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U.S. Preparing to Pullout Thousands of Troops From Afghanistan: Report

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(Last Updated On: August 2, 2019)

The U.S. is set to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan as part of an initial peace deal to end the long-term conflict in the war-weary country, the U.S. news agencies reported.

According to the Washington Post, the Trump administration is preparing to reduce its troops in Afghanistan from nearly 14000 to between 8000 and 9000.

The agreement would require the Taliban to broker a peace deal directly with the Afghan government, and give assurances the country won’t be used as a launching pad for international terror attacks, the report said.

The plan has taken shape after months of negotiations between the Taliban and the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad. Officials said an agreement could be finalized ahead of the Afghan presidential election in September, though they cautioned that Taliban leaders could delay and that significant challenges remain, the report added.

Khalilzad has held a series of meetings with Pakistani and Afghan officials over the past several months to brief them about the outcome of his meetings with the Taliban, who are talking to prominent Afghans in Kabul.

“In Doha, if the Taliban do their part, we will do ours, and conclude the agreement we have been working on,” Khalilzad tweeted on Wednesday, adding that he was, “Wrapping up my most productive visit to Afghanistan since I took this job as Special Representative.”

“The US and Afghanistan have agreed on next steps. And a negotiating team and technical support group are being finalized,” he added.

The U.S. has lost more than 2,400 soldiers in its longest war and has spent more than $900 billion on everything from military operations to the construction of roads, bridges and power plants.

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Political leaders condemn attack against Fawzia Koofi

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(Last Updated On: August 15, 2020)

Afghan leaders and foreign allies Saturday condemned the attack on peace negotiator and political activist Fawzia Koofi and wished her a speedy recovery. 

Koofi, who is one of the Afghan national negotiating team members, came under fire by unknown gunmen on Friday afternoon while traveling on the Kabul-Parwan highway. 

According to Tariq Arian, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, gunmen opened fire on Koofi and her sister when they were returning from a meeting in Parwan. 

He said the attack took place when the two women got out of their car to purchase something on the side of the road. 

Arian said Koofi had been shot in her right hand but that she was in a stable condition.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Afghans took to social media on Saturday after the news broke and also condemned the attack. 

Koofi herself posted on her Facebook page Friday night and said she “survived an assassination attempt today afternoon outside Kabul city and got injured in the right arm. Thankfully not a life threatening injury!” 

President Ashraf Ghani stated in response to the incident that “cowardly attacks on Afghan women would not hinder their purposeful efforts to preserve Afghanistan’s 19-year-old values.”

He wished Koofi, “a leader of the wave of political transformation” a speedy recovery.

Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah also condemned the attack and called for an immediate investigation into the incident. 

“I strongly condemn the assassination attempt on Ms Fawzia Koofi and call upon the government to identify and apprehend the culprits and possible motive for the attack.” 

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai also denounced the attempted assassination against Koofi and called it a “terrorist act.”

Karzai said the attack was a clear and unequivocal act against the peace process and expressed his concern about the efforts and plots of the enemies of peace.

He also called on the people of Afghanistan to take a stand against any such plans so as to ensure negotiations would not be derailed. 

Stefano Pontecorvo the NATO Senior Civilian Representative to Afghanistan also voiced his dismay and said the “attack on Fawzia Koofi is yet another despicable attempt at silencing voices of those who advocate for peace and equal opportunities.”

He said: “The perpetrators must be brought to justice,” and that NATO would continue to support the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces in the fight against terrorism.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

The incident comes just days before Koofi and the rest of the Afghan national negotiating team are expected to leave for Doha to start peace talks with the Taliban.

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US seizes four Iranian fuel shipments en route to Venezuela

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(Last Updated On: August 15, 2020)

The United States said on Friday it had confiscated four Iranian fuel shipments that had been bound for Venezuela, disrupting a key supply line for both Tehran and Caracas as they defied US sanctions.

US President Donald Trump said Iran should not be sending cargoes to Venezuela and added that the seized shipments were bound for Houston, Texas, and suggested they may have already arrived.

“They’re going to Houston. And, they’re there,” Trump told a White House news conference. “We’re moving them, and moved, to Houston.”

The US Justice Department said the seized cargo was now in US custody “with the assistance of foreign partners,” adding that the amount confiscated from four tankers was about 1.116 million barrels of fuel, making it the largest-ever US seizure of Iranian fuel.

The US State Department credited its outgoing special envoy for Iran for the seizure operation.

“Our diplomacy, led by Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, was able to both halt these shipments and assist the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security in executing a US seizure order,” it said in a statement.

Neither the Justice Department nor the State Department specify when, where or how the seizure took place. The latter also did not disclose what steps Hook, whose resignation was announced earlier this week, took to secure the seizure.

The Wall Street Journal reported late on Friday that US threats of legal action and sanctions forced Greek shipowners to surrender Iranian fuel to the US government in recent days.

The report, which cited people familiar with the confiscation, said that the operation took place in international waters without the physical presence of any US authorities or the assistance of any foreign government.

Venezuela had already paid for the fuel and hence Iran will not lose any revenue from the confiscation, the newspaper reported.

