Somali forces end 30-hour hotel siege, 106 hostages freed

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Security forces patrol near the Hayat Hotel after an attack by Al-Shabaab fighters in Mogadishu on August 20, 2022. (AFP)
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Al-Shabab fighters were driven out of the capital in 2011 by an African Union force, but the group still controls swathes of countryside. (AFP/File)
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Updated 21 August 2022

Somali forces end 30-hour hotel siege, 106 hostages freed

  • At least 12 people, mostly civilians, were killed as Somalia’s elite armed forces battled Al-Qaeda-linked militants
  • Dozens of hostages were freed during the course of the siege

MOGADISHU: Somali forces have ended a siege at a hotel in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, police and the military said on Sunday, adding that they had rescued 106 hostages including women and children.
At least 12 people, mostly civilians, were killed as Somalia’s elite armed forces battled Al-Qaeda-linked militants for 30 hours after they blasted and shot their way into the Hayat Hotel on Friday evening.
Dozens of hostages were freed during the course of the siege, a senior police commander told Reuters, without providing more details.
Another official had earlier told Reuters that mop-up operations were still going on at the building, which suffered extensive damage.
“We are still investigating the explosions of many plastic bags that have been scattered around the hotel,” said Mohamed Ali, a military officer at the scene.
The French news agency Agence France-Presse earlier reported that all the gunmen had been killed, citing a security commander.
Friday’s attack was the first such major incident since President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took office in May.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab group claimed responsibility for the attack.
Al Shabab has been fighting to topple the Somali government for more than a decade. It wants to establish its own rule based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
The Hayat is a hotel popular with lawmakers and other government officials. 


US vice president Kamala Harris caps Asia trip with stop at DMZ dividing Koreas

Updated 17 sec ago

US vice president Kamala Harris caps Asia trip with stop at DMZ dividing Koreas

  • The visit comes on the heels of North Korea’s latest missile launches
  • At the DMZ, Harris went to the top of a ridge, near guard towers and security cameras
PANMUNJOM, Korea: US Vice President Kamala Harris capped her four-day trip to Asia with a stop Thursday at the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Korean Peninsula as she emphasized US commitment to the security of its Asian allies in the face of an increasingly aggressive North Korea.
The visit comes on the heels of North Korea’s latest missile launches and amid fears that the country may conduct a nuclear test. Visiting the DMZ has become something of a ritual for American leaders hoping to show their resolve to stand firm against aggression.
North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles on Wednesday, while Harris was in Japan, and had fired one before she left Washington on Sunday. The launches contribute to a record level of missile testing this year that is intended to move Pyongyang closer to being acknowledged as a full-fledged nuclear power.
At the DMZ, Harris went to the top of a ridge, near guard towers and security cameras. She looked through bulky binoculars as a South Korean colonel pointed out military installations on the southern side. Then an American colonel pointed out some of the defenses along the military demarcation line, including fence topped with barbed wire and claymore mines. He said American soldiers regularly walk patrols along a path.
“It’s so close,” Harris said.
Her tour visit to the observation post came after she met US service members and some of their relatives at the Camp Bonifas Dining Facility, where she said she wanted them to know “how grateful and thankful we are.”
“I know it’s not always easy. Most of the time it’s not,” she said.
She asked a soldier from Florida on whether he checked in on his family after Hurricane Ian.
“Yeah, they’re up on a hill,” he said.
When another soldier stammered nervously while introducing himself, Harris said, “You know your name!”
“They’re going to give you such a hard time when this is over,” she joked.
Earlier, Harris met with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at his office in Seoul where they condemned North Korea’s intensifying weapons tests and reaffirmed the US commitment to defend the South with a full range of its military capabilities in the event of war, Yoon’s office said.
They expressed concern over North Korea’s threats of nuclear conflict and pledged an unspecified stronger response to major North Korean provocations, including a nuclear test, which South Korean officials say could possibly take place in coming months.
Harris and Yoon were also expected to discuss expanding economic and technology partnerships and repairing recently strained ties between Seoul and Tokyo to strengthen their trilateral cooperation with Washington in the region.
Harris’ trip was organized so she could attend the state funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but her itinerary was dominated by security concerns, a reflection of fears about China’s growing power and North Korea’s ramped-up testing activity.
In every meeting, Harris tried to lay to rest any fears that the United States was wavering in its commitment to protect its allies, describing American partnerships with South Korea and Japan as the “linchpin” and “cornerstone” of its defense strategy in Asia.
Yoon, who took office earlier this year, had anchored his election campaign with vows to deepen Seoul’s economic and security partnership with Washington to navigate challenges posed by the North Korean threat and address potential supply chain risks caused by the pandemic, the US-China rivalry and Russia’s war on Ukraine. But the alliance has been marked by tension recently.
South Koreans have expressed a sense of betrayal over a new law signed by President Joe Biden that prevents electric cars built outside of North America from being eligible for US government subsidies, undermining the competitiveness of automakers like Seoul-based Hyundai.
There are indications North Korea may up its weapons demonstrations soon as it refines its missiles and delivery systems and attempts to pressure Washington to accept the North as a nuclear power. South Korean officials said last week that they detected signs North Korea was preparing to test a ballistic missile system designed to be fired from submarines.
The US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was to train with South Korean and Japanese warships in waters near the Korean Peninsula on Friday in the countries’ first trilateral anti-submarine exercises since 2017 to counter North Korean submarine threats, South Korea’s navy said Thursday.
US and South Korean officials also say North Korea is possibly gearing up for its first nuclear test since 2017. That test could come after China holds its Communist Party convention the week of Oct. 16, but before the United States holds its midterm elections Nov. 8, according to South Korean lawmakers who attended a closed-door briefing from the National Intelligence Service.

