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Antony Blinken arrives in India; focus on expansion of ties

NEW DELHI, July 27: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in New Delhi on Tuesday evening with a focus on expansion of bilateral ties between India and US, regional issues including Afghanistan, global terrorism, Indo-pacific, among other issues with Indian officials.

On Wednesday, the US top diplomat will meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar.

This will be Blinken's first visit to India after assuming the office.

US won’t flinch if interests threatened, defence secretary tells China

SINGAPORE, July 27: The US secretary of defence, Lloyd Austin, has said that Washington does not seek conflict with Beijing but is eager to partner with other powers in the Indo-Pacific region to ensure the stability of it, amid a diplomatic standoff between the US and China.

“We will not flinch when our interests are threatened. Yet we do not seek confrontation,” Austin said in speech in Singapore.

“I am committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China, including stronger crisis communications with the People’s Liberation Army,” he said, stressing that “big powers need to model transparency and communication”.

Austin is on a tour of south-east Asia that will take in Vietnam and the Philippines later this week. He is expected to seek to strengthen the US’s military cooperation with the two nations, and highlight the US’s medical assistance to a diverse region still reeling from the impact of the Covid pandemic.

“Today, a threat to global health anywhere is a threat to security everywhere,” he said to the audience in the Singapore lecture on Tuesday. He highlighted what Washington calls a “no strings attached” approach, in which Joe Biden has promised 500m doses of Covid vaccines to about 100 lower- and middle-income countries worldwide during the next year.

“And Indo-Pacific is a top priority,” he said. “The vaccines developed in the United States are medical miracles. They are incredibly effective in saving lives and preventing serious illness. You know what, they are free. No conditions, no small print, and no strings attached,” Austin’s comments were an apparent rebuke to Beijing’s “vaccine diplomacy”.

“This is an emergency, and that’s what friends do,” he said.

Austin’s visit to the region comes at a time when tensions remain high over the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. In March, Admiral Philip Davidson, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate armed services committee that China could invade Taiwan in the next six years.

The Pentagon chief refused to remark on his colleague’s prediction, but he insisted that “no one wants to see a unilateral change of the status quo”, and Washington’s Taiwan policy is in line with the Taiwan Relations Act as well as its longstanding “one China policy”. He said that the US is focused on helping Taiwan have a capability to defend itself.

On the hotly contested South China Sea, Austin said Beijing’s expansive claims had “no basis in international law”. “That assertion treads on the sovereignty of the states in the region,” he said, adding: “We continue to support the region’s coastal states in upholding their rights under international law.”

Relations between Washington and Beijing have been fractious, and senior diplomats have traded barbs on several occasions since Biden became president. On Monday, Chinese vice-foreign minister Xie Feng accused the US of treating the country as an “imaginary enemy” in a strong message to the visiting US deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman.

The war of words between the two superpowers also unnerved south-east Asia, where countries such as Singapore have been vocal about their unwillingness to be forced to pick a side in what Biden called “the biggest geopolitical test” of this century.

“We are not asking countries in the region to choose between the United States and China. In fact, many of our partnerships in the region are older than the People’s Republic of China itself,” Austin said.

As Biden frames Washington’s big power competition as a race between democracy and authoritarianism, Austin will soon confront the reality when he visits another one-party state – Vietnam – this week, analysts say.

Responding to a question about this framing, Austin said: “We will always lead with our values … We will discuss those values with our friends and allies everywhere we go … I think people realise that’s who we are as Americans.”

US Deputy State Secretary raises concerns over human rights issues with Chinese Minister

BEIJING, July 26: US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on Monday met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and raised concerns over human rights issues, including Beijing's anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong and the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang.

"US Deputy Secretary raised our concerns about human rights, including Beijing's anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong; the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang; abuses in Tibet; and the curtailing of media access and freedom of the press. She also spoke about our concerns about Beijing's conduct in cyberspace; across the Taiwan Strait; and in the East and South China Seas," State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.

The Deputy Secretary also raised the cases of American and Canadian citizens detained in the PRC or under exit bans and reminded PRC officials that people are not bargaining chips.

Sherman reiterated concerns about the PRC's unwillingness to cooperate with the World Health Organisation and allow a second phase investigation in the PRC into COVID-19's origins, the statement added.

