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Philippines to restore military deal with US with eye on China

WASHINGTON DC, July 30: US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Friday thanked Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana for "full restoration" of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) on the deployment of US troops in the country.

This decision was announced during the last leg of Austin's Southeast Asian trip to hold high-level discussions on security issues.

"Thank you, Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana, for discussing a range of defense topics, including President Duterte's decision to fully restore the Visiting Forces Agreement. Today underscored the vital nature of our treaty alliance with Philippines, our oldest treaty alliance in Asia," Austin tweeted.

Philippine's Lorenzana informed that country's president Rodrigo Duterte conveyed their decision to Secretary Austin after their meeting on Thursday night at the presidential palace in Manila.

"Last night, the president decided to recall or retract the termination letter for the VFA. So, the VFA is in full force again. There is no termination letter pending," Lorenzana said in a joint presser with Austin. He also added that Manila and Washington are "back on track."

In February 2020, Manila notified Washington of the termination of the military agreement VFA. However, in June and November same year, the Philippines suspended the entry of the decision into force for the period of six months.

The 1998 deal provides legal permission for US troops who rotate into the Philippines for military and humanitarian assistance exercises each year.

Earlier, Duterte had indicated that he favored ties with China and Russia over ties with the US, The Voice of America (VOA) reported. His spokesperson had said the reason for terminating the VFA was to allow the Philippines military to be more independent.

Experts believe that access to the Philippines puts Washington in a position to quickly respond to threats from Beijing in the South China Sea. It also bolsters US counterterror and intelligence gathering in the region, they said.

Meanwhile, China has been increasing its maritime activities in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea over the past few months, partly in response to Beijing's concerns over the increasing US military presence in the region because of escalating Sino-US tensions.

Fighting rages as Taliban besiege three key cities

KABUL, July 31: Fighting is raging around three major cities in southern and western Afghanistan as Taliban militants seek to seize them from government forces.

Taliban fighters have entered parts of Herat, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar.

They have made rapid gains in rural areas since it was announced almost all foreign troops would go by September.

But the fate of these key cities could be crucial amid fears of a humanitarian crisis and how long government forces will be able to hold out.

The fundamentalist Islamist militia is already thought to have captured up to half of all Afghanistan's territory, including lucrative border crossings with Iran and Pakistan.

Mapping the advance of the Taliban in Afghanistan

In Lashkar Gah, insurgents were reportedly only a few hundred metres from the governor's office on Saturday - but had been pushed back by nightfall.

It was their second such attempt in as many days. The commander of Afghan forces said they had inflicted significant casualties on the militants on Friday.

The Taliban's firm focus is now on Afghanistan's cities. The situation is fluid but Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province where many US and British soldiers lost their lives, looks the most vulnerable right now. Pro-Taliban social media accounts have uploaded videos of their fighters in the heart of the city.

Afghan special forces are being sent in to help push them back, but one local resident told us even if that does end up happening, the Taliban's advance is a powerful assertion of their strength.

The militants are understood to have taken up some positions in the homes of ordinary families, which will make it harder to dislodge them. More lengthy and bloody fighting looks to be ahead.

One MP in Kandahar told the BBC the city was at serious risk of falling to the Taliban, with tens of thousands of people already displaced and a humanitarian disaster looming.

Gul Ahmad Kamin said the situation was getting worse hour by hour, and the fighting within the city was the most severe in 20 years.

He said the Taliban now saw Kandahar as a major focal point, a city they want to make their temporary capital. If it fell, then five or six other provinces in the region would also be lost, Mr Kamin said.

He said the Taliban fighters were on several sides of the city and because of the large civilian population government forces would not be able to use heavy weaponry if the militants got fully inside.

In Herat, a Tolo News reporter said clashes had intensified, with Taliban fighters entering southern parts of the economically important city.

There are reports of fighting in at least five different locations.

The US is still carrying out air strikes to support the Afghan forces, who have recaptured a district around the airport.

A guard outside a UN compound near the airport was killed on Friday in what the UN described as a deliberate Taliban attack.

Residents say few places in the city are safe and some people are taking up arms to defend themselves.

The EU's special envoy for Afghanistan, Tomas Niklasson, said he believed the war was set to get much worse.

He said he feared the Taliban way of thinking now was "something they had in the past - re-establishing... their Islamic emirate".

And the former head of the British Armed Forces, Gen David Richards, warned the international withdrawal could result in the collapse of the Afghan army's morale, leading to Taliban control and possibly a renewed international terrorist threat.

Humanitarian organisations have also warned of a major crisis in coming months as the Taliban continue their offensive - with a lack of food, water and services, and overcrowding in camps for the displaced.

US troops and their Nato and regional allies forced the Taliban from power in November 2001.

The group had been harbouring Osama Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures linked to the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US.

But despite a continued international presence, billions of dollars of support and training for the Afghan government forces, the Taliban regrouped and gradually regained strength.

In February 2020, then-US President Donald Trump and allies agreed to formulate a deal with the Taliban on the withdrawal of international combat forces.

This year, President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal would take place by September.

India will never accept outcome in Afghanistan decided by force: Jaishankar

NEW DELHI, July 29: India is working with the world community to push political negotiations to find a lasting solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and will never accept any outcome decided through the use of force, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said on Thursday.

There was a very detailed discussion on the situation in Afghanistan with visiting US secretary of state Antony Blinken on Wednesday and there is “a very strong convergence” in the positions of India and the US on this issue, Jaishankar said while answering a question in the Rajya Sabha or upper house of Parliament.

“We were very clear that there must be a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan, that there cannot be a military solution, there cannot be a takeover by use of force in Afghanistan, that we will work with the international community to ensure that political negotiations for a settlement are pursued seriously and we would never accept any outcome which is decided by force,” he said.

He was responding to a question from BJP lawmaker Swapan Dasgupta on China’s apparent efforts to prop up the Taliban. A Taliban delegation led by chief political negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar met Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi on Wednesday, the first high-level engagement between the two sides since the US began withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan.

India has been increasingly concerned by a massive surge in violence in Afghanistan, including the Taliban’s campaign to capture districts in rural areas and crucial border crossings. It has repeatedly called for an immediate ceasefire and resumption of intra-Afghan talks to find a settlement.

Responding to another question from Samajwadi Party lawmaker Rewati Raman Singh on whether human rights and democracy had figured in his talks with Blinken, Jaishankar said the two sides had a “good discussion” on global issues such as human rights, democracy, trafficking and big tech

Jaishankar said he had highlighted that India’s approach to such issues is guided by a “quest for a perfect union”, though the government also seeks to “right historical wrongs”.

This was an apparent reference to the enactment of laws such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and Jaishankar had made a similar comment at his joint media interaction with Blinken on Wednesday.

Jaishankar said the issue of freedom should not be treated as “non-governance or as abdication of responsibilities”. He added, “We believe that our conversations on this subject should be balanced, we also feel that we should have the same standards when we look at the issues and that all conversations should be fact-based.”

The minister also defended India’s participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad, a grouping that includes Australia, Japan and the US, in the face of criticism from China while responding to more questions.

“Let me make it very clear that when it comes to our relations with the US, Quad [and] Indo-Pacific, these are all our national choices which serve our national interests. We look at Quad as a platform where four countries have come together for the good of the world, who are discussing a range of issues from making and providing vaccines to education and connectivity to maritime security,” he said.

Any narrative about the Quad not based on reality will never gain traction, and India’s work with international partners “will help deal with many regional and global challenges”, he said.

China building second nuclear missile silo field, claims report; US concerned

NEW DELHI, July 28: China is building a missile silo, a report in CNN has claimed. The US publication has quoted a report from Federation of American Scientists (FAS) to say that as many as 110 silos have been detected in the western desert area of the country.

The FAS report, published on Monday, is based on satellite images obtained by the organisation. It said that this is the second such silo after one near Yumen in Gansu province, as reported by Washington Post. The second missile silo field in Hami (Xinjiang province) is located 380 kilometres from the Yumen site, according to FAS.

It also claimed that the construction at Hami site began in March this year and is continuing at a rapid pace. The area is being developed in a grid-like outline, the FAS report said.

As many as 14 dome structures are visible at the Hami construction site, FAS said based on the satellite pictures it obtained. The higher resolution images of the site were provided by Planet, it added.

"This is the second time in two months the public has discovered what we have been saying all along about the growing threat the world faces and the veil of secrecy that surrounds it," the US Strategic Command said on Twitter, reacting to the latest news about missile silos and tagging a New York Times story on it.

FAS said that these sites signify "the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever". It added that this is the most extensive silo construction since the US and Soviet missile silo construction during the Cold War.

These silos will add to China's arsenal of nuclear tipped Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), which according to FAS has now swelled to 250 - constituting more than half of the size of the entire US ICBM force.

Earlier, after the discovery of missile silos in Gansu, the United States had called the dramatic build-up "concerning" and called for practical measures to reduce the risks of destabilising arms race.

Beijing, meanwhile, has said that its arsenal is dwarfed by those of the United States and Russia and it is ready to conduct bilateral dialogues on strategic security "on the basis of equality and mutual respect."

U.S offers further air support to Afghan troops amid Taliban offensive

KABUL, July 26: United States will to continue to carry out airstrikes to support Afghan forces facing attack from the insurgent Taliban, a regional U.S. commander said on Sunday as U.S. and other international forces have drawn down troops in Afghanistan.

The Taliban escalated its offensive in recent weeks, taking rural districts and surrounding provincial capitals, after U.S. President Joe Biden said in April U.S. troops would be withdrawn by September, ending a 20-year foreign military presence.

"The United States has increased airstrikes in support of Afghan forces over the last several days and we're prepared to continue this heightened level of support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue their attacks," U.S. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie told a news conference in Kabul.

McKenzie, who leads U.S. Central Command, which controls U.S. forces for a region that includes Afghanistan, declined to say whether U.S. forces would continue airstrikes after the end of their military mission on Aug. 31.

"The government of Afghanistan faces a stern test in the days ahead ... The Taliban are attempting to create a sense of inevitability about their campaign," he said.

But he said a Taliban victory was not inevitable and a political solution remained a possibility.

Afghan government and Taliban negotiators have met in Qatar's capital Doha in recent weeks, although diplomats say there have been few signs of substantive process since peace talks began in September.

