Taliban aim to boost Afghan security forces, anti-aircraft capacity — army chief

Taliban security personnel stand guard along a street to remove the window tint films from the cars of the commuters at a checkpoint in Fayzabad district of Badakhshan province on April 4, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 12 April 2023
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Taliban aim to boost Afghan security forces, anti-aircraft capacity — army chief

  • Defence forces now numbering 150,000 to be increased by 50,000, says Taliban commander
  • Says major defence focus was securing Afghan airspace against drones and other incursions

KABUL: Defence has received the largest share of funds in Afghanistan's budget as the Taliban government aims to boost forces by a third and build anti-aircraft missile capacity, the army chief told Reuters in a rare interview to foreign media.
The defence ambitions of the Taliban, which took over in 2021, come in the face of strong international criticism of its policies, such as restrictions on work and education for women, that have hampered steps towards diplomatic recognition.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Qari Fasihuddin Fitrat, a Taliban commander from the northern region of Badakhshan and the chief of army staff, condemned incursions by foreign drones into Afghan airspace.
Defence forces now numbering 150,000 are targeted to be increased by 50,000, he said, speaking in his office in the highly fortified defence ministry in Kabul, the capital, although he did not reveal the precise figure of the funds.
"The ministry of defence is the top-ranked in the budget," he said, adding that it received a significantly higher sum than other ministries, as it was a priority in the budget, which is largely funded by boosted tax and customs revenue.
Since their takeover, the Taliban have spent 1-1/2 years building a civilian administration and a national military out of an insurgent force that fought a 20-year war against foreign forces and the previous U.S.-backed Afghan government.
No foreign nation has formally recognized the government, which is battling economic headwinds following sanctions on the banking sector and the cutoff of all development aid.
Fitrat said a major defence focus was securing Afghan airspace against drones and other incursions.
"Anti-aircraft missiles are the need of countries," he said, adding that all nations sought developed weapons to ensure the integrity of their territory and airspace, a problem Afghanistan also faced.
"There is no doubt that Afghanistan is trying, and doing its best, to have it."
But Fitrat declined to elaborate on where authorities were looking to procure anti-aircraft missiles from.
He also stopped short of naming Pakistan, against which the Taliban administration has regularly protested, accusing its neighbour of allowing drones to enter Afghanistan.
"We are doing our best to find a solution for the protection of our airspace. We will work on it by using all our capability," Fitrat added.
"From where we will obtain it is confidential, but we should have it."
Pakistan's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Pakistan officials have not confirmed whether its airspace is used for drone access to Afghanistan.
"We have always tried, and will try, to solve the issue using diplomatic ways, and we have done our best to be patient regarding these cases," Fitrat said, but sounded a note of caution.
"Neighbouring countries should not let our patience be exhausted."
Ties between the neighbours have occasionally been tense as as Pakistan has accused the Taliban administration of allowing Afghan territory to be used as a haven for militant groups.
Among these is the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), which has stepped up attacks in Pakistan in recent months.
The Taliban administration denies allowing its territory to be used for attacks on others, however.
There have been border clashes between the forces of both, and analysts say that in the event of conflict escalating, Pakistan's airforce would give it a strong edge.
Fitrat said former security personnel, who form a significant share of Afghanistan's forces, were being paid and treated in the same way as Taliban fighters.
The comments follow concern voiced by international rights groups and the United Nations that some former members of Afghan security forces members were targeted or killed.
While the Taliban have declared a general amnesty for former combatants, saying they would investigate cases of wrongdoing, they have not detailed legal action regarding alleged extrajudicial targeting.
 


Germany to send new frigate to protect ships in the Red Sea

Germany will send a new frigate to the Red Sea in August. (AFP file photo)
Updated 4 sec ago
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Germany to send new frigate to protect ships in the Red Sea

  • The Houthis said on Thursday they had attacked almost 100 vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in months of strikes
  • Leading shipping industry associations appeal to UN to protect vessels after Iran seizure

BERLIN: Germany said on Saturday it will send a new frigate to the Red Sea in August to help secure maritime traffic, which has been disrupted for months due to Houthi attacks.

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said the “Hamburg” will replace the “Hessen,” which left the zone on Saturday.
The “Hessen” had been deployed in the area on Feb. 23 as part of the EU’s “Aspides” mission to protect ships.
The statement said the “Hamburg” had escorted 27 merchant ships in the intervention zone and had, on four occasions, repulsed drone and missile attacks by the Houthis.
It had around 240 military personnel on board.

BACKGROUND

Houthi attacks in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea have been met with retaliatory strikes by US and British forces since January.