"In my meeting with PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi today, I spoke about the United States' commitment to healthy competition, protecting human rights and democratic values, and strengthening the rules-based international order that benefits us all," Sherman tweeted.

Taking to Twitter, Sherman also said that she had discussed issues important to the US with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng.

"I discussed issues important to the US with PRC Vice FM Xie, including the climate crisis, COVID-19, and our serious concerns about PRC actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and across the Taiwan Strait. The U.S. and our allies and partners will always stand up for our values," Sherman wrote in a tweet.

Earlier in the day, China blamed the US for a "stalemate" in ties between the two nations and urged America to change what it called its "highly misguided mindset and dangerous policy".

The meeting also comes on the heels of the US and its allies - including the European Union, Australia, Britain, New Zealand and Japan - warning China about its "malicious cyber activities", as well as US sanctions on Hong Kong officials, and reciprocal Chinese sanctions.

U.S. will not lift travel restrictions, citing Delta variant: White House

WASHINGTON, July 26: The United States will not lift any existing travel restrictions "at this point" due to concerns over the highly transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant and the rising number of U.S. coronavirus cases, the White House confirmed on Monday.

The decision comes after a senior level White House meeting late on Friday. It means that the long-running travel restrictions that have barred much of the world's population from the United States since 2020 will not be lifted in the short term.

"Given where we are today ... with the Delta variant, we will maintain existing travel restrictions at this point," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday, citing the spread of the Delta variant in the United States and abroad. "Driven by the Delta variant, cases are rising here at home, particularly among those who are unvaccinated and appear likely continue to increase in the weeks ahead."

The announcement almost certainly dooms any bid by U.S. airlines and the U.S. tourism industry to salvage summer travel by Europeans and others covered by the restrictions. Airlines have heavily lobbied the White House for months to lift the restrictions and some say the industry may now have to wait until September or later for a possible revision.

The United States currently bars most non-U.S. citizens who within the last 14 days have been in the United Kingdom, the 26 Schengen nations in Europe without internal border controls, or in Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil.

The extraordinary U.S. travel restrictions were first imposed on China in January 2020 to address the spread of COVID-19. Other countries have since been added, most recently India in early May.

Last week, the U.S. Homeland Security Department said U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico will remain closed to nonessential travel until at least Aug. 21 - even as Canada said it would begin allowing in fully vaccinated American tourists starting Aug. 9.

Asked on July 15 at a joint appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about when the United States would lift European travel restrictions, U.S. President Joe Biden said he would "be able to answer that question to you within the next several days - what is likely to happen."

Merkel said any decision to lift restrictions "has to be a sustainable decision. It is certainly not sensible to have to take it back after only a few days."

Since that news conference, U.S. cases have jumped.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Rochelle Walensky said on Thursday the seven-day average of new cases in the United States was up 53% over the previous week. The Delta variant, which was first found in India, now comprises more than 80% of new cases nationwide and has been detected in more than 90 countries.

Psaki also cited the fact that last week, the CDC urged Americans to avoid travel to the United Kingdom, given a jump in cases.

The restrictions have brought heavy criticism from people prevented from seeing loved ones and the White House has acknowledged a desire to reunite separated families.

The Biden administration has refused to offer any metrics that would trigger when it will unwind restrictions and has not disclosed if it will remove restrictions on individual countries or focus on enhancing individual traveler scrutiny.

Reuters reported last week the White House was discussing the potential of mandating COVID-19 vaccines for international visitors, but no decisions have been made, sources briefed on the matter said. That idea remains under active discussion, they said.

The Biden administration has also been talking to U.S. airlines in recent weeks about establishing international contact tracing for passengers before lifting travel restrictions.

US Senator slams China over hiding COVID-19 facts, says Beijing destroyed evidence

WASHINGTON, July 26: US Senator Tom Cotton has slammed China for lying and covering up facts about the COVID-19 and said that Beijing has destroyed evidence about the pandemic origin.

Witnesses and evidence have probably been killed or at least disappeared. "It's very unlikely that we're going to get a definitive answer," Cotton said in an interview with Fox News.

He further attacked the World Health Organisation's Director for denying that there was even a pandemic. "Director has been in China's back pocket from the very beginning, they're the ones that sent the phony commission to Wuhan earlier this year to investigate it," he added.

