The defence minister of Libya s Government of National Accord (GNA) said on Monday that the Tripoli-based government will maintain military and security relations with Turkey despite a ceasefire deal that was announced this week during talks in Geneva. On Twitter, Salaheddin Al-Namroush emphasized that the GNA will “enhance cooperation with Turkey as an ally and continue training programs that were received and will continue to be received by those enrolled in the GNA defence ministry s training institutes." “Attention must be given to security and military agreements in the meantime more than ever before, especially if the ceasefire is abided by and peace is established in Libya. Building a Libyan army on reliable foundations and a unifying, national doctrine that is based on youth is one of the most important gains of achieving peace in Libya,” he tweeted. Al-Namroush claimed that the ceasefire agreement signed during the Joint Military Commission talks held last week in Geneva does not include cancelling the 2019 military cooperation agreement between the GNA and Turkey. Last Friday in Geneva, parties to the Libyan conflict accepted a complete and permanent ceasefire. The agreement stipulates a return to camps by all armies and armed groups. They also agreed that foreign fighters and mercenaries must leave the North African state by 23 January. The UN-sponsored deal, moreover, states that military agreements with foreign governments must be stopped until a new government is established. Other measures that were agreed upon include the creation of a joint military committee and police operations room, opening land and air routes, ending hate speech, swapping detainees and rebuilding forces that will protect oil sites. The Geneva meetings represented a new round of UN-backed peace negotiations for Libya after those held in Egypt s Red Sea resort city of Hurghada and Morocco s coastal town of Bouznika, south of the capital Rabat in September. In Morocco, parties to the Libyan conflict agreed on the "criteria, transparent mechanisms, and objectives" for key power positions. Negotiations in Hurghada saw an agreement between the Libyan parties to work on the release of all prisoners, protect the North African state s oil and gas facilities and completely resume production and export activities. Talks in Geneva will be followed with meetings by the so-called Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in Tunisia in early November, which seeks to “generate consensus on a unified governance framework, and arrangements that will lead to the holding of national elections in the shortest possible timeframe in order to restore Libya s sovereignty and the democratic legitimacy of Libyan institutions.” The meetings will be both virtual— beginning on 26 October—and face-to-face amid the “ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and online in order to protect the health of the participants.” Libya has been divided between two authorities in Tripoli and Tobruk for six years. While the GNA is based in Tripoli, the capital, Khalifa Haftar s Libyan National Army (LNA) controls the east and is allied to the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. The LNA is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, and Russia; while the GNA is backed by Turkey, Qatar, and thousands of Syrian mercenaries. On 22 August, both parties to the conflict declared a ceasefire that ended fears about possible GNA aggression against the port city of Sirte, 370 kilometres east of the capital Tripoli and Jufra, which has a major military airbase. GNA head Al-Sarraj announced on Facebook that he "issued instructions to all military forces to immediately cease fire and combat operations in all Libyan territories." Speaker of the Libyan parliament in Tobruk Aguila Saleh also announced a ceasefire that was welcomed by world leaders. The two warring parties agreed to hold elections in March 2021.
KABUL (Reuters) – A suicide bombing at an education center in Afghanistan s capital Kabul killed 24 people including teenage students and wounded dozens more on Saturday, officials said. A Ministry of Interior spokesman, Tariq Arian, said security guards had identified a bomber who detonated explosives in the street outside the Kawsar-e Danish centre. Most of the victims were students aged between 15 and 26, according to the health ministry. Fifty-seven were injured in the attack, the interior ministry said. A Taliban spokesman on Twitter denied responsibility for the attack, which came at a sensitive time as teams representing the insurgents and the government meet in Qatar to seek a peace deal. Islamic State claimed responsibility in a statement on Telegram, without providing evidence. Family members gathered at a nearby hospital, searching for missing loved ones among bags containing the remains of those killed, laid out on the hospital floor, while outside orderlies wheeled injured patients on stretchers for treatment, a Reuters witness said. The attack, which was condemned by NATO and the Afghan government, took place in an area of west Kabul that is home to many from the country s Shia community, a religious minority in Afghanistan targeted in the past by groups such as Islamic State. Dozens of students died in the same area of Kabul in an attack on another education centre in 2018. A teacher at the Kawsar-e Danish center, who asked not to be named due to security concerns, said he and other teaching staff were in shock at the targeting of the institution which had provided tutoring to give thousands of children a pathway to higher education. “All the students were full of energy, belonging to poor families but hoping for a brighter future,” he said. The latest attack came on the back of heavy fighting in multiple provinces in recent weeks, which has displaced thousands of civilians. The U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad early on Sunday on Twitter called again for an immediate reduction in violence and an acceleration in the peace process, citing rising violence in the country in recent weeks including a finding by the human rights commission that an Afghan government airstrike had killed 12 children. “How much more can we endure, as individuals and as society? How many times can we rise?” asked Shaharzad Akbar, chair of Afghanistan s Independent Human Rights Commission on Twitter shortly after Saturday s attack, saying the targeting of civilians was a war crime.