In July 2019, Hook had sent emails to the captain of a British-flagged oil tanker that was briefly seized by Iran in the Gulf, saying the Trump administration was offering him several million dollars to steer the tanker to a country that would impound it on behalf of Washington.

The United States has imposed sanctions on both countries to choke oil exports and deprive them of their main source of revenue in its bid to see the ouster of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and change the behavior of Iran’s government.

It has also threatened to sanction any ship owners and vessels involved in oil trade with Tehran and Caracas.

Increased Tension

Tensions between Iran and the United States increased last year following a series of incidents involving shipping in and near the Middle East Gulf.

US prosecutors filed a lawsuit in July to seize the gasoline aboard the four tankers, and a judge subsequently issued a warrant for seizure. Legal sources previously told Reuters that the cargoes could not be seized until they were in US territorial waters.

The owners of the four vessels agreed to have the fuel transferred so it could be shipped to the United States, a US government source said on Thursday. The warrant only covered the cargoes, not the vessels.

The owners of the ships targeted by the US legal action agreed to transfer their cargo to vessels owned by Greece’s Eurotankers and Denmark’s Maersk, which are now heading to Houston, the WSJ reported, citing sources.

The four tankers that initially carried the cargoes were the Liberia-flagged Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna. They are owned and managed by companies controlled by Greece-based firms Vienna LTD and Palermo SA.

Vienna and Palermo did not reply to requests for comment.

The Justice Department said that, following the seizure, Iran’s navy forcibly boarded an unrelated ship in an apparent attempt to recover the seized petroleum, and added that the US military’s Central Command published a video of it on Thursday.

Hook is set to formally leave his post within several weeks, a source familiar with the matter said and after his departure, US Special Envoy for Venezuela Elliot Abrams will be adding the Iran brief to his duties.

 

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Brilliant Bayern humiliate hapless Barca with 8-2 crushing

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(Last Updated On: August 15, 2020)

German champions Bayern Munich utterly humiliated Barcelona with an extraordinary 8-2 demolition job on Friday that sent them through into the semi-finals of the Champions League.

Thomas Mueller scored twice for a rampant Bayern, who led 4-1 after 31 astonishing minutes, as Lionel Messi and his team mates were condemned to a thrashing that felt like the end of an era for the illustrious Catalan club.

“We feel devastated, although shame is the real word I’m looking for,” said Barca defender Gerard Pique, adding that the historic defeat called for urgent changes across the club.

Barca coach Quique Setien, who is unlikely to survive the looming inquest, called the drubbing “a tremendously painful defeat”.

Bayern coach Hansi Flick hailed an “outstanding” display from his side but stressed that they were firmly focused on the semi-final, which will be against Manchester City or Olympique Lyonnais.

Mueller added: “We had so much fun today. Of course, Barcelona are special, so we had to be even more aggressive and come back again and again.

“You can imagine we feel good after this match but we have to be quiet and regenerate.”

The scoreline recalled Germany’s 7-1 semi-final win over Brazil in the 2014 World Cup, a game where Flick was on the bench as the national team’s assistant coach.

It began with Bayern grabbing a fourth-minute lead when Mueller collected Ivan Perisic’s cross from the left and played a clever one-two with Robert Lewandowski before drilling home.

But within three minutes Barca had struck back – Clement Lenglet’s super long ball found Jordi Alba in space and David Alaba’s attempt to deal with his searching cross ended up flying past his own keeper Manuel Neuer.

Neuer then had to be quick off his line to foil a goal-bound Luis Suarez but was almost caught out by Messi’s cross-shot from the right which drifted through the area and struck the post.

But just as Barca seemed to have established themselves, the Germans regained their lead in the 21st minute — Serge Gnabry fed Perisic on the left and the Croatian glanced up to see his options before drilling past Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Bayern then added the third as Barca’s defence was opened up again with ease. Thiago Alcantara was given plenty of space in midfield to find Leon Goretzka whose superb ball picked out Gnabry, who had got behind Lenglet and then made no mistake with the finish.

Flick’s side were running riot and it got worse for Barca when a low cross from Joshua Kimmich was turned in at the near post by Mueller — another goal of ruthless simplicity making it 4-1 at the break.

The Spaniards desperately needed to find a way to shift the momentum after the break and Suarez, one of the few Barca players to emerge with any credit from the encounter, provided a route back into the game with a fine strike, in the 57th minute.

Jordi Alba found Suarez on the edge of the box and the Uruguayan jinked passed Jerome Boateng before blasting home.

But Bayern were in no mood to turn down the heat and six minutes later they restored their three-goal advantage thanks to some outstanding work from their Canadian teenager Alphonso Davies.

The left back dribbled in from the flank, danced past Nelson Semedo to get to the byline and then pulled the ball back to fellow full back Kimmich to slot home and make it 5-2.

Somehow Bayern had managed to score five goals without prolific striker Robert Lewandowski, who had scored in his previous seven Champions League matches, getting in on the act.

Eight minutes from the end, the Pole put that right.

Substitute Philippe Coutinho, who is on loan at the German club from Barca, floated over a cross from the left which Lewandowski firmly headed home at the back post.

To add insult to the already painful injury, Coutinho then scored two more before the end, as Barcelona fell apart in unimaginable fashion to the brilliance of the Bavarians.

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