He also lashed out at the US President for not taking necessary steps against Beijing. "What will President Biden do to lower the boom on China, hold them accountable for unleashing this plague on the world. There's a lot we could be doing that we're not doing" he added.

He further expressed that the American people have elected Joe Biden and the members of Congress to make decisions for the US but the government has turned these decisions over to a bunch of public health bureaucrats.

Recently, China's National Health Commission rejected the WHO plan for a second phase of the investigation. Later, the US had expressed disappointment with the decision and termed it "dangerous".

Earlier this year, a WHO-led team of scientists that travelled to China to investigate the origins of the virus struggled to get a clear picture of what research China was conducting beforehand, faced constraints during its visit, and had little power to conduct thorough and impartial research.

 

Blinken to raise human rights issues with Indian officials during visit to New Delhi

WASHINGTON, July 24: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will raise issues of human rights and democracy with Indian officials during his first visit to New Delhi as the two nations have more values in common on those fronts than otherwise, according to a senior US official.

Blinken is scheduled to arrive in New Delhi late on July 27.

During his stay in the country, he will meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. The Ministry of External Affairs said in New Delhi that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval will also meet Bilinken.

“With respect to the human rights and democracy question, yes, you’re right; I will tell you that we will raise it, and we will continue that conversation, because we firmly believe that we have more values in common on those fronts than we don’t,” Dean Thompson, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, told reporters during a conference call ahead of the visit.

“We believe India is going to be a really important part of continuing those conversations and building strong efforts on those fronts in partnership as we go forward,” Thompson said in response to a question.

India has previously rejected criticism by foreign governments and human rights groups on allegations that civil liberties have eroded in the country.

The government has asserted that India has well established democratic practices and robust institutions to safeguard the rights of all.

The government has emphasised that the Indian Constitution provides for adequate safeguards under various statutes for ensuring the protection of human rights.

Thompson asserted that the relationship with India is a strong one that has endured through administrations of all colours and stripes in the United States and will continue to do so.

“We are looking forward to this opportunity for the Secretary to talk with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, and continue to pursue the myriad areas of common interest that we have,” he said.

“I think it’s fair to say that we see the relationship continuing at a very high level, and India will. of course. remain an incredibly important partner,” he said.

“We’re going to continue pursuing our global comprehensive strategic partnership, and I think by virtue of the President making the Quad and our partnership with India very high priorities right at the outset of this administration, it sets the tone for what we think we can achieve and accomplish with them, and with our other partners as well. So. I would expect to continue the dialogues that we’ve had on all those fronts,” Thompson said.

U.S. launches air strikes in aid of embattled Afghan forces

KABUL, July 23: The United States has carried out air strikes to support Afghan government forces who have been under pressure from the Taliban as U.S.-led foreign forces carry out the final stages of their withdrawal from the country.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Thursday the air strikes were in support of Afghan security forces in recent days but did not provide details.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said the strikes were on Wednesday night on the outskirts of the southern city of Kandahar, killing three of their fighters and destroying two vehicles.

"We confirm these air strikes and we condemn this in strongest term, it is a clear attack and violation of the Doha deal as they can't have operations after May," he said, referring to an agreement between the United States and the Taliban clearing the way for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

"If they conduct any operation then they will be responsible for the consequences."

Under the original withdrawal deal between the United States and the Taliban, brokered by the Trump administration and signed in Qatar's capital, all foreign troops were expected to be gone by May if the Taliban met security guarantees.

President Joe Biden announced in April that U.S. troops would withdraw by Sept. 11, angering the Taliban who had expected the withdrawal to be completed by May.

Since Biden's withdrawal decision, violence has risen sharply with the militants launching major offensives, taking districts and important border crossings and encircling or closing in on several provincial capitals, including Kandahar.

Almost all U.S. troops, except those protecting the embassy in Kabul and the capital's airport, have left the country.

The rival Afghan sides have held peace talks in Doha but progress has been slow.

Kandahar province has traditionally been a Taliban stronghold and fighting there has been heavy in recent weeks with the insurgents capturing the main border crossing with Pakistan in the south, at Spin Boldak.

Reuters journalist Danish Siddiqui was killed in the area last Friday while covering a clash between Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters.