BEIRUT (Reuters) – A year after Lebanon was rocked by huge protests against its entrenched ruling elite, politicians have picked the same prime minister who was pushed out then to lead it out of crisis now. Saad al-Hariri, a three-time prime minister and heir to a wealthy dynasty, has been Lebanon’s leading Sunni Muslim politician since the killing of his father in 2005. He stood down last year when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to rally against a political class that they accuse of milking the state for decades. At the time, Hariri said his efforts to seal agreement on badly needed reforms had hit a dead end, blocked by sectarian divisions and vested interests, and only the “big shock” of his resignation as prime minister could break the deadlock. Nationwide protests persisted, demanding the overthrow of a political class which demonstrators blame for pillaging the state and pushing it into crisis. “All of them means all of them,” they chanted. In the months that followed, a former academic and a diplomat both struggled to lead or even form technocrat governments to steer the country in a new direction. Almost exactly a year later, after escalating catastrophes including a banking crisis and currency crash, a dramatic rise in poverty and a huge explosion at Beirut’s port, Hariri says he is the “natural candidate” to lead Lebanon. On Thursday, he pledged to form a government of specialists “with a mission to enact economic and financial reforms” – reforms that President Emmanuel Macron of France, Lebanon’s former colonial power, set out for unlocking foreign aid. POLITICAL RIVALRIES But rifts that obstructed change during his last term in office look set to plague his efforts to form his fourth government. The two main Christian political blocs, the Free Patriotic Movement led by the president’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, and its rival the Lebanese Forces, refused to back his nomination. The heavily armed Shi’ite Hezbollah group did not name anyone but said it would work “positively” towards forming a government. Iran-backed Hezbollah and its political allies, including the Shi’ite Amal party and the FPM, won a majority of MPs in 2018 elections. Hariri’s career was built on the patronage of Gulf Arab states, the deployment of his family fortune – spending large amounts of it in Lebanon to finance a political network – and respect among many Lebanese for his father, Rafik al-Hariri. The early years of his political career were defined by his close alliance with Saudi Arabia and confrontations with the Lebanese allies of Syria and Iran, chief among them Hezbollah. A U.N.-backed court in August convicted a Hezbollah member in absentia of conspiring to kill his father Rafik, a former premier who was close to the West and Sunni Gulf allies and had been seen as a threat to Iranian and Syrian sway in Lebanon. Hezbollah denies any role in the 2005 bombing, and Saad al-Hariri has said he was seeking justice, not revenge for the killing. SAUDI TIES SUFFERED Hariri formed his first coalition government in 2009 after the anti-Syria and anti-Hezbollah coalition he led at the time won a parliamentary majority with Saudi backing. That “March 14” alliance gradually disintegrated in the years that followed. His cabinet was toppled in early 2011 when Hezbollah and its allies quit over tensions linked to the Rafik al-Hariri tribunal. In the ensuing few years, Saad remained mostly outside Lebanon on security grounds. As the war in neighbouring Syria escalated, Lebanon became gripped by tensions linked to the conflict. Hariri meanwhile suffered a financial blow from the collapse of his family’s construction business in Saudi Arabia, hitting the finances of his political network in Lebanon. Hariri made a series of political concessions in Lebanon that resulted in him eventually backing Hezbollah’s Christian ally Michel Aoun for the presidency. The deal saw Hariri become premier for a second time in 2016. He remained an opponent of Hezbollah but his focus was largely on Lebanon’s economic troubles. Hariri’s ties with Saudi Arabia, furious at Hezbollah’s expanding role in Lebanon, suffered. They hit a nadir in November 2017 when it was widely acknowledged that Riyadh had forced him to resign and held him in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia and Hariri publicly deny this, though Macron confirmed that Hariri was being held in Saudi Arabia.
Pope Francis has said that he thinks same-sex couples should be allowed to have "civil unions". He made the comments, which observers say are his clearest remarks yet on gay relationships, in a documentary directed by Evgeny Afineevsky. "Homosexual people have a right to be in a family," he said in the film, which premiered on Wednesday. "They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or made miserable over it. "What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered." He added that he "stood up for that", apparently referring to his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires when, although opposing same-sex marriages in law, he supported some legal protections for same-sex couples. Pope worried about gay clergy How Pope Francis became a movie star Pope tells gay abuse victim God loves you The film Francesco, about the life and work of Pope Francis, premiered as part of the Rome Film Festival. As well as the Pope s comments on civil unions, the film also shows him encouraging two gay men to attend church with their three children. Pope Francis s biographer, Austen Ivereigh, told the BBC he was "not surprised" by the latest comments. "This was his position as Archbishop of Buenos Aires," said Mr Ivereigh. "He was always opposed to marriage being for same-sex couples. But he believed the church should advocate for a civil union law for gay couples to give them legal protection." Under current Catholic doctrine, gay relationships are referred to as "deviant behaviour". In 2003, the Vatican s doctrinal body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that "respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions". Strong words but no sign of doctrinal change The remarks have set tongues wagging among Vatican-watchers - and they mark Francis s clearest support for the issue since becoming Pope. But is this really a fundamental change by the pontiff - or more an off-the-cuff statement by a leader of the Catholic Church who has been known to flirt with liberal sentiments in the past, only to fall back on traditional doctrine when push comes to shove? As archbishop of Buenos Aires before becoming Pope, he was a staunch opponent of gay marriage, which was legalised in Argentina in 2010, and instead advocated civil unions for homosexual couples. This is his first vocal backing as Pope - and will undoubtedly be welcomed by many on the more liberal wing of the church and criticised by the conservatives. But any significant doctrinal change on such an issue would typically be presented in a more formal way and after much internal debate. There is, for now, little sign that either is imminent. Presentational grey line What has he said about homosexuality in the past? The Pope s comments are the latest in a series of sentiments he s expressed about LGBT rights - voicing some support, but not a full endorsement. In 2013, in the book On Heaven and Earth, the Pope said that legally equating same-sex relationships to heterosexual marriages would be "an anthropological regression". He also said then that if same-sex couples were allowed to adopt, "there could be affected children... every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity". That same year, he reaffirmed the Church s position that homosexual acts were sin, but said homosexual orientation was not. "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?" he asked. In 2014 it was reported that Pope Francis had expressed support for civil unions for same-sex partners in an interview, but the Holy See s press office denied this. Then in 2018, Pope Francis said he was "worried" about homosexuality in the clergy, and that it was "a serious matter".