Reeling from battlefield losses, Afghanistan's military is overhauling its war strategy against the Taliban to concentrate forces around the most critical areas like Kabul and other cities, border crossings and vital infrastructure, Afghan and U.S. officials have said.

McKenzie said there would likely be a rise in violence after a lull over a Muslim holiday this week and said the Taliban could focus on populated urban centres.

"They are going to have to deal with the cities if they want to try and claw their way back into power" he said. "I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that they are going to be able to capture these urban areas."

Religious scholars, tribal elders among 33 assassinated in Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan's Kandahar: Report

KABUL, July 25: As many as 33 people were assassinated in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province over the past two weeks, TOLO News reported on Saturday citing a rights commission.

"Religious scholars, tribal elders, civil society activists, journalists and human rights defenders and female journalists are being sacrificed in targeted attacks," said Zabihullah Farhang, spokesperson to Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

"Any group that resorts on harming civilians is conducting a war crime under the rules of war," said Laal Gul Laal, the head of Human Rights Organization.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday said Taliban forces that have taken control of districts in Kandahar have detained hundreds of residents whom they accuse of association with the government. The Taliban have reportedly killed some detainees, including relatives of provincial government officials and members of the police and army.

According to HRW, Taliban forces took control of Kandahar's Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan on 8 July, and the Spin Boldak district center on 16 July, they conducted searches to identify residents who have worked for the local government or security forces.

Taliban forces that control areas around Kandahar city have carried out similar searches and have evicted some residents. Local media have reported that the Taliban have taken more than 300 people into custody and have detained them in unidentified locations.

"There are grave concerns that Taliban forces in Kandahar may commit further atrocities to retaliate against the government and security forces," said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at HRW.

"Taliban leaders have denied responsibility for any abuses, but growing evidence of expulsions, arbitrary detentions, and killings in areas under their control are raising fears among the population."

A group of gunmen reportedly killed "over 100 civilians" in Spin Boldak district of Kandahar province, TOLO News reported on Thursday citing sources. The Afghan Interior Ministry confirmed the report, blaming the Taliban for the "murder of civilians."

"The brutal terrorists on the order of their Punjabi bosses (Pakistan) ambushed the homes of the innocent Afghans in certain areas of Spin Boldak, looted the homes and martyred 100 innocent people," said Mirwais Stanekzai, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior.

Former ambassador's daughter murdered in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, July 25: The "barbaric" murder of Noor Mukaddam, the daughter of a former ambassador has triggered outrage across Pakistan and raised questions over the safety and security of women in the country.

Noor Mukaddam's murder reignited a debate on violence against women as thousands of people took to social media to demand justice, recalling other femicide victims whose deaths sparked less furore, including at least two killed in the recent past.

The victim's father, Shaukat Mukaddam, has served as Pakistan's ambassador to South Korea and Kazakhstan.

TRT World reported that Mukaddam, 27, was found murdered in a house in an upscale neighbourhood in Pakistan's capital Islamabad on July 20. Police, however, arrested a suspect, Zahir Jaffer, a friend of the victim, at the scene later that day.

"Another day. Another woman brutally killed. Another hashtag. Another trauma. Another (likely) unsolved case. Another trigger. Another fear fest. Another rage roar. Another eid. 'Protection of women' bill oppose kernay walon ko mubarik," a netizen wrote on Twitter.

"Flagbearers of change, this is your acid test - do what it takes to ensure that no other Saima, Quratulain or Noor is the victim of our collective apathy, again," tweeted a journalist.

Taking to Twitter, Pakistan Human Rights Minister, Shireen Mazari said: "The barbaric murder of young woman, Noor, in Islamabad is yet another horrifying reminder that women have been and are brutalized and killed with impunity."

"This must end. We are committed to ensuring no one is above the law & culprits having influence & power cannot simply 'get away'," she said.

On Saturday, Islamabad police arrested the parents and household staff of suspect Zahir Zakir Jaffer -- accused of torturing and brutally killing Noor Mukadam -- for "hiding evidence and being complicit in the crime", Dawn reported.

Afghanistan curfew imposed as Taliban militants advance

KABUL, July 24: The Afghan government imposed a curfew across almost all of the country on Saturday in an attempt to stop the Taliban from invading cities.

Aside from the capital Kabul and two other provinces, no movement will be allowed between 22:00 and 04:00.

Fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government forces has escalated over the past two months as international troops withdraw from the country.

The militant group is estimated to have captured up to half of all territory.

It has moved swiftly in the wake of the US withdrawal, retaking border crossings and other territory in rural areas.

The Taliban - a fundamentalist Islamist militia who were pushed out of power by the US invasion nearly 20 years ago - has also seized key roads as it seeks to cut off supply routes.

Its fighters have been closing in on a number of major cities, but have not yet been able to capture one.

"To curb violence and limit the Taliban movements a night curfew has been imposed in 31 provinces," the interior ministry said in a statement, adding that Kabul, Panjshir and Nangarhar were exempt.

As the Taliban continues to advance, fierce clashes have taken place this week on the outskirts of the city of Kandahar.

In response, the US launched airstrikes against militant positions in the area on Thursday. But with US operations in Afghanistan officially due to end on 31 August, there are concerns about the months ahead.

US-led forces ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in October 2001. The group had been harbouring Osama Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures linked to the 11 September attacks on the US.

President Biden has said the American pull-out is justified as US forces have made sure Afghanistan cannot again become a base for foreign jihadists to plot against the West.

Earlier this month, American troops quietly departed from Bagram airfield, a sprawling base that was the centre of US operations in Afghanistan and once held tens of thousands of troops.

Some US intelligence analysts fear the Taliban could seize control of the country within six months, according to an assessment distributed to officials in June.

UK hits highest rate of daily COVID cases in world as restrictions lift on England's ‘Freedom Day’

LONDON, July 19: The UK has hit the highest daily rate of COVID cases in the world even as most remaining lockdown restrictions have been lifted in England on "freedom day".

England's coronavirus lockdown measures were eased on Monday, with nightclubs, theatres, pubs and restaurants now able to reopen without any caps or restrictions.

There is also no longer a legal requirement to wear face masks, while limits on social gatherings have been scrapped and work-from-home guidance has ended.

But as measures ease, the UK reported there were 47,848 new coronavirus cases on Sunday – the highest number of new infections that day of any country in the world, according to Our World In Data.

The figure is a 1,087% increase since 28 May, when the UK reported just 4,030 new cases.

The increase has been attributed to the Delta virus variant, first detected in India, which continues to spread across England.

Indonesia had the second highest number of new daily cases and India the third, with 44,721 and 38,164 cases reported respectively on Sunday.

Case numbers in the UK have been predicted to rise as high as 200,000 later this summer as measures are lifted.

Critics are continuing to express concern that the government is coming out of the lockdown too soon.

Boris Johnson has urged the country to proceed “cautiously” after the unlocking.

In a video posted on Twitter, the prime minister said: "If we don't do it now we've got to ask ourselves, when will we ever do it?

"But we've got to do it cautiously. We've got to remember that this virus is sadly still out there. Cases are rising, we can see the extreme contagiousness of the Delta variant."

On Monday, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi insisted the government was "doing the right thing", despite the current case numbers.

He told Sky News on Monday: “It is a step forward, an important step forward – there is no perfect time to take this step, this is as good a time as any as (Professor) Chris Whitty has said, with the summer holidays and schools being out, which will hopefully bear down on the R number, the transition rate.”

He added: “So I’m confident that we are doing the right thing.

“I think the vaccination programme has allowed us to take this step, to take it cautiously with this wall of protection among adults in the United Kingdom."

Professor Neil Ferguson – whose modelling led to the first lockdown in March 2020 – said daily cases could reach 200,000 before the current wave of the pandemic finally peaks.

He said that could result in 2,000 hospital admissions a day, leading to “major disruption” and further backlogs in NHS services.

As cases rise, thousands of people are being forced to miss work and self-isolate after being "pinged" by the NHS COVID app as part of what's been dubbed the "pingdemic".

German Chancellor To Visit Flood-Affected Areas As Death Count Tops 180

SCHULD, July 18: Chancellor Angela Merkel is to visit flood-ravaged areas in Germany on Sunday to survey the damage and meet survivors, after days of extreme downpours in western Europe left at least 183 people dead and dozens missing.

Merkel is scheduled to travel to the village of Schuld in Rhineland-Palatinate state, one of the two hardest-hit regions in western Germany, where the swollen Ahr river swept away houses and left debris piled high in the streets.

At least 156 people have died since Wednesday in Germany's worst flooding in living memory, police said.

In Rhineland-Palatinate state alone, police reported 110 dead and 670 injured.

At least 27 people have also lost their lives in neighbouring Belgium.

Rescue crews in both countries were sifting through rubble to find victims and survivors, often in dangerous conditions.

The historic downpours also battered Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

As the waters began to recede in Rhineland-Palatinate and neighbouring North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), concern shifted south to Germany's Upper Bavaria region, where heavy rains inundated basements and led rivers and creeks late Saturday to burst their banks.

One person died in Berchtesgadener Land, said a spokeswoman for the Bavarian district.

And in the eastern state of Saxony, authorities reported a "significant risk situation" in several villages near the Czech border.

In Austria, emergency workers in the Salzburg and Tyrol regions were on high alert for flooding. The historic town centre of Hallein, near the German frontier, was under water.

Merkel has called the floods a "tragedy" and pledged support from the federal government for Germany's stricken municipalities.

Speaking alongside US President Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday, Merkel said her "heart goes out to all of those who in this catastrophe lost their loved ones".

Her finance minister, Olaf Scholz, pledged more than 300 million euros ($354 million) in emergency aid for people who lost homes and businesses, with the cabinet to discuss a much larger reconstruction package on Wednesday.

The disaster has increasingly taken on political overtones in Germany, which heads to the polls on September 26 for a general election that will mark the end of Merkel's 16 years in power.

With experts saying climate change is making extreme weather events like these more likely, candidates vying to succeed the veteran leader have called for more climate action.

Daughter Of Afghan Envoy To Pak Kidnapped, 'Severely Tortured'

KABUL, July 17: The daughter of Afghanistan's ambassador to Pakistan was briefly kidnapped and mistreated by unknown assailants, the Afghan government said on Saturday.

Silsila Alikhil was on her way home when she was seized for several hours and "severely tortured", the Afghan foreign ministry said in a statement, without giving more details of Friday's abduction in Islamabad.

