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25,000 Refugees died in eight years while crossing Meditteranean, says Erdogan

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(Last Updated On: June 22, 2020)

An estimated 25,000 people, mostly women, and children have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea over the past eight years, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday.

Addressing the closing ceremony of the International Migration Film Festival, via a video call, Erdogan said: “In the past eight years, 25,000 people, most of them women and children, died in the treacherous waters of Mediterranean.”

Anadolu Agency reported that Erdogan not only highlighted the grave situation that refugees face while trying to cross the Meditteranean but he also called on people to set aside their prejudices about migrants and to note the contributions these people bring to countries and societies.

During his video call, Erdogan stated that the migrants who had died while trying to cross the Meditteranean were people who had set out with a hope for a safe future, however, many of the journeys ended in death.

“Fate of some 10,000 Syrian children who sought asylum in Europe is unknown,” Anadolu Agency reported Erdogan as having said.

Erdogan said migration was a global issue and millions of people have left their homes due to war, terror, and poverty.

“Today there are nearly 260 million migrants in the world, as well as over 71 million displaced and over 25 million refugees,” he said.

Turkey continues to host the largest number of refugees worldwide.

Currently, it hosts 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees plus 330,000 people of other nationalities.

In a bid to highlight the problem, the International Migration Film Festival is supported by Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry and organized by the Interior Ministry under the auspices of the Turkish Presidency.

The film festival features films and documentaries that capture the promise and challenges of migration, and the unique contributions that migrants make to their new communities and the goal of the festival is to pave the way for greater discussion around the issue.

This year’s Best Full-Length Film award meanwhile was won on Sunday by directors Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts for the movie “For Sama”.

Celebrated Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, this year’s festival jury president, said that “For Sama” was selected unanimously for the award.

The film focuses on Al-Kateab’s journey during the Syrian civil war as she and her husband, a doctor in Aleppo, raise their daughter Sama. They eventually have to decide on whether to stay to help others or flee to safety themselves.

“For Sama” made history when it was nominated in four categories in the BAFTA awards, making it the most nominated documentary ever. It was also nominated for Best Documentary Feature at last year’s Academy Awards.

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Abdullah to visit Pakistan, says both sides have ‘grievances’

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(Last Updated On: September 23, 2020)

Chairman of the High Council for Afghanistan Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah said he will visit Pakistan within the next few days – the first time since 2008 – and implied issues between the two countries need to be ironed out. 

He said there is a “lot of mistrust, founded or unfounded,” and that there are “lots of grievances on both sides”, adding that the two countries need to work together as there have been many missed opportunities over the past 40 years. 

Addressing a virtual conference of the US Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday, Abdullah also said some of the 5,000 Taliban prisoners freed over the past two months have returned to the battlefield, which is in violation of the US-Taliban agreement signed in February. 

He did say however that he did not know how many ex-prisoners had taken up arms again, but did not think it was the majority.

“But I do know that some have returned to the battlefield, which is a violation of the agreement that they had made. I do know that this has happened. I have examples in some areas, and these people have started insurgency in those – in those areas once they left. But I would say that the majority have not returned to the battlefield. That might be – that might be the right assessment. But some have.”

He also pointed out the current level of violence in the country is very high.

“At the moment, unfortunately, the level of violence is very high. The number of security incidents initiated by the Taliban in different parts of the country has increased, not decreased.

“And it’s important – and that was part of my message yesterday in the – in the Universal Day for Peace – that while the negotiations continue and we assume that both sides have participated in good faith in those negotiations, it’s critical that we see a reduction in violence in order to be able to maintain the popular support for the peace process on the ground. Otherwise, the people of Afghanistan will not – will not understand.”

Abdullah also explained that no one expects or anticipates a comprehensive peace deal to be signed with the Taliban within a “few days”. 

“We know that it will take time. But at the same time, since the aim of this is to achieve peace and stability throughout the country, we need to prove it in practice as well that what we can do is reduction – significant reduction in violence.”