AMMAN/ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey is withdrawing troops from a military post in northwest Syria that was surrounded by Syrian government forces last year, but is consolidating its presence elsewhere in the region, sources familiar with the operation said on Monday. The observation post at Morek was one of a dozen set up by Turkish soldiers in 2018 under an ill-fated deal to calm fighting between Syrian government troops and Turkey-backed rebels controlling the northwestern Idlib region. Morek and several other Turkish posts were surrounded last year by advancing Syrian government forces. Ankara has kept them manned and re-supplied since then, while reinforcing the remaining rebel-held territory to hold back government forces and prevent millions of refugees streaming towards Turkey. Turkish officials have in the past ruled out pulling back from a single observation post, but the sources said there was no longer any military value in staying at Morek. “The dismantling of the base has begun,” a senior Syrian opposition figure close to Turkey told Reuters. The withdrawal from the exposed position would take several days, he said, describing it as part of Turkish efforts to “consolidate ceasefire lines” reached in a March agreement with Russia which halted the heaviest fighting in years around Idlib. Two other sources familiar with the operation, who asked not to be named, said the withdrawal started early on Monday. “The Turkish armed forces are not considering evacuating another observation post at this stage,” one of them said. Syrian rebels say Turkey retains between 10,000 and 15,000 troops in the pocket of northwest Syria, alongside rebel fighters backed by Ankara and jihadist forces it has committed to disarm and contain. Already home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Turkey is determined to prevent a further influx of people fleeing fighting. The United Nations says there are around four million people in north-west Syria, of which 2.7 million have been displaced during the nine-year-old conflict. Turkey has backed rebels who sought to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. But the Syrian president, supported by Russia and Iran, has driven back the rebel fighters who once threatened to encircle Damascus and are now confined to their small pocket in the northwest of the county.
A cabinet committee in charge of licensing churches operating without a permit has legalised the status of 45 churches and 55 service buildings since May, the cabinet s spokesman, Nader Saad, said. This brings the total number of churches and related service buildings legalised by the committee since its establishment in 2017 to 1,738, Saad added. The announcement came during a meeting headed by Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly and attended by a number of state officials, including Minister of Justice Omar Marwan and Minister of Local Development Mahmoud Shaarawy. The officials have reviewed the status of churches and related buildings which have submitted requests for legalisation since the committee s last meeting on 18 May, Saad said. In 2016, Egypt s parliament approved a long-awaited law regulating the building and renovation of churches. In 2017, the committee was established by the prime minister. The 10-member committee comprises one Christian representative, six government officials from several ministries, representatives from the national security apparatus, the intelligence apparatus, and the administrative control body. Egypt s Copts make up about 10-14 percent of the country s 100 million-plus population, according to unofficial statistics, with the vast majority of Christians in Egypt belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Lebanon s top Christian cleric urged Lebanese leaders to stop delaying talks on forming a government in a scathing Sunday sermon in which he blamed them for the country s financial crisis and political deadlock. Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, leader of the Maronite church, was speaking a day after demonstrators marched through Beirut to mark the first anniversary of a protest movement which erupted last October against corruption and mismanagement. In the year since, Lebanon s problems have been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and a devastating explosion in Beirut in August. "Take your hands off the government and liberate it. You are responsible for the crime of plunging the country into total paralysis in addition to the implications of the corona pandemic," the patriarch said in his sermon. His remarks came after two main Christian parties, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Lebanese Forces, said this week they would not back the nomination of former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to lead a new government to tackle the deep economic crisis, further complicating efforts to agree a new premier. "The responsibility and accountability is collective. Who among you officials has the leisure of time to delay consultations to form a government?" he said. "No one is innocent of Lebanon s (financial) bleeding." In another Sunday sermon, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Elias Audi also lambasted the political elite. "The number of ministries and the names of ministers and quotas is still more important (to politicians) than the fate of Lebanon and the Lebanese," he said. "Return to your conscience, leaders ... be humble and listen to the pain of your people." Hariri, who quit as prime minister last October in the face of the nationwide protests, has said he is ready to lead a government to implement reforms proposed by France as a way to unlock badly needed international aid. Parliamentary consultations to name a new prime minister were due to be held last Thursday, but President Michel Aoun postponed the discussions after receiving requests for a delay from some parliamentary blocs.
ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s military exports to its ally Azerbaijan have risen six-fold this year, with sales of drones and other military equipment rising to US$77 million last month alone before fighting broke out over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, according to exports data. The figures compiled by the Turkish Exporters’ Assembly, which groups more than 95,000 exporting companies in 61 sectors, show Azerbaijan bought US$123 million in defence and aviation equipment from Turkey in the first nine months of 2020. Most of the purchases of drones, rocket launchers, ammunition and other weapons arrived were after July, when border clashes between Armenian and Azeri forces prompted Turkey and Azerbaijan to conduct joint military exercises. Sales jumped from US$278,880 in the month of July to US$36 million in the month of August, and US$77.1 million in just September, the data showed. Military sales to Azerbaijan in the first nine months of 2019 totalled US$20.7 million. Fighting between Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces broke out on September 27 over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain enclave which is recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan but is governed and populated by ethnic Armenians. “Azerbaijan clearly turned to Turkey for help … and wasted no time realising that the threat would grow,” said Istanbul-based defence analyst Turan Oguz. “Ankara is very determined in providing Baku with its needs,” he said. “The strong defence cooperation between Azerbaijan and Turkey is getting stronger by the day.” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has backed Azerbaijan and said Armenians must withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh. Ankara, which wants a role in ceasefire talks, says it is not directly involved in the fighting. But Azeri officials have touted their use of Turkish armed drones, which have spearheaded Ankara’s military operations in Syria, Iraq and Libya. The surge in arms sales reflects Turkey’s growing cross-border influence in the region, and is one measure of how quickly Azerbaijan embraced Ankara before the flare-up of the decades-old conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. MILITARY MIGHT Asked about the data, a Turkish defence ministry representative referred to statements by Minister Hulusi Akar, who said late last month Turkey will support Azerbaijan “with all our means.” Russia has long been the chief weapons supplier to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, with which it has a defence pact. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told Reuters on Tuesday that only a change in Turkey’s stance could prompt Azeris to halt military action in Nagorno-Karabakh, but he gave no indication he saw any sign of a shift. In September, Azerbaijan jumped to the top of the list of Turkish arms buyers, followed by Oman and the United States with US$63 million each, the exports data shows. Authorities in Turkey say the country has become the world’s fourth largest drone producer since Erdogan increased domestic production to reduce reliance on Western arms. Oguz, the analyst, said drones being used in Nagorno-Karabakh included the Bayraktar TB2, produced by a company launched by Selcuk Bayraktar, an aerospace engineer who in 2016 married Erdogan’s daughter. Turkish-made smart ammunition is also apparent in battlefield videos released by Azerbaijan’s defence ministry, Oguz said.
BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon announced on Monday the names of its delegation that will hold indirect talks later this week with Israel over the disputed maritime border between the two countries. The announcement by President Michel Aoun’s office comes two weeks after Lebanon and Israel reached an agreement on a framework for the US-mediated talks. The talks are scheduled to begin Wednesday at the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force in the southern Lebanese border town of Naqoura. Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war. They each claim about 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea as within their own exclusive economic zones. Aoun’s office said the four-member Lebanese delegation will be headed by air force Brig. General Bassam Yassin. The three other members are navy Colonel Mazen Basbous, Lebanese oil official Wissam Chbat and border expert Najib Massihi. Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz will lead the Israeli delegation, according to Israeli officials. Lebanese officials have made sure to send a team of experts to show that this week’s talks with Israel are purely technical and don’t mean any kind of normalization between the two countries. Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group said last week that the talks don’t mean reconciliation with Israel. A statement by Hezbollah’s bloc in parliament said last week that defining the border of “national sovereignty” is the job of the Lebanese state. The talks will see the Lebanese delegation speaking through UN and US officials to the Israelis. US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, the top American diplomat for the Middle East, will be in Lebanon ahead of the talks to attend the opening session, the State Department said. It added that Schenker will be joined by Ambassador John Desrocher, who will serve as the US mediator for these negotiations. The agreement to commence discussions on the maritime boundary “is a vital step forward that offers the potential to yield greater stability, security, and prosperity for Lebanese and Israeli citizens alike,” the State Department said in its statement Monday. The talks come as Lebanon is passing through the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history. Beirut hopes that oil and gas discoveries in its territorial waters will help it come out of the crisis. Lebanon began offshore drilling earlier this year and is expected to start drilling for gas in the disputed area with Israel in the coming months. Lebanon and Israel hold monthly tripartite indirect meetings in Naqoura to discuss violations along their border. The countries also held indirect negotiations in the 1990s when Arab states and Israel were working on reaching peace agreements. Although the Palestinians and Jordan signed agreements with Israel, Lebanon and Syria did not.
