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Taliban celebrate victory as last US troops leave Afghanistan

KABUL, Aug 31: Celebratory gunfire resounded across Kabul on Tuesday as Taliban fighters took control of the airport before dawn, following the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops, marking the end of a 20-year war that left the Islamist militia stronger than it was in 2001.

Shaky video footage distributed by the Taliban showed fighters entering the airport after the last U.S. troops flew out on a C-17 aircraft a minute before midnight, ending a hasty and humiliating exit for Washington and its NATO allies.

"It is a historical day and a historical moment," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a news conference at the airport after the departure. "We are proud of these moments, that we liberated our country from a great power."

An image from the Pentagon taken with night-vision optics showed the last U.S. soldier to step aboard the final evacuation flight out of Kabul - Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.

America's longest war took the lives of nearly 2,500 U.S. troops and an estimated 240,000 Afghans, and cost some $2 trillion.

Although it succeeded in driving the Taliban from power and stopped Afghanistan being used as a base by al Qaeda to attack the United States, it ended with the hardline Islamist militants controlling more territory than during their previous rule.

Those years from 1996 to 2001 saw the Taliban's brutal enforcement of their strict interpretation of Islamic law, and the world watches now to see if the movement forms a more moderate and inclusive government in the months ahead.

Thousands of Afghans have already fled, fearing Taliban reprisals. More than 123,000 people were evacuated from Kabul in a massive but chaotic airlift by the United States and its allies over the past two weeks, but tens of thousands who helped Western nations during the war were left behind.

A contingent of Americans, estimated by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken as fewer than 200, and possibly closer to 100, wanted to leave but were unable to get on the last flights.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab put the number of UK nationals in Afghanistan in the low hundreds, following the evacuation of some 5,000.

General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told a Pentagon briefing that the chief U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, was on the last C-17 flight out.

"There's a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure," McKenzie told reporters. "We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think if we'd stayed another 10 days, we wouldn't have gotten everybody out."

The leaving U.S. troops destroyed more than 70 aircraft, dozens of armoured vehicles and disabled air defences that had thwarted an attempted Islamic State rocket attack on the eve of their departure.

But as the Taliban watched U.S. troops leave Kabul on Monday night, eight of their fighters were killed in clashes in the Panjshir valley north of the capital, said Fahim Dashti, a spokesman for the recently formed National Resistance Forces.

Several thousand anti-Taliban fighters, from local militias, remnants of army and special forces units, have gathered in the valley under the command of regional leader Ahmad Massoud.

In a statement, President Joe Biden defended his decision to stick to Tuesday's withdrawal deadline. He said the world would hold the Taliban to their commitment to allow safe passage for those wanting to leave Afghanistan.

"Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended," said Biden, who thanked the U.S. military for carrying out the dangerous evacuation. He plans to address the American people on Tuesday afternoon.

Biden has said the United States long ago achieved its objectives set in ousting the Taliban in 2001 for harbouring al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks.

He has drawn heavy criticism from Republicans and some fellow Democrats for his handling of Afghanistan since the Taliban took over Kabul this month after a lightning advance and the collapse of the U.S.-backed government.

Blinken said the United States was prepared to work with the new Taliban government if it did not carry out reprisals against opponents in the country.

"The Taliban seeks international legitimacy and support," he said. "Our position is any legitimacy and support will have to be earned."

Mujahid said the Taliban wanted to establish diplomatic relations with the United States despite two decades of hostility.

"The Islamic Emirate wants to have good diplomatic relations with the whole world," he said.

Neighbouring Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, told a news conference in Islamabad that he expected a new "consensus government will be formed in the coming days in Afghanistan".

The Taliban must revive a war-shattered economy without the foreign aid running into billions of dollars that had flowed to the previous ruling elite and fed systemic corruption.

People living outside Afghan cities face what U.N. officials have called a catastrophic humanitarian situation, worsened by a severe drought.

India Officially Talks To Taliban, Raises Safe Evacuation, Terrorism

NEW DELHI, Aug 31: India today, for the first time, admitted to have held diplomatic talks with the Taliban which has taken control of Afghanistan in the past few days following the withdrawal of US forces from there.

An Indian envoy met a leader of the terrorist group in Doha, Qatar's capital. The meeting took place following a request by the new rulers of the strife-hit country.

Ambassador Deepak Mittal, India's envoy to Qatar, met Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, Head of Taliban's Political Office in that country, according to a press release from the Ministry of External Affairs. They met at the Indian Embassy in Doha, the statement said.

India raised its concern over the use of Afghanistan's territory by terrorists, while Stanekzai assured him that these issues would be positively addressed, according to the release.

"Discussions focused on safety, security, and early return of Indian nationals stranded in Afghanistan. The travel of Afghan nationals, especially minorities, who wish to visit India also came up," it said.

"Ambassador Mittal raised India's concern that Afghanistan's soil should not be used for anti-Indian activities and terrorism in any manner."

Stanikzai, the Taliban representative Ambassador Mittal spoke to today, trained with the Indian Army between 1979 and 1982 -- three years in the Army Cadet College, Nowgaon, and then at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun.

India was earlier engaged with "important stakeholders in Afghanistan", and had adopted a "wait and watch" approach, a report had said referring to a briefing to an all-party meeting by Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla.

"India is working with its key partners and is continuing engagement with the people of Afghanistan," the report had said citing Shringla.

Palestinian President Abbas holds rare talks with Israeli minister

RAMALLAH, Aug 30: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has held his first official meeting with a senior Israeli in more than a decade.

Defence Minister Benny Gantz said he travelled to Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, on Sunday night to discuss security, civilian and economic issues.

He told Abbas that Israel would seek to strengthen the Palestinian economy.

US President Joe Biden wants both sides to repair relations that have deteriorated since the last round of direct peace talks collapsed in 2014.

At the White House on Friday, he urged Israel's new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to take "steps to improve the lives of Palestinians and support greater economic opportunities for them".

He also reaffirmed his view that a negotiated two-state solution was the only viable path to achieving a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

An Israeli government source stressed that Sunday's meeting was approved by Bennett, and that Gantz had not discussed peace talks with Abbas.

On Monday afternoon Gantz told Israeli media that he had offered the Palestinian Authority a $155m (£113m) loan as an advance on tax revenue collected by Israel on its behalf.

He also said Israel would recognise the status of thousands of Palestinians currently living in the West Bank without proper documentation; grant Israeli work permits to an additional 16,000 Palestinians; and issue 1,000 building permits for Palestinians in parts of the West Bank under full Israeli control.

Senior Palestinian official Hassan al-Sheikh said Sunday's discussions covered "all aspects" of Palestinian-Israeli relations.

The militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and fought an 11-day conflict with Israeli forces in May, warned that the meeting "deepens Palestinian political division".

US Strikes ISIS-K ‘Suicide Bombers’ Aiming For Kabul Airport

WASHINGTON, Aug 29: The US on Sunday launched airstrikes in Kabul against a vehicle possibly carrying “multiple suicide bombers” from the Islamic State’s local branch in Afghanistan — ISIS-K — who intended to target the airport, American officials said.

In another incident, a rocket hit a residential house in a neighbourhood in the Afghanistan capital, killing two civilians, including a child. It was not immediately known if the two incidents were connected as information on both remained scarce.

In an official statement, Captain Bill Urban, US Central Command spokesperson, said, “US military forces conducted a self-defense unmanned over-the-horizon airstrike today on a vehicle in Kabul, eliminating an imminent ISIS-K threat to Hamid Karzai International airport.”

