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Syrians vote for new parliament amid war, economic turmoil

Ariana News

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(Last Updated On: July 19, 2020)

Syrians go to the polls Sunday to elect a new parliament as the Damascus government grapples with international sanctions and a crumbling economy after retaking large parts of the war-torn country.

More than 7,400 polling stations will open at 7.30 am in government-held parts of Syria, including for the first time in former opposition strongholds, AFP reported.

President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath party and its allies are expected to take most of parliament’s 250 seats in the third such polls to be held since the war started nine years ago.

On the eve of the polls, one person was killed and another wounded in two blasts in Damascus, state news agency SANA said.

Several lists were allowed to run across the country but any real opposition is absent, and the ruling Baath party is expected to retain its hegemony.

Portraits of the contenders have been displayed across the capital for weeks, with the 1,658 candidates including several prominent businessmen.

The elections, twice postponed from April due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, come at a time when most Syrians are worried about the soaring cost of living.

Many candidates are running on programs pledging to tackle inflation and improve infrastructure ravaged by the conflict.

“Lawmakers are going to have to make exceptional efforts to improve services,” said Umaya, a 31-year-old woman who works in a dentist’s practice.

Millions of Syrians living abroad, after fleeing a war that has killed more than 380,000 people, are not eligible to vote.

But for the first time, voting will take place in territory retaken by the government, including in the Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus and in the south of Idlib province in the country’s northwest.

After a string of military victories backed by key ally Russia, the government is back in control of around 70 percent of the country, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

In the last polls in 2016, turnout stood at 57 percent.

This year’s vote comes as Damascus struggles to redress an economy battered by nine years of war, Western sanctions, and the fallout of a financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon.

Food prices in Syria have shot up by more than 200 percent in the past year and now stand at 20 times their pre-war levels, the World Food Programme says.

In a country where more than 80 percent of people already live in poverty, the UN food agency has warned that Syrians are now facing an “unprecedented hunger crisis”.

The elections also come as Assad marked a second decade in power this month, and weeks after the United States imposed new sanctions on Syria including on the president’s wife.

The next presidential polls are expected in 2021, and candidates will need the written approval of at least 35 members of parliament.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem last month said Assad would remain in power “as long as the Syrians want him to stay”.

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Second group of Afghan Sikhs due to leave for India Wednesday

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(Last Updated On: August 11, 2020)

A group of as many as 180 Afghan Sikhs and Hindus are expected to leave Afghanistan for India on Wednesday. 

The Times of India reported Tuesday that the group will likely be relatives of the victims killed in the March temple attack in Kabul which claimed the lives of 25 Sikhs.

India’s Sikh community has pledged its help and has so far evacuated 11 Sikhs – the first of what could become hundreds. 

The first group left Kabul late last month and included Nidan Singh Sachdeva, who was abducted from a gurdwara in Paktia province in June.

Speaking to Singapore’s Straits Times, Manjinder Singh Sirsa, president of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, said:  “We will do everything that we can to help the families out. We will help them with the education of their children.” 

Meanwhile, United Sikhs executive director Jagdeep Singh told the Times of India that their organization is assisting the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus wanting to leave with the necessary documents. 

He said United Sikhs had already finalized over 350 requests from Afghan Sikhs and Hindus to settle in India and they were working on the remainder. 

During the 1980s the Sikh and Hindu community numbered more than 80,000 but most left the country when the Soviet Union was ousted in 1992. 

Some returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban were ousted from power in the hope that things would improve. 

The Afghan government had encouraged their return but the community has faced vicious attacks claimed by Daesh during the past few years. Today, less than 700 live in their home country.

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Ghani signs decree ordering release of final batch of 400 Taliban prisoners

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(Last Updated On: August 10, 2020)

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Monday afternoon signed a decree to release the final 400 prisoners which will now pave the way for intra-Afghan peace talks.

The Presidential Palace (ARG) confirmed on Monday evening on Twitter that the decree had been signed at a ceremony attended by senior Afghan leaders.

Ghani said on Sunday, after the Loya Jirga’s resolution on the prisoner issue had been issued, that he would respect the decision of the Jirga and release the prisoners – some of whom have been accused of having masterminded some of the deadliest attacks in the country over the past 19 years.

In February, the US and the Taliban signed an agreement in Doha which was a conditions-based deal in order to start negotiations.

One of the conditions on the Taliban’s part was that the Afghan government release 5,000 of its members.

Ghani duly did so but held back on the final batch of 400 who were seen as hardcore Taliban militants.

However, in the interests of working for peace, this weekend’s peace Jirga delegates, made up of over 3,200 tribal elders, community leaders and politicians, from around the country, decided the inmates should be freed.

The Taliban has said for weeks that once these prisoners are released they will agree to meet with the Afghan peace negotiating team.

Earlier Monday, government stated that talks would likely start on Sunday in Doha between the two peace negotiating teams. The Afghan government’s team is expected to leave Kabul on Wednesday.

Early Monday, the Taliban’s spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Reuters: “We are ready to sit for talks within a week from when we see our prisoners released. We are ready.”

It was not however clear on Monday night when the prisoners would in fact be freed.

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Afghan peace talks team expected to leave for Doha in two days

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(Last Updated On: August 10, 2020)

The Afghan government’s peace negotiations team is expected to leave Kabul on Wednesday for Doha, Qatar, for the start of intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taliban.

Talks are expected to officially start on Sunday, Afghanistan’s national radio and television service RTA reported.

All members of the group that will travel to Doha, including members of the negotiating team and journalists, had COVID-19 tests done on Monday.

This was in line with international health measures to try to curb the spread of the virus.

Journalists were told they would travel with the team, which will be led by Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai.

Stanekzai and his team are expected to negotiate a comprehensive ceasefire in the first round of talks, a source who is part of the negotiations team told Ariana News adding that the first round of talks is expected to last 15 days.

However, Sayed Mohammad Akbar Agha, a former Taliban leader said Monday that more time was needed to overcome some challenges before talks could begin.

“The Taliban will enter the talks after the release of 400 prisoners, and it is not possible to hold the talks in the limited days; challenges are yet to be removed, and the real representatives of the nation must be included among the delegation, and the Taliban will announce a ceasefire process to build trust,” said Akbar Agha.

Ghulam Farooq Majrooh, a member of the negotiating team meanwhile stated: “The delegation has made all the preparations and we will sit with a specific agenda around the negotiating table with the Taliban; and the other side (the Taliban) should be ready as soon as possible to start the negotiations.”

This latest development comes just a day after the Loya Jirga, or grand council, approved the release of the remaining 400 Taliban prisoners so as to kickstart peace talks.

Pledging to implement the Jirga’s decision, President Ashraf Ghani said on Sunday he will sign the release order of the inmates.

On Monday morning, a source said Ghani would sign the decree later in the day in order to remove the final obstacle in the way of intra-Afghan negotiations.

This development comes after the February deal between the United States and the Taliban in Doha. This agreement called for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and the withdrawal of US troops.

So far, there has been a drawdown of US troops, five American military bases have been handed over to the Afghan government and Ghani has released over 4,600 Taliban prisoners.

The last group of 400 prisoners had been a sticking point as the group had been deemed hardcore inmates responsible for some of the country’s worst attacks over the past 19 years.

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