Taliban fire into air to disperse women’s rally backing Iran protests

Updated 18 min 40 sec ago

Taliban fire into air to disperse women’s rally backing Iran protests

KABUL:  Taliban forces fired shots into the air on Thursday to disperse a women’s rally supporting protests in Iran over the death of a woman in the custody of morality police.
Deadly protests have erupted in neighboring Iran for the past two weeks, following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while detained by the Islamic republic’s morality police.
Chanting the same “Women, life, freedom” mantra used in Iran, about 25 Afghan women protested in front of Kabul’s Iranian embassy before being dispersed by Taliban forces firing in the air, an AFP correspondent reported.
Women protesters carried banners that read: “Iran has risen, now it’s our turn!” and “From Kabul to Iran, say no to dictatorship!“
Taliban forces swiftly snatched the banners and tore them in front of the protesters.
Defiant Afghan women’s rights activists have staged sporadic protests in Kabul and some other cities since the Taliban stormed back to power last August.
The protests, banned by the Taliban, contravene a slew of harsh restrictions imposed by the hard-line extremists on Afghan women.
The Taliban have forcefully dispersed women’s rallies in the past, warned journalists against covering them and detained activists helming organization efforts.
An organizer of Thursday’s protest, speaking anonymously, told AFP it was staged “to show our support and solidarity with the people of Iran and the women victims of the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
Since returning to power, the Taliban have banned secondary school education for girls and barred women from many government jobs.
Women have also been ordered to fully cover themselves in public, preferably with the all-encompassing burqa.
So far the Taliban have dismissed international calls to remove the curbs on women, especially the ban on secondary school education.
On Tuesday, a United Nations report denounced the “severe restrictions” and called for them to be reversed.
The international community has insisted that lifting controls on women’s rights is a key condition for recognizing the Taliban government, which no country has so far done.


Fourth leak found on Nord Stream pipelines, Swedish coast guard says

Updated 29 September 2022

Fourth leak found on Nord Stream pipelines, Swedish coast guard says

  • The two other holes are in the Danish exclusive economic zone
  • The EU suspects sabotage behind the gas leaks on the subsea Russian pipelines

OSLO: Sweden’s coast guard earlier this week discovered a fourth gas leak on the damaged Nord Stream pipelines, a coast guard spokesperson told newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.
“Two of these four are in Sweden’s exclusive economic zone,” coast guard spokesperson Jenny Larsson told the newspaper.
The two other holes are in the Danish exclusive economic zone.
The European Union suspects sabotage was behind the gas leaks on the subsea Russian pipelines to Europe and has promised a “robust” response to any intentional disruption of its energy infrastructure.


‘Living in the stone age’: Offline for 18 months in Indian-administered Kashmir

Updated 29 September 2022

‘Living in the stone age’: Offline for 18 months in Indian-administered Kashmir

  • India shut off the Internet at least 85 times last year in Indian-administered Kashmir, largely on security grounds
  • India is one of the few countries in the world to have codified rules in 2017 under which Internet can be shut

SRINAGAR, India: For editors at The Kashmir Walla, fact-checking a story used to involve a flurry of googling before press time. So when an 18-month Internet and phone shutdown began in the Himalayan region in 2019, they had to improvise.