He added the explosions from the vehicle indicated the “presence of a substantial amount of explosive material". “We are confident we successfully hit the target. Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material. We are assessing the possibilities of civilian casualties, though we have no indications at this time," he said.

This comes a day after US President Joe Biden vowed attacks against ISIS-K in response to the twin blasts that had rocked the Kabul airport on Thursday, killing over 180 people, including 13 US Marines. A massive foreign evacuation is currently underway in Kabul airport after Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban.

The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed responsibility for the airport bombing, which was one of the worst in Afghanistan’s history. Since its inception seven years ago, the group has fought a long and hard fight with the Taliban under the moniker used by Muslim imperial rulers for a stretch of territory that includes modern-day Afghanistan.

Since the incident on Thursday, the Taliban and US soldiers have strengthened security around the airport. According to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, Washington believes there are still “specific and credible” threats against the airport.

“We … would expect future attempts,” he said. “We’re monitoring these threats, very, very specifically, virtually in real time.”

According to analysts, the airlift by around 20 countries that has evacuated tens of thousands of people from Kabul’s airport since the Taliban took over two weeks ago is winding down, effectively establishing a deadline for extremists intending to assault an apparent target.

Britain completed its evacuation flights on Saturday, while US military supply planes maintained their trips on Sunday, ahead of Joe Biden’s deadline of August 31 to withdraw all troops from America’s longest conflict.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US was working with other countries in the region to either keep the Kabul airport open after Tuesday or to reopen it “in a timely fashion.”

He also said that while the airport is critical, “there are other ways to leave Afghanistan, including by road and many countries border Afghanistan.” The U.S., he said, is “making sure that we have in place all of the necessary tools and means to facilitate the travel for those who seek to leave Afghanistan" after Tuesday.

The US president has threatened to track down those responsible for Thursday’s attack.

Last year, the US, Afghan government, and Taliban offensives drove the ISKP out of strongholds in Nangarhar’s eastern province. It has since reorganised, keeping some networks in eastern Afghanistan and building new ones in Kabul.

Resistance Forces In Afghan Province Reject Taliban's Claim Of Advances: Report

KABUL, Aug 29: The resistance forces in the Panjshir province on Saturday rejected the Taliban claims that their forces entered Panjshir province from various directions.

Ahmad Massoud supporters rejected the claims of a Taliban advance toward Panjshir and say no one has entered the province, reported Tolo News.

"There is no fight in Panjshir and no one has entered the province," said Mohammad Almas Zahid, head of the Resistance Front delegation.

Earlier, the Taliban claimed that their forces entered Panjshir province.

"No fighting occurred, but the mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan advanced from various directions without facing any resistance. The Islamic Emirate forces have entered Panjshir from different directions," said Anaamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban's Cultural Commission, reported Tolo News.

Ahmad Massoud (the son of famous Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and one of the leaders of the resistance against the Taliban) and Amrullah Saleh (former Afghan government first Vice President) - are trying to mount a challenge to the Taliban.

For a long time, fighters in Panjshir have prevented the capture of the region from Taliban terrorists by firing a heavy machine gun into a deep valley from the top of the rocky mountain.

These fighters are from the National Resistance Front (NRF), the remaining strongest force after the siege of Kabul by the Taliban.

The valley lies in the Hindu Kush mountains, approximately 90 miles north of Kabul. The Taliban have been unable to take this major holdout of resistance after steamrolling across pro-government troops in a matter of months.

Amid anti-Taliban uprising, Taliban kill Afghan folk singer with whom they had tea before: Report

KABUL, Aug 29: As anti-Taliban forces are putting up resistance in Afghanistan's Panjshir province, reports said a Taliban fighter shot an Afghan folk singer Fawad Andarabi dead in Baghlan province, where the anti-Taliban forces are strong and have reportedly taken some areas under their control.

Fawad Andarabi's son Jawad Andarabi said that this was not the first time that the Taliban came to their house. The Taliban previously came out to Andarabi's home and searched it, even drinking tea with the musician, his son Jawad Andarabi said. The singer was shot in the head on the farm.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that the insurgents would investigate the incident, but had no other details on the killing.

“There is mounting evidence that the Taliban of 2021 is the same as the intolerant, violent, repressive Taliban of 2001. 20 years later. Nothing has changed on that front," Agnes Callamard, the secretary-general of Amnesty International tweeted reacting to the report of the killing.

The report of Fawad Andarabi's killing comes amid global apprehension that the Taliban rule in Afghanistan would provide a fillip to jihadist activities. After ISIS-K perpetrated a deadly blast near Kabul airport on August 26, the United States carried out an airstrike killing two ISIS-K men.

During the previous rule of the Taliban, music was banned in Afghanistan as the Taliban claim that music is forbidden in Islam. Fawad Andarabi was a folk singer who used to sing praises of Afghanistan and most of his songs were about Afghanistan and its people. As disclosed by Andarabi's son, the Taliban apparently did not have much 'ill-feeling' about Andarabi as some leaders of the group had visited the singer's house earlier

40 Dead In Kabul Suicide Blasts; ISIS Hand Suspected

WASHINGTON, Aug 26: There were at least two explosions near Kabul's airport amid a huge and chaotic evacuation effort from Afghanistan on Thursday, the Pentagon said, with civilians and U.S. service members among the casualties of what was described as a "complex attack."

U.S. officials said they were concerned that further attacks could occur at the airport following the twin blasts, which a Taliban official said killed at least 13 people, including children, and wounded many Taliban guards. Media reports said the number of deaths are at least 40.

A U.S. official, citing initial information, said as many as five U.S. military personnel may have been hurt, including at least one seriously. U.S. officials have said there are about 5,200 American troops providing security at the Kabul airport.

The attacks came after the United States and allies urged Afghans to leave the area because of a threat by Islamic State militants.

A source familiar with U.S. congressional briefings said U.S. officials strongly believe that the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), after an old name for the region, was responsible. ISIS-K is opposed by the United States and the Taliban.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said one blast occurred near the airport's Abbey Gate and the other close to the nearby Baron Hotel. Two U.S. officials said at least one of the explosions appeared to be from a suicide bombing.

"We can confirm that the explosion at the Abbey Gate was the result of a complex attack that resulted in a number of US & civilian casualties," Kirby said on twitter. "We can also confirm at least one other explosion at or near the Baron Hotel, a short distance from Abbey Gate."

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul described "a large explosion" and said there had been reports of gunfire.

A source who was in touch with a witness by text message quoted that witness as saying there appeared to have been two separate but simultaneous attacks, one by a suicide bomber near buses lined up outside Abbey Gate, where the blast was followed by small arms fire.

The second occurred at Baron Gate, named after the nearby Baron Hotel. The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, quoted the witness as saying that children were among the casualties.

The attacks came after the United States and allies urged Afghans to leave the area because of a threat by Islamic State.

A massive airlift of foreign nationals and their families as well as some Afghans has been under way since the day before Taliban forces captured Kabul on Aug. 15, capping a swift advance across the country as U.S. and allied troops withdrew.

The United States has been racing to carry out the airlift before its military is set to fully withdraw from the country by Aug. 31. There was no indication from the White House that Biden plans to change the Aug. 31 withdrawal target as a result of the attacks, a source familiar with the situation said.

Biden was in a meeting with security officials about the situation in Afghanistan, where the United States is in the final steps of ending its 20-year war, when the explosion was first reported, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Biden, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley and Vice President Kamala Harris monitored events via video links.

In an alert issued on Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul had advised citizens to avoid traveling to the airport and said those already at the gates should leave immediately, citing unspecified "security threats."

A Western diplomat in Kabul said that areas outside the airport gates had been "incredibly crowded" again despite the warnings.