The Houthis said on Thursday they had attacked almost 100 vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in months of strikes.
They began attacking ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea in November, a campaign they say is intended as a show of support for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
The attacks on the vital trade route have been met with retaliatory strikes by US and British forces since January.
The US set up a multinational task force late last year to “protect” Red Sea shipping.
Recent Houthi attacks on merchant shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have also affected the global maritime transport chain.
Merchant ships and seafarers are increasingly in peril at sea as attacks escalate in the Middle East, the industry said in a letter released on Friday. It said the UN must do more to protect supply chains.
In a letter sent to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the world’s leading shipping industry associations said Iran’s seizure on April 13 of the MSC Aries container ship 50 nautical miles off the UAE coast “once again highlighted the intolerable situation where shipping has become a target.”
“Innocent seafarers have been killed. Seafarers are being held hostage,” the letter said.
“The world would be outraged if four airliners were seized and held hostage with innocent souls onboard. Regrettably, there does not seem to be the same response or concern (for ships and their crew members).”
India’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that an Indian woman who was a mariner on the MSC Aries had returned to the country.
It added that it was in touch with the other 16 Indian crew members still being held aboard the vessel.
The industry letter said: “Seafarers and the maritime sector are neutral and must not be politicized.”
The letter added: “Given the continually evolving and severe threat profile within the area, we call on you for enhanced coordinated military presence, missions, and patrols in the region to protect our seafarers against any further possible aggression.”
Iran has also seized other vessels in international waters in recent years, heightening risks for merchant shipping in the area.

 


Mediterranean ministers urge EU to ‘deepen’ ties to tackle migration roots

Updated 5 min 30 sec ago
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Mediterranean ministers urge EU to ‘deepen’ ties to tackle migration roots

MADRID: Ministers from five Mediterranean nations have urged the EU to “deepen” bilateral agreements with migrant countries of origin and increase funding to tackle the root causes of migration.
During the Gran Canaria Island meeting, ministers of interior and migration from the MED5 nations — Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain — discussed the new migration and asylum pact adopted by the EU Parliament on April 11.
Years in the making, the deal involves a sweeping reform of the bloc’s asylum policies that will harden border procedures while forcing all 27 nations to share responsibility for migrant arrivals.

FASTFACT

The new EU pact includes building border centers to hold asylum-seekers and sending some to outside ‘safe’ countries.

The reform was spurred by the massive influx of migrants in 2015, with its provisions taking effect in 2026.
Hailing the pact as “historic,” Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said there was “still a long way to go” and that the solution lay in “prevention” and addressing the root causes of migration “at its source.”
“The key to migration management lies in bilateral cooperation,” he told a news conference, urging the European Commission “to deepen and broaden partnerships and agreements with third countries” to stem flows of irregular migrants.
“But we believe there is room for improvement, and the commitment should also focus on increasing European funds and flexible financing tools destined for such cooperation,” he said.
Under current EU rules, the arrival country bears responsibility for hosting and vetting asylum-seekers and returning those deemed inadmissible, which has put southern frontline states under huge pressure, fueling far-right opposition.
The new EU pact, which includes building border centers to hold asylum-seekers and sending some to outside “safe” countries, has been denounced by migrant charities and NGOs, with Amnesty International warning it would “lead to greater human suffering.”

 


Blinken will be the latest top US official to visit China in a bid to keep ties on an even keel

Updated 20 April 2024
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Blinken will be the latest top US official to visit China in a bid to keep ties on an even keel

  • The United States and China also are battling over trade and commerce issues, with President Joe Biden announcing new tariffs on imports of Chinese steel this past week
  • Talks between Blinken and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected, although neither side will confirm such a meeting is happening until shortly before it takes place

WASHINGTON: Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to China this coming week as Washington and Beijing try to keep ties on an even keel despite major differences on issues from the path to peace in the Middle East to the supply of synthetic opioids that have heightened fears over global stability.
The rivals are at odds on numerous fronts, including Russia’s war in Ukraine, Taiwan and the South China Sea, North Korea, Hong Kong, human rights and the detention of American citizens. The United States and China also are battling over trade and commerce issues, with President Joe Biden announcing new tariffs on imports of Chinese steel this past week.
The State Department said Saturday that Blinken, on his second visit to China in less than a year, will travel to Shanghai and Beijing starting Wednesday for three days of meetings with senior Chinese officials, including Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Talks between Blinken and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected, although neither side will confirm such a meeting is happening until shortly before it takes place.
The department said in a statement that Blinken would “discuss a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues,” including the Middle East, the war in Ukraine, the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
He will also talk about progress made in “resuming counternarcotics cooperation, military-to-military communication, artificial intelligence, and strengthening people-to-people ties” and will reaffirm how important it is for the US and China to be “responsibly managing competition, even in areas where our two countries disagree,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.
The trip follows a phone call this month between Biden and Xi in which they pledged to keep high-level contacts open, something they had agreed to last year at a face-to-face summit in California. Since that call, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has visited China and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has spoken by phone with his Chinese counterpart. Meetings at lower levels also have taken place.
Despite those encounters, relations are rocky. The US has recently become more vocal in its calls for China to stop supporting Russia’s military-industrial sector, which Washington says has allowed Moscow to boost weapons production to support the war against Ukraine.
“We see China sharing machine tools, semiconductors, other dual-use items that have helped Russia rebuild the defense industrial base that sanctions and export controls had done so much to degrade,” Blinken said Friday. “Now, if China purports on the one hand to want good relations with Europe and other countries, it can’t on the other hand be fueling what is the biggest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War.”
Blinken also has pushed for China to take a more active stance in pressing Iran not to escalate tensions in the Middle East. He has spoken to his Chinese counterpart several times since the Israel-Hamas war began six months ago as he has sought China’s help in getting Iran to restrain proxy groups it has supported, armed and funded in the region.
That topic has taken on new urgency since direct back-and-forth attacks by Iran and Israel on each other’s soil in the past week.
Also high on the agenda for Blinken will be Taiwan and the South China Sea.
The US has strongly condemned Chinese military exercises threatening Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province and vowed to reunify with the mainland by force if necessary. Successive US administrations have steadily ramped up military support and sales for Taipei, much to the anger of Chinese officials.
In the South China Sea, the US and others have become increasingly concerned by provocative Chinese actions in and around disputed areas. In particular, the US has voiced objections to what it says are Chinese attempts to thwart legitimate activities by others in the waterway, notably the Philippines and Vietnam.
That was a major topic of concern earlier this month when Biden held a three-way summit with the prime minister of Japan and the president of the Philippines.