"After being released from the kidnappers' captivity, Ms Alikhil is under medical care at the hospital," the statement added, urging an investigation and protection for Afghan diplomats.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the Afghan embassy had informed it Alikhil was assaulted while riding in a rented vehicle. Police were investigating the "disturbing incident" and security had been tightened for the ambassador and his family, it said.

Neighbours Pakistan and Afghanistan have long had frosty ties. Kabul accuses Pakistan of allowing safe havens for Taliban insurgents, while Islamabad accuses Kabul of allowing militants to use their territory to carry out attacks in Pakistan.

Both deny the charges.

11 nations participate in massive US-Australia military drills as tensions escalate in Indo Pacific

CANBERRA, July 16: The US, Australia and Japan, along with eight other countries, have begun a joint exercise in Australia and its nearby waters as tensions simmer in the Indo Pacific region.

The US and Australia kicked off their biennial Exercise Talisman Sabre on Wednesday, Nikkei Asia reported.

Defense forces from Japan, the UK, Canada, South Korea and New Zealand will also take part in the drills, while India, Indonesia, Germany and France will participate as observers.

"The exercise will further strengthen our cooperation toward a free and open Indo-Pacific," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters Thursday.

The U.S., Japan, India and Australia have been promoting a rules-based order in the region through their Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad.

Japan is sending a Ground Self-Defense Force unit specializing in remote island defense and tasked with the initial response to a contingency in the Nansei Islands, which include the Japan-administered Senkakus that are claimed by China as the Dioayu.

The GSDF will participate in a landing drill with U.S. and British marines and the Royal Australian Army.

"Amphibious manoeuvres are critical to defending the Nansei Islands, which is one of Japan's top defence priorities," GSDF Chief of Staff Gen. Yoshihide Yoshida said. "Bolstering our tactical skills will strengthen our defence capabilities."

The drills come at a time when the international focus is growing in Indo Pacific. Tensions are also escalating in Taiwan Strait.

Japan's Defense Ministry called the Taiwan situation one of its top challenges, saying it must "pay close attention" to the Taiwan Strait "with a sense of crisis more than ever before," in a white paper this week.

Meanwhile, a Chinese surveillance ship began sailing toward Australian waters ahead of the exercise, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

"We have been monitoring its approach to Australia for several days as part of Australia's broader surveillance effort," Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said of the ship.

Indo-Pacific region is largely viewed as an area comprising the Indian Ocean and the western and central Pacific Ocean, including the South China Sea.

China's territorial claims in the South China Sea and its efforts to advance into the Indian Ocean are seen to have challenged the established rules-based system.

The Taiwan Strait is a 180-kilometre-wide strait separating the island of Taiwan and continental Asia. It is one of the most heavily policed strips of water in the world.

The strait is in international waters, however, China claims Taiwan as its own territory and regards the US Navy's presence in the area as a show of support for the island's democratic government.

UK's carrier strike group enters Indian Ocean, to conduct wargame with Indian Navy

NEW DELHI, July 16: The UK's largest warship HMS Queen Elizabeth and its strike task group has sailed into the Indian Ocean and will carry out a mega wargame with the Indian Navy as the aircraft carrier began a 40-nation tour aimed at demonstrating Britain's commitment for an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the deployment of the carrier strike group marks the start of 'a new era of defence cooperation with allies in India and the Indo-Pacific.' Indian military officials said a series of complex drills will be carried out as part of the wargame that is expected to take place around July 26.

It is HMS Queen Elizabeth's first operational deployment. The warship has a fleet of F35B stealth fighter jets onboard and is accompanied by six Royal Navy ships, a submarine and 14 naval helicopters.

The warships are expected to visit the South China Sea region as part of the tour.

'By visiting 40 countries and working alongside our partners, the UK is standing up for democratic values, seizing new trading opportunities and tackling the shared threats we face together,' Foreign Secretary Raab said.

The British high commission in India said the carrier strike group (CSG) 2021, led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, has sailed into the Indian Ocean Region after transiting the Suez Canal.

'Following a series of successful engagements and operations in the Mediterranean it is now sailing east across the Indian Ocean towards India. It will then meet with ships from the Indian Navy to conduct routine maritime exercises,' the high commission said in a statement.

It said the deployment represents the UK's commitment to deepening diplomatic, economic and security ties with India and in the Indo-Pacific region.

'It demonstrates both the UK's support for the freedom of passage through vital trading routes and for a free, open and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific,' it added.

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said that described the deployment of the CSG as a 'major moment' for the UK's defence.

'The group is sailing the Indian Ocean and will shortly conduct exercises with the Indian Navy, building on our already strong partnership with an important ally and friend,' he said.

'The deployment illustrates the UK's enduring commitment to global defence and security, strengthening our existing alliances and forging new partnerships with like-minded countries as we face up to the challenges of the 21st century,' Wallace was quoted as saying in the statement.

British High Commissioner to India, Alex Ellis, said the deployment of the carrier strike group is a powerful demonstration of the UK's commitment to the security of India and the Indo-Pacific.

'Its arrival follows the UK's first International Liaison Officer joining the Indian Navy's Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region in Gurugram,' he said.

'Today marks another step towards delivering the ambition set out jointly by our prime ministers in the 2030 Roadmap, bringing our countries, economies and people closer together,' Ellis said.

Last month, the UK posted a liaison officer at the Indian Navy's Information Fusion Centre (IFC) that has emerged as a key hub in tracking movements of ships and other developments in the Indian Ocean region.

The UK joined a select group of countries such as the US, Australia, Japan and France to depute officials at the Gurgaon-based facility.

The Indian Navy established the IFC-IOR in 2018 to effectively keep track of the shipping traffic as well as other critical developments in the region under a collaborative framework with like-minded countries.

126 killed in flash Europe floods

BONN, July 16: The death toll from devastating floods in Europe soared to at least 126 on Friday, most in western Germany where emergency responders were frantically searching for missing people.

Unsuspecting residents were caught completely off guard by the torrent dubbed the "flood of death" by Germany's top-selling daily Bild.

Streets and houses were submerged by water in some areas, while cars were left overturned on soaked streets after flood waters passed. Some districts were completely cut off from the outside world.

"Everything was under water within 15 minutes," said Agron Berischa, a 21-year-old decorator from Bad Neuenahr in Rhineland-Palatinate state.

"Our flat, our office, our neighbours' houses, everywhere was under water."

Residents were shocked by the damage as floodwaters continued to rise overnight.

"We rushed home and found ourselves waist-deep in water. And overnight another 50 centimetres were added," said Christoph Buecken in Eschweiler in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).

Indian journalist killed in line of duty by Taliban

KABUL, July 16: Indian photojournalist Danish Siddiqui, whose searing images of wars, riots and human suffering won global accolades including the Pulitzer Prize in 2018, was killed in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province on Friday while covering the region’s escalating conflict for Reuters. He was 38.

A largely self-taught photojournalist, Siddiqui is survived by his wife and two young children. Friends and family described him as a shy, friendly man from south Delhi’s Jamia Nagar who cared deeply about the issues he covered, and played cricket in a local park every week.

“Deeply disturbed by the sad news of the killing of a friend, Danish Siddiqui in Kandahar last night. The Indian journalist & winner of Pulitzer Prize was embedded with Afghan security forces,” Afghan ambassador Farid Mamundzay tweeted.

Mamundzay said Siddiqui, the chief photographer for Reuters in India, was with Afghan security forces when they were attacked by “terrorists” in Kandahar.

An Afghan commander told Reuters that Siddiqui was killed on Friday while covering a clash between Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters near a border crossing with Pakistan in Spin Boldak.

Chinese, US Navy vessels spotted off the east coast of Taiwan

TAIPEI, July 15: A Chinese Navy vessel and a US Navy destroyer were spotted off the east coast of Taiwan on Wednesday, Taiwanese media reported.

A People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Type 815 spy ship, the Beijixing (AGI-851), on Wednesday morning, was detected heading southbound off the coast of Hualien County, Taiwan News reported.

Meanwhile, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Pinckney (DDG-91) was sighted off the coast of Taitung County's Lanyu Township the same day.

A Taiwan military source told Focus Taiwan that the PLAN reconnaissance ship appeared on Tuesday about 40 nautical miles to the east of Hualien County's Jingpu Village, moving from north to south. At 7 am on Wednesday, the spy ship was spotted 43 nautical miles off the cape of Wushibi in Taitung County's Changbin Township continuing on a southerly course.

At 4 am on Wednesday morning, the USS Pickney reportedly entered the Pacific Ocean via the Bashi Channel.

This comes amid high tensions in Taiwan Strait, a 180-kilometre-wide sea passage separating the island of Taiwan and continental Asia.

The strait is one of the most heavily policed strips of water in the world, patrolled by both Chinese and Taiwanese navy and coastguard vessels.

The strait is in international waters, however, China claims Taiwan as its own territory and regards the US Navy's presence in the area as a show of support for the island's democratic government.

US battleships have navigated through the waterways separating Taiwan and China several times since US President Joe Biden assumed office in January.

China has reacted sharply to US ships sailing through the Strait, accusing Washington of threatening the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait.

Jaishankar meets Afghan President in Tashkent amid Taliban resurgence

TASHKENT, July 15: External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar Thursday met Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani to discuss the evolving situation in the war-torn country and reiterated India’s support for peace, stability, and development in the country.

Jaishankar is on a visit to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, as part of a Connectivity Conference, after attending a crucial meeting of foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Dushanbe. He met Ghani at the sidelines of the multilateral event.

Afghanistan witnessed a series of terror attacks in the last few weeks as the US aimed to complete the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan by August-end, ending a nearly two-decade of its military presence in the country.

Earlier, Jaishankar had met his Afghan counterpart, Mohammad Haneef Atmar, in the Tajikistan capital and discussed the developments in Afghanistan amid global concerns over the Taliban rapidly seizing control of areas in the war-ravaged country.

Jaishankar also discussed the situation in Afghanistan with US Homeland Security Advisor Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall and US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad.

On Thursday, the SCO condemned the ongoing violence and terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, after a deliberation between foreign ministers of India, China, Pakistan, Russia, and other member countries of the eight-nation group. It called for a cessation of the violence, which according to the group, “remains a key factor of instability in that country.”

“We are deeply concerned by the growing tension in Afghanistan’s Northern Provinces caused by the increased concentration of various terrorist, separatist and extremist groups. We consider it important to step up joint efforts by SCO member states to counter terrorism, separatism and extremism,” a joint statement by the SCO said.