White House 'deeply disappointed' with China for rejection of fresh COVID-19 probe

WASHINGTON, July 23: White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday slammed China for rejecting a fresh World Health Organisation (WHO) probe into the origins of COVID-19.

Speaking to reporters at a White House briefing, Psaki said the Biden administration is "deeply disappointed" by China's rejection.

"Their position is irresponsible and frankly, dangerous. Alongside other member states around the world, we continue to call for China to provide the needed access for data and samples," the press secretary declared.

Psaki further added, "This is critical, so we can understand, to prevent the next pandemic. This is about saving lives in the future and it is not a time to be stonewalling."

The WHO earlier this month proposed a second phase of studies into the origins of the coronavirus in China, including audits of laboratories and markets in the city of Wuhan, calling for transparency from authorities.

Beijing reacted to the WHO proposal with Zeng Yixin, vice minister of China's National Health Commission (NHC), telling reporters that the WHO plan "disregards common sense and defies science." Zeng reiterated China's position that some data could not be completely shared due to privacy concerns.

Reacting to China's position Psaki said it was clear the country "isn't living up to their obligations" on investigating the pandemic and said Biden will shift focus to a global campaign to launch a "multilateral effort and support for putting pressure" on China to increase transparency.

She said that the multilateral approach would be a "big focus" of Biden's strategy in engaging with China more broadly. "It is not just the United States calling for this," the White House official warned.

"As a part of our renewed engagement and our effort to build a coalition of support around the world with allies and partners, we are joined by the international community on this," Psaki concluded.

Blinken to visit India with vaccines and China in focus

WASHINGTON, July 23: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel next week to India, a key partner in U.S. efforts to counter China and in vaccine diplomacy that is currently hobbled by its own COVID-19 crisis.

It will be Blinken's first visit to the world's largest democracy as President Joe Biden's secretary of state and he will meet on Wednesday with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

Blinken will also visit Kuwait at the end of his July 26-29 trip.

Washington sees India as an important partner in efforts to stand up to China's increasingly assertive behavior in Asia and beyond. Blinken's trip will follow a visit by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to China and coincide with one to Southeast Asia by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

On Blinken's agenda will be "Indo-Pacific engagement, shared regional security interests, shared democratic values, and addressing the climate crisis" as well as the response to the coronavirus pandemic, the State Department said.

Blinken is also likely to discuss plans for an in-person summit of the so-called Quad - Indian, Japan, Australia and the United States - a grouping seen as a counter to China's rising influence. The meeting - which diplomats and others say could coincide with the September U.N. General Assembly, is expected to focus on ways to develop regional infrastructure in the face of China's massive Belt and Road Initiative.

The United States hosted a virtual Quad summit in March at which the countries agreed Indian drugmaker Biological E Ltd would produce at least a billion coronavirus vaccine doses by the end of 2022, mainly for Southeast Asian and Pacific countries, which have seen COVID-19 surges and where Washington has been competing in vaccine diplomacy with China.

However, India, the world's largest vaccine producer, was subsequently hit by a catastrophic wave of COVID-19 infections and halted vaccine exports.

Washington sent raw materials for vaccines, medical equipment and protective gear to India after the spike and India expects to receive 3-4 million doses of U.S.-made vaccines by August.

"(India) is such a critical country in the fight against COVID-19," Blinken told MSNBC on Friday, adding that it would eventually become a vital source of vaccines to the world.

"They’re focused understandably on their own internal challenges now, but when that production engine gets fully going and can distribute again to the rest of the world, that’s going to make a big difference."

US proposes first in-person Quad Summit in September

WASHINGTON, July 18: President Joe Biden's administration has proposed the first in-person "Quad" meeting with leaders of India, Japan and Australia in late September.

This meeting would mark unity among the four Indo-Pacific democracies amid China's growing assertiveness, President Biden is seeking to build "a position of strength" to directly engage with Chinese President Xi Jinping, as reported by Kyodo News.

This meeting is scheduled to take place after the general debate of the UN General Assembly, which is to be held in September in New York City.

But Japan's political schedule is unclear, with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga facing two key tests during the same time in his country.

Earlier, Kurt Campbell, White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, said that the US has planned to host the first in-person Quad summit in Washington, Kyodo News reported.

The meeting is expected to clamp down on China's so-called 'vaccine diplomacy', in which Beijing is giving vaccine shots to the developing nations.