The United States and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations in history, bringing out about 95,700 people, including 13,400 on Wednesday, the White House said on Thursday.

Taliban prevent 140 Sikhs from coming to India, didn't allow to reach Kabul airport

KABUL, Aug 26: The Taliban have barred 140 Afghan Sikhs and Hindus from traveling to India, who were to attend the 400th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur, on August 29 at a gurdwara in Delhi's Mahavir Nagar.

The development comes two days after the Taliban announced that they would not allow any Afghan nationals to leave the country.

Ukraine's evacuation plane hijacked in Afghanistan, taken to Iran: Report

KIEV, Aug 24: Unidentified armed hijackers took control of a Ukrainian plane and flew it to Iran after it arrived in Afghanistan last week to evacuate Ukrainians, reports Russian News Agency TASS.

"Last Sunday, our plane was hijacked by other people. On Tuesday, the plane was practically stolen from us, with an unidentified group of passengers onboard instead of airlifting Ukrainians," Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Yevgeny Yenin said.

"Our next three evacuation attempts were also not successful because our people could not get into the airport," he said.

The deputy minister did not report anything about what happened to the plane or whether Kiev would seek to get it back or how the Ukrainian citizens got back from Kabul.

According to TASS, a military transport plane with 83 people onboard, including 31 Ukrainians, arrived from Afghanistan to Kiev on Sunday.

Taliban refuses to extend August 31 withdrawal deadline

KABUL, Aug 23: The Taliban warned on Monday there would be "consequences" if the United States and its allies extend their presence in Afghanistan beyond next week, as chaos continued to overwhelm Kabul airport with tens of thousands of people still desperate to flee.

To oversee a chaotic airlift of foreigners and Afghans desperate to escape the return of the hardline Islamic regime, thousands of troops have poured back into Afghanistan and pressure is growing on Washington to extend an August 31 withdrawal deadline.

But the Taliban Monday showed no willingness to compromise, with spokesman Suhail Shaheen telling Sky News that staying beyond the agreed deadline would be "extending occupation".

"If the US or UK were to seek additional time to continue evacuations -- the answer is no... there would be consequences," he said.

Two Taliban sources, meanwhile, told AFP the group would not announce the makeup of its government or cabinet until the last US soldier has left the country.

The rush to leave Kabul has sparked harrowing scenes and killed at least eight people, some crushed to death and at least one person after falling off a plane.

The German defence ministry said Monday an Afghan man was killed and three others injured in a dawn firefight between local guards and unknown assailants.

German and American troops "participated in a further exchange of fire", it said in a statement.

The Taliban, infamous for an ultra-strict interpretation of sharia law during their initial 1996-2001 rule, have repeatedly claimed to be different this time and declared an amnesty for government forces and officials.

But an intelligence document for the United Nations said terrorists were going door-to-door hunting former government officials and those who worked with US and NATO forces.

President Joe Biden has insisted he wants to end the US military presence and airlifts by the end of the month.

But with the European Union and Britain saying it would be impossible to get everyone out by then, Biden is under pressure to extend the deadline.

Germany said on Monday it was in talks with NATO allies and the Taliban to keep Kabul airport open for evacuations beyond August 31, while France voiced "concern" over the deadline, saying "additional time is needed to complete ongoing operations".

Speaking at the White House on Sunday, Biden said negotiations were under way to explore the possibility of extending the deadline.

He also acknowledged the tragic scenes at the airport, which have included babies and children being passed to soldiers over razor-wire fences and men clinging to the outside of departing planes.

He said, however, they were part of the cost of departure.

"There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss and heartbreaking images you see," he said.

The Pentagon on Monday said about 16,000 people were evacuated over the past 24 hours from Kabul airport, taking to 37,000 the number relocated since the intense airlift operations started on August 14.

In the capital, the Taliban have enforced some sense of calm in a city long marred by violent crime, with their armed forces patrolling the streets and manning checkpoints.

Visually, they have also been looking to stamp their authority, ensuring the tri-coloured national flag is replaced with their white banner.

At a roadside in Kabul on the weekend, young men sold Taliban flags, which bear in black text the Muslim proclamation of faith and the regime's formal name: "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan".

"Our goal is to spread the flag of the Islamic Emirate throughout Afghanistan," said seller Ahmad Shakib, who studies economics at university.

Outside of Kabul, there have been flickers of resistance against the Taliban.

Some ex-government troops have gathered in the Panjshir Valley, north of the capital -- long known as an anti-Taliban bastion.

The Taliban said Monday their fighters had surrounded resistance forces holed up in the valley, but were looking to negotiate rather than take the fight to them.

Taliban fighters "are stationed near Panjshir", spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted, adding the group was trying to resolve this issue peacefully".

The announcement follows scattered reports of clashes overnight, with pro-Taliban social media accounts claiming gunmen were massing, and Afghanistan's former vice president Amrullah Saleh saying resistance forces were holding strong.

One of the leaders of the movement in Panjshir, named the National Resistance Front, is the son of famed anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The NRF is prepared for a "long-term conflict" but is also still seeking to negotiate with the Taliban about an inclusive government, its spokesman Ali Maisam Nazary told AFP in an interview on the weekend.

With government offices still mostly closed, many Afghans are worried about being paid -- but the Taliban announced the appointment of a central bank governor Monday to keep the wheels of finance moving.

Civil servants were told at the weekend, however, that they wouldn't get their salaries until a new government was formed.

Rights of women will be under Shariya law: Taliban

KABUL, Aug 17: Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, during the first press briefing since taking over Kabul, congratulated the whole Afghanistan and said, “We don’t want to repeat any war with any country.” He further said that the rights of women will be under the Shariya law.

Earlier today, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security against the backdrop of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman attended the meeting, besides senior officials

Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh said on Tuesday he was in Afghanistan and the "legitimate caretaker president" after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as Taliban insurgents took the capital Kabul.

Saleh told a security meeting chaired by Ghani last week that he was proud of the armed forces and the government would do all it could to strengthen resistance to the Taliban.

The CCS meeting also included National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, as also India's Ambassador to Afghanistan Rudrendra Tandon, who returned to India on Tuesday itself.

The Cabinet Committee on Security is the apex government body that deals with the issues of national security.

India has brought back the Indian ambassador and all staff members from its embassy in Kabul in two military transport aircraft in the wake of escalating tension and deteriorating security situation in the Afghan capital after its takeover by the Taliban.

A military transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force brought back from Kabul around 150 people including Indian diplomats, officials, security personnel and some stranded Indians on Tuesday. Another flight had evacuated around 40 staffers from Kabul on Monday.

Earlier on Tuesday, the MEA said that the immediate priority for the government is to obtain accurate information about all Indian nationals currently staying in Afghanistan.

India evacuates embassy staff in Kabul

NEW DELHI, Aug 17: Amid escalating tensions in Afghanistan, India Tuesday evacuated its entire embassy — including the Indian ambassador. A special Indian Air Force aircraft with 130 diplomats and around 20 Indians stranded in Afghanistan, landed in Jamnagar earlier in the day.

This is the second time since 1996 that India has evacuated its mission in Kabul — both times after the Taliban came to power.

The announcement came two days after the Taliban captured power in Afghanistan. Kabul fell to the Taliban on Sunday completing their takeover of the country in a lightning offensive that saw provinces and warlords give up without a fight, days after the hasty withdrawal of US troops.

The IAF plane which had taken off from Kabul landed at the Air Force Station in Jamnagar for refueling. Officers said the aircraft, a C-17 Globemaster, will fly to Delhi this afternoon.