The statement came amid growing unrest in the country as the Taliban continues to make deeper inroads into Afghanistan. In the latest development, the militant group said Wednesday that they have seized a strategic border crossing with Pakistan.

With Taliban forces having advanced to within a few kilometres of Kandahar, India has evacuated Indian staff and personnel from its consulate in the southern Afghanistan city. New Delhi is watching the situation in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north of the country, where it has a consulate.

India has major stakes in ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan. It has invested nearly $ 3 billion in aid and reconstruction activities in the country. India has been supporting a national peace and reconciliation process which is Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled.

Jaishankar met his Bangladeshi counterpart Dr AK Abdul Momen as well, at the sidelines of the event, and called it a “good opportunity to review the progress in our ties, including its connectivity aspects.”

He began his Tashkent visit with the inauguration of the IT room of India-Uzbekistan Entrepreneurship Development Centre. It’s “a shining example of our Development Cooperation,” Jaishankar added.

Jaishankar meets China's Wang Yi, says unilateral change of status quo along LAC not acceptable to India

DUSHANBE, July 14: External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Wednesday met China's State Councilor Wang Yi and told him that unilateral change of status quo along the LAC was not acceptable to India. Jaishankar had a one-hour meeting with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of Dushanbe SCO Foreign Ministers Meeting.

"Discussions focused on the outstanding issues along the LAC in the Western Sector. Highlighted that unilateral change of status quo is not acceptable. Full restoration and maintenance of peace and tranquility in border areas is essential for development of our ties. Agreed on convening an early meeting of the Senior Military Commanders," the foreign minister said.

Both the leaders had a detailed exchange of views on the current situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh. Jaishankar pointed out to Wang Yi that disengagement in Pangong Lake area earlier this year had created conditions for resolving remaining issues.

"It was expected that China would work with us towards this objective but situation in remaining areas is still unresolved," he said.

Jaishankar also recalled that both sides had agreed that a prolongation of the existing situation was not in the interest of either side. "It was visibly impacting the relationship in a negative manner," the MEA said.

Assessing the overall relationship, Jaishankar emphasized that maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border areas had been the foundation for the development of ties since 1988. "The attempts to change status quo last year that also disregarded commitments under the 1993 and 1996 agreements have inevitably affected ties," he said.

"It was, therefore, in mutual interest that the two sides work towards early resolution of the remaining issues along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh, while fully abiding by bilateral agreements and protocols," he added.

In May this year, Jaishankar had said that the relationship with Chian was at a crossroads and which direction both the countries go depends on whether Beijing will adhere to the consensus. "Whether it will follow through on the agreements which we both have made...What is very clear in the last year is that border tensions cannot continue with cooperation in other areas," he had said.

Taliban ‘executes 22 unarmed Afghan commandos’ after they surrendered

KABUL, July 14: In a shocking incident purportedly captured on camera, Taliban fighters executed 22 surrendering members of Afghan special forces who had run out of ammunition, according to reports.

The video obtained by CNN shows Afghan soldiers emerging from a building in a public square with their arms in the air as some men wielding guns screamed, “surrender, commandos, surrender.” Soon, gunfire shots rang out as cries of "Allahu Akhbar" are heard.

Nearly two dozen commandos were allegedly executed in a town market of Dawlat Abad in Faryab province on 16 June, reports said.

The Taliban has denied carrying out the execution to CNN, saying the videos are fake and they still have the captured soldiers from Faryab province. They called it propaganda of government so that people do not surrender.

However, the Red Cross and the Afghan Ministry of Defense have confirmed the 22 deaths. The defence ministry denied that the members were in detention and said they have been killed.

An eyewitness told the news outlet that the commandos had run out of ammunition and received no air support or reinforcement after fierce fighting of about two hours with the Taliban.

The video emerges even as the Taliban continue to make significant territorial gains in Afghanistan with at least 212 districts in their control, according to an assessment by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War. The Afghan government controls 70 districts while 116 remain contested.

Even as Joe Biden set 11 September as the deadline for the US’s exit from the country, a vast majority of troops have already left.

The viral video sparked concerns from human rights groups and intensified criticism of Joe Biden’s government. Questions are being raised by members of opposition in the US over the rapid pullout of troops from conflict-ridden Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war.

"This deeply disturbing footage is horrific and gives insight into the increasingly desperate situation enveloping in Afghanistan. What we are witnessing is the cold-blooded murder of surrendering soldiers -- a war crime," Amnesty International UK said.

Republicans are aiming at Biden for exit of troops from Afghanistan amid clashes between Taliban and Afghanistan security forces and fears of reemergence of al Qaeda and ISIS in the country.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday described Biden’s troops' withdrawal as a “reckless rush for the exits” and “a global embarrassment.”

"President Biden and his team are desperate to duck hard questions about Afghanistan,” McConnell said. “But the American people deserve answers. They deserve to understand the risks of this trajectory and how the commander in chief plans to keep us safe against a terrorist enemy that his own senior advisers admit will be allowed to regroup thanks to his actions.”

Republican representative from Illinois Adam Kinzinger, also a US Air Force veteran who took missions in Afghanistan, called the video “horrible-yet.”

"This is horrible-yet it’s the reality of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Removing the peacekeepers and leaving the Afghan people without support is a grave mistake, Mr President," he said in a tweet.

Army General Austin "Scott" Miller, who has relinquished his post as the top US commander in Afghanistan, previously said, "civil war is certainly a path that can be visualised if it continues on the trajectory it’s on."

Biden also acknowledged last week that a continued presence of military in Afghanistan would not alter the future of the country but said the Afghan people must decide their own fate.

But the US’s departure has forced Kabul to seek help from external partners such as Russia, and China to carry out anti-terrorism operations in the region.

Taliban flag raised above Afghanistan's border crossing with Pakistan in major advance

KABUL, July 14: The Taliban fighters are reported to have taken control of one of the main border crossings with Pakistan, replacing the Afghan government’s flag with their own. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid on Wednesday said in a statement that the fighters have captured an “important border town called Wesh.”

The control of the border crossing between the Pakistani town of Chaman and the Afghan town of Wesh could be the most strategic objective they have captured so far amid rapid gains across the country as US forces pull out from the region. The crossing is the second busiest entry point and the main link between its vast southwest and Pakistani ports.

A Pakistani official said the Taliban militants have taken down the Afghan government flag from atop the ‘Friendship Gate’, reported new agency Reuters. While the Afghan government asserted that they were in control of the Spin Boldak border district in Kandahar province, Pakistani officials said the Taliban controlled the Wesh border posts.

"Wesh, which has great importance in Afghan trade with Pakistan and other countries, has been captured by the Taliban," said a Pakistani security official deployed at the border area.

Amid the Afghan government’s struggle to retain control of its territories, foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) discussed the issue which is said to have major implications for the regional security. During a meeting in Dushanbe, External affairs minister S Jaishankar presented a three-point roadmap for an end state in Afghanistan, including cessation of violence and terrorist attacks against civilians and state representatives.

The minister said that the world and the Afghan people want an “independent, neutral, unified, peaceful, democratic and prosperous nation”, adding that the challenge is to act seriously on these beliefs as there are forces at work “with a very different agenda.” He stressed the need to reach an “acceptable compromise” that reflects the Doha process, Moscow format and Istanbul process.

Meanwhile, the Taliban have seized other major border crossings, in Herat, Farah and Kunduz provinces in the north and west, threatening regional security. Taking to Twitter, Afghanistan vice president Amrullah Saleh said that the Taliban were forcing members of a small ethnic minority to either convert to Islam or leave their homes in the northern province of Badakhshan. The Taliban’s rapid advances have also caused concern for the rights of women and girls as they were barred from school and most work under the group’s harsh version of Islamic law.

Taliban Say Do Not Want To Fight Inside Afghan Cities

KABUL, July 13: The Taliban do not want to battle government forces inside Afghanistan's cities, a senior insurgent leader said Tuesday, as the terrorists also warned Turkey against extending its troop presence.

The insurgents have swept through much of northern Afghanistan in recent weeks, and the government now holds little more than a constellation of provincial capitals that must largely be reinforced and resupplied by air.

On Tuesday, the head of a Taliban commission that oversees government forces who surrender to the insurgents urged the residents of cities to reach out to them.

"Now that the fighting from mountains and deserts has reached the doors of the cities, Mujahiddin don't want fighting inside the city," Amir Khan Muttaqi said in a message tweeted by a Taliban spokesman, using another term for the group.

"It is better... to use any possible channel to get in touch with our invitation and guidance commission," he said, adding this would "prevent their cities from getting damaged".

The strategy is one well-worn by the Taliban -- particularly during their first rise to power in the 1990s -- cutting off towns and district centres and getting elders to negotiate a surrender.

In a separate statement Tuesday, the Taliban said Turkey's decision to provide security to Kabul airport when US-led forces leave was "reprehensible".

"We consider stay of foreign forces in our homeland by any country under whatever pretext as occupation," the group said, days after Ankara agreed with Washington to provide security for Kabul airport.

As foreign forces wind up their withdrawal -- due to be completed by August 31 -- the situation on the ground is changing rapidly.

The top US general in Afghanistan relinquished his command Monday at a ceremony in the capital, the latest symbolic gesture bringing America's longest war nearer to an end.

The pace of the pullout -- and multiple offensives launched by the Taliban -- have raised fears that Afghanistan's security forces could be swiftly overwhelmed, particularly without vital US air support.

Around 650 American service members are expected to remain in Kabul, guarding Washington's sprawling diplomatic compound.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday he had agreed with the United States on the "scope" of how to secure Kabul airport.

Peace talks between the insurgents and the government supposedly taking place in Doha have largely fizzled out, and the Taliban now appear set on a complete military victory.

But claims by the hardline group to control 85 percent of the country are impossible to verify independently -- and strongly disputed by the government.

Last week in Moscow, a visiting Taliban delegation said the group now controls more than half the country's near-400 districts -- a claim steadfastly rejected by security forces spokesman Ajmal Omar Shinwari.

Still, the situation has alarmed foreign nations, and on Sunday India became the latest country to evacuate some of its diplomats.

On Monday, Russia announced it was relocating some diplomats to Uzbekistan, while China also evacuated 210 nationals from Afghanistan.

Afghanistan Counting On Indian 'Military Assistance' If Taliban Talks Fail

NEW DELHI, July 13: The government of Afghanistan may, at some future point, seek India's military assistance if talks with the Taliban fail amid a withdrawal of US troops from there, the country's Ambassador to India has said.