Various issues including vaccine production and cooperation in infrastructural projects could also be discussed in this meeting.

Biden nominates Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as envoy to India

WASHINGTON, July 10: US President Joe Biden on Friday nominated Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as his ambassador to India. If confirmed by the Senate, Garcetti, 50, would replace Kenneth Juster.

Early this week, Juster was appointed as distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Announcing the nomination along with several other ambassadors, the White House said Eric M Garcetti has been the Mayor of the City of Los Angeles since 2013, following 12 years as a member of the City Council, including six as Council President.

As Mayor, Garcetti oversees the busiest container port in the Western Hemisphere, the largest municipal utility in the country, and one of the busiest airports in the world.

He led LA’s successful bid to return the summer Olympic Games to American soil for the first time in three decades.

He currently chairs LA Metro, the country’s second-busiest transit agency, which is building or extending 15 new transit lines, and shifting to an all-electric fleet.

Garcetti co-founded Climate Mayors and led more than 400 US mayors to adopt the Paris Climate agreement.

He is the current Chair of C40 Cities a network of 97 of the world's biggest cities taking bold climate action and has led the organization’s engagement and expansion in India as well as C40’s global response to the COVID-19 pandemic through the sharing of best practices and resources.

During 12 years as an Intelligence Officer in the US Navy Reserve Component, Garcetti served under the Commander, US Pacific Fleet and the Defence Intelligence Agency, retiring in 2017 as a Lieutenant.

A Rhodes Scholar, he studied at Queen’s College, Oxford and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Garcetti was selected as an inaugural Asia 21 Fellow of the Asia Society, and taught at Occidental College’s Department of Diplomacy and World Affairs, as well as at the University of Southern California’s School of International Relations.

“He has lived and conducted field work on nationalism, ethnicity, and human rights in Southeast Asia and Northeast Africa. He is the founding Chair of the Latino Alliance of Mayors at the US Conference of Mayors, serves on the Board of National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and speaks fluent Spanish,” the White House said.

Biden has also nominated Denise Campbell Bauer, as his envoy to Monaco; Peter D Haas, to Bangladesh; and Bernadette M Meehan, his top diplomat to Chile.

US official warns China against ‘catastrophic’ move on Taiwan

WASHINGTON, July 7: A senior US official has warned China not to seek emboldenment from its Hong Kong crackdown to move against Taiwan, as Japan’s deputy leader said it would defend Taiwan against an attack.

Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the US national security council, told a forum on Tuesday the US had tried to send a “clear message of deterrence across the Taiwan Strait” and any attempt by China to move on Taiwan would be “catastrophic”.

The ruling Chinese Communist party considers Taiwan to be a province of China despite the party never having ruled the island, and has vowed to take it by force if necessary. The government in Taipei maintains it is an independent nation and rejects China’s claim. China had promised Taiwan peaceful unification under the “one country, two systems” principle that governs Hong Kong.

But the recent crushing of dissent and opposition in Hong Kong, in what critics say defies the promises of “one country, two systems”, has further discouraged Taiwan from accepting.

Campbell told the forum the international community had been clear in expressing “dissatisfaction” over the Hong Kong crackdown in part because there was “a clear sense” that Chinese officials were quietly assessing the global response to see what it told them about how the world might react over Taiwan.

“I just want to underscore that such an effort would be catastrophic,” Campbell said.

The US does not have formal ties with Taiwan’s government but is treaty-bound to provide it with the means of self-defence, which has resulted in billions of dollars in arms sales. For decades the US has also maintained a deterrence policy of “strategic ambiguity”, refusing to confirm if it would come to Taiwan’s aid militarily in an attack.

Campbell’s comments came a day after Japan’s deputy prime minister offered his country’s strongest statement of support for Taiwan in some time, declaring it would defend the island alongside the US if China attacked.

US Congressman calls on Biden to declare Tibet an 'independent country'

WASHINTON, July 5: A US Congressman from Pennsylvania has introduced a resolution in the US Congress, calling on US President Joe Biden to declare Tibet an independent country.

According to Phayul, the resolution stated that the US must reject "seven-decade long illegal occupation of Tibet by the forces of the Chinese Communist Party" and asserted that the US would provide relief to "long-suffering people and reinforce its reputation as a strident defender of global human rights."