“The aircraft landed at around 11:30 AM and we went to the tarmac to welcome the evacuees with garlands. They are being taken to a facility for lunch even as the aircraft is being refueled,” said Dharmendrasinh Jadeja, Gujarat’s Minister of State for Food, Civil Supplies, and Consumer Affairs.

“The passengers, who were tense, looked relieved after landing in Jamnagar. They have been taken to a facility within the Air Force Station for refreshment and once the aircraft is refueled, the evacuees will resume their journey onward to Delhi,” Sourabh Pardhi, district collector of Jamnagar said.

This is the second evacuation flight. On Monday, another C-17 aircraft had evacuated around 40 people including some Indian embassy staff from Kabul before the operations at the airport in the city were suspended.

Meanwhile, the Union Home Ministry Tuesday announced a new category of visa to fast-track the applications of Afghans who want to come to India in view of the prevailing situation in Afghanistan.

The evacuation operation resumed this morning at Kabul airport.

On Monday, the MEA had said that it was monitoring the situation “on a constant basis at high levels” and is “in constant touch with the representatives of Afghan Sikh and Hindu communities”. “The Government will take all steps to ensure the safety and security of Indian nationals and our interests in Afghanistan,” Bagchi said in a statement.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flees to Tajikistan as Taliban take over: Reports

KABUL, Aug 15: Taliban insurgents entered Afghanistan`s capital Kabul on Sunday and an official said President Ashraf Ghani had left the city for Tajikistan, capping the militants` lightning push for power.

A senior Afghan Interior Ministry official said Ghani had left for Tajikistan. Asked for comment, the president`s office "cannot say anything about Ashraf Ghani`s movement for security reasons".

A representative of the Taliban said the group was checking on Ghani`s whereabouts.

American diplomats were evacuated from their embassy by chopper after a swift advance, who were poised to run Afghanistan again 20 years after they were toppled by U.S.-led forces following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Taliban fighters were reaching the capital "from all sides", said a senior Afghan interior ministry official.

But there were no reports of fighting and the group`s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said they were waiting on the outskirts and were in talks with the Western-backed government for a peaceful surrender.

"Taliban fighters are to be on standby on all entrances of Kabul until a peaceful and satisfactory transfer of power is agreed," he said.

Representatives from the two sides were due to meet in Qatar on Sunday, said Fawzi Koofi, a member of the Kabul negotiating team. A source familiar with the matter said they would discuss a transition of power and U.S. officials would also be involved.

Trudeau triggers Canadian election, voting day Sept. 20

TORONTO, Aug 15: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau triggered an election Sunday as he seeks to capitalize on Canada being one of the most fully vaccinated countries in the world.

Trudeau announced the election would be held on September 20 after visiting the governor general, who holds a mostly ceremonial position representing Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

“We’ve had your back, and now it’s time to hear your voice,” Trudeau said. “Canadians need to choose how we finish the fight against COVID-19."

Trudeau is seeking to win a majority of seats in Parliament. His Liberal Party fell just short of that two years ago and must rely on the opposition to pass legislation.

The election comes as Canada is experiencing a new wave of COVID-19 cases, driven by the delta variant of the coronavirus. Trudeau called it “the fourth wave amongst unvaccinated people."

Trudeau isn’t as popular as he once was, but his government’s handling of the pandemic has been widely viewed as a success. After a slow start Canada now has enough vaccine for every citizen. More than 71% of eligible Canadians are fully vaccinated and over 82% have received at least one dose. The government has spent billions to prop up the economy amid lockdowns that have now lifted.

But if the result is another minority government, the “knives will start to come out," said Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto.

“Trudeau is not widely liked. He’s what the Liberals have so they will fall in behind him, but if he loses he’s toast,” Bothwell said.

“It’s not that he’s unpopular but there’s no affection there. The Liberals behave as if he is this beloved figure but he’s not. The novelty is gone. But there’s still enough there and the performance on COVID was pretty solid so I think people will balance these things going into the election and vote for Trudeau.”

Trudeau, the son of the late Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, became the second youngest prime minister in Canadian history when he was first elected with a majority of seats in Parliament in 2015. The Liberal’s victory ended almost 10 years of Conservative Party government in Canada, but scandals combined with high expectations have damaged Trudeau’s standing.

His father served as prime minister from 1968 to 1984 with a short interruption.

Opposition leftist New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh said it is “selfish” for Trudeau to call an election in a pandemic. Ontario, Canada's largest province, reported more than 500 cases for the fourth straight day.

Opposition Conservative leader Erin O'Toole didn't answer when asked if his candidates will or should be vaccinated. He said he is disappointed Trudeau is trying to divide people about their health.

Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said many Canadians will resent having an election they see as unnecessary, but said the Liberals will win the most seats.

“Trudeau is seen as having delivered on vaccines and there has been widespread support for the government’s income-and job-support programs to counter COVID’s economic fallout,” Wiseman said.

“Canadians compare their situation to the U.S. The current spike in the U.S. contributes to smug complacency among Canadians. This feeling benefits the Liberals at present.”

Trudeau began his news conference Saturday talking about the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan. Canada closed its embassy in Kabul and staff have fled the country. “The current situation poses serious challenges to our ability to ensure that safety and security of our mission,” Trudeau said.

Canada has committed to taking in 20,000 refugees from the country and Afghans who have assisted Canada over the years.

Taliban Captures More Cities, US Sends Troops to Bring Americans Home

KABUL, Aug 13: As Taliban militants gained control of Afghanistan’s second and third largest cities on Friday, the United States and western nations are preparing to send troops to help evacuate workers from embassies in the capital, Kabul.

The capture of Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west after days of clashes is a major loss for the Afghan government. The Taliban also captured the towns of Lashkar Gah in the south and Qala-e-Naw in the northwest, security officers said.

Ghulam Habib Hashimi, a council member, said by telephone from Herat, “The city looks like a front line, a ghost town. Families have either left or are hiding in their homes.”

In Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, witnesses said the militants seized the governor’s office and other buildings. An official said government forces still controlled Kandahar's airport, which was the U.S. military's second biggest base in Afghanistan.

Since Aug. 6, the militants have taken control of 14 of Afghanistan's 34 provincial capitals. Of Afghanistan's major cities, the government still holds Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Jalalabad near the Pakistani border in the east.

The defeats have raised concerns that the U.S.-supported government could fall to the militants, as international forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war. And U.S. intelligence reports said this week that the Taliban could isolate Kabul within 30 days and take it over in 90 days.

On Thursday, U.S. defense officials announced that 3,000 extra troops would be deployed to Afghanistan within 48 hours to help evacuate U.S. embassy workers.

Britain said it would send about 600 troops to help its citizens leave. The Associated Press reported Canada would also deploy special forces troops to Kabul to help in the evacuation of embassy workers. Other embassies and aid groups said they were also getting their people out.

The speed of the Taliban offensive has raised criticism of U.S. President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw American troops - 20 years after they ousted the Taliban following the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.

Biden said this week he did not regret his decision. He noted that the U.S. has spent more than $1 trillion in America's longest war and has lost thousands of troops.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday. They told him the United States remained "invested" in Afghanistan's security and stability and is working in support of a political solution.

The fighting has also raised fears of a refugee crisis. A U.N. official said about 400,000 civilians have been forced from their homes since the beginning of the year.

In a deal with former President Donald Trump's administration last year, the Taliban agreed not to attack U.S.-led foreign forces as they withdrew.

The Taliban also made a promise to discuss peace. But meetings with government representatives have gone nowhere.

Taliban Move Closer To Afghan Capital After Capturing Ghazni City

KABUL, Aug 12: The Taliban seized the strategic Afghan city of Ghazni Thursday, just 150 kilometres (95 miles) from Kabul, their most important gain in a lightning offensive that has seen them overrun 10 provincial capitals in a week.