He, however, made it clear that the aid sought would not involve sending troops but could be in areas like training and technical support.

Representatives of the Taliban and the Afghanistan government have been holding talks amid the insurgents' increasing control over the country even as the US looks to wind up its almost two-decade war there by the end of August.

However, the peace talks supposedly taking place in Doha have largely fizzled out, and the Taliban now appear set on a complete military victory, AFP reported today.

"Should we not get to a stage in the peace process with the Taliban, then maybe a time (will come) where we would be seeking India's military assistance, more military assistance in the years ahead," saod Farid Mamundzay, Afghanistan's Ambassador to India.

"We are not seeking India's assistance with sending troops to Afghanistan. Their footprint in Afghanistan to fight our war would not be needed at this stage," he clarified.

He explained how, for instance, how the Air Force is an area where his country would require assistance in and that more opportunities could be explored on this front. The envoy cited pilot training, for which India is "naturally a place" it would want involvement from.

"India has also, again, helped us with two key components, one was to help with providing us military training (and) scholarships for our cadets," Mamundzay said.

On the civilian front, he listed the 1,000 annual scholarships India provides, the 20,000-odd Afghan students studying here now, the building of the new Afghan parliament, and the construction of dams, besides other infrastructure projects.

The current situation in Afghanistan is "very dire" and "very problematic", with the government forces actively fighting the Taliban in around 150 of the 376 districts, the Ambassador said.

"So one-third of the country is in active fight… Over two lakh people have been displaced internally in the country since April 2021 alone, with close to 4,000 killed," he said.

The insurgents have swept through much of northern Afghanistan in recent weeks and the government now holds little more than a constellation of provincial capitals that must largely be reinforced and resupplied by air, AFP reported today.

The Taliban have, however, said they do not want to battle government forces inside cities.

Referring to the recent killing of 22 government forces personnel, Mr Mamundzay said: "This happened in the province of Faryab last month where 22 of our special forces were brutally murdered by Taliban at a time when they were surrendering."

"We were under the assumption that Taliban would take the peace process seriously and they would negotiate a lasting and dignified peace with the Afghan government, yet they chose the path of violence."

On Sunday, India evacuated diplomats and security personnel from its Kandahar consulate in the wake of intense fighting.

Sher Bahadur Deuba becomes Nepal’s Prime Minister for 5th time

KATHMANDU, July 13: Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba on Tuesday became the country’s Prime Minister for the fifth time, media reports said.

President Bidya Devi Bhandari appointed him in accordance with Article 76(5) of the Constitution, The Himalayan Times reported.

This is the fifth time that 74-year-old Deuba is returning to power as the Prime Minister of Nepal.

His appointment is in line with the ruling issued by the Supreme Court on Monday to make way for his claim to premiership, replacing incumbent K P Sharma Oli.

Previously, Deuba served as Nepal’s Prime Minister four times from June 2017 to February 2018, June 2004 to February 2005, July 2001 to October 2002 and September 1995 to March 1997.

Deuba is required to seek a vote of confidence from the House within 30 days of his appointment as the Prime Minister, as per the constitutional provisions.

The Supreme Court on Monday overturned Prime Minister Oli’s May 21 decision to dissolve the House of Representatives and ordered the appointment of Deuba as prime minister.

The five-member Constitutional Bench led by Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana said that Oli’s claim to the post of prime minister was unconstitutional.

Reinstating the House yet again the court had restored the House earlier on February 23 after Oli dissolved it on December 20 the bench has ordered to make arrangements for holding the House meeting by 5 PM on July 18.

In its order, the constitutional bench said President Bhandari’s decision to reject Deuba’s claim to form a new government was unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, Nepal’s Election Commission on Tuesday postponed the parliamentary election scheduled for November 12 and 19 in the country following the reinstatement of the House of Representatives by the Supreme Court.

The apex court on Monday overturned embattled Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli’s May 21 decision to dissolve the House of Representatives and ordered the appointment of Opposition leader Sher Bahadur Deuba as prime minister.

The election scheduled for November following the dissolution of the House of Representatives will not be held immediately as the Parliament has been reinstated, Election Commission spokesperson Raj Kumar Shrestha said.

At the recommendation of Oli, President Bidya Bhandari dissolved the lower house for the second time in five months on May 22 and announced snap elections on November 12 and November 19. As many as 30 petitions were filed at the Supreme Court against the move.

“After the Supreme Court’s decision, there was no need to move ahead with the election preparations,” Shrestha was quoted as saying by MyRepublica news website.

“The commission will hold a meeting and postpone the preparations,” he said.

According to the EC, although it has yet to receive written information about the decision from the Supreme Court, it has postponed the process on the basis of Monday’s information, the report said.

Shrestha said the Commission has made some preparations for the election but not much money has been spent on it.

The finance ministry had earlier approved the budget for the election and the commission had approved the financial procedure for it.

The Election Commission earlier this month announced the schedule for the upcoming midterm polls with the election process starting from July 15.

Nepal plunged into a political crisis on December 20 last year after President Bhandari dissolved the House and announced fresh elections on April 30 and May 10 at the recommendation of Prime Minister Oli, amidst a tussle for power within the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP).

In February, the apex court reinstated the dissolved House of Representatives, in a setback to Prime Minister Oli who was preparing for snap polls.

Oli repeatedly defended his move to dissolve the House of Representatives, saying some leaders of his party were attempting to form a “parallel government”.


Mehul Choksi gets interim bail, can travel to Antigua

SANTO DOMINGO, July 12: A Dominican court on Monday granted interim bail to fugitive businessman Mehul Choksi and allowed him to travel to Antigua and Barbuda, where he is a citizen, “strictly for medical treatment," it is learnt.

Choksi, however, will have to return to Dominica where he is facing illegal entry charges, as soon as he is fit to travel, people familiar with the developments said.

The court has asked Choksi to deposit Eastern Caribbean dollars 10,000 (around ₹2.75 lakh) as surety for the bail. His legal team approached the Dominica high court last week seeking relief on the ground that his health was deteriorating and he needed urgent medical attention.

“Dominica courts finally upheld the rule of law and rights of a human to be treated in the medical facilities of his choice. And all attempts by various agencies did not bear fruits. There is solace in saying that all clever foxes end up as fur coats,” said Choksi’s lawyer Vijay Aggarwal.

Meanwhile, the proceedings against him in the illegal entry case filed by Dominica police have been adjourned.

In a blow for K P Oli, Nepal SC asks President to appoint Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba as PM

KATHMANDU, July 12: In a drastic turn of events, Nepal’s Supreme Court on Monday, while reinstating the dissolved House of Representatives for a second time in five months, asked President Bidhya Devi Bhandari to appoint Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba as the Prime Minister within two days.

This comes barely two months after Prime Minister KP Oli was able to form a minority government despite losing a trust vote in the House.

A full bench of the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana, annulled the dissolution of the Parliament by President Bhandari and continuation of Oli as the Prime Minister till elections are held in November.

A petition signed by 149 members of the Parliament, constituting a comfortable majority in the House which has 271 members in favour of Deuba, had been set aside by Bhandari. A writ petition was filed by 146 before the Supreme Court demanding that the “Constitutional wrong and malafide committed by the President be set right by reinstating the Parliament and appointing Deuba as the Prime Minister”.

As such, the Bench, comprising Justice Deepak Karki, Meera Khadka, Ananda Mohan Bhattarai and Ishwar Khatiwada, ruled that Deuba be sworn in as the Prime Minister on Tuesday, and the reinstated House be convened on July 18. This is the second time that the Supreme Court has reinstated the House — first on December 20 last year and then again on May 23.

Taliban at Kandahar gates, India pulls out nationals from consulate in city

KABUL, July 12: With Taliban forces having advanced to within a few kilometres of Kandahar, India has evacuated Indian staff and personnel from its consulate in the southern Afghanistan city.

New Delhi is watching the situation in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north of the country, where it has a consulate.

“The security situation is grim in the north as well, so we are closely monitoring the situation there,” said a source. If the situation deteriorates, Mazar-e-Sharif could be the next place from where Indian officials and staffers will be evacuated.

As of Sunday, there were no Indian diplomats or other staffers at the Indian consulates in Kandahar, Herat, and Jalalabad — there were only about 15-20 Afghan staffers at each of these locations.

The Indian embassy in Kabul though, was still functioning with Indian diplomats and Afghan staffers.

About 50 Indian diplomats and staffers were evacuated from Kandahar on Saturday, sources said.

A special aircraft of the Indian Air Force was sent on Saturday to bring back the Indian diplomats, officials, and other staff members including a group of Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel, the sources said.

The evacuation has been carried out in view of the “intense fighting near Kandahar city”, the government said.

“India is closely monitoring the evolving security situation in Afghanistan. The safety and security of our personnel is paramount,” the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.

The official spokesperson of the Ministry, Arindam Bagchi, said on Sunday that the evacuation was a “temporary measure”, and that the Kandahar consulate had not been shut down.

“The Consulate General of India in Kandahar has not been closed. However, due to the intense fighting near Kandahar city, India-based personnel have been brought back for the time being. I want to emphasise that this is a purely temporary measure until the situation stabilises. The Consulate continues to operate through our local staff members,” the spokesperson said.

India has taken the decision to evacuate its nationals in view of the rapid advance of Taliban fighters, who have seized control of a number of key areas in southern and western Afghanistan, triggering grave security concerns.

Last Tuesday, the Indian embassy in Kabul had said there were no plans to shut the embassy or the consulates in Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif.

The same day, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India Farid Mamundzay had briefed Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla on the situation in his country.

Two days ago, the Ministry had said India was carefully monitoring the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and its implications on the safety and security of Indian nationals.

“Our response will be calibrated accordingly,” Bagchi had said at the media briefing on Thursday.

Sources said the situation around Mazar-e-Sharif, capital of the northern Balkh province, was “quite serious”.

The Indian embassy in Kabul had last week asked all Indians who were visiting, staying, or working in Afghanistan to exercise the utmost caution with regard to their security, and to avoid all non-essential travel.

The security situation was “dangerous”, and terror groups had carried out a series of complex attacks including targeting civilians, the embassy had said in its advisory.

It had added that Indian nationals faced a “serious threat” of kidnapping.

Meanwhile, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi will be headed to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, this week for a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). They are expected to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.

