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Lebanon’s president probes ‘possibility of external interference’

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(Last Updated On: August 7, 2020)

Lebanon’s president said on Friday an investigation into the biggest blast in Beirut’s history would examine whether “external interference” had a role, as residents tried to rebuild their shattered lives and homes after the explosion, Reuters reported.

The search for those missing intensified, as rescuers sifted rubble in a race to find anyone still alive after Tuesday’s explosion that killed 154, smashed up a swathe of the city and sent shockwaves around the region.

“The cause has not been determined yet. There is a possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act,” President Michel Aoun said in comments carried by local media and confirmed by his office.

He said it would also consider whether it was a result of negligence or an accident. 

Aoun previously blamed negligence in the storage of highly explosive material for years at the port.

The United States has previously said it has not ruled out an attack. 

Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, has also previously denied it had any role.

Meanwhile, security forces fired teargas at a furious crowd in Beirut late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the ruling elite, who have presided over a nation that faced economic collapse even before the deadly port blast injured 5,000 people.

The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.

“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old.

His family home is in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred meters from the port warehouses where 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate was stored for years, a ticking time bomb near a densely populated area.

A security source and local media previously said the fire that caused the blast was ignited by warehouse welding work.

Volunteers outside swept up debris from the streets of Beirut, which still bears scars from the 1975-1990 civil war and has often witnessed big bombings and other unrest since then.

“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by falling building wreckage just as he was about to get into the vehicle.

“There is no way to make money anymore,” he said.

The government has promised a full investigation. 

State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody. But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of the years of neglect by the authorities while state corruption thrived, Reuters reported.

Officials have said the blast, whose seismic impact was recorded hundreds of kilometers away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion – a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150 percent of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.

Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and pulled down ceilings, have been overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Many were struggling to find enough foreign exchange to buy supplies before the explosion.

In the port area, rescue teams set up arc lights to work through the night in a dash to find those still missing, as families waited tensely, slowly losing hope of ever seeing loved ones again. 

Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.

A pressing challenge for the government is ensuring the nation has enough food, after the blast destroyed the country’s only major grain silo. 

UN agencies were working to hand out food parcels and deliver medical supplies.

Offers of immediate aid have also poured in from Arab states, Western nations and beyond. But none, so far, address the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.

French President Emmanuel Macron came to the city on Thursday with a cargo from France. 

He promised to explain some “home truths” to the government, telling them they needed to root out corruption and deliver economic reforms.

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Trump calls Taliban tough but says US military can’t police Afghanistan

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(Last Updated On: September 19, 2020)

US President Donald Trump said Friday night that the Taliban was tough and smart but also “tired of fighting.”

Speaking to journalists at a press conference, Trump reiterated his decision on troop withdrawals and said “we’ll be down very shortly over the next couple of weeks to 4,000 — less than 4,000 in Afghanistan.

“And then we’ll make that final determination a little bit later on.”

On the Taliban, Trump said: “We’re dealing very well with the Taliban. They’re very tough, they’re very smart, they’re very sharp. But, you know, it’s been 19 years, and even they are tired of fighting, in all fairness.”

Trump also said the US had been serving as a “police force” in Afghanistan. 

“And we really served as a police force, because if we wanted to do what we had to do, we would have fought a lot differently than they have over their 19 years.

“They didn’t fight it properly. They were police, okay? They’re not police; they’re — they’re soldiers. So there’s a difference. The police — nobody has more respect for police than I do, but they have to do their own policing.”

Trump went on to say the US is “having some very good discussions with the Taliban, as you probably heard. It’s been public. And — but we’ll be down to — very shortly, we’ll be down to less than 4,000 soldiers.”

“And so we’ll be out of there, knowing that certain things have to happen — certain things have to be fulfilled.  But 19 years is a long time, 8,000 miles away. Nineteen years is a long time,” he said.

This comes amid the first rounds of intra-Afghan negotiations following the US-Taliban agreement signed in Doha in February that set out certain conditions – one of which is the withdrawal of all foreign troops by around April next year. 

 

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Abdullah outlines future scenarios that are down to ‘the will of the people’

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(Last Updated On: September 17, 2020)

Both sides need to come to a shared agreement on Afghanistan’s future – one where the will of the people can be exercised freely, said Abdullah Abdullah, the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation.

Speaking to Al-Jazeera, Abdullah said Afghanistan’s future would include one that can sustain itself and one that leads to durable peace and stability. 

As intra-Afghan negotiations continue, between the Afghan negotiating team and the Taliban, Abdullah said both sides need to come to a shared agreement on how to move forward. 

“Both sides should see the need and come to the realization that we must put people first,” he said and on whether the country’s future was a Republic or an Emirate system, he stated it would come “down to the will of the people”. 

However, he stated it was important that the will of the people should be exercised in a free way “one person, one vote is important.”

Asked about the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s constitution, and any possible changes to it, he said there were provisions incorporated in the guiding document which allowed for changes to be made. 

He said the provisions were designed for the interests of the country to get the people in the country together in a unified manner but a change to the constitution was not impossible. 

Should a peace deal be sealed and structural changes be needed, he stated: “The country needs national institutions, national army, national police or any other security sector.” 

Abdullah said that one aspect of the hard work that lay ahead of the peace talks teams was how to integrate the Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters.

“The blueprint has to be decided by both sides”, and there shouldn’t be preconditions attached to it, he said. 

