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Islamic World News ( 20 Jan 2021, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Biden’s Pick For Pentagon Chief, Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, Says Pak Action Against LeT, JeM ‘Incomplete’

New Age Islam News Bureau

20 January 2021


Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin. (REUTERS)


• Iraqi Source: US Attack against Jurf Al-Nasr Aimed at Paving Ground for ISIL’s Revival

• Former Israeli Intelligence Officer Reported To Be Working In Keir Starmer's Office

• Antony Blinken, Biden's Nominee For Secretary Of State Says To Review Taliban Deal

• Uttar Pradesh Govt Seeks Transfer Of All Pleas Against Anti-Conversion Law To SC

• Pakistan Arrests Suspected Islamic State 'Fundraiser', Umar Bin Khalid

• Iran’s Rouhani Calls On US President-Elect Biden To Return To Nuclear Deal

• At Least 48 Dead In Militia Attack On El Geneina, West Darfur - SUNA

 North America

• Biden’s Pick For Pentagon Chief, Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, Says Pak Action Against LeT, JeM ‘Incomplete’

• FBI Probes Possible Connections Between Extremist Groups At Heart Of Capitol Violence

• Pompeo: Chinese Genocide Against Muslims 'Crime of the Century'

• Biden Administration To Revive Military-To-Military Ties With Pakistan

• Iran sanctions US President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, other American officials

• US not close to rejoining Iran deal, says Biden’s pick for national intelligence

• US soldier charged with plotting ISIS attack on 9/11 memorial

• Incoming US intel chief vows to release report on who ordered Khashoggi murder

• US engaged in 30-year futile war in Middle East: Expert


Arab World

• Iraqi Source: US Attack against Jurf Al-Nasr Aimed at Paving Ground for ISIL’s Revival

• Gulf States, Israel Demand Seat At Iran Nuclear Deal Negotiations: UAE Diplomat

• Iraq tightens security along Syria border to curb ISIS movement: Military

• Did Islamic State make comeback to opposition areas in countryside of Aleppo?

• Obscure Islamist Group Targets Turkish Military in Northwest Syria

• ISIS Landmines Kill 10 Russia-backed Fighters in Syria’s Homs

• Israel, Syria officials discuss removal of Iran and its militias from Syria: Report

• Lebanon returns two stolen 18th-century religious icons to Greece



• Former Israeli Intelligence Officer Reported To Be Working In Keir Starmer's Office

• Azerbaijan says lost 2,855 troops in Nagorno-Karabakh war

• Greece arrests suspected Syrian militant wanted in Netherlands

• 2 Syrians charged with terrorism over army officer's killing

• ‘Extremist’ Sydney Man Accused Of Breaching Anti-Terrorism Control Order Over Online Material


South Asia

• Antony Blinken, Biden's Nominee For Secretary Of State Says To Review Taliban Deal

• Myanmar Agrees To Start Taking Back Rohingya This Year

• Afghan Security Members Face Heavy Casualties in Kunduz

• Taliban attacks, violence kills dozens: Afghan officials

• Peace talks at 'snail's pace' due to Taliban, says Afghan government



• Uttar Pradesh Govt Seeks Transfer Of All Pleas Against Anti-Conversion Law To SC

• Major infiltration bid foiled in Jammu: Three militants killed, four soldiers injured

• India: Muslim comedian detained over anti-Hindu jokes he might crack



• Pakistan Arrests Suspected Islamic State 'Fundraiser', Umar Bin Khalid

• Pakistan opposition demand swift verdict against Imran and his party in graft case

• NAB let Dar off the hook after getting his help: UK judge

• Qureshi says Pakistan’s focus has shifted to geo-economics

• Bilawal asks ECP to respond to allegation of PTI’s foreign funding

• Cross-examination in defamation suit: Iffat says can’t recall details of harassment on Meesha



• Iran’s Rouhani Calls On US President-Elect Biden To Return To Nuclear Deal

• US fighting alongside Daesh, al-Qaeda against Yemen: Houthi official

• Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine constitute intl. law violation: UN chief

• Iranian Army Divers Conduct Combined Operations in Ground Force Wargames

• Iran: No Message Received from Biden’s Team

• Spokesman: Uranium Metal Necessary to Treat Iranian Patients with Special Needs

• Pro-Hezbollah journalist says party cannot continue with current ties with Iran

• US issues sanctions waivers to UN, ICRC in Yemen after Houthi sanctions

• Israeli tanks attack Gaza after alleged rocket fire into occupied lands



• At Least 48 Dead In Militia Attack On El Geneina, West Darfur - SUNA

• Tunisia rocked by four consecutive nights of riots

• Sudan deploys troops to Darfur to contain tribal violence

• Tunisians press on with protests against poverty, high cost of living

• Residents flee Islamist insurgent attack on town in northeast Nigeria

• Armed group captures military base in northeast Nigeria


Southeast Asia

• Group Slams Deputy Minister For ‘Political’ Attack On LGBT When Country Suffering From Covid-19

• US declares China guilty of committing ‘genocide’ against Uighurs

• Most Umno leaders in favour of PPBM alliance, says Hadi

• Remembering the Malaysia-Indonesia Confrontation, 58 years on

Compiled by New Age Islam News Bureau



Biden’s Pick For Pentagon Chief, Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, Says Pak Action Against LeT, JeM ‘Incomplete’

By Rezaul H Laskar

JAN 20, 2021


Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin. (REUTERS)


Gen (retired) Lloyd Austin, president-elect Joe Biden’s pick to head the Pentagon, has described China’s “increasingly aggressive actions” across the Indo-Pacific as key concern for the US and said that Pakistan’s actions against anti-India terror groups such as LeT and JeM are “incomplete”.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, Austin also said that if he is confirmed for the post, he will work to continue elevating the defence partnership with India and work to “further operationalise India’s ‘Major Defense Partner’ status”.

Austin, 67, would be the first African American to run the department of defence but needs to be granted a waiver by both the House of Representatives and the Senate because the National Security Act requires the secretary of defence to wait seven years after active duty service before taking up the job.

He retired in 2016. The former four-star general has served as head of the US Central Command, which oversees operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In his testimony to the Senate committee, Austin said on the global stage, Asia must be the focus of the US effort, and that he sees “China, in particular, as the pacing challenge for the Department”.

“Globally, I believe the most significant challenge I will face will be to ensure the Department of Defense’s continued efforts to prepare and strengthen the US military for a dynamic, future security landscape driven by accelerating competitions with China and with Russia – with China as our pacing threat in most areas – while still ensuring our ability to deter today’s range of threats,” he said in written replies to advance policy questions from the committee.

He said he assessed the “rapid development and operational focus” of China and the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army, including its ability to conduct information, cyber and space operations, “constitutes a significant and long-term security threat to the United States and to our allies and partners”.

China’s “increasingly aggressive actions” in the Indo-Pacific too are concerning and the US needs a “more resilient and distributed force posture in the Indo-Pacific in response to China’s counter-intervention capabilities and approaches”, he said.

Asked if there had been any change in Pakistan’s cooperation with the US after American security aid was cut off in 2018, Austin replied: “I understand Pakistan has taken constructive steps to meet US requests in support of the Afghanistan peace process. Pakistan has also taken steps against anti-Indian groups, such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, although this progress is incomplete.”

He added, “Many factors in addition to the security assistance suspension may impact Pakistan’s cooperation, including Afghanistan negotiations and the dangerous escalation following the Pulwama terrorist attack.”

Austin said Pakistan will continue to play an “important role in any