Jaishankar had travelled to Russia and Iran, where he discussed the situation in Afghanistan with counterparts in those countries.

India has major stakes in ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan. It has invested nearly $ 3 billion in aid and reconstruction activities in the country. India has been supporting a national peace and reconciliation process which is Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled.

In March, Jaishankar had conveyed to the visiting Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar India’s long-term commitment to a peaceful, sovereign, and stable Afghanistan.

Millions In US, Canada Hit By New Rounds Of Scorching Hot Temperatures

LOS ANGELES, July 12: Millions of people across the western United States and Canada were hit Sunday by a new round of scorching hot temperatures, with some roads closed, train traffic limited and new evacuations ordered.

In Canada, with wildfires continuing to spread -- including 50 more blazes erupting in the past two days -- the government announced new emergency measures aimed at preventing further fires.

Sweltering conditions hit much of the Pacific seaboard and as far inland as the western edge of the Rocky Mountains over the weekend.

"A dangerous heat wave will affect much of the western US, with record-breaking temperatures likely," the National Weather service said on its website Sunday, while Canadian meteorologists predicted highs approaching 90 Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) in parts of western Canada -- well above seasonal norms.

Las Vegas on Saturday matched its all-time record of 117 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Weather Service (NWS) -- a temperature recorded in the desert entertainment city once in 1942 and three other times since 2005.

Sunday was expected to be only a few degrees cooler there, while Death Valley, California -- often the nation's hottest spot -- was headed for a high of 126 degrees Fahrenheit.

Forecasters issued an excessive heat warning for several other urban centers including the southern city of Phoenix and San Jose, the center of the Silicon Valley tech industry south of San Francisco.

The weekend's hot weather follows an earlier heat wave that struck the western United States and Canada at the end of June.

The scorching conditions saw the all-time record daily temperature broken three days in a row in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

Canadian transport minister Omar Alghabra on Sunday announced new emergency measures aimed at preventing further wildfires in the tinder-dry region, including steps to slow or limit train traffic.

Trains are a common cause of wildfires, often when their spark-arresting devices are poorly maintained.

Several roads and highways in the area have been closed as the government rated the wildfire risk in much of the province as "extreme." A dozen towns or locales remained under evacuation orders.

The Canadian government has sent investigators to the town of Lytton, 150 miles (250 kilometers) northeast of Vancouver, to see whether a passing cargo train might have caused a late June fire that destroyed 90 percent of the town.

The overall deaths in British Columbia was not yet known but is thought to run into the hundreds.

As of Sunday morning, the number of wildfires across British Columbia was continuing to rise, hitting 298, authorities said.

In the US state of Oregon, the Bootleg Fire more than tripled in size between Friday and Sunday, gaining more than 100,000 acres, according to the US Forest Service.

Last month was the hottest June on record in North America, according to data released by the European Union's climate monitoring service.

Human activity has driven global temperatures up, stoking increasingly fierce storms, extreme heatwaves, droughts and wildfires.

The World Meteorological Organization and Britain's Met Office said in May there was a 40 percent chance of the annual average global temperature temporarily surpassing 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures within the next five years.

The past six years, including 2020, have been the six warmest on record.

Two Chinese ships enter Japan's territorial waters off Senkaku Islands

TOKYO, July 10: In yet another case of illegal intrusion by Beijing, two Chinese ships entered Japan's territorial waters off the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea on Saturday.

Around 12.00 pm (local time) four Chinese ships passed through the area right next to Japanese territorial waters, Sputnik reported citing Japanese broadcaster NHK World.

Then, two of the ships entered Japan's territorial waters near uninhabited Senkaku Islands claimed by China and tried to approach Japanese fishing vessels. However, as of 3 pm (local time) both ships remained in the territorial waters of Japan.

Japan controls the Senkaku Islands, but China and Taiwan continue to claim them.

Tokyo maintains the islands are an inherent part of its territory as per history and international law.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

China has been increasing its maritime activities in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea over the past few months, partly in response to Beijing's concerns over the increasing US military presence in the region because of escalating Sino-US tensions.

Beijing's rising assertiveness against counter claimants in the East and South Sea has resulted in unprecedented agreement across the Indo-Pacific.

Pakistan says ‘not a guarantor’ of Afghan peace process as Taliban march on

ISLAMABAD, July 10: As the Taliban make rapid territorial gains in Afghanistan, the Pakistani military on Saturday said that Islamabad is a facilitator of the Afghan peace process and not a guarantor.

In an interview with ARY News, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) director-general Babar Iftikhar said that Pakistan has tried to move the Afghan peace process with “sincerity”, adding that the United States withdrawal from the region happened a “little quickly.”

"Of course other stakeholders have been a part of this, but Pakistan has played a key role," said Gen Iftikhar.

“It is still a facilitator of this peace process, we are not guarantors," he added.

Pakistan has been evasive on the question of the Taliban’s role in rising violence in Afghanistan even as the group continues its offensive in the war-torn country. Amid the final withdrawal of US troops in the region, the Taliban have taken control of most of the border areas near Iran and Tajikistan, causing immense concern for the Afghan government.

“We have always said that we have no favourites in Afghanistan. The Afghan people have to decide which government they want and how to take the country forward," said Gen Iftikhar.

The Taliban delegation has also said that they will not attack the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.

As foreign forces withdraw, Taliban claim 85% Afghan territories under control

Pakistan wants the US to delay the withdrawal until a transition takes place, as expressed by Gen Iftikhar during the interview, but doesn’t want to host bases on its soil. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan recently ruled out the possibility of hosting American bases for military action inside Afghanistan. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Khan argued that Pakistan cannot host American bases as they have “already paid too heavy a price.”

“If Pakistan were to agree to host US bases, from which to bomb Afghanistan, and an Afghan civil war ensued, Pakistan would be targeted for revenge by terrorists again," said Khan.

On Friday, external affairs minister S Jaishankar underlined that there is a “legitimacy aspect” to whoever gets to govern Afghanistan, adding that it "can not and should not be ignored." Speaking at a joint press conference in Moscow alongside Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, Jaishankar stressed the need for an immediate reduction in violence in Afghanistan, given its direct implication for regional security.

G20 signs off on tax crackdown

NEW DELHI, July 10: Finance chiefs of the G20 large economies endorsed a landmark move to stop multinationals shifting profits to low-tax havens at talks on Saturday where they will also warn that coronavirus variants threaten the global economic recovery.

They also acknowledged the need to ensure fair access to vaccines in poorer countries. But a draft communique to be rubber-stamped at the meeting in the Italian city of Venice did not contain specific new proposals on how to do that.

The tax deal was set to be the biggest fresh policy initiative emerging from their talks. It caps eight years of wrangling over the tax issue and the aim is for national leaders to give it a final blessing at an October G20 summit in Rome.

The pact would establish a global minimum corporate tax of at least 15% to deter multinationals from shopping around for the lowest tax rate. It would also shift the way that highly profitable multinationals such as Amazon and Google are taxed, basing it partly on where they sell products and services, rather than on the location of their headquarters.

German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz confirmed to reporters that all G20 economies were on board for the pact, while U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said a handful of smaller countries still opposed to it, such as low-tax Ireland and Hungary, would be encouraged to sign up by October.

"We'll be trying to do that, but I should emphasise it's not essential that every country be on board," she said.

"This agreement contains a kind of enforcement mechanism that can be used to make sure that countries that are holdouts are not able to undermine - to use tax havens that undermine the operation of this global agreement."

The G20 members account for more than 80% of world gross domestic product, 75% of global trade and 60% of the population of the planet, including big-hitters the United States, Japan, Britain, France, Germany and India.

In addition to European Union holdouts Ireland, Estonia and Hungary, other countries that have not signed on include Kenya, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Barbados and St. Vincent and Grenadines.

Among other sticking points, a fight in the US Congress over President Joe Biden's planned tax increases on corporations and wealthy Americans could cause problems, as could a separate EU plan for a digital levy on tech companies.

U.S. Treasury officials say the EU plan is not consistent with the wider global deal, even if the levy is largely aimed at European firms.

Beyond the tax agreement, the G20 will address concerns that the rise of the fast-spreading Delta coronavirus variant, combined with unequal access to vaccines, pose risks to global economic recovery.

Citing improvements in the global outlook so far, the draft adds: "However, the recovery is characterised by great divergences across and within countries and remains exposed to downside risks, in particular the spread of new variants of the COVID-19 virus and different paces of vaccination."

A Reuters tally of new COVID-19 infections shows them rising in 69 countries, with the daily rate pointing upwards since late-June and now hitting 478,000.

"We all have to improve our vaccination performance everywhere around the world," French Finance Minister Bruno Le Marie told reporters. "We have very good economic forecasts for the G20 economies and the single hurdle on the way to a quick, solid economic rebound is the risk of having a new wave."

IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said the world was facing "a worsening two-track recovery" partly driven by the differences in vaccine availability.

"It is a critical moment that calls for urgent action by the G20 and policymakers across the globe," she said in an appeal made in the run-up to the meeting.

The communique, while stressing support for "equitable global sharing" of vaccines, did not propose concrete new measures, merely acknowledging a recommendation for $50 billion in new vaccine financing by the IMF, World Bank, World Health Organization and World Trade Organization.

The IMF is also pushing G20 countries to decide on a clear path for allowing rich countries to contribute some $100 billion worth of newly issued IMF reserves to poorer countries.

IMF First Deputy Managing Director Geoffrey Okamoto said his goal was to be able to present a viable option for channeling newly issued Special Drawing Rights to countries in need by the time a fresh $650 billion allocation is completed at the end of August.

Taliban Claims It Now Controls 85% Of Afghanistan's Territory

MOSCOW, July 9: The Taliban claimed Friday to be in control of 85 percent of Afghanistan, including a key border crossing with Iran, following a sweeping offensive launched as US troops pull out of the war-torn nation.

Hours after President Joe Biden issued a staunch defence of the US withdrawal, the Taliban said fighters had seized the border town of Islam Qala -- completing an arc of territory from the Iranian border to the frontier with China.

In Moscow, a delegation of Taliban officials said they controlled some 250 of Afghanistan's 398 districts -- a claim impossible to independently verify and disputed by the government.

Separately, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Islam Qala border crossing was "under our full control", while government officials in Kabul said a fightback was under way.

"All Afghan security forces including the border units are present in the area, and efforts are under way to recapture the site," said interior ministry spokesman Tareq Arian.

