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79 killed in Mexico pipeline blast

TLAHUELILPAN (Mexico), Jan 20: A blast at a gasoline pipeline in Mexico that killed at least 79 people has put renewed attention on the government’s strategy to stop fuel theft, with some relatives saying fuel shortages stemming from the plan led people to risk their lives.

Fuel thieves punctured the Tula-Tuxpan pipeline a few miles from one of Mexico’s main refineries on Friday. Up to 800 people flocked to fill plastic containers from the 7-meter (23-ft) gasoline geyser that ensued, officials say. A couple of hours later, it exploded.

Mexican Health Minister Jorge Alcocer said on Sunday the number of dead in the incident had risen to 79 people.

Iran says Taliban must have Afghan role, but can’t dominate

NEW DELHI, Jan 9: Efforts for a negotiated settlement of the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan have gathered pace in recent weeks, even as reports that U.S. President Donald Trump plans to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops have triggered uncertainty in Kabul.

The Taliban must have a role in Afghanistan in future, Iran’s foreign minister said on Wednesday, but added that the hardline Islamist group should not have a dominant role.

Efforts for a negotiated settlement of the 18-year war in Afghanistan have gathered pace in recent weeks, even as reports that U.S. President Donald Trump plans to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops have triggered uncertainty in Kabul.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad has held three rounds of talks with the Taliban, but on Tuesday, the militants cancelled a fourth round, which had been due in Qatar this week.

The militants said they called off the talks because of an “agenda disagreement”, especially over the involvement of officials from the Western-backed Afghan government as well as a possible ceasefire. Largely Shi’ite Muslim Iran has long been wary of the Sunni Muslim Taliban.

Gunmen armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers stormed the heavily fortified headquarters of the Afghan interior ministry on Wednesday, battling security forces for more than two hours in the latest attack on the capital Kabul.

But Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on a visit to India that Iran has had intelligence contacts with the Taliban because it needed to secure border areas controlled by the Taliban on the Afghan side. “I think it would be impossible to have a future Afghanistan without any role for the Taliban,” Zarif, who is in New Delhi for talks with Indian leaders, told NDTV in an interview.

“But we also believe that the Taliban should not have a dominant role in Afghanistan.”

The Taliban, who are fighting to oust all foreign forces and defeat the government, want to re-impose strict Islamic law in Afghanistan after their 2001 ouster by U.S.-led troops. Zarif said it was up to Afghans to decide what role the Taliban should have but Afghanistan’s neighbours would not want them to be in overall control.

“Nobody in the region believes that a Taliban dominated Afghanistan is in the security interests of the region. I believe that is almost a consensus.”

A Taliban source speaking about the cancelled talks said that U.S. officials had insisted that the Taliban should meet Afghan officials in Qatar and said “both sides were in disagreement over declaring a ceasefire in 2019”.

The Taliban have rejected repeated requests from regional powers to allow Afghan officials to take part in the talks, insisting that the United States is their main adversary.

Indian Army chief says there should be no conditions for talks with Taliban

NEW DELHI, Jan 9: Indian Army chief Gen Bipin Rawat on Wednesday endorsed the option of dialogue with the Taliban provided there are no preconditions and the talks are aimed at bringing lasting peace and stability to Afghanistan.

Rawat’s remarks came against the backdrop of efforts by Pakistan, the US, Russia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. However, the Taliban have refused to engage with the government in Kabul and India has kept a close watch on these developments because of Pakistan’s influence on the militants.

Speaking during a session on countering terrorism at the Raisina Dialogue, Rawat said youngsters in Jammu and Kashmir had been radicalised through disinformation but the Islamic State was unable to gain a foothold among India’s Muslims because of family values and the work done by security agencies.

“When you talk to the terrorists or any organisation of that kind, you have to talk without preconditions…because when you start attaching preconditions, then it kind of gives a sense of a notion of victory, that one or the other side is talking from a position of strength or victory,” he said in response to a question on talks with the Taliban.

“There should be talks with the Taliban so long as they do not come out with any preconditions and so long as they are looking at lasting peace in Afghanistan and bringing about stability in that country. It is in our interest, it is in the region’s interest and in Pakistan’s interest. We all want stability.”

Rawat expressed misgivings about Pakistan’s role, saying it had “always treated Afghanistan as its backyard”. He added, “So they would always want a situation in Afghanistan which is more favourable to them. So even if it implies speaking to the devil, I think they will do it.”

Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani envoy to the US and a vocal critic of the Pakistan Army, who was part of the same session, said the Taliban have the psychological upper hand because the US had never focused on a key problem – the safe havens for the militants in another country.

The Taliban understand that the Americans are anxious to leave and this made them feel stronger and show disrespect to the Afghan government. He questioned whether the Taliban would change their ideology if the US were to withdraw and said: “A settlement that makes the Taliban feel they have won will embolden those who sponsor terrorism.”

Rawat said radicalisation had taken a different form in India, especially in Jammu and Kashmir, where youngsters under the sway of “misinformation, disinformation and a lot of falsehoods on religion” have taken to terrorism. “So long as there are nations which are going to continue to sponsor terrorism as a state policy, this phenomenon will continue,” he added.