He stated the Afghan government’s position on the need for a reduction in violence was very clear. 

“But unfortunately, so far the level of violence is very high and to a level that is not acceptable for the people.”

Again he repeated his call to the Taliban and to all partners who have leverage over the Taliban to reiterate the need for less violence. 

“But the way forward is to realize that these extremist terrorist elements which are taking advantage of the situation, like al-Qaeda and ISIS, or any other terrorist organization, are not serving any country’s interest. They’re only after the opportunities. 

“And when the war ends, these groups will not have a foothold. Otherwise, they will turn against any other – any country that they want, of their choice. They will choose it for themselves. That is – that is what we need to focus on and that will be the focus of our get-together – or my visit to Pakistan, which will be official visit, and I’ll see what the leadership in Pakistan and the leaders of the institutions there [say],” he said.

Differences Clear

On the current talks underway in Doha, Abdullah said they had “started well” and the atmosphere between the two teams, considering their differences, is healthy. 

He said the Afghan team senses a “willingness” on the part of the Taliban to take advantage of the opportunity and to contribute. 

“Nobody can ignore all the complexities involved…both sides come from two different worldviews – views about the life, about rights of citizens, about the – our vision of our own country, and all of that. 

“And at the same time, we have come together with all those differences to find a way to live in peace with one another and maintain our differences of views and let the people decide about it in the future, but at the same time put an – put an end to the misery of the people which have continued for so long,” he said. 

He stated there “will be spoilers around. There will be people which may worry about certain things. But as a whole, I can say that the people of Afghanistan are hopeful. At the same time, they have concerns. Do we go back to the old days? What happens to the – to the gains of the people of Afghanistan, which is as a result of too many sacrifices here from us Afghans and our friends and partners? 

“And can we – can we get to a point where, while maintaining our views and way of life, agree to live in peace within a country – a sovereign country without allowing terrorist groups, without resorting to violence, and then compete for our ideas peacefully and politically?”

He said the flip side of the coin was if the two sides don’t reach an agreement, then the “continuation of the agony, misery, suffering, migration, and all sorts of other situations that we have been through. That will continue.”

So it’s a moment of being hopeful, but at the same time one shouldn’t lose sight of all those risks which are involved, he said adding that “eventually and ultimately, the absolute majority of our people are for a dignified, durable peace, a country which is unified and does not harbor terrorist groups and respects the rights of its own citizens and contributes to the wellbeing of its own people.”

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US peace envoy: Taliban have not complied with their commitments

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(Last Updated On: September 23, 2020)

In his testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security  US peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad said the Taliban have not fully complied with their commitments under the February agreement with the US. 

As part of the agreement, the Taliban need to cut ties with al-Qaeda but according to Khalilzad, although the Taliban have made some progress in this respect the group still has more to accomplish. 

Khalilzad said: “With regard to terrorism and al-Qaeda, in this setting, what I can say is the Talibs have taken some steps, based on the commitment they have made, positive steps, but they have some distance still to go. … [W]e are in the middle of the process.  The picture is one of progress but it’s not completed.” 

The Subcommittee also heard testimony from David F. Helvey, who is performing the duties of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs at the Department of Defense. He also said the Taliban has not yet fulfilled its end of the deal. 

“[S]o far, they are not fully compliant, so we have work to be done there. I think we know that [and] the Taliban knows it.”

As part of the deal, the US agreed to withdraw its troops by April next year – and have since February gradually reduced its numbers in Afghanistan. 

Already down from 13,000 to 8,600 a further troop withdrawal to 4,500 is expected by November. 

Both Khalilzad and Helvey testified that the path to a sustainable reconciliation agreement between Afghanistan and the Taliban will be complicated, and high levels of violence remain an obstacle to peace.

Khalilzad stated: “While we have reasons to be hopeful, we are under no illusions about the challenges ahead. The conflict in Afghanistan is especially complex, and negotiators will have to overcome personal interests and political differences while representing diverse constituencies.  We expect that there will be setbacks and obstacles.” 

