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Lebanese government quits amid fury over Beirut blast

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Reuters
(Last Updated On: August 11, 2020)

Lebanon’s prime minister announced his government’s resignation on Monday, saying the huge explosion that devastated Beirut and triggered public outrage was the result of endemic corruption.

Last week’s detonation at a port warehouse of what authorities said was more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate killed at least 163 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed swathes of the city, compounding months of political and economic meltdown.

“Today we follow the will of the people in their demand to hold accountable those responsible for the disaster that has been in hiding for seven years,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in a speech announcing the resignation.

He blamed the disaster on endemic corruption and said those responsible should be ashamed because their actions had led to a catastrophe “beyond description”.

“I said before that corruption is rooted in every lever of the state but I have discovered that corruption is greater than the state,” he said, pointing to a political elite for preventing change and saying his government faced a brick wall on reforms.

While Diab’s move attempted to respond to popular anger about the blast, it also plunged Lebanese politics deeper into turmoil and may further hamper already-stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a financial rescue plan.

The talks, launched in May, were put on hold due to inaction on reforms and a row between the government, banks and politicians over the scale of vast financial losses.

President Michel Aoun accepted the resignation and asked Diab’s government – formed in January with the backing of Iran’s powerful Hezbollah group and its allies – to stay as a caretaker until a new cabinet is formed, a televised announcement said.

At the White House, US President Donald Trump said the explosion had triggered what he called “a revolution,” but did not comment further.

Ahead of Diab’s announcement, demonstrations broke out for a third day in central Beirut, with some protesters hurling rocks at security forces guarding an entrance leading to the parliament building, who responded with tear gas.

For many ordinary Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional governance, and they have taken to the streets demanding root-and-branch change.

“The entire regime needs to change. It will make no difference if there is a new government,” Joe Haddad, a Beirut engineer, told Reuters. “We need quick elections.”

The system of government requires Aoun to consult with parliamentary blocs on who should be the next prime minister, and he is obliged to designate the candidate with the greatest level of support among parliamentarians.

Forming a government amid factional rifts has been daunting in the past. Now with growing public discontent with the ruling elite over the blast and a crushing financial crisis, it could be difficult to find a candidate willing to be prime minister.

After former premier Saad Hariri stepped down in October last year amid anti-government protests over perceived corruption and mismanagement, it took more than two months to form Diab’s government.

Diab’s cabinet was under severe pressure to step down. Some ministers had already resigned over the weekend and Monday while others, including the finance minister, were set to follow suit, ministerial and political sources said.

Diab said on Saturday he would request early parliamentary elections.

Aoun has said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port. In later comments, he said the investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident.

The cabinet decided to refer the investigation of the blast to the judicial council, the highest legal authority whose rulings cannot be appealed, a ministerial source and state news agency NNA said. The council usually handles top security cases.

Lebanese, meanwhile, are struggling to come to terms with the scale of losses after the blast wrecked entire areas.

“The economy was already a disaster and now I have no way of making money again,” said Eli Abi Hanna, whose house and car repair shop were destroyed. 

“It was easier to make money during the civil war. The politicians and the economic disaster have ruined everything.”

The Lebanese army said on Monday that another five bodies were pulled from the rubble, raising the death toll to 163. Search and rescue operations continued.

Anti-government protests in the past two days have been the biggest since October, when angry demonstrations spread over an economic crisis rooted in pervasive graft, mismanagement and high-level unaccountability.

An international donor conference on Sunday raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros ($298 million) for immediate humanitarian relief, but foreign countries are demanding transparency over how the aid is used.

Some Lebanese doubt change is possible in a country where sectarian politicians have dominated since the 1975-90 conflict.

“It won’t work, it’s just the same people. It’s a mafia,” said Antoinette Baaklini, an employee of an electricity company that was demolished in the blast.

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Pakistan invites Afghan cricket team on official tour

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(Last Updated On: November 24, 2020)

Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has invited Afghanistan’s national cricket team on an official tour for the first time, officials said Tuesday.

