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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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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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Afghanistan’s ‘cricket is proof that dreams come true’: ACB director

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(Last Updated On: September 22, 2020)

The Director of Cricket at Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB), Raees Ahmadzai said on Tuesday that with hard work and determination “dreams do come true” and that Afghanistan’s cricket is proof of this. 

Representing the ACB at a virtual meeting of the Asian Cricket Council, attended by both full-members and some associate members, Ahmadzai provided details on the country’s achievements and on its challenges. 

According to the ACB, Ahmadzai also discussed the enormous potential of talent in the country – especially with spin bowlers. 

He said: “Without doubt with hard work and determination, dreams do come true and Afghanistan Cricket is a living example of it. Afghan cricketers have been through various hurdles and struggles to enjoy its results today.”

The participants, which also included officials from the International Cricket Council (ICC), recognized Afghanistan Cricket Board’s efforts to promote the game in the war-torn country. 

The meeting came just a day after ACB’s acting CEO Nazeem Abdul Rahimzai met with the governor of Nangarhar Ziaulhaq Amarkheil to discuss progress around the construction of the new Behsud cricket grounds in Jalalabad. 

Construction started about six weeks ago and phase one, which involves the leveling of the ground, is expected to be completed in the next month. 

Rahimzai asked for the governor’s assistance on some issues relating to the project and “was fully assured of full support by the local government,” an ACB statement read. 

Amarkheil meanwhile said cricket in the province should be a priority and said the project would be completed on time. 

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Three suspects identified in public beating of two women in Kabul

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(Last Updated On: September 22, 2020)

The Ministry of Interior said it has identified three security officials involved in last week’s incident involving two young women who were beaten in public in Kabul. 

In a statement issued by the MoI, the ministry said: “After investigating the case, the Crime Investigation Directorate (CID) identified one member of the security forces who was the main culprit in the case and two police officers who were negligent and irresponsible by not stopping the incident.”

The MoI stated that the case is being investigated by the CID but has also been handed over to the Attorney General’s Office. 

The incident, which took place in Kabul city, was caught on video and went viral on social media – which sparked an outcry among rights activists and members of the public. 

The two women were publicly hit by one man, while two officials in uniform stood by and watched. 

A number of other people also stood around and watched the incident unfold.

This comes amid increasing concerns relating to the preservation and strengthening of women’s rights and overall human rights in Afghanistan as the Aghan negotiating team continues discussions with the Taliban in Doha. 

Human rights activists and global leaders have all called for the achievements of the past 19 years to be preserved if any peace deal is made between the warring sides. 

 

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