"After 70+ years of illegal occupation of Tibet by the murderous Chinese Communist Party, it's well past time for the US to take action. That's why I'm proud today to introduce a resolution calling on President Biden to declare Tibet an independent country," Republican MP Scott Perry tweeted last week.

This bill recognized all three provinces in Tibet as a separate, independent country.

The 2021 Tibet bill also urged Washington to recognize the "democratically elected government of Tibet, presently named as the Central Tibetan Administration, [as] the only governing authority of Tibet."

The bill also entailed sanctions on individuals who are responsible for or complicit in, directly or indirectly, supporting the occupation of Tibet.

Last month, the US Senate had passed a bipartisan bill to heed the call to open a consulate in Lhasa and had called for reinforcing the global engagement on policy towards the reincarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The US Innovation and Competition Act (also known as the Endless Frontier Act), provides USD 250 billion through investment in science to compete with China, also contains several important provisions on Tibet.

US Troops Leave Bagram Air Base In Afghanistan After Nearly 2 Decades

KABUL, July 2: All US and NATO troops have left the biggest air base in Afghanistan, officials said Friday, signalling the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from the country was imminent after two decades of war.

Bagram Air Base served as the linchpin for US-led operations in the rugged country, where the long war against the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies started in 2001 following the September 11 attacks.

"The American and coalition forces have completely withdrawn from the base and henceforth the Afghan army forces will protect it and use it to combat terrorism," defence ministry spokesman Fawad Aman said on Twitter.

A US defence official confirmed their departure, while the Taliban said it welcomed and supported the latest phase of the troop pullout.

"Their full withdrawal will pave the way for Afghans to decide about their future between themselves," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.

The US military and NATO are in the final stages of winding up involvement in Afghanistan, bringing home an unspecified number of remaining troops by a deadline of September 11.

The Taliban have launched relentless offensives across Afghanistan in the past two months, gobbling up dozens of districts as Afghan security forces have largely consolidated their power in the country's major urban areas.

The ability of Afghan forces to maintain control of Bagram airfield will likely prove pivotal to maintaining security in Kabul and keeping pressure on the Taliban.

The exit of foreign forces from Bagram base "symbolises that Afghanistan is alone, abandoned, and left to defend itself against the Taliban's onslaught", said Australia-based Afghanistan expert Nishank Motwani.

"Having reached home, Americans and allied forces will now watch what they fought so hard to build over 20 years burn down from afar and knowing that the Afghan men and women they fought with risk losing everything."

Media reports say the Pentagon will probably retain about 600 US troops in Afghanistan to guard the vast US diplomatic compound in Kabul.

Residents of Bagram said security will only deteriorate with the exit of foreign forces.

Over the years the mini-city has been visited by hundreds of thousands of US and NATO service members and contractors.

At one point it boasted swimming pools, cinemas and spas -- and even a boardwalk featuring fast-food outlets such as Burger King and Pizza Hut.

The base also housed a prison that held thousands of Taliban and jihadist inmates.

Bagram was built by the United States for its Afghan ally during the Cold War in the 1950s as a bulwark against the Soviet Union in the north.

Ironically, it became the staging point for the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979, and the Red Army expanded it significantly during its near-decade-long occupation.

When Moscow pulled out, Bagram became central to the raging civil war -- it was reported that at one point the Taliban controlled one end of the three-kilometre (two-mile) runway and the opposition Northern Alliance the other.

In recent months, Bagram has come under rocket barrages claimed by the jihadist Islamic State, stirring fears that militants are already eyeing the base for future attacks.

As of May 2021, there were about 9,500 foreign troops in Afghanistan, of which US troops made up the largest contingent of 2,500.

So far Germany and Italy have both confirmed the full withdrawal of their contingents.

Trump Organization, its CFO Allen Weisselberg indicted by US grand jury in tax crimes: Report

NEW YORK, July 1: Donald Trump's company, the Trump Organization, and its chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, the former US president's longtime finance chief, have been indicted by a New York jury on charges related to tax crimes, according to reports on Thursday morning, citing a person familiar with the development.

The case relates to alleged tax violations from benefits the company gave to top executives, possibly including the use of apartments, cars, and school tuition, the report added. The charges came to light following a two-year investigation in New York into Trump's business dealings, led by Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr, a Democrat who leaves office at the end of the year.