“We used to leave blank spaces in news stories when we couldn’t verify certain facts. Every week, a team member would fly to Delhi and fill in the blanks,” said Yash Raj Sharma, an editor with the weekly magazine.

It was one of numerous headaches for journalists in Indian-administered Kashmir. Unable to use his mobile, Sharma, 25, recalled driving to a telephone booth at Srinagar airport to dictate an 800-word news story to a friend in Delhi.

“That incident will remain with me forever as a memory of working during the longest communication and Internet shutdown,” said Sharma, who also used to call friends in Delhi to ask them to read out and respond to his emails.

India revoked the special status of its portion of Kashmir, known as Jammu and Kashmir, on Aug. 5, 2019 in a bid to fully integrate its only Muslim-majority region with the rest of the country.

Anticipating major unrest, authorities imposed a communications blackout, cutting off phone and Internet connections.

The shutdown lasted until Feb. 5, 2021, when 4G mobile data services were reinstated in the region. Slow-speed Internet was restored a year earlier, but with limited access.

For older Kashmiris, it was a journey back in time to the pre-Internet days of their youth of letters and landlines.

For the young, it felt like “living in the stone age,” said Umer Maqbool, 25, who took out a bank loan to buy cameras and other equipment to set up a videography business in August 2019 — just as the shutdown began.

He got no bookings until the Internet was restored, and had to borrow from family and friends to make the loan payments.

“I had put all my hopes on the earnings from the business, but there was something else written in my destiny,” Maqbool, who supports a family-of-five, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

RECORD SHUTDOWNS

India shut off the Internet at least 106 times last year — the highest number of shutdowns globally for the fourth consecutive year, according to digital rights group Access Now, costing the economy an estimated $600 million.

Of these outages, at least 85 were in Jammu and Kashmir, largely on security grounds.

Elsewhere in the country, authorities have also shut off the Internet and mobile Internet during elections, protests, religious festivals and examinations.

It is “extremely easy” to suspend the Internet in India, as federal and state officers can do so “without any prior judicial authorization,” said Krishnesh Bapat, an associate litigation counsel at the non-profit Internet Freedom Foundation.

“The suspensions are justified as ‘strong decisions’ in response to protests or cheating in exams or other law and order issues ... despite the fact that there is little empirical evidence to suggest they lead to better law and order outcomes.”

India’s interior ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

LAWS FLOUTED

Internet shutdowns have become more sophisticated worldwide, lasting longer, harming people and the economy, and targeting vulnerable groups, according to Access Now, which recorded some 182 Internet shutdowns in 34 countries last year, up from 159 shutdowns in 29 nations the previous year.

India is one of the few countries in the world to have codified rules in 2017 under which the Internet can be shut.

And in 2020, the Supreme Court said that access to the Internet was a fundamental right, and that the indefinite shutdown of the Internet in Indian-administered Kashmir was illegal. It also said that all orders on Internet shutdowns must be made public.

Yet officials have continued to pull the plug — including in Indian-administered Kashmir — often without giving reasons, and the courts have rarely challenged the government, Bapat said.

“It is difficult to challenge the suspension of Internet services because by the time the aggrieved parties reach the courts, the Internet shutdown orders expire,” he said.

“But the legal challenges are needed because of the frequency with which the laws are flouted.”

In a significant shift earlier this year, the Calcutta high court struck down an order by the West Bengal state government suspending Internet services in several districts, aimed at stopping students from cheating in the exams.

In its judgment, the court said the order was “unreasoned” and did not show a public emergency.

FILL IN THE BLANKS

There have been more than 400 Internet outages in Kashmir over the past decade, and shutdowns have become more frequent in recent years, a tracker showed.

Kashmir has been at the heart of more than 70 years of animosity, since the partition of the British colony of India into the countries of Muslim Pakistan and Hindu-majority India.

The region is divided between India — which rules the Kashmir Valley and the Hindu-dominated region around Jammu city — and Pakistan, which controls a wedge of territory in the west, and China, which holds a thinly populated area in the north.

During the 2019 shutdown, Kashmiris waited in long lines to make calls from phone lines in government offices, police stations and other public places, or boarded crowded trains to travel to towns with Internet access.

With Internet speed restricted to 2G during much of the COVID-19 lockdowns, people struggled to work from home, attend online classes or even access health care information online.

It cost Indian-administered Kashmir tens of thousands of jobs as small and medium-sized businesses closed, according to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and took a heavy toll on young Kashmiris like Maleeha Sofi, 22.

The Monday that the shutdown began, she had planned to go to a college in Srinagar to check on the admission process.