The interior ministry confirmed the fall of the city, which lies along the major Kabul-Kandahar highway and serves as a gateway between the capital and strongholds in the south.

"The enemy took control," spokesman Mirwais Stanikzai said in a message to media, adding fighting and resistance was still going on.

The government has now effectively lost most of northern and western Afghanistan and is left holding a scattered archipelago of contested cities also dangerously at risk of falling to the Taliban.

The conflict has escalated dramatically since May, when US-led forces began the final stage of a troop withdrawal due to end later this month following a 20-year occupation.

The loss of Ghazni will likely pile more pressure on the country's already overstretched airforce, needed to bolster Afghanistan's dispersed security forces who have increasingly been cut off from reinforcements by road.

Pro-Taliban social media accounts also boasted of the vast spoils of war their fighters had recovered in recent days, posting photos of armoured vehicles, heavy weapons, and even a drone seized by the insurgents at abandoned Afghan military bases.

In less than a week the insurgents have taken 10 provincial capitals and encircled the biggest city in the north, the traditional anti-Taliban bastion of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Fighting was also raging in Kandahar and Lashkar Gar -- pro-Taliban heartlands in the south -- as well as Herat in the west.

An official in Lashkar Gah said Taliban fighters were inching closer to government positions after a massive car bomb badly damaged the city's police headquarters Wednesday evening.

The blast forced local police to retreat to the governor's office, while around 40 of their colleagues and one senior commander surrendered to the Taliban.

And in Kandahar, the Taliban said they had overrun the heavily fortified jail in Kandahar, saying "hundreds of prisoners were released and taken to safety".

The Taliban frequently target prisons to release incarcerated fighters and replenish their ranks.

The loss of the prison is a further ominous sign for the country's second city, which has been besieged for weeks by the Taliban.

Kandahar was once the stronghold of the Taliban -- whose forces coalesced in the eponymously named province in the early 1990s -- and its capture would serve as both a tactical and psychological victory for the militants.

Hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the fighting that has enveloped the country.

In recent days, Kabul has been swamped by the displaced, who have begun camping out in parks and other public spaces, sparking a fresh humanitarian crisis in the already overtaxed capital.

In Washington, defence officials appeared to be grappling with the spiralling situation but insisted that Afghan security forces were still holding their ground.

"What we're seeing, a deteriorating security situation, we've been nothing but candid about that," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.

"But there are places and there are times, including today, where Afghan forces in the field are putting up a fight."

Ethiopia using rape as a strategy in Tigray war: Amnesty

TIGRAY, Aug 12: The Ethiopian military and its allies are responsible for widespread sexual violence against women in Tigray, using rape as a strategy of war, Amnesty International says.

The scale of violations during the nine-month conflict in the north of the country amounts to war crimes, the human rights group says.

One woman reported being gang-raped in front of her children.

Ethiopia's government says the report is based on "flawed methodology".

The foreign ministry accused Amnesty of waging "sensationalised attacks and smear campaigns" against Ethiopia, saying the country condemned sexual violence in all circumstances.

Amnesty said it had "overwhelming evidence" to show such violence had been rampant since the start of the conflict.

It began last November when the region's Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) party stormed a military base after falling out with the prime minister over his political reforms.

The rights group interviewed 63 women and children from Tigray who said they had been raped by Ethiopian troops, their Eritrean allies, or by pro-government fighters from the neighbouring region of Amhara.

The author, Donatella Rovera, said that the testimonies had been among the worst she had ever heard.

"The level of sadistic and gratuitous brutality in addition to the rape was absolutely shocking," she said.

Thousands of people have been killed in the conflict in Tigray.

A 39-year-old woman reported being seized by Eritrean soldiers as she was travelling with her two children. "Five of them raped me in front of my children," she told Amnesty.

"They used an iron rod, which is used to clean the gun, to burn me. They inserted pieces of metal in my womb... Then they left me on the street."

Some women Amnesty interviewed said they had been detained for weeks and repeatedly raped, often by several men.

Almost half of the women accused Eritrean soldiers of carrying out the violations, identified by their Tigrinya accents and uniforms.

The Eritrean authorities did not respond to Amnesty's requests for comment.

Amnesty is calling on the UN to send a team of experts to Tigray to further investigate the allegations that may amount to crimes against humanity.

The widespread nature of the assaults suggests military officials knew what was happening and that it was being tolerated at the highest level of government in Ethiopia and Eritrea, Amnesty said.

"The patterns of sexual violence emerging from survivors' accounts indicate that the violations have been part of a strategy to terrorise, degrade, and humiliate both the victims and their ethnic group," the report said.

Ms Rovera said the victims of the assaults have not had access to the support they need to recover and many are living in poverty in Sudanese refugee camps, or camps in Tigray.

On Tuesday, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called on civilians to join the army to fight in Tigray, he also accused Tigrayan forces, made of up the TPLF and its allies, of recruiting child soldiers, raping women and blocking aid.

Amnesty says none of the women it had interviewed accused Tigrayan forces of rape, but said that it would be monitoring the situation now the conflict had spread beyond Tigray's borders.

The TPLF, which has been designated a terrorist organisation by the government but says it is the legitimate regional government of Tigray, has accused the federal authorities of blocking aid.

President Tsai urges Japan, others to step up cooperation in Taiwan Strait

TAIPEI, Aug 11: Amid Chinese repressive measures, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Tuesday called on Japan and other developed countries to step up cooperation to help ensure peace and stability on the Taiwan Strait.

Tsai made the appeal in an online interview with Japanese monthly magazine Bungei Shunju, reported NHK World.

She said Japan, the United States and other nations discussing the Taiwan Strait and expressing concern sends a signal to China, which has been continuing its military buildup.

Tsai also said that increasing collaboration among Taiwan and its partners will make Beijing exercise restraint in its policy-making, including military activities, reported NHK World.

Beijing claims full sovereignty over Taiwan, a democracy of almost 24 million people located off the southeastern coast of mainland China, despite the fact that the two sides have been governed separately for more than seven decades.

China has repeatedly threatened Taiwan with invasion and has adopted an aggressive policy to intimidate the self-governing island.

On June 1, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to complete reunification with self-ruled Taiwan and vowed to smash any attempts at formal independence for the island.

She mentioned the joint statement issued after a Japan-US summit in April and the communique of the Group of Seven summit in June, both of which referred to the importance of peace and stability on the strait.

The president said Japan's donation of coronavirus vaccines to Taiwan is proof of their long-standing friendship, and she is grateful that the country offered a helping hand at a most challenging time for Taiwan, reported NHK World.

She added that she wants to pass on the bilateral relations to the next generation.

US B-52 bombers hit Taliban's positions in Afghanistan's Shebergan city

KABUL, Aug 8: The US B-52 bombers targeted positions of Taliban in Afghanistan's Shebergan city on Saturday evening.

Taking to Twitter, Afghan Defence Ministry's official Fawad Aman wrote, "The Taliban's gathering was targeted by B-52 in Shebergan city, Jawzjan province on Saturday at 6:30 pm. The terrorists have suffered heavy casualties as a result of US Air Forces."

The US on Saturday asked its citizens to leave war-torn Afghanistan as the Taliban intensified its attacks in recent days.

"The US urges its citizens to leave Afghanistan immediately using available commercial flight options. Given the security conditions and reduced staffing, the Embassy's ability to assist US citizens in Afghanistan is extremely limited even within Kabul," the US Embassy in Kabul said in a statement.