London police apologize after threatening to arrest ‘openly Jewish’ man near pro-Palestinian protest

Updated 20 April 2024
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London police apologize after threatening to arrest ‘openly Jewish’ man near pro-Palestinian protest

  • London’s Metropolitan Police Service on Friday afternoon apologized for the language the officer used in describing Falter’s appearance
  • “In an effort to make a point about the policing of protest we caused further offense,” the force said

LONDON: London’s police force has been forced to issue two apologies after officers threatened to arrest an “openly Jewish” man if he refused to leave the area around a pro-Palestinian march because his presence risked provoking the demonstrators.
Gideon Falter, chief executive of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, was wearing a traditional Jewish skullcap when he was stopped by police while trying to cross a street in central London as demonstrators filed past on April 13.
One officer told Falter he was worried that the man’s “quite openly Jewish” appearance could provoke a reaction from the protesters, according to video posted by the campaign group. A second officer then told Falter he would be arrested if he refused to be escorted out of the area because he was “causing a breach of the peace.”
London’s Metropolitan Police Service on Friday afternoon apologized for the language the officer used in describing Falter’s appearance, but said counter demonstrators had to be aware “that their presence is provocative.”
The Met later deleted that apology from its social media accounts and issued a second statement.


“In an effort to make a point about the policing of protest we caused further offense,” the force said. “This was never our intention. We have removed that statement and we apologize.”
“Being Jewish is not a provocation. Jewish Londoners must be able to feel safe in the city.”
The episode highlights the challenges London police face amid the boiling tensions surrounding the war in Gaza, with some Jewish residents saying they feel threatened by repeated pro-Palestinian marches through the streets of the British capital.
While the marches have been largely peaceful, many demonstrators accuse Israel of genocide and a small number have shown support for Hamas, the group that led the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and which has been banned by the British government as a terrorist organization.
The Met has deployed thousands of officers during each of the dozen major marches as it sought to protect the rights of the pro-Palestinian protesters and prevent clashes with counter-demonstrators and Jewish residents.
Following Falter’s confrontation with police, the Campaign Against Antisemitism issued a call for Londoners to exercise their right to walk wherever they choose on April 27, when another pro-Palestinian march is scheduled.
In response, the Met emailed Falter about what it described as his intention to “protest” next week and offered to meet with him to discuss ways to “ensure we can police the event as safely as possible,” according an exchange of correspondence released by the campaign group.
Falter rejected the idea that he was staging a protest, saying he was planning to go for a walk as a “private individual” and others might choose to join him.
“Unfortunately @MetPoliceUK is missing the point,” he said on the social media site X. “This is not a protest or counterprotest. Anyone who wishes to walk around London on Saturday 27th April … is free to do so. Even if they are ‘quite openly Jewish.’”


Denmark airport reopens after bomb threat, man arrested

Updated 18 min 51 sec ago
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Denmark airport reopens after bomb threat, man arrested

  • Police arrested a man in his thirties and removed an object “likely to contain explosives“
  • The airport reopened at 7:00 pm

STOCKHOLM: Denmark’s second largest airport reopened late Saturday after a man was arrested in connection with a bomb threat that forced its evacuation, police said.
During the search in Billund airport in central Denmark, police arrested a man in his thirties and removed an object “likely to contain explosives.”
Chemical tests will be carried out for confirmation.
Danish police arrested the man after he “himself informed the police at the airport that the object he had dropped off contained explosives,” they said in a statement.
The airport reopened at 7:00 p.m. (0500 GMT), but several flights were canceled or delayed during its closure.
Police are also investigating whether there is a link between this bomb threat and the bombing of an ATM in Billund at around 4:00 am on Saturday.
Billund airport is near the headquarters of the manufacturer of Lego toy bricks and the Legoland theme park.