Twelve civilians were killed in volatile central Mali on Tuesday morning in addition to 12 soldiers who died in a twin attack that began overnight, police and humanitarian officials said. The group was travelling in a minibus following a military convoy sent to reinforce an army outpost which was attacked in the early hours of Tuesday, when it fell into an ambush, according to a police official. The civilians were on their way to a weekly market in Bankass, a town in central Mali s Mopti region, when the attack occurred. The police official said that two women and a baby were among the civilian dead. A humanitarian official working nearby confirmed the account. Three Malian soldiers were killed in the convoy ambush, the army said, offering a provisional tally. Nine soldiers were killed in the earlier outpost attack. Mali has been struggling to contain a jihadist insurgency that first emerged in the north of the country in 2012, and which has since spread to the centre of the country and neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed in the fighting to date, and hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes. In Mali, the centre of the vast country has become the epicentre of the violence, with jihadist attacks and ethnic violence commonplace. Anger at the brutal conflict contributed to protests against president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita this year, which culminated in his ouster in a military coup on August 18.
Turkey s move to carry out a seismic survey in the eastern Mediterranean south of Greek island Kastellorizo is a major escalation of tensions, threatening peace and security in the area, Greece s foreign ministry said on Monday. Late on Sunday Turkey s navy issued an advisory, saying the Oruc Reis ship would conduct a seismic survey in the eastern Mediterranean over the next 10 days. "The new Turkish NAVTEX on surveys south of Kastellorizo within the Greek continental shelf, at a distance of just 6.5 nautical miles from Greek shores, is a major escalation," Greece s foreign ministry said. Coming a few days after a meeting of Greek and Turkish foreign ministers, where Turkey committed on proposing a date for exploratory talks, the move showed Turkey is "unreliable" and "does not really truly want a dialogue," it said. "We call on Turkey to recall its decision," NATO ally Greece said. The foreign ministers of Turkey and Greece met last week and agreed to hold bilateral talks on the disputes. According to Turkey s maritime notice, two other vessels, the Ataman and Cengiz Han along with the Oruc Reis exploration ship, will continue works in an area including the south of Kastellorizo until Oct. 22. Last month, Ankara withdrew Oruc Reis from contested waters to "allow for diplomacy" ahead of a European Union summit. After the summit the bloc said it would punish Turkey if it continued its operations in the region, in a move Ankara said further strained Turkey-EU ties.
At least five Malian villagers have been killed by suspected jihadists in the centre of the country where attacks and ethnic clashes have been on the rise, witnesses and local officials said on Sunday. The attack followed the kidnapping by gunmen on Tuesday of around 20 people at a weekly market in the same village, Farabougou, near the central Malian town of Niono.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – All US troops in Afghanistan should be “home by Christmas,” President Donald Trump said on Wednesday, just hours after his national security adviser said Washington would reduce its forces in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year. A landmark deal between the United States and the Taliban in February said foreign forces would leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula with the Afghan government. Trump and other officials have said the United States will go down to between 4,000 and 5,000 troops in Afghanistan around November. Beyond that, officials have said that a reduction will depend on conditions in Afghanistan. On Twitter, Trump said: “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” It was unclear whether Trump was giving an order or verbalizing a long-held aspiration. Trump, who is seeking re-election next month, has made walking away from “ridiculous endless wars” the cornerstone of his foreign policy, even though thousands of troops remain in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The Taliban, fighting to expel foreign forces and re-establish their Islamic state since their ouster in 2001, welcomed Trump’s comments. The US president’s statement was “a positive step towards the implementation of the Doha agreement”, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem said in a statement, referring to the February pact signed in the Qatari capital. The US-backed Afghan government did not immediately respond to requests for comment but officials have warned against a hasty withdrawal of foreign forces. Trump’s comments could further weaken the Afghan government’s leverage during negotiations with the Taliban on a ceasefire and power-sharing taking place in Qatar. ‘HARD PROCESS’ Just hours before Trump’s tweet, national security adviser Robert O’Brien said the United States had less than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan currently and would go down to 2,500 by early next year. “Ultimately, the Afghans themselves are going to have to work out an accord, a peace agreement. … It’s going to be slow progress, it’s going to be hard progress, but we think it’s a necessary step – we think Americans need to come home,” O’Brien told an event at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The National Security Council and White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The White House’s plan for the drawdown will almost certainly be subject to review should Trump lose his bid for a second term in the November 3 election. Despite the agreement on the US troop withdrawal and the talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the war shows no sign of ending. Scores of Afghan soldiers and Taliban fighters have been killed in clashes in recent seeks. Dozens of civilians have also died. Testifying before a US House of Representatives committee last month, US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said that once the number of US. troops reached 4,500, the administration “would do an evaluation of ties and actions that we have taken and make decisions on that.” About 2,400 US service members have been killed in the Afghan conflict and many thousands more wounded. Wednesday also marks 19 years since the United States invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban rulers who had harbored al Qaeda militants who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Reporting by Idrees Ali, David Brunnstrom and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay and Andrea Shalal, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Editing by Peter Cooney, Robert Birsel FILE POTO: US President Donald Trump poses on the Truman Balcony of the White House after returning from being hospitalized at Walter Reed Medical Center for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) treatment, in Washington, US October 5, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott
BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun has called for binding consultations with members of parliament next week to name a new prime minister, his office said Wednesday. The announcement comes two weeks after the latest prime minister-designate resigned amid a political impasse over the formation of a new government. Mustafa Adib’s resignation on September 26, dealt a blow to French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to break a dangerous stalemate in this crisis-hit Mideast country. The consultations are set for October 15. Adib’s resignation nearly a month after he was appointed to the job came at a time when Lebanon is going through a severe economic and financial crisis, made worse by the spread of the coronavirus, and desperately needs international assistance. The crisis has been amplified by the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port in August that killed 194 people, wounded about 6,500 and caused billions of dollars in damage. After Adib’s resignation, Macron accused Lebanon’s political class of “collective betrayal” and choosing “to favor their partisan and individual interests to the general detriment of the country.” Lebanon’s two main Shiite parties — the militant Hezbollah and its ally Amal led by parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri — had insisted on retaining the finance ministry in the new government and on naming all the Shiite Cabinet ministers. Adib, Lebanon’s ambassador to Germany, rejected those conditions and stepped down. Macron has been pressing Lebanese politicians to form a Cabinet made up of non-partisan specialists that can work on urgent reforms to extract Lebanon from the financial crisis. Macron has traveled twice to Beirut since the Beirut port explosion and has made it a personal mission to try to repair the damaged country, raising resentment from some who see it as a neo-colonial foray. Outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned six days after the Beirut blast on Aug. 4, when nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrates, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, exploded at Beirut’s port. The material had been stored at the facility for six years. What ignited the nitrates remains unknown. More than two dozen people, mostly port and customs officials, have been detained so far. The judge in charge of the investigation has questioned top security officials, former Cabinet ministers and port employees. It was not clear if Lebanon’s political groups have agreed on the future premier but former Prime Minister Najib Mikati has reportedly put forward a proposal for a 20-member Cabinet consisting of 14 experts and six politicians. The international community has said it will not help Lebanon financially before wide reforms in the tiny country are implemented to fight widespread corruption and mismanagement. By BASSEM MROUE A Lebanese army soldier passes in front of an anti-government protester holding a national flag and blocking a main highway that links Beirut with north Lebanon during a protest against rising prices and worsening economic and financial conditions, in Zalka, north of Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, October 5, 2020. Lebanon is passing through its worst economic and financial crisis in decades made worse by the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan of being the main instigator of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, speaking in an interview with Russia s RIA news agency published on Tuesday. The fighting between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenians over the region began on Sept. 27 and has escalated to its deadliest level since the 1990s. The fighting has increased international concern that other regional powers could be dragged into the conflict - Turkey has expressed solidarity with Azerbaijan while Armenia has a defence pact with Russia.
A car bomb on Tuesday killed 14 people, mostly civilians, in the Turkish-controlled town of Al-Bab in northern Syria, a war monitor said. The explosion near a bus station in the town also wounded at least 40 people, some of them seriously, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
An explosives-laden truck ignited Tuesday on a busy street in a northern Syrian town controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters, killing at least 18 people and wounding dozens, Syrian opposition activists reported. The blast in the town of al-Bab took place near a bus station where people often gather to travel from one region to another, according to the opposition s Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets.
KABUL (Reuters) – A suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden truck into a checkpoint in Afghanistan late on Wednesday killing 11 people, as peace talks between the government and Taliban militants in Qatar seemed to have no bearing on the violence at home. No group claimed responsibility for the attack in the southern province of Helmand though officials blamed the Taliban, who have a heavy presence in the area. The bomber rammed the truck into a post manned by pro-government militia members, said Omar Zwak, spokesman for the provincial governor. Seven soldiers and four civilians were killed, he said. In another attack late on Wednesday, a suicide bomber was killed and six civilians were wounded in a blast in the southeastern province of Khost, police said. There was no claim of responsibility. The talks between the government and the Taliban began in mid-September in Doha, the capital of Qatar, following a February deal between the militants and the United States that has cleared the way for US forces to withdraw from their longest war. But the talks between the Afghans have become bogged down on processes and procedures, diplomatic sources say. The Taliban political spokesman, Mohammad Naeem, told Reuters negotiators had not met for the last two days. He did not say why. US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the February agreement who has been trying to encourage the power-sharing talks between the Afghans, said on Wednesday he was heading to Doha to meet the negotiators. “The Afghan people and international community are watching closely and expect the negotiations to make progress toward producing a roadmap for Afghanistan s political future and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” he said on Twitter.