Recently, the Taliban captured, Jawzjan province's capital Sheberghan and Nimroz province's capital Zaranj.

US embassy in Kabul said the recent rise in violence by the Taliban violates the human rights of Afghans and is bringing hardship to the people of the country.

US Deputy Ambassador, Ross Wilson, in his Twitter post wrote that the country is already going through a tough time struggling with poverty, coronavirus, and drought, and the surge in violence by the Taliban will double their problems. The tweet read that increase in these attacks is a violation of the human rights of Afghans, reported The Khaama Press.

Deterioration in security situation in Afghanistan is serious: Jaishankar

NEW DELHI, Aug 7: External affairs minister S Jaishankar expressed concern at the rapid deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan while discussing the latest developments in the war-torn country with Qatar’s special envoy for conflict resolution Mutlaq bin Majed Al-Qahtani on Saturday.

Al-Qahtani, who holds the official title of special envoy of the Qatari foreign minister for counter-terrorism and mediation of conflict resolution, is visiting India as part of efforts to take forward the stalled Afghan peace process amid a devastating campaign of violence by the Taliban.

Following his meeting with Al-Qahtani, Jaishankar tweeted that he had shared the Indian perspective on recent developments in Afghanistan, and the “concerns of the region that I heard during recent interactions”.

“Rapid deterioration of the security situation is a serious matter. A peaceful and stable Afghanistan requires that the rights and interests of all sections of society are promoted and protected,” Jaishankar added.

Foreign secretary Harsh Shringla also met Al-Qahtani and discussed the Doha peace process on Afghanistan and “concerns over the deteriorating security situation”, according to a tweet from external affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi.

Joint secretary JP Singh of the external affairs ministry’s Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran (PAI) desk was also present at the meeting between Shringla and Al-Qahtani, who has played a key role in the Afghan peace process. Singh is the external affairs ministry’s pointperson for Afghanistan and had held a separate meeting with Al-Qahtani on Friday.

The security situation in Afghanistan has rapidly deteriorated in the wake of the Taliban shifting their violent attacks from rural areas to key cities and provincial capitals such as Herat, Kandahar, Lashkargah, Zaranj and Sheberghan.

Since Friday, the Taliban have reportedly captured Zaranj, the capital of Nimroz province that borders Iran, and Sheberghan, the capital of Jawzjan province.

The US and the UK have asked their citizens in Afghanistan to leave the country because of the worsening security situation. The embassies of the two countries issued alerts asking their nationals to leave on commercial flights.

“If you are still in Afghanistan, you are advised to leave now by commercial means because of the worsening security situation,” said the alert from the British embassy.

The US embassy urged Americans to leave Afghanistan immediately, adding that the mission’s ability to assist US citizens is “extremely limited even within Kabul”.

Al-Qahtani travelled to India before two key meetings to be held in Doha next week on the situation in Afghanistan. Russia has convened a meeting of the “extended troika”, which includes China, the US and Pakistan, on August 11, while Qatar will host another meeting between the Afghan side and its regional and international partners.

The world community is looking to these meetings to help revive the Afghan peace process, which has been stalled for several months as the Taliban have shown no inclination to resume peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

In June, Al-Qahtani had confirmed that Indian officials were engaged in talks with the Taliban – a development first reported by Hindustan Times. He told a webinar at the time that he believed the Indian side is engaging the Taliban as the group is seen as a “key component” in any future government in Kabul.

Taliban Assassinate Head Of Afghan Government Media Department

KABUL, Aug 6: The Taliban shot dead the head of the Afghan government's media information centre Friday near a mosque in the capital, days after warning they would target senior administration figures in retaliation for increased air strikes.

The assassination of one of the government's leading voices follows another bloody day of fighting in Afghanistan as the war spills into Kabul for the first time in months.

It also comes hours before the UN Security Council meets in New York to discuss the conflict.

"Unfortunately, the savage terrorists have committed a cowardly act once again and martyred a patriotic Afghan," interior ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanikzai said of the death of Dawa Khan Menapal.

Menapal was popular in Kabul's tight-knit media community, and known for pillorying the Taliban on social media -- even jokingly at times.

Former presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said he was "utterly shocked and devastated".

"We lost another great soul," he added.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the death, with spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid sending a message to media saying "he was killed in a special attack carried out by mujahideen".

The murder comes after the militants warned Wednesday of more attacks targeting Afghan government leaders, a day after the defence minister Bismillah Mohammadi escaped an assassination attempt in a bomb-and-gun attack.

The Afghan and US militaries have stepped up air strikes in their fight against the insurgents in a string of cities, and the Taliban said Tuesday's Kabul raid was their response.

Fighting in Afghanistan's long-running conflict has intensified since May, when foreign forces began the final stage of a withdrawal due to be completed later this month.

The Taliban already control large portions of the countryside, and are now challenging government forces in several provincial capitals.

Government forces continue to hit Taliban positions with air strikes and commando raids, and the defence ministry boasted Friday of eliminating more than 400 insurgents in the past 24 hours.

Both sides frequently exaggerate battlefield casualty figures, making independent verification virtually impossible.

But even as Afghan officials claimed to be hitting the Taliban hard, security forces have yet to flush out the militants from provincial capitals they have already entered -- with hundreds of thousands of civilians forced to flee in recent weeks.

Social media is filled with videos of the devastating toll the fighting has taken in the southern city of Lashkar Gah, with posts showing a major market area in flames.

Aid group Action Against Hunger said its offices had been hit by an "aerial bomb" in the city earlier this week, according to a statement released by the organisation on Friday.

"The building was marked from the street and roof as a non-governmental (NGO) organisation, and the office location has been communicated often to the parties involved in the conflict," said the group, adding that no staff had been harmed.

In the western city of Herat, a steady stream of people were leaving their homes in anticipation of a government assault on positions held by the Taliban.

"We completely evacuated," said Ahmad Zia, who lived in the western part of the city.

"We have nothing left and we do not know where to go," he said.

Russia Invites US, China, Pakistan For Crucial Meet On Afghanistan, India Left Out: Report

NEW DELHI, Aug 5: India has not been invited to a crucial meeting being convened by Russia on the fast-evolving situation in Afghanistan that is expected to see the participation of Pakistan, China and the US.

As the Taliban continues its offensive in Afghanistan, Russia has stepped up efforts to reach out to all key stakeholders in the war-torn country to stop the violence and push the Afghan peace process.

The "extended Troika" meeting is scheduled to be held in Qatar on August 11. Talks under the format had earlier taken place on March 18 and April 30.

Russia has also been holding the "Moscow Format" of talks to bring peace and creating conditions for the process of national reconciliation in Afghanistan.

Last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Tashkent that Russia will continue to work with India and other countries which can influence the situation in Afghanistan.

Following the comments, there was speculation that India may be included in the upcoming "extended Trioka" meeting.

"We will continue working with the Americans in the extended Troika format as well as with all other countries that can influence the situation in Afghanistan, including our partners from Central Asia, India, Iran and the US," he had told reporters.

"We have a Moscow format that includes all the main players," Lavrov had said.

Though Russia has differences with the US on various dimensions of the Afghan conflict, both countries are now pushing for the intra-Afghan talks and to put an end to the widespread violence being perpetrated by the Taliban.

India is yet to comment on the upcoming extended Troika meeting.

Meanwhile, Afghan Ambassador to India Farid Mamundzay described as a positive development the decision to hold a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on August 6 to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.

India's ambassador to the UN TS Tirumurti announced that the UN Security Council will meet on Friday under Indian Presidency to discuss and take stock of the situation in Afghanistan.