Hours earlier, Biden said the US military mission would end on August 31 -- nearly 20 years after it began -- having "achieved" its goals.

But he admitted it was "highly unlikely" Kabul would be able to control the entire country.

"The status quo is not an option," Biden said of staying in the country. "I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan."

With the Taliban having routed much of northern Afghanistan in recent weeks, the government is holding little more than a constellation of provincial capitals that must be largely reinforced and resupplied by air.

The air force was under severe strain even before the Taliban's lightning offensive overwhelmed the government's northern and western positions, putting further pressure on the country's limited aircraft and pilots.

Biden said the Afghan people alone should determine their future, but he acknowledged the uncertainty about what that would look like.

Asked if a Taliban takeover was inevitable, the president said: "No, it is not."

But, he admitted, "the likelihood there is going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely".

The Taliban, for their part, welcomed Biden's statement.

"Any day or hour that US and foreign troops leave earlier is a positive step," said spokesman Suhail Shaheen.

Afghan commandos have clashed with the insurgents this week in a provincial capital for the first time, with thousands of people fleeing Qala-i-Naw in northwest Badghis province.

President Ashraf Ghani said the government could handle the situation, but admitted difficulties lay ahead.

"What we are witnessing is one of the most complicated stages of the transition," he said in a speech in Kabul.

The Taliban have been emboldened by the troop withdrawal and, with peace talks with the government deadlocked, appear to be pressing for a full military victory.

Still, on Thursday a member of the negotiating team in Doha insisted the insurgents were seeking a "negotiated settlement".

"We do not believe in monopoly of power," said spokesman Shaheen.

In Moscow, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman said the Taliban controlled about two-thirds of the Afghan-Tajik border as a delegation from the insurgents wound up a visit.

Some "85 percent of Afghanistan's territory" was under the group's control, said Taliban negotiator Shahabuddin Delawar.

This week more than 1,000 Afghan troops fled into Tajikistan in the face of a Taliban onslaught.

52 Killed In Bangladesh Factory Fire

RUPGANJ, July 9: A massive blaze tore through a Bangladesh factory killing at least 52 people trapped by flames that forced workers to leap for their lives from upper floors, emergency services said on Friday.

About 30 people were injured in the fire, and hundreds of distraught relatives and other workers waited anxiously outside the food factory as it continued to rage.

The inferno was the latest to tarnish Bangladesh's safety record marred by a series of disasters in industrial complexes and apartment buildings.

The country has pledged reforms since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 when a nine-storey complex collapsed killing more than 1,100 people. But critics say safety standards are still lax.

In February 2019, at least 70 people died when an inferno ripped through Dhaka apartments where chemicals were illegally stored.

The latest fire broke out at Hashem Food and Beverage factory in Rupganj, an industrial town outside Dhaka, on Thursday afternoon and was still raging almost 24 hours later.

Normally, there were would be more than 1,000 workers in the building but many had left for the day when the fire started.

The overnight toll of three dead rose dramatically as firefighters reached the third floor and found 49 more bodies.

Fire service spokesman Debashish Bardhan said: "The workers could not go to the rooftop because the exit door to the staircase was padlocked. They could not go down because the lower floors were already engulfed by fire."

The charred victims were piled into a fleet of ambulances to take them to mortuaries amid anguished shouts and tears from people watching in the streets.

Foundation of our relationship with China has been disturbed: Jaishankar

MOSCOW, July 8: Union external affairs minister S Jaishankar on Thursday while addressing an event in Moscow said that the relationship between India and China has been disturbed due to border clashes between both countries in 2020 in eastern Ladakh.

“For the last one year there has been a lot of concern regarding the relationship and China did not respect the border agreements it signed up to. For the first time in 45 years, there were incidents at the border with casualties,” Jaishankar said while addressing an event at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

“Peace and tranquility at the border are the fundamentals of a relationship between any neighbouring countries. Naturally the foundation has been disturbed, so has the relationship,” Jaishankar further added.

Jaishankar’s observation came in response to a question on how India views the rise of China. He said that there has been a rise of new powers after several nations won their independence from colonial rule all over the world.

“China is part of an exception and China is part of a trend as well, because of its history, scale and power today. For us (India), it is a natural happening to some degree because we see ourselves in a similar situation. The timing may show we are a few years behind and the pace and intensity of it may be slightly different but broadly in the same time span India’s position vis-a-vis the world has also changed,” Jaishankar said.

Jaishankar further said that China's rise impacts India as it is India’s immediate neighbour. He said its rise also impacts Russia and Eurasia and forums like BRICS show how each of these nations profits collaboratively.

“For the last 40 years we maintained a stable relationship with China, there is a big economic element since China emerged as our second-largest economic partner,” Jaishankar said referring to India’s economic relationship with its neighbour.

During his address, Jaishankar said India’s strategic, diplomatic and cultural ties with Russia are important in today’s world. He said that ties between both countries ranging over military to medicine as well as space and nuclear shows India’s commitment towards stronger ties with Russia.

Jaishankar said that the 2+2 dialogue between PM Modi and President Vladimir Putin ‘promises to provide new vitality’ to India-Russia relations.

India-Russia relationship among steadiest in the world: Jaishankar

MOSCOW, July 8: External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr S Jaishankar on Thursday said the relationship between India and Russia has been among the steadiest in the world and called for constant nurturing of the bilateral ties that have remained strong years after the Second World War.

Speaking on "India-Russia ties in a changing world" at an international institute here in Moscow, Jaishankar said, "There is no doubt the relations between India and Russia have been among the steadiest of the major relationships in the world after the Second World War."

On the changes witnessed in the India-Russia bilateral relations, the minister said they have undergone many changes, but the "logic of geopolitics" has remained compelling.

"But at the end of the day, the logic of geopolitics was so compelling that we barely remember these, even as minor aberrations. The undeniable reality of the exceptional resilience of our ties is surely a phenomenon that is worth analysing," he added.

While lauding the steadiness of the India-Russia ties, the minister also pointed at the paradox relationship. "The paradox is though, that precisely that the relation is so steady, this relationship is sometimes taken for granted. The case for its constant nurturing is as powerful, if not more, than with the more volatile ones," he said.

On a cautious note, the minister added, "If our ties have remained stable, that is not to say that we have remained static."

Jaishankar will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday and hold talks on bilateral cooperation at the various multilateral forums and compare notes on major global and regional issues, including the political process in Afghanistan.

Jaishankar is on a three-day visit to Russia, which began on Wednesday.

Japan deputy PM calls to defend Taiwan if invaded

TOKYO, July 7: Japan's deputy prime minister said the country needed to defend Taiwan with the United States if the island was invaded, Kyodo news agency reported late on Monday, angering Beijing which regards Taiwan as its own territory.

China has never ruled out using force to reunite Taiwan with the mainland and recent military exercises by China and Taiwan across the Straits of Taiwan have raised tensions.

"If a major problem took place in Taiwan, it would not be too much to say that it could relate to a survival-threatening situation (for Japan)," Japan's deputy prime minister Taro Aso said at a fundraising party by a fellow Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker, according to Kyodo.

A "survival-threatening situation" refers to a situation where an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs, which in turns poses a clear risk of threatening Japan's survival.

Such a situation is one of the conditions that need to be met for Japan to exercise its right of collective self-defence, or coming to the aid of an ally under attack.

"We need to think hard that Okinawa could be the next," Aso was quoted by Kyodo as saying.

China foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a regular news conference on Tuesday that Aso's remarks "harmed the political foundation of China-Japan relations", and China "resolutely opposed" them.

"No one should underestimate the Chinese people's staunch resolve, firm will, and formidable ability to defend national sovereignty," he said.

China claims a group of Japanese-controlled islets in the East China Sea. The tiny uninhabited isles, called the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, are off Japan's southern island of Okinawa.

Aso, asked about Japan's stance on the cross-strait issue at a news conference on Tuesday, said any contingency over Taiwan should be resolved through dialogue.

"We are closely monitoring the situation," Aso, who doubles as finance minister, told reporters.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, when asked if Aso's Monday comment was in line with the government's stance, declined to comment, saying he was not aware of the Aso comment in detail, but reiterated Japan's official policy on the matter.

"Japan hopes the Taiwan issue will be resolved through direct dialogue between parties concerned in a peaceful manner. That has been our consistent stance," the top government spokesman said.

Haiti President Jovenel Moise Assassinated

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Haiti), July 7: Haiti President Jovenel Moise was assassinated and his wife wounded early Wednesday in an attack at their home, the interim prime minister announced, an act that risks further destabilizing the Caribbean nation beset by gang violence and political volatility.

Claude Joseph said he was now in charge of the country and urged the public to remain calm, while insisting the police and army would ensure the population's safety.

"The president was assassinated at his home by foreigners who spoke English and Spanish," Joseph said of the assault that took place around 1:00 am (0500 GMT) and left the president's wife hospitalized.

Moise had ruled Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, by decree, after legislative elections due in 2018 were delayed in the wake of disputes, including on when his own term ends.

In addition to the political crisis, kidnappings for ransom have surged in recent months, reflecting the growing influence of armed gangs in the Caribbean nation.

Haiti also faces chronic poverty and recurrent natural disasters.

The president faced steep opposition from swathes of the population that deemed his mandate illegitimate, and he churned through a series of seven prime ministers in four years. Most recently, Joseph was supposed to be replaced this week after only three months in the post.

As well as presidential, legislative and local elections, Haiti was due to have a constitutional referendum in September after it was twice postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The United States condemned the killing as "horrific" and said it was ready to assist in any investigation.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said "we will be helpful in any way to the people of Haiti, to the government of Haiti," adding that President Joe Biden would be briefed on the incident shortly.

Modi, Taiwan President, others wish Dalai Lama on his 86th birthday

NEW DELHI, July 6: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday greeted the 14th Dalai Lama on his 86th birthday. This was the second such call to the Tibetan spiritual leader by Modi since he took over as the prime minister of the country in 2014.

The officials in Dharamshala said Modi spoke to the 14th Dalai Lama for almost 20 minutes on Tuesday morning and His Holiness, who is in Dharamshala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, was delighted to receive the call.

Apart from Modi, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen – a country claimed by China – also wished the revered leader on this birthday, sources close to the development said.

In a Twitter post, Ing-wen said, “Wishing a very happy 86th birthday to His Holiness the@DalaiLama. Thank you for teaching us the importance of coming together to help one another through this pandemic.”