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday accused the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah of maintaining a “secret arms depot” in a residential neighborhood of Beirut, warning it could cause another tragic explosion in the Lebanese capital. Hezbollah denied the allegations and invited international and local media to immediately visit the site, where they found a small factory housing heavy machinery but no weapons. In an address to the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu pointed to maps purportedly showing the missile depot s location next to a gas company and residential housing, not far from Beirut s international airport. He also showed what he said was a picture of the entrance to the depot. “Here s where the next explosion will take place, right here,” he said. “You ve got to act now, you ve got to protest this, because if this thing explodes, it s another tragedy,” Netanyahu said, addressing the Lebanese people. “You should tell them, Tear these depots down. ” Last month, a warehouse filled with nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut s port, killing nearly 200 people, wounding thousands and causing widespread destruction in the capital. The ammonium nitrate had been stored there for several years after being removed from an impounded cargo ship. No one has yet been held accountable for the blast, which appears to have been triggered by an accidental fire. Israel has long accused Hezbollah of storing weapons and maintaining military posts in civilian areas, especially in the southern suburbs of Beirut and southern Lebanon, both strongholds of support for the Iran-backed militant group. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah denied Netanyahu s allegations, insisting the group does not store missiles in civilian facilities. “Whoever wants to go can go now. If Hezbollah is storing missiles in this facility, then there is not enough time to remove them,” Nasrallah said in a televised address. “We don t store missiles at the port or near gas facilities. We know where to store missiles.” “We will allow media outlets to enter the facility so that the world knows that Netanyahu is lying,” he added. Dozens of reporters, including an Associated Press photographer, toured the small factory in the southern neighborhood of Jnah late Tuesday, where they saw large pieces of iron and steel, heavy machinery and oxygen canisters — but no missiles or weapons of any kind. Hezbollah spokesman Mohammed Afif, who led the tour, said the facility did not belong to the militant group. “You can see the missile and the missile factory behind you,” he said sarcastically. “We want to confirm again that all charges by the enemy are mere lies.” After Netanyahu s address, the Israeli military released detailed maps showing the site in Jnah and two other alleged missile depots it said were under residential apartment blocks. It described all three as precision-guided missile manufacturing sites. The military provided precise locations of what it called weapons sites but gave no other evidence and did not say how advanced the manufacturing program is. Israel has long warned that Hezbollah is seeking to manufacture precision-guided missiles or add guidance systems to its existing projectiles, something Israel insists is a red line that may require military action. Hezbollah is believed to have massively expanded its arsenal in the years since it fought Israel to a monthlong stalemate in 2006. Israel believes Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets and missiles capable of hitting virtually anywhere in Israel, but precision guidance would make them far more lethal. Netanyahu said another depot had exploded just a few days ago in the southern Lebanese village of Ain Qana, near the port city of Sidon. It is not clear what caused that explosion, which sent smoke billowing into the sky but did not cause any casualties. The Israeli prime minister usually uses his annual address to the United Nations to highlight Israel s concerns about archenemy Iran and its nuclear program. And he does it in a distinctive manner. In contrast to most leaders, who typically sit behind desks or stand at podiums, he often uses visual aids such as maps and diagrams to make his points. This year, talking about potential explosions, he delivered his speech against the backdrop of a Jerusalem street scene filled with intense oranges and yellows. This year, Netanyahu said the recent decision by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel showed that Israel and Arab countries “stand together in confronting the greatest enemy of peace in the Middle East — Iran.” Netanyahu claimed that Iran would have “enough enriched uranium in a few months for two nuclear bombs” after it recently began exceeding limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Iran began publicly exceeding those limits after President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran. Iran insists it has never sought nuclear weapons and that its atomic program is for civilian purposes. Netanyahu, a staunch opponent of the nuclear deal, praised Trump s decision to withdraw from it and called on the world to follow the US in snapping back sanctions. He also reiterated his willingness to negotiate peace with the Palestinians on the basis of Trump s proposal to end the conflict, which overwhelmingly favors Israel and has been rejected by the Palestinians.
BAGHDAD (AP) — Five Iraqi civilians were killed and two severely wounded Monday after a Katyusha rocket hit near Baghdad airport, Iraq s military said. It was the first time in months an attack caused civilian casualties. The rocket targeted the international airport but struck a residential home close by instead. Among the dead were three children and two women. Two children were also severely wounded. The home was completely destroyed. The rocket was launched from the al-Jihad neighborhood of Baghdad. A statement from the military described the attack as a “cowardly crime” perpetrated by “criminal gangs” with the aim of creating chaos and terrorizing people. It said Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi had ordered the arrest of the perpetrators and said “these gangs will not be allowed to go around and tamper with security” with impunity. The attacks have become a frequent occurrence, often targeting the US Embassy in Baghdad, within the heavily fortified Green Zone, and US troops present in Iraqi bases as well as the Baghdad airport. Roadside bombs have also frequently targeted convoys carrying equipment destined for US-led coalition forces. Previous attacks have caused minor damage but rarely deaths or injuries. The frequency of the rockets have strained Iraq-US relations, prompting the Trump administration last week to threaten to close its diplomatic mission in Baghdad if Shiite militia groups believed to be orchestrating them are not reigned in. The disparate nature of Shiite militias following the US assassination of Iranian General Qassim Soleimani and Iranian militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis has complicated Iraqi efforts to clamp down on rogue armed elements. A government raid on the powerful Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah, suspected of launching rocket attacks, backfired when those detained were released for want of evidence.