The Islamic State “had not been able to find its feet in the manner it has found in some other countries in spite of our nation being populated with a large number of Muslims”, Rawat said. This was because “we have rich family values” and the good work done by security agencies in tracking terrorist activities.

Thailand halts plan to expel Saudi teen fleeing family

BANGKOK, Jan 7: Thailand said it won’t deport an 18-year-old Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing abuse from her family and is staying inside Bangkok’s main airport.

Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun, whose situation has gone viral via her Twitter feed, told Human Rights Watch that she arrived at the airport on Jan. 5 from Kuwait, and that her passport was seized, preventing her from travelling to Australia. Thai officials earlier told her she would be forced to return on Monday to Kuwait to her father and brother.

‘She’s in Thailand now,’ Surachate Hakparn, the nation’s immigration chief, said in a briefing Monday afternoon at the Suvarnabhumi Airport. ‘Nobody can force her to do anything. We’ll protect her.’

Surachate said he and representatives from the United Nations refugee agency, known as UNHCR, would meet Al-Qunun to discuss whether she wants to go to Australia or stay in Thailand.

On Monday evening, Thai authorities granted the agency access to Al-Qunun ‘to assess her need for international refugee protection,’ UNHCR said in a statement. ‘For reasons of confidentiality and protection, we will not in a position to comment on the details of the meeting or the outcome.’

Al-Qunun has been holed up in a hotel at the airport and earlier said in a video posted on her Twitter feed that she wouldn’t leave the room until she met UNHCR representatives, adding she wanted asylum.

‘I’m shouting out for help of humanity,’ she wrote on Twitter, where she’s been documenting her situation in Arabic and English.

She said that she’s ‘in real danger’ if Thai authorities deport her. Al-Qunun barricaded herself inside the hotel room to resist deportation aboard a Kuwait Airways flight on Monday morning, which then left Bangkok without her, according to her posts.

The Saudi embassy in Bangkok said in a Twitter statement it had not impounded Al-Qunun’s passport, adding it doesn’t have the authority to stop her at the airport or anywhere else. It said she was stopped by airport authorities for lacking ‘a return reservation or a tourist program’ and will be deported to Kuwait where her family lives. Al-Qunun said however that she resides in Saudi Arabia, posting a picture of her university identification card.

Human Rights Watch said she’s at risk of facing criminal charges in Saudi Arabia for ‘parental disobedience,’ which can result in imprisonment, as well as for ‘harming the reputation of the kingdom.’

‘Thai authorities should immediately halt any deportation, and either allow her to continue her travel to Australia or permit her to remain in Thailand to seek protection as a refugee,’ said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Bloomberg wasn’t able to speak to Al-Qunun or independently verify her story, though she posted a copy of her passport on Twitter.

While Saudi Arabia has gradually granted women more rights as part of an economic overhaul led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the conservative Islamic kingdom still applies a guardianship system that makes women legal dependents of male relatives. Women of all ages need permission from their guardian -- typically a father, husband or brother -- to marry or travel abroad.

In 2017, another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, was forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia while in transit in the Philippines during an attempt to get to Australia. She was held in a detention facility for women under 30 upon her return, and it is unclear what happened to her after that.

Thailand’s military government was criticized last year for arresting Hakeem Al-Araibi, a former Bahrain soccer player with refugee status in Australia. He had come to Thailand for his honeymoon and remains in detention pending possible extradition to Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia’s relations with Thailand have been strained for decades after gems including a valuable blue diamond were stolen from a Saudi prince by a Thai employee and a Saudi businessman who traveled to investigate the theft went missing.

Kim ready to talk more with Trump but says not to test North Korea

SEOUL, Jan 1: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said Tuesday he hopes to extend his high-stakes nuclear summitry with President Donald Trump into 2019, but also warns Washington not to test North Koreans’ patience with sanctions and pressure.

During his televised New Year’s speech, Kim said he’s ready to meet with Trump at any time to produce an outcome “welcomed by the international community.” However, he said the North will be forced to take a different path if the United States “continues to break its promises and misjudges the patience of our people by unilaterally demanding certain things and pushes ahead with sanctions and pressure.”

Kim also said the United States should continue to halt its joint military exercises with ally South Korea and not deploy strategic military assets to the South. He also made a nationalistic call urging for stronger inter-Korean cooperation and said the North is ready to resume operations at a jointly run factory park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong and restart South Korean tours to the North’s Diamond Mountain resort. Neither of those is possible for South Korea unless sanctions are removed.

Some analysts say North Korea has been trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul while putting the larger burden of action on the United States. Pyongyang over the past months has accused Washington of failing to take corresponding measures following the North’s unilateral dismantlement of a nuclear testing ground and suspension of nuclear and long-range missile tests.

Washington and Pyongyang are trying to arrange a second summit between Trump and Kim, who met in Singapore on June 12.

“If the United States takes sincere measures and corresponding action to our leading and pre-emptive efforts, then (U.S.-North Korea) relations will advance at a fast and excellent pace through the process of implementing (such) definite and groundbreaking measures,” said Kim, who delivered the speech sitting on a leather chair, wearing a black suit and gray-blue tie.