Adding his voice to countless of other officials, both local and foreign, Abdullah said a reduction in violence was critical at this point so that the process could move towards a ceasefire. 

“When I talk about casualties, it’s not just on one side. It’s on both sides,” he said adding that this was unfortunate and a “burden on the next generation.”

He said there is no winner in a war and no loser in an inclusive, peaceful settlement. 

“While they are not recognizing us [Afghan government] or we don’t recognize them as the Islamic Emirate, but we recognize the need to get together, to sit together, to present our views which are different from one another – but to find ways how to reconcile those differences, how to find ways to live together while still maintaining some differences and fighting for it politically rather than through violence.”

He said there could be groups within the Taliban that want to continue with the talks and also to continue with the fighting but that he assumes there are others that are “thinking much more maturely” – based on experience. 

He said the fact that the United States is looking at Afghanistan reaching a peace deal “with urgency” was a “bonus. It’s a plus.” 

But for the Afghan negotiating team, the “ticking clock,” the urgency was more about stopping the suffering of the Afghan people. 

“A unified Islamic Republic will be in a much better position to negotiate … and represent the views of the people”. 

“The continuation of the war and suffering, endless, in an endless way, will not put anybody in a dignified position and it’s not a service to the people,” he said. 

 

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Difficult decisions had to be made to get to talks tables: Khalilzad

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(Last Updated On: September 17, 2020)

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation said in order for the United States, the Afghan government and the Taliban to get to this point some very difficult, even heart-wrenching decisions had to be made. 

He said in an interview with Al-Jazeera that not only did the United States have to make difficult decisions but so did Afghanistan. 

This was in reference to concerns raised over whether the US government has given the Taliban “too much weight” in the intra-Afghan negotiation process – especially in light of the release of 5,000 prisoners. 

Recently foreign countries, specifically France and Australia objected to the release of some hardcore prisoners who had been responsible for killing their nationals over the past few years. 

But Khalilzad said the US itself had not been too happy about this but that “we [the US] appreciate their expression of unhappiness and empathize with them but we think the goal of making Afghanistan to be more peaceful, for Afghans to come together to end the war, for Afghanistan not to be a threat to the international community and for the burden of Afghanistan to be reduced on the international community,” sacrifices needed to be made. 

“Nothing important is easy to achieve, unfortunately. We had to do those tough things, difficult things, heart-wrenching things to get where we are.”

He also said the US was satisfied that the objectives ahead were worth the sacrifices that have been made. 

During the interview, he said not only are the current peace talks a historic moment and an opportunity for peace but also a moment of hope and he continually emphasized the fact that Afghans are tired of war – a war that has been ongoing for 40 years. 

But questioned on whether the continued attacks by the Taliban – who attribute such information as Afghan government propaganda – “sounded like two parties willing to negotiate”, Khalilzad said he did. 

According to him, negotiations are underway in a bid to build trust, to reduce violence and for the two sides to overcome their differences which have led to the conflict. 

He stated the negotiations are underway to “find a formula for resolving those differences,” and noted that both sides had different ideologies but that the aim was for them not to change these but rather to find a way to agree on a political formula that’s workable. 

“It will be difficult, I don’t anticipate …. that it will be easy and that they will quickly come to an agreement. But the door to intra-Afghan negotiations has been opened.” 

He said the United States was very pleased with the role it had played in getting the parties to the talks table but asked whether the basis of the talks was being forced on the Afghan government and whether these talks were truly Afghan-led, Khalilzad stated that until recently it had been US-led but talks were now entirely Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. 

He also said: “They [Afghan negotiating team] are not working on a US timeline but I think they are under pressure from their people who want the war to end.”

He said the US will withdraw from the country if all conditions, in accordance with the Doha agreement between the US and the Taliban, are met. 

The framework agreed upon with the Taliban has four elements, terrorism assurances, intra-Afghan negotiations, a permanent ceasefire and the withdrawal of international forces, he said adding: “We have agreed that if all of these conditions are met within 14 months we will withdraw.” 

He said that if the Taliban does not adhere to the commitments it made to the US “then we are free from our obligation we have made with them.”

He emphasized the agreement was not something made on trust – but instead it was a deal. “You do this, we will do this,” and vice versa, he said without going into any further detail.

But he said he was counting on the Taliban to adhere to their commitment. 

According to him, the Taliban negotiating team is a “very empowered” team and one that takes the negotiations seriously and they came prepared for the talks. 

The Afghan delegation meanwhile was very broad-based and represented a cross-sector of the population, he said adding that both sides were taking the talks seriously “although there are spoilers inside and out”. 

Without naming the “spoilers” Khalilzad said there are people who prefer the status quo as it is – people who profit from the war politically and financially. This he said, was putting “small interests ahead of the broader national interests and that is obviously not acceptable. ” 

He also said there are groups that are against the peace process, against Afghans coming together and groups who want to keep the US entangled in the war. 

One example he gave was that of Daesh in Afghanistan, which, he said, “is trying to polarize the situation” and in some cases have “tried to pretend” the Taliban carried out some of the worst attacks in the country in a bid to undermine the peace process. 

He noted the Afghanistan conflict is quite complex in terms of the number of players but that the US has tried to be active not only with the Afghan sides but also within the region and internationally “to build a consensus for peace in Afghanistan.”

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