"Convening an emergency UN Security Council Session on Afghanistan is a positive development. UN & international community must play a greater role to stop the unfolding tragedy in Afghanistan due to violence & atrocities by terrorists. Thank you India for the lead role as UNSC President," Mamundzay tweeted.

The decision to hold the UNSC meeting came two days after Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammed Hanif Atmar spoke to his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar on the convening of an emergency session of the UN Security Council to stop Taliban''s violence.

India holds the presidency of the UNSC for the month of August.

The Taliban has been making rapid advances across Afghanistan by resorting to widespread violence since the United States began withdrawing its troops from the country on May 1. The US has already pulled back the majority of its forces and is looking to complete the drawdown by August 31.

India has been a major stakeholder in the peace and stability of Afghanistan. It has already invested nearly USD 3 billion in aid and reconstruction activities in the war-ravaged country.

India has been supporting a national peace and reconciliation process that is Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled.

It has also been calling upon all sections of the political spectrum in Afghanistan to work together to meet the aspirations of all people in the country, including those from the minority communities, for a prosperous and safe future.

Indian FM Jaishankar says code of conduct in South China Sea should be as per UN conventions

NEW DELHI, Aug 4: External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar on Wednesday highlighted the growing convergence of approaches on the Indo-Pacific region among different member nations.

Without naming China, the minister said at the 11th East Asia Summit (EAS) that the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea should be fully consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

"Stressed that Code of Conduct on the South China Sea should be fully consistent with UNCLOS 1982. Should not prejudice legitimate rights and interests of nations not a party to discussions," the minister tweeted.

This comes amid China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. Beijing continues to claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Jaishankar's remarks come as a task force of four warships from the Indian Navy's Eastern Fleet is scheduled to proceed on an over two-month overseas deployment to South East Asia, the South China Sea and Western Pacific, which will include exercises with Quad partners the United States, Japan and Australia.

During the EAS Foreign Ministers Meeting, Jaishankar also supported the ASEAN five-point consensus on Myanmar and welcomed the appointment of Special Envoy.

"Supported the ASEAN five-point consensus on Myanmar and welcomed the appointment of Special Envoy. Noted the growing Covid-19 challenge faced by ASEAN and conveyed our support and solidarity," EAM added.

Jaishankar said he participated in a substantive and fruitful ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers Meeting today. "Much of India's interests and relationships now lie to its East, a testimony of its ties with ASEAN. Looking forward to an early review of our Trade in Goods Agreement."

"Support Initiative for ASEAN Integration through capacity building initiatives. Contribute through Mekong-Ganga Cooperation and its Quick Impact Projects (QIPs). Noted progress in Doctoral Fellowships and Hackathon," he added.

The minister also proposed 2022 as the ASEAN-India friendship year for the 30th anniversary.

Afghan foreign minister dials Jaishankar, calls for emergency UNSC session

NEW DELHI, Aug 4: Afghan foreign minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar on Tuesday spoke to his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar about convening an emergency session of the UN Security Council on stopping the Taliban’s violence and atrocities across Afghanistan.

Atmar’s phone call to Jaishankar on Tuesday evening coincided with a car bomb attack on the residence of defence minister Bismillah Mohammadi in Kabul that triggered an intense clash between the attackers and security forces. Atmar also briefed the envoys of several countries, including India, on the security situation and the collusion between the Taliban and groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

India, currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, holds the rotating presidency of the body for August.

Atmar said in a tweet he called Jaishankar to “discuss convening an emergency UN Security Council session on AFG”. The UN and the international community “must play a greater role to stop the unfolding tragedy” in Afghanistan “due to Taliban violence & atrocities”, he said. He also appreciated the “lead role” of India as the current Security Council president.

There was no official word from the Indian side on the call.

A statement in Dari issued by the Afghan foreign ministry said Atmar briefed Jaishankar on the escalation in violence, widespread human rights violations by the Taliban and foreign terror groups in Afghanistan, and the need for a special meeting of the UN Security Council.

Atmar spoke about an “unprecedented increase in the Taliban’s brutal attacks” that have resulted in the death and displacement of civilians. He described the “Taliban’s attacks in collusion with foreign fighters and terrorist groups in Afghanistan” as a war crime and a violation of international humanitarian law.

“Given the catastrophic consequences of the Afghan war on the stability, security and prosperity of the region, the foreign minister proposed the holding of a special meeting of the UN Security Council to the Indian foreign minister, focusing on the immediate cessation of violence and the success of peace talks,” the statement said.

According to the statement, Jaishankar expressed India’s deep concern at the escalation of violence, insecurity and human rights violations by the Taliban and terrorists in Afghanistan.

A powerful car bomb went off outside the residence of the Afghan defence minister in Shirpoor area of Kabul shortly before 8pm local time. The minister was safe as he was not at the residence at the time of the blast, local media reports said. Homes of several lawmakers are also located in the high-security area.

The blast was followed by heavy gunfire and several more explosions as suicide attackers were engaged by Afghan security forces. Reports late on Tuesday said the attackers had detonated their explosive vests.

Amid the attack, Atmar briefed ambassadors of Afghanistan’s regional and international partners, including India, on “Taliban brutalities & the resulting humanitarian crisis, violations & destructions”. Atmar said in a tweet he also discussed Afghanistan’s “security plans & shared responsibility to prevent Taliban atrocities & raids on cities”.

A readout from the Afghan foreign ministry said Atmar noted that the Taliban attacks were being carried out in “direct collusion with more than 10,000 regional terrorists” from Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), al-Qaeda, Ansarullah, Jundallah, East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

He also discussed the dire humanitarian situation, the government’s new security plan, and key areas of cooperation with the world community that includes repelling Taliban attacks on metropolitan areas, preventing human rights abuses, accelerating the Afghan peace process, and implementing a six-month security programme.

Atmar said the Taliban’s attacks in recent months have killed more than 3,000 people, displaced more than 300,000, and disrupted order and provision of services in half of Afghanistan’s districts. Currently, 18 million people are facing a “dire humanitarian situation”, he added.

The Taliban’s “war crimes”, he said, included the massacre of more than 100 people in Spin Boldak, forced marriages, destruction of more than 300 pieces of public infrastructures, and suspension of services in areas controlled by the group.

The representatives of regional countries and the UN expressed their support for an immediate cessation of violence and strengthening of the peace process.

375 Taliban terrorists killed in past 24 hours: Afghan Defence Ministry

KABUL, Aug 3: At least 375 Taliban terrorists were killed and 193 more injured during the clashes with Afghan security forces, Khaama Press citing a statement from Afghanistan Defence Ministry on Tuesday.

The Ministry, in its statement, said that the operations were conducted in different provinces of Afghanistan which inflicted heavy casualties to the Taliban. A large swathe has also been recaptured as a result of operations, reported Khaama Press.

The operations were conducted in the provinces of Nuristan, Logar, Kandahar, Oruzgan, Herat, Jawzjan, Balkh, Samangan, Helmand, Kapisa, and Baghlan.

In Afghan National Defense and Security Forces' latest airstrikes, 20 Taliban were killed and 12 more wounded in the provincial capital-Lashkargah- of Helmand province, as per the ministry statement.

Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid denied the group's terrorists being killed in Helmand province and claimed Afghan government forces' airstrikes have targeted civilian people.

The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces recently recaptured the Nijrab district of Kapisa province backed by the Taliban, Khaama Press reported.

Heavy clashes are taking place between Afghanistan forces and the Taliban in several Afghan cities. Afghan forces battled the Taliban in Lashkargah as the fighting intensified in the city in southern Helmand province and the frontline was in District 1 where the US conducted an airstrike on Monday morning.