Multiple news outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, also reported on the development, citing people familiar with the matter. The Wall Street Journal was the first to report a day ago on the charges, adding that people are not authorised to speak on the ongoing investigation and only did so under the condition of anonymity.

This is the first criminal case to be filed against Trump’s company in the probe. The prosecutors have been going through the former president's tax records, subpoenaing documents. Several witnesses, including Trump insiders and company executives, have also been interviewed several times during the investigation.

However, it is to be noted that Trump himself has not been indicted in the charges relating to the New York investigation. The prosecutors, however, are still probing the allegations of “hush money” paid to women who say they had sexual relations with Trump, and claims of real-estate price manipulation.

The former president, who is shooting for another run at the presidency in 2024, may now find it difficult to raise money for his campaign as the case progresses, reports indicate. The company and Weisselberg, 73, are expected to make their first court appearance today.

US airstrikes in Iraq, Syria targeted Iran-backed militia groups: Pentagon

WASHINGTON, June 28: The Pentagon announced Sunday it had conducted retaliatory targeted airstrikes against "facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups" on the Iraq-Syria border, which a monitor said killed at least five militia fighters.

The strikes come at a delicate moment as the United States blames Iran-linked Iraqi factions for recent attacks against Iraqi installations housing its personnel, while also hoping to work out a return to a nuclear deal with Tehran.

"US military forces earlier this evening conducted defensive precision airstrikes against facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in the Iraq-Syria border region," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement, adding that the attacks were carried out at the direction of President Joe Biden.

While the United States did not provide information on casualties, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that "at least five Iran-backed Iraqi militia fighters were killed and several others were wounded in an attack by US warplanes" on the Syrian side of the frontier.

The war monitor, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria to collect information, said that military positions were among the targets hit.

Syria's state-run SANA news agency said one child had been killed and that at least three other people were wounded.

Kirby said that the targets €"two in Syria, one in Iraq€" were selected because "these facilities are utilized by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against US personnel and facilities in Iraq."

Kataeb Hezbollah and Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada, two hardline Iraqi military factions with close ties to Tehran, were among the "several Iran-backed militia groups" that had used the targeted facilities, Kirby said.

Since the start of the year, there have been more than 40 attacks against US interests in Iraq, where 2,500 American troops are deployed as part of an international coalition to fight the jihadist Islamic State group.

The vast majority have been bombing against logistics convoys, while 14 were rocket attacks, some of them claimed by pro-Iran factions that aim to pressure Washington into withdrawing all their troops.

"Given the ongoing series of attacks by Iran-backed groups targeting US interests in Iraq, the president directed further military action to disrupt and deter such attacks," Kirby said.

"Specifically, the US strikes targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq, both of which lie close to the border between those countries," he added.

The move marks the second such US attack on Iran-backed militia in Syria since Biden took office, with the first having occurred in February with a strike on facilities in the country's east that left more than 20 fighters dead, according to the Observatory.

On a separate, diplomatic front, the US-issued strikes come two days after the United States and France warned Iran that time was running out to return to a nuclear deal, expressing fear that Tehran's sensitive atomic activities could advance if talks drag on.

A return to the 2015 Iran accord has been a key Biden promise after the nuclear deal was trashed by his predecessor Donald Trump.

"We have a national interest in trying to put the nuclear problem back in the box that it was in the JCPOA," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, using the acronym for the accord's formal name.

The UN nuclear watchdog said Friday it had received no reply from Tehran over the possible extension of a temporary agreement covering inspections at Iranian nuclear facilities which expired on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdish officials said Saturday three explosives-laden drones hit near the northern Iraqi city of Arbil, where the United States has a consulate.

The attack also occurred as the Hashed al-Shaabi, a pro-Iran paramilitary alliance opposed to the US presence in Iraq, held a military parade near Baghdad attended by senior officials.

In April, a drone packed with explosives hit the coalition's Iraq headquarters in the military part of the airport in Arbil, the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital.

The tactic poses a headache for the coalition, as drones can evade air defenses.

"As demonstrated by this evening's strikes, President Biden has been clear that he will act to protect US personnel," Kirby said Sunday.

Announcement of the strikes came one day before Biden meets at the White House with Reuven Rivlin, president of Israel, Iran's arch foe.

 

 

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