“It is the unwavering position of our party and the republic’s government and my firm will that the two countries as declared in the June 12 joint statement ... take steps to establish a permanent and stable peace regime and push toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “Therefore, we have already declared domestically and internationally and took various actions showing our commitment that we will no further create or test nuclear weapons and will not use or spread them.”

Adam Mount, a senior analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, said Kim appears to be hinting at an agreement that falls short of a full disarmament, but could still represent a major limitation of the North Korean threat — a cap that essentially freezes the North’s rudimentary nuclear capability from growing or advancing further. In exchange, the United States would have to offer major inducements, including sanctions relief.

“US negotiators should move decisively in the new year to find out how far Kim is willing to go toward a verified cap on his arsenal. Discussions on reducing or eliminating that arsenal come later,” Mount said in an email.

However, Kim’s statement could prove problematic if there’s ongoing evidence the North’s nuclear and missile facilities continue to run. Private analysts have accused North Korea of continuing nuclear and missile development, citing details from commercial satellite imagery.

“Over the last year, signs of continued work on the arsenal were alarming but not duplicitous, because there was never a commitment to stop those activities,” Mount said. “That may no longer be true, raising the risk that the White House feels cheated rather than just stonewalled.”

Kim’s speech also points toward a difficult year for the US-South Korean alliance with their military cooperation coming under pressure from Pyongyang, Seoul’s process for inter-Korean engagement, and Washington’s current inability to reach an agreement on cost-sharing for the US military presence in South Korea. It will be critical for the allies to develop a firmer policy as it’s clear the issue of joint drills is coming to a head, Mount said.

In the speech, Kim hailed the results of the North’s diplomatic activities in 2018, including his three meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Kim said an inter-Korean military agreement reached in their last summit in September to reduce conventional military threats was “realistically a non-aggression declaration.”

Kim also emphasized the development of the North Korean economy and, without elaborating, mentioned nuclear power as part of the country’s plans to boost electricity production.

Kim’s speech was closely watched as North Korean leaders traditionally use New Year’s statements to reflect on the past year and issue major policy goals for the year ahead.

Kim used his New Year’s speech a year ago to start a newfound diplomatic approach with Seoul and Washington, which led to his meetings with Moon and Trump. Kim also met three times with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which boosted his leverage by reintroducing Beijing — Pyongyang’s main ally — as a major player in the diplomatic process to resolve the nuclear standoff.

But nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled in recent months as they struggle with the sequencing of North Korea’s disarmament and the removal of U.S.-led sanctions against the North.

The North has also bristled at US demands to provide a detailed account of nuclear and missile facilities that would be inspected and dismantled under a potential deal.

The hardening stalemate has fueled doubts on whether Kim will ever voluntarily relinquish the nuclear weapons and missiles he may see as his strongest guarantee of survival. In his meetings with Trump and Moon, Kim signed vague statements calling for the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula without describing when and how it would occur.

But North Korea for decades has been pushing a concept of denuclearization that bears no resemblance to the American definition, with Pyongyang vowing to pursue nuclear development until the United States removes its troops and the nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan. The North used a blunt statement last month reiterated its traditional stance on denuclearization, saying it will never unilaterally give up its weapons unless Washington removes what Pyongyang describes as a nuclear threat.

The statement jarred with Seoul’s claim that Kim is genuinely interested in negotiating away his nukes and suggested that the North will potentially demand the United States withdraw or significantly reduce the 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea, a major sticking point in any disarmament deal.

Some experts say it’s becoming clear the North intends to keep a nuclear arsenal and turn the talks with the United States into a bilateral arms reduction negotiation between two nuclear states, rather than a unilateral process of surrendering its arsenal.

Washington and Pyongyang have yet to reschedule a meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean officials after the North canceled it at the last minute in November. There are views that North Korea wants a quick second summit because it thinks it can win major concessions from Trump that they probably couldn’t from lower-level US officials, who are more adamant about the North committing to inspections and verification.

India, Pakistan Share List Of Nuclear Installations

NEW DELHI, Jan 1: Pakistan today shared with India a list of its nuclear installations and facilities as per the provisions of a bilateral agreement.

The list was handed over in accordance with Article-II of the Agreement on Prohibition of Attacks Against Nuclear Installations and Facilities between Pakistan and India, signed on December 31, 1988, the Foreign Office said in a statement.

"The list of nuclear installations and facilities in Pakistan was officially handed over to a representative of the Indian High Commission at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs today, at 1000 hrs (local time)," it said.

Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi handed over the list of Indian Nuclear Installations and Facilities to a representative of the High Commission of Pakistan at 1030 hrs (local time), the Foreign Office said.

The agreement, which was signed on December 31, 1988 and entered into force on January 27, 1991, provides, inter alia, that the two countries inform each other of nuclear installations and facilities to be covered under the agreement on the first of January of every calendar year.

"This has been done consecutively since January 1, 1992," the Foreign Office said.

The practice of exchanging lists of nuclear installation has endured despite many lows in bilateral ties.

 
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