This historic move follows the recent visit to Kabul by Prime Minister Imran Khan – one of the game’s greatest players.

“We’ll try to look for a possible window for this tour – and if not 2021, we’ll definitely try to plan a series in 2022 season,” said PCB chief executive Wasim Khan.

“A cricket series between Pakistan and Afghanistan could be a harbinger of love and peace between the two countries,” he told AFP.

An Afghan national side toured Pakistan in May 2011 but they only played a second-string side and matches were not given first-class status.

The two countries have played only a single official one-day match and one Twenty20 international – both in the United Arab Emirates.

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Taliban ignoring calls for reduction in violence: US envoy

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(Last Updated On: November 23, 2020)

Despite concerted efforts on the part of the United States to get the Taliban to reduce its levels of violence in the country, the group has failed to listen to calls from the US and in fact dislike being criticized.

Speaking virtually to the media on Monday, the US Chargé d’Affaires to Afghanistan Ross Wilson said the United States has not been able to convince the Taliban to scale down on violent attacks.

There has been a marked increase in violence by the Taliban since the signing of the US-Taliban deal in February in Doha.

In line with this, Wilson said: “We are deeply concerned about the Taliban’s [increase in] violence since February 29, it is not consistent with the terms that we believe we agreed upon with the Taliban.

“We have told the Taliban this very clearly and directly many times, they don’t like the criticism from us, they don’t like the implied criticism from the United Nations, from the EU from other international communities.

“I regret deeply that we have not yet had more success in and seeing or generally having resulting decrease in the level of violence of the very significant reduction that we believe was part of the deal in February and that has not materialized; certainly not that we have expected or that we would like to expect,” said Wilson.

Wilson added that he has also spoken to a number of media outlets to address challenges and threats against journalists and added that efforts are underway to find solutions.

“We strongly support free and independent media in this country; last week with media figures [we] talked about specific problem of assassinations, threats against journalists and how we in this country and other international firms can help to address that problem,” Wilson added.

Experts believe that the Taliban continue to use violence to gain points in peace talks.

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Nine Australian soldiers commit suicide in just three weeks

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(Last Updated On: November 23, 2020)

Nine Australian soldiers have taken their own lives in just three weeks amid weeks of discussions and media coverage of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, the Daily Mail reported. 

The four-year inquiry uncovered a ‘shameful record’ of unlawful killings that took place outside the ‘heat of battle’.

An edited version of the report was released on Thursday after a four-year inquiry uncovered a “shameful record” of unlawful killings. 

The Daily Mail reported that in the past three weeks one female and eight male soldiers, aged between early 20s and 50s, have taken their own lives. 

According to the news report, so many soldiers taking their own lives in such a short space of time is believed to be unprecedented in recent Australian military history.

It is believed the stress of the inquiry – which uncovered evidence of 39 murders by Australian Special Forces – played a part in some of their suicides, the Daily Mail stated.

‘I think some of the media [reports of alleged war crimes] has been painting everyone with the same brush and people seem to have forgotten about innocence until proven guilty – and that adds additional stress,’ ex-infantry soldier and veterans’ mental health advocate Neil ‘Wally’ Wallace told The Advertiser. 

However, the Mail reported that there is no suggestion the nine late ADF members had anything to do with the alleged war crimes documented in the report.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation said in reaction to the report: “There is no way to define this brutality. There is no way to explain what has happened. It is incomprehensible.”

“These are crimes against innocent people, and I was shocked. At the same time, the Australian government has come very clear with it – about what has happened.”

Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson meanwhile told Al Jazeera that the Afghan victims deserve swift and independent justice for the “deliberate and cold-blooded killings”.

“Ultimately, if we’re talking about accountability, this should not just stop with the people who pulled the trigger and killed these people in Afghanistan,” she told the BBC.

“This is also about command responsibility and so I think that it’s very important that those who knew or who should have known are also held to account and are held criminally liable for these acts.”

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