Many other leaders of international stature and several chief ministers also called up to wish the Dalai Lama throughout the day.

Prominent among them are foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Union civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri and road transport minister Nitin Gadkari.

US Ambassador to Nepal Randy Berry also took to Twitter to greet the Tibetan spiritual leader on his birthday. He said that “peace and freedom cannot be ensured as long as fundamental human rights are violated.

The envoy’s tweet followed another tweet by US Ambassador in India Atul Keshap, who said the Dalai Lama's messages of peace and compassion inspire and transcend globally.

Several chief ministers including Punjab’s Captain Amarinder Singh, Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik, Sikkim’s Prem Singh Tamang and Delhi's Arvind Kejriwal also greeted the Dalai Lama in a show of respect.

Other leaders who also called him included oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan, chief ministers Pema Khandu (Arunachal Pradesh), Pamod Sawant (Goa), Conrad Sangma (Meghalaya), James Sangma (Meghalaya's minister of environment and forests) and Bimal Borah (sports and culture minister in Assam).

In exile now for 62 years, the 14th Dalai Lama has been a symbol of struggle for the Tibetan people to the entire world.

Over 1,000 Afghan soldiers retreat to Tajikistan after clashes with Taliban

DUSHANBE, July 5: As many as 1,037 Afghan troops retreated to Tajikistan following clashes with the Taliban militants, the Tajik State Committee for National Security (SCNS) told Sputnik.

"Afghan servicemen retreated to Tajikistan through the border areas of Shohon region (104 people); Ruzvay (213 people) and Nulvand (83 people) in Darvoz region; Khumrogi in Vanj region (173 people), Tem district of Khorugh city (312); Eshkashem (102 people) and Langar (50 people) in Eshkashem region," the SCNS said.

According to the statement, on Sunday night, Taliban militants took full control of the districts of Hohon, Shekay, Nusay, Maimay, Shughnon and Eshkashem in the Afghan province of Badakhshan, which borders Tajikistan.

"Taking into account the principle of good-neighborliness and adhering to the position of non-interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan, the military personnel of the Afghan government forces was allowed to enter Tajik territory," the SCNS added.

The situation at the border areas is under the control of the Tajik border guards.

45 Dead After Military Plane Carrying 92 Crashes In Philippines

COTABATO, July 4: At least 45 people were killed and dozens injured Sunday when a Philippine military aircraft carrying troops crashed and burst into flames after missing the runway in the country's south, the armed forces said.

Nearly 100 people, most of them recent army graduates, were on the C-130 Hercules transport plane which was trying to land on Jolo island in Sulu province around midday.

Some of the soldiers were seen jumping out of the plane before it hit the ground and exploded into flames, said Major General William Gonzales, commander of the Joint Task Force-Sulu.

It was one of the country's deadliest military aviation accidents.

"This is a sad day but we have to remain hopeful," Gonzales said in a statement. "We enjoin the nation to pray for those who are injured and those who have perished in this tragedy."

A search was still under way for 17 missing people.

Photos of the crash site released by the Joint Task Force-Sulu showed the damaged tail and the smoking wreckage of the fuselage's back section laying near coconut trees.

Images published by local media outlet Pondohan TV on its Facebook page showed the wreckage engulfed in flames and a plume of thick black smoke rising above houses located near the site.

Most of the passengers had recently graduated from basic military training and were being deployed to the restive island as part of a joint task force fighting terrorism in the Muslim-majority region.

They were supposed to report for duty on Sunday, Gonzales said.

The military has a heavy presence in the southern Philippines where terrorist groups, including the kidnap-for-ransom outfit Abu Sayyaf, operate.

C-130s have been the workhorses of air forces around the world for decades, used to transport troops, supplies and vehicles. They are also often deployed to deliver humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

The Hercules that crashed Sunday has the same tail number as one acquired from the United States and delivered to the Philippines earlier this year.

Senator Richard Gordon said it was the fourth military aircraft accident this year with "mass casualties".

"Are we buying defective crafts... (with) the people's money?" he tweeted.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque described the accident as "very unfortunate", and the US embassy Charge d'Affaires John Law offered "sincerest condolences" to the families of the victims.

Sunday's accident comes after a Black Hawk helicopter crashed last month during a night-time training flight, killing all six on board. The accident prompted the grounding of the Philippines' entire Black Hawk fleet.

Brazil Supreme Court Gives Nod For Probe Into Bolsonaro Over Covaxin Deal

SAU PAULO, July 4: Brazil's Supreme Court Justice Rosa Weber late on Friday authorized an investigation of President Jair Bolsonaro by the top prosecutor's office, or PGR, for dereliction of duty in the process of procuring an Indian COVID-19 vaccine.

The president has been implicated in allegations of irregularities surrounding a 1.6 billion reais ($316 million) contract signed in February for 20 million doses with a Brazilian intermediary for the vaccine's maker, Bharat Biotech.

A Brazilian Senate commission investigating the administration's handling of the pandemic has cited suspicions of overpricing and corruption related to the contract. After allegations of irregularities surfaced, the government suspended the contract.

Brazil has suffered the world's second highest number of COVID-19 deaths.

Brazilian federal prosecutors and the comptroller general's office, or CGU, are also separately investigating the alleged irregularities in the deal. The case allegedly involves the government's chief whip in the lower house of Congress, Ricardo Barros, according to lawmakers.

Bolsonaro and Barros denied any wrongdoing.

The investigation of the president by the PGR had to be formally authorized by the Supreme Court. In her decision, Justice Weber gave authorities 90 days for collection of evidence pertaining to the case.

Switzerland, 8 European Union members approve Covishield for Green Pass

NEW DELHI, July 1: At least seven European countries including, Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Greece, Iceland, Ireland and Spain, and Switzerland have approved the Covishield COVID-19 vaccine for 'Green Pass'.

Separately, Estonia has also confirmed that it will recognise all vaccines authorised by the government of India for the travel of Indians to that country.

The EU Digital COVID certificate or 'Green Pass' will be mandatory to travel to European countries and the document will serve as proof that a person is vaccinated against COVID-19.

The EMA had earlier cleared only four vaccines - Comirnaty (Pfizer/BioNTech), Moderna, Vaxzervria (AstraZeneca), Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) for the green pass.

The development comes a day after India asked the members of the 27-nation grouping to individually consider allowing Indians who have taken Covishield and Covaxin vaccines.

New Delhi also conveyed to the EU member states that it will adopt a policy of reciprocity and exempt European nationals holding the 'Green Pass' from mandatory quarantine if its request to recognise Covishield and Covaxin vaccines is heeded to.

The European Union's Digital COVID certificate or "Green Pass" is set to be rolled out on July 1 with an aim to facilitate free movement during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under this framework, persons who have taken vaccines authorised by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) will be exempted from travel restrictions within the EU region.

Earlier, an EU official had said that the individual member states have the flexibility to also accept vaccines that have been authorised at the national level or those approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Over 134 Die As Canada Sees Record 49.5 Degrees

VANCOUVER, June 30: Scores of deaths in Canada's Vancouver area are likely linked to a grueling heat wave, authorities said Tuesday, as the country recorded its highest ever temperature amid scorching conditions that extended to the US Pacific Northwest.

At least 134 people have died suddenly since Friday in the Vancouver area, according to figures released by the city police department and the Royal Canadian Mounted police.

The Vancouver Police Department alone said it had responded to more than 65 sudden deaths since Friday, with the vast majority "related to the heat."

Canada set a new all-time high temperature record for a third day in a row Tuesday, reaching 121 degrees Fahrenheit (49.5 degrees Celsius) in Lytton, British Columbia, about 155 miles (250 kilometers) east of Vancouver, the country's weather service, Environment Canada, reported.

"Vancouver has never experienced heat like this, and sadly dozens of people are dying because of it," police sergeant Steve Addison said.

Other local municipalities have said they too have responded to many sudden death calls, but have yet to release tolls.

Some Vancouver locals said they had never experienced such temperatures before.

"It's never this bad. I've never seen anything like this," said a Vancouver resident who only gave her name as Rosa.

"I hope it never becomes like this ever again. This is too much."

Others lamented that some residents were more vulnerable to the heat than others.

"I feel for those people whether they're the elderly demographic or people who live on the downtown eastside of Vancouver who don't have a cool spot to live or sleep," said river swimmer Graham Griedger.

Climate change is causing record-setting temperatures to become more frequent. Globally, the decade to 2019 was the hottest recorded, and the five hottest years have all occurred within the last five years.

The scorching heat stretching from the US state of Oregon to Canada's Arctic territories has been blamed on a high-pressure ridge trapping warm air in the region.

Temperatures in the US Pacific Northwest cities of Portland and Seattle reached levels not seen since record-keeping began in the 1940s: 115 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland and 108 in Seattle Monday, according to the National Weather Service.

Vancouver on the Pacific coast has for several days recorded temperatures above 86 degrees Fahrenheit (or almost 20 degrees above seasonal norms).

The chief coroner for the province of British Columbia, which includes Vancouver, said that it had "experienced a significant increase in deaths reported where it is suspected that extreme heat has been contributory."

The service said in a statement it recorded 233 deaths between Friday and Monday, compared to 130 on average.

"We are in the midst of the hottest week British Columbians have ever experienced, and there are consequences to that, disastrous consequences for families and for communities," British Columbia Premier John Horgan told a news conference.

He urged "checking up on those people we know might be at risk, making sure we have cold compresses in the fridge or we're staying in the coolest part of our homes, and making sure that we're taking steps to get through this heat wave."

Environment Canada has issued alerts for British Columbia, Alberta, and parts of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, saying the "prolonged, dangerous and historic heat wave will persist through this week."

The heat wave has forced schools and Covid-19 vaccination centers to close in the Vancouver area, while officials set up temporary water fountains and misting stations on street corners.

Stores quickly sold out of portable air conditioners and fans, so several people without cooling at home and they hunkered down in their air conditioned cars or underground parking garages at night.

Cities across the western United States and Canada opened emergency cooling centers and outreach workers handed out bottles of water and hats.

The extreme heat, combined with intense drought, also created the perfect conditions for several fires to break out over the weekend, and one blaze on the California-Oregon border had already burned about 1,500 acres (600 hectares) by Monday morning.

"Dubai would be cooler than what we're seeing now," David Phillips, a senior climatologist for Environment Canada, said on Monday.

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