The Trump administration has warned Iraq that it will close its embassy in Baghdad if the government does not take swift and decisive action to end persistent rocket and other attacks by Iranian-backed militias and rogue armed elements on American and allied interests in the country, U.S., Iraqi and other officials said Monday. As news of the warning sent shockwaves across Baghdad, Iraq s military said a Katyusha rocket hit near Baghdad airport, killing five Iraqi civilians and severely wounding two others. A U.S. official said the administration s warning was given to both Iraq s president and prime minister but that it was not an imminent ultimatum. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The warning signals the administration s increasing frustration and anger with ongoing rocket fire from Iranian-supported groups on or near the vast U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad as it steps up pressure on Iran with the re-imposition of crippling sanctions. However, closing the embassy and withdrawing U.S. personnel from Baghdad would signal a significant retreat from a country in which successive administrations have invested massive amounts of money and lives. The threat to evacuate the embassy, which has stoked concerns in Baghdad of a diplomatic crisis, was first delivered to President Barham Saleh on Tuesday in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iraqi officials said. Pompeo then repeated the warning to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Saturday, the officials said. Pompeo told Saleh that if the U.S. presence continues to be targeted, measures would be taken to close the embassy and a ``strong and violent response would follow against the groups responsible for the attacks, according to three Iraqi officials with knowledge of the call. Pompeo went further with al-Kadhimi on Saturday, telling the prime minister that the U.S. will initiate plans to withdraw from the embassy, according to the Iraqi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. An official announcement has not been made by the Americans. But the Trump administration has not been shy about expressing its anger and concern about continuing rocket attacks by Iranian-backed groups on or near the embassy compound. In a tangible sign of a strain in U.S.-Iraq relations, the State Department shortened an Iran sanctions waiver deadline by 60 days last week. The previous waiver, crucial for Iraq to import badly needed Iranian gas to meet power demands, gave the government 120 days. Without the waiver, Iraq would suffer crippling sanctions barring it access to U.S. dollars. Despite comments from U.S. officials that a deadline on closing the embassy is not in place, Iraqi officials appeared to be under the impression they have until the waiver expires in two months time to take action. "America will observe what measures the government of Iraq takes within two months," one senior Iraqi official said. During this time, al-Kadhimi s administration must halt the targeting of foreign missions, military installations and logistics convoys destined for the U.S.-led coalition or else, "aggressive" action would follow, the official said. Iraq s leadership is feeling the heat. Al-Kadhimi, Saleh and Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi held a meeting late Sunday in which all three leaders said they supported measures to bring arms under the authority of the state and to prevent the targeting of diplomatic missions. So far, Iraqi authorities have redistributed some security forces inside the Green Zone. The Iraqi officials also said two factors might determine whether Iraq s leadership can walk back from an impending diplomatic crisis: Security fallout from protests planned in the coming weeks to mark one year since mass anti-government demonstrations began, and domestic politics inside the U.S. ahead of the November federal election. "We expect large crowds," said one official of the protests. "And we expect it will impact American thinking." Two Western diplomats said they had been informed that the U.S. has started the process of closing its sprawling facility inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, but could not provide details. The U.S. Embassy declined to comment. Closing the facility, which is by physical size the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world, is expected to be a complex and time-consuming process. The embassy was already functioning at minimum levels since March due to the coronavirus and ongoing security threats. Diplomats were told the U.S. had already started the process of closing but would ``re-evaluate while progressing,`` one Western official said, suggesting the decision was reversible if security inside the Green Zone improved. In 2018, Pompeo ordered the closure of the U.S. consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra due to attacks by Iranian-backed militias. As a member of Congress, Pompeo had been a strong critic of the Obama administration and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the deadly attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. He is loathe to see a repeat of such an attack on his watch, according to current and former U.S. officials. In addition, Trump has been clear about his desire to reduce the U.S. presence in the Mideast, although he has focused primarily on the military. However, closing the embassy after the massive U.S. investment of lives and money in Iraq since 2003 would likely draw significant criticism from Trump allies in Congress, including lawmakers who supported the invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein. Ahead of November s election, it is not clear if Trump would be willing to invite that criticism. The State Department declined to comment on the calls between Pompeo and Iraq s leadership, but said the U.S. will not tolerate threats. ``We have made the point before that the actions of lawless Iran-backed militias remains the single biggest deterrent to stability in Iraq,`` the department said. ``It is unacceptable for Iran-backed groups to launch rockets at our embassy, attack American and other diplomats, and threaten law and order in Iraq.`` Meanwhile, attacks targeting convoys continue. On Monday, five Iraqi civilians were killed and two severely wounded after a Katyusha rocket hit near Baghdad airport, Iraq s military said. The rocket may have been targeting the international airport but struck a residential home close by instead, Iraqi security officials said, requesting anonymity in line with regulations. Also on Monday, a roadside bomb targeted a convoy carrying materials destined for U.S. forces southwest of Baghdad, two Iraqi security officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
On Tuesday morning, October 26, 2010, the great scientist Dr. Samir Fawzy Gerges left our mortal world. He is one of the loyal Coptic Orthodox Church members who have done much to serve the Church in general and the Coptic Orthodox Church in Switzerland in particular. I have known the honorable Reverend Doctor Samir Gerges personally since His Holiness Pope Shenouda III chose me to serve the Coptic Church in Switzerl