She eventually joined the college eight months later, and struggled with her classmates through the outages that made it difficult to do course work and prepare for exams.

“We have now become used to Internet shutdowns. We know it can happen anytime, so we have learned that we should never rely on the Internet, and learned to live without it,” she said.

But others have run out of patience with the disruption to their studies.

Insha, 22, moved to Delhi four years ago for college.

“I couldn’t stay in a place where the Internet can get disrupted anytime — for days and even months,” she said.

“I didn’t see a future in Kashmir.”


Former Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi convicted again, Australian economist gets 3 years

Updated 29 September 2022

Former Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi convicted again, Australian economist gets 3 years

  • Suu Kyi received a three-year sentence after being tried and convicted under the secrets law
  • Australian economist Sean Turnell had served as an adviser to the former leader

BANGKOK: A court in military-ruled Myanmar convicted former leader Aung San Suu Kyi in another criminal case Thursday and sentenced Australian economist Sean Turnell to three years in prison for violating Myanmar’s official secrets act, a legal official said.
Suu Kyi received a three-year sentence after being tried and convicted with Turnell under the secrets law, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release information about the case.
Three members of her Cabinet were also found guilty, each receiving sentences of three years.
Turnell, an associate professor in economics at Sydney’s Macquarie University, had served as an adviser to Suu Kyi, who was detained in the capital Naypyitaw when her elected government was ousted by the army on Feb. 1, 2021.
He has been in detention for almost 20 months. He was arrested five days after the military takeover by security forces at a hotel in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, while waiting for a car to take him to the city’s international airport.
He had arrived back in Myanmar from Australia to take up a new position as a special consultant to Suu Kyi less than a month before he was detained. As director of the Myanmar Development Institute, he already had lived in Naypyitaw for several years.
The day after the military’s takeover, he posted a message on Twitter that he was: “Safe for now but heartbroken for what all this means for the people of Myanmar. The bravest, kindest people I know. They deserve so much better.”
He was charged along with Suu Kyi and the three former Cabinet ministers on the basis of documents seized from him. The exact details of their offense have not been made public, though state television said last year that Turnell had access to “secret state financial information” and had tried to flee the country.
Turnell and Suu Kyi denied the allegations when they testified in their defense at the trial in August.
Turnell was also charged with violating immigration law, but it was not immediately clear what sentence he received for that.
Myanmar’s colonial-era official secrets act criminalizes the possession, collection, recording, publishing, or sharing of state information that is “directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy.” The charge carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
All sessions of the trial, held in a purpose-built courtroom in Naypyitaw’s main prison, were closed to the media and the public. The defense lawyers were barred by a gag order from revealing details of the proceedings.
The same restrictions have applied to all of Suu Kyi’s trials.
The case that concluded Thursday is one of several faced by Suu Kyi and is widely seen as an effort to discredit her to prevent her return to politics.
She had already been sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment after being convicted of illegally importing and possessing walkie-talkies, violating coronavirus restrictions, sedition, election fraud and five corruption charges. The cases are widely seen as being concocted to keep the 77-year-old Suu Kyi from returning to active politics.
Suu Kyi is still being tried on seven counts under the country’s anti-corruption law, with each count punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a fine.
Defense lawyers are expected to file appeals in the secrets case in the coming days for Turnell, Suu Kyi and three former ministers: Soe Win and Kyaw Win, both former ministers for planning and finance, and Set Aung, a former deputy minister in the same ministry, the legal official said.
About half-a-dozen foreigners are known to have been arrested on political charges since the army takeover, and they generally have been deported after their convictions.
Australia has repeatedly demanded Turnell’s release. Last year, it suspended its defense cooperation with Myanmar and began redirecting humanitarian aid because of the military takeover and Turnell’s ongoing detention.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, when he visited Myanmar in January this year, asked for Turnell’s release in a meeting with the leader of ruling military council. Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing replied that he “would consider it positively.”
The UN Special Envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer said she conveyed a specific request from Australia for Turnell’s release when she met with Min Aung Hlaing in August. Myanmar’s government said the general replied that, should the Australian government take positive steps, “we will not need to take stern actions.”
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights monitoring organization, 15,683 people have been detained on political charges in Myanmar since the army takeover, with 12,540 of those remaining in detention. At least 2,324 civilians have been killed by security forces in the same period, the group says, though the number is thought to be far higher.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the takeover, which led to nationwide protests that the military government quashed with deadly force, triggering armed resistance that some UN experts now characterize as civil war.