KONG: Hong Kong authorities said Tuesday that they will cull some 2,000 small animals, including hamsters after several of the rodents tested positive for the virus at a pet store where an infected employee was working.
The city will also stop the sale of hamsters and the import of small mammals, according to officials from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. The move came after the pet shop employee tested positive for the delta variant on Monday. Several hamsters imported from the Netherlands at the same store tested positive as well.
“If you own a hamster, you should keep your hamsters at home, do not take them out,” said department director Leung Siu-fai at a news conference.
“All pet owners should observe good personal hygiene, and after you have been in contact with animals and their food, you should wash your hands.”
“Do not kiss your pets,” he added.
Even though authorities acknowledged that there is “no evidence” that pets can transmit the coronavirus to humans, as a precautionary measure, customers who had purchased hamsters from the affected store after Jan. 7 will be traced and be subject to mandatory quarantine.
They must also hand over their hamsters to authorities to be put down.
Authorities said that all pet stores selling hamsters in Hong Kong must cease operations and that around 2,000 small mammals, including hamsters and chinchillas, will be culled in a humane manner.
Customers who bought hamsters in Hong Kong from Dec. 22 will also be subject to mandatory testing and are urged not to go into the community until their tests have returned negative. If their hamsters test positive, they will be subject to quarantine.
For now, authorities said they would not rule out transmission between human and animals.
Separately, Hong Kong police have arrested two former flight attendants for allegedly leaving their homes when they should have been in isolation for possible coronavirus infections, which were later confirmed.
The two arrived from the US on Dec. 24 and 25. While in medical surveillance, they had “conducted unnecessary activities,” according to a government statement posted late Monday.
While the statement did not name their employer, the arrests came after flagship carrier Cathay Pacific said it had fired two crew members for breaching coronavirus protocols. Both later tested positive for the omicron variant.
Cathay previously said the actions of the crew who had broken coronavirus protocols was “extremely disappointing” and apologized for the disruption. The company had to cut back on flights — both passenger and cargo — in January amid tightened virus curbs.
The duo have been released on bail and will have their case heard in court on Feb. 9. If convicted of violating anti-epidemic regulations, they could face up to 6 months imprisonment and a fine of up to 5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($642).
Hong Kong has been grappling with a local omicron outbreak traced to several Cathay Pacific crew members who had dined at bars and restaurants across the city before later testing positive for the omicron variant.
Previously in Hong Kong, certain air and sea crew members could isolate at home under certain quarantine exemptions. Regulations tightened Dec. 31 require crew members to isolate in a designated quarantine hotel for about a week to safeguard public health.


Rescuers search for survivors after deadly Afghan quake

Updated 18 January 2022

Rescuers search for survivors after deadly Afghan quake

  • Images circulating on social media showed residents, including children, searching through the rubble of collapsed homes

HERAT: Rescuers searched Tuesday for survivors of a powerful earthquake in a remote western region of Afghanistan that killed at least 22 people and caused “massive” damage to buildings, officials said.
Monday afternoon’s shallow 5.3-magnitude quake jolted Qadis district in Badghis province, a rural area not easily accessible by road.
“The earthquake caused massive damage to houses, about 700 to 1,000 have been damaged,” Badghis provincial spokesman Baz Mohammad Sarwary said in a video message.
Afghanistan is already in the grip of a humanitarian disaster, worsened by the Taliban takeover of the country in August when Western countries froze international aid and access to assets held abroad.
Sarwary said 22 people were killed and four were injured, revising the death toll from the previous figure of 26 he gave to AFP late Monday.
“There is the possibility that the casualties could increase,” he said in his latest video message.
Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed the toll.
Images circulating on social media showed residents, including children, searching through the rubble of collapsed homes.
Government officials said rescue workers were helping search for survivors and transferring the injured to local hospitals.
A Taliban team was in the area assisting in the relief work.
Mujahid said that all government agencies had been instructed to provide the food, medical aid and shelter to those affected.
“We also call on international aid agencies and humanitarian agencies to assist the victims of the disaster,” he said in a statement posted on Twitter.
The epicenter of the quake was near the city of Qala-i-Naw, the capital of Badghis, less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Turkmenistan border, according to the United States Geological Survey.
The United Nations has said it needs $5 billion in 2022 to avert the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan.
A devastating drought has compounded the crisis, with earthquake-hit Qadis one of the worst affected areas.
Afghanistan is frequently hit by earthquakes, especially in the Hindu Kush mountain range, which lies near the junction of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates.
Even weak earthquakes can cause significant damage to poorly built homes and buildings in the impoverished country.
In 2015, more than 380 people were killed in Pakistan and Afghanistan when a powerful 7.5-magnitude earthquake ripped across the two countries, with the bulk of the deaths in Pakistan.
In that disaster, 12 young Afghan girls were crushed to death in a stampede as they tried to flee their shaking school building.


Vladimir Putin to host Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on Wednesday

Updated 18 January 2022

Vladimir Putin to host Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on Wednesday

  • Meeting will be Ebrahim Raisi’s most important official visit abroad since he took office in August

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin will host his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on Wednesday, the Kremlin said, amid talks aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal.
The meeting will be Raisi’s most important official visit abroad since he took office in August, and the first visit by an Iranian president to Russia since 2017.
The leaders will discuss the “whole range of issues of bilateral cooperation,” including the 2015 deal that offered Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, the Kremlin said in a statement.
In 2018, Washington announced its unilateral withdrawal from the agreement under former president Donald Trump, prompting Iran to walk back on its commitments.
Since last year, Iran has been in talks with the signatories of the accord — the United States, France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany — to restore the deal, but negotiations stopped in June after Raisi’s election.
They resumed in November.
Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this month noted “real progress” in the talks.
Moscow and Tehran have strong political, economic and military ties, shared interests in Afghanistan, and are key allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s decade-long civil war.