He also stated: “The Afghan people will suffer if there is no peace agreement.”

 Helvey testified: “Taliban violence, quite frankly, has been unacceptably high for too long.” 

He also said that terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Khorasan (ISIS-K) and al-Qaeda still aspire to threaten US national security interests and that “a strong and capable ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] focused on combating terrorist threats and defending the Afghan people is going to be our best chance at supporting and defending US interests.”

In his summary to the House, Khalilzad said the US’ strategy going forward is twofold. 

“One, continue holding the Taliban to the commitments they made in the February 29 agreement, including on combatting international terrorism and discussing a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire at Afghanistan Peace Negotiations. 

“Two, adjust our force posture consistent with the agreement and conditions in Afghanistan. We are on a path to reduce troop levels to between 4,000 and 5,000 and with further reductions possible based on conditions. 

“I want to assure this committee that we will always maintain the ability to protect the United States, but staying in Afghanistan is not an end in and of itself. Our goal for Afghanistan is a nation at peace — with itself and its neighbors — and firmly aligned with the United States and our allies against international terrorism.”

Khalilzad reiterated that the conflict in Afghanistan is especially complex, and negotiators will have to overcome personal interests and political differences while representing diverse constituencies. 

“We expect that there will be setbacks and obstacles. This task has required a diverse and dynamic team, made up of State Department Foreign Service Officers, civil servants, and detailees from across the US government. We have also partnered closely and effectively with the Department of Defense, especially General Scott Miller, the commanding general of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. 

“This whole-of-government effort reflects the best of American diplomacy,” he said. 

Khalilzad was appointed as the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation in September 2018, with a mandate to find a diplomatic formula to bring an end to America’s longest war, reduce the burden on the US military and taxpayer, provide the best chance for a unified and representative Afghanistan at peace and to ensure terrorists can never us Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States or its allies again. 

After 18 months of intense diplomacy, two milestones have been achieved – the US-Taliban agreement in February and the start of Afghan peace talks which are currently underway in Doha. 

TO READ AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD’S FULL SUMMARY CLICK HERE 

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Khalilzad testifies before House Committee, says pact with Pakistan possible

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(Last Updated On: September 22, 2020)

Testifying before the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security about the Trump administration’s Afghanistan policy, US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said Washington and its allies were looking at an agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan so that neither side’s territory would be used to attack the other. 

He also said the level of violence in Afghanistan was unacceptably high and that setbacks during talks are expected. 

“By any measure, current levels of violence are too high,” he told the hearing but said, “we know that reductions are possible.”

Talks between the Afghan negotiating team and the Taliban started in Doha on September 12 but few details have been given since the opening ceremony, except that both sides appear to be disagreeing on a number of basic issues. 

One of the key concerns among Afghans however is that women’s rights might not be preserved under a possible peace deal. 

Asked about this by the Democrats during the hearing, Khalilzad said: “I want to assure the Afghan women that we will be with them.”

He said: “While we have reasons to be hopeful, we are under no illusions about the challenges ahead. … We expect that there will be setbacks and obstacles.” 

He also said Washington and its allies were looking at an agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan so that neither side’s territory would be used to attack the other.

“We’re hoping that by the time that these other negotiations are over, we could also achieve success in that regard,” Khalilzad said.

Afghanistan has for years accused Pakistan of supporting Taliban militants but Pakistan denies doing so and in turn, accuses Afghanistan of supporting militants fighting Islamabad.

The US signed a pact with the Taliban in February, that was conditions-based, in order to bring the Afghan government and Taliban to the talks tables. 

One of the agreements on the part of the US was a gradual drawdown of troops, until a full troop withdrawal in April next year. 

Since the February agreement, US troop levels are down to 8,600 from 13,000 and are to be reduced further to about 4,500 by November. 

David Helvey, who is performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told the subcommittee hearing the Pentagon was carrying out “prudent planning” to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by May 2021 if conditions were met.

He added that for now, Defense Secretary Mark Esper had not issued any orders to go below 4,000 troops.

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