Over the last few weeks, the Taliban have captured several districts in Afghanistan including Takhar, the country's northeastern province.

Nationwide, the Taliban controls 223 districts, with 116 contested and the government holding 68, according to the Long War Journal, whose calculations tally with CNN's estimates. It says 17 of 34 provincial capitals are directly threatened by the Taliban.

Reeling under financial crunch, Pakistan puts up Prime Minister's house on rent

ISLAMABAD, Aug 3: Reeling under a financial crunch, Pakistan Prime Minister's official residence in Islamabad has been put on the market for rent.

After the ruling Tehreek-Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government announced in August 2019, its plan to convert the Prime Minster's House into a university, PM Imran Khan had vacated the residence. The federal government has now dropped the plan and decided to instead rent out the property, Samaa TV reported.

The federal cabinet, which had earlier announced a state-of-the-art federal educational institution at the Prime Minister House has, according to sources cited by local media now decided to allow people to hold cultural, fashion, educational, and other events at the premises located at the Red Zone, Islamabad.

"Two committees have been formed for this purpose. They will be responsible for ensuring the discipline and decorum of the PM House are not violated during the events," Saama TV said.

According to local media, the federal cabinet will meet and discuss ways to garner revenue from the PM House building.

The auditorium of the Prime Minister's House, two guest wings, and a lawn can be rented out to generate funds. High-level diplomatic functions, international seminars will also be held at the former principal workplace of the Pakistani premier.

Imran Khan after taking over as the country's PM had announced that the Pakistan government doesn't have money to spend on the public welfare schemes, while some in the country are "living like our colonial masters used to live". He has since then been living at his Bani Gala residence and only uses the PM office.

Pakistan's economy has shrunk by USD 19 billion in the last three years since Khan came to the power. When he became the PM he took many austerity steps to cut down the government expenses to give respite to the country's economy.

Earlier, former finance minister Miftah Ismail remarked that the Imran Khan-led regime was "toying with the economy", adding that it had increased the loans of the government and state institutions by Rs 45,000 billion.

Millions Under COVID-19 Lockdown As China Battles Delta Variant Outbreak

BEIJING, Aug 2: Millions of people were confined to their homes in China Monday as the country tried to contain its largest coronavirus outbreak in months including seven positive tests found in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in late 2019.

China reported 55 new locally transmitted cases on Monday as an outbreak of the fast-spreading Delta variant reached over 20 cities in more than a dozen provinces.

The Wuhan cluster came after the official daily tally was released, but it was confirmed by state media which said the infections had been traced to a train station.

"The seven were identified as migrant workers," Xinhua reported, citing Covid-19 prevention and control officials.

Major cities including Beijing have now tested millions of residents while cordoning off residential compounds and placing close contacts under quarantine.

Authorities in the capital met and agreed on the need to "raise vigilance, take strict precautions and defend (the city) to the death, sparing no expense," in comments put out by the Beijing government.

Elsewhere, over 1.2 million residents were placed under strict lockdown for the next three days in the central city of Zhuzhou in Hunan province Monday, as authorities roll out a citywide testing and vaccination campaign, according to an official statement.

"The situation is still grim and complicated," the Zhuzhou government said.

China had previously boasted of its success in bringing domestic cases down to virtually zero after the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, allowing the economy to rebound.

But the latest outbreak, linked to a cluster in the city of Nanjing where nine cleaners at an international airport tested positive on July 20, is threatening that success with more than 360 domestic cases reported in the past two weeks.

In the tourist destination of Zhangjiajie, famed for its national forest park, an outbreak spread last month among theatre patrons who then brought the virus back to their homes around the country.

Zhangjiajie locked down all 1.5 million residents on Friday.

Officials are urgently seeking people who have recently travelled from Nanjing or Zhangjiajie, and have urged tourists not to travel to areas where cases have been found.

Meanwhile, Beijing has blocked tourists from entering the capital during the peak summer holiday travel season.

Only "essential travellers" with negative nucleic acid tests will be allowed to enter after the discovery of a handful of cases among residents who had returned from Zhangjiajie.

Top city officials on Sunday called for residents "not to leave Beijing unless necessary".

The capital's Changping district locked down 41,000 people in nine housing communities last week.

Fresh cases were also reported on Monday in the popular tourist destination of Hainan as well as in flood-ravaged Henan province, national health authorities said.

Bennett says Israel will respond to Iranian attack in its ‘own way’; Tehran denies involvement

TEL AVIV, Aug 1: Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday blamed Iran for a deadly drone attack on an Israeli-operated oil tanker off the coast of Oman, saying Tehran has made a “serious mistake” and Tel Aviv will convey this message in its “own way”.

Bennett’s veiled threat to retaliate comes hours after Iran denied its involvement in bombing off the coast of Oman on Thursday night.

Two crewmen, a British and a Romanian national, died in the attack off the coast of Oman on the oil tanker Mercer Street, a ship operated by Zodiac Maritime, a London-based company belonging to Israeli shipping tycoon, Eyal Ofer.

While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Israel has alleged that the attack was carried out by suicide drones that hit the ship. “I just heard that Iran, in a cowardly manner, is trying to evade responsibility for the event. They are denying this. Then, I determine, with absolute certainty — Iran carried out the attack against the ship,” Prime Minister Bennett said at the start of a weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday.

“The intelligence evidence for this (Iran’s involvement) exists and we expect the international community will make it clear to the Iranian regime that they have made a serious mistake. In any case, we know how to send a message to Iran in our own way,” he said, hinting at a possible retaliatory move. “Iran’s thuggishness endangers not only Israel, but also harms global interests, namely freedom of navigation and international trade,” he claimed.

Iran on Sunday denied the allegations, calling them Israel’s “blame games”.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh described the claims of Tehran’s involvement as “baseless.” “Such blame games are nothing new,” Khatibzadeh said. “Those who are responsible for this (attack) are the ones who made it possible for the Israeli regime to set its foot in this region”.

The incident is the first known fatal attack even though several attacks on commercial shipping lines have been reported in the international media over Israel-Iran nuclear tensions.

Israel calls Iran’s nuclear programme an existential threat which it has vowed to stop by all measures possible. Tehran maintains that its nuclear programme is meant for peaceful purposes. Iran blames Israel for a series of attacks targeting its nuclear program.

Meanwhile, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as well as his British and Romanian counterparts over the last three days to coordinate an international response to the attack.

Blinken and Lapid agreed to work with other allies “to investigate the facts, provide support, and consider the appropriate next steps”.

Israel believes that Iran carried out the deadly attack on the oil tanker in response to a recent cyber attack Tehran believes was carried out by the Jewish state, local media reported on Saturday. The cyber attack in early July is said to have caused chaos in the Islamic Republic’s train system as hackers posted fake messages about alleged train delays or cancellations on display boards at stations across the country.

They also reportedly urged passengers to call for information, listing the phone number of the office of the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

A Channel 13 news report, without citing its sources, claimed that in Israel’s assessment Tehran was directly responding to those alleged attacks. The report further claimed that Iran was hoping to raise insurance costs for ships with ties to Israel in attempts to hurt its economic interests.

State-owned Iranian news network, Al-Alam, on Friday reported citing “well-informed sources” that the attack was in response to a reported Israeli strike in Syria that killed “two resistance men” last week.

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz called for an urgent discussion on Friday with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi and other defence officials.

Lapid on the other hand said that he had instructed Israeli diplomats to push for UN action against “Iranian terrorism”. “I’ve instructed the embassies in Washington, London and the UN to work with their interlocutors in government and the relevant delegations in the UN headquarters in New York,” the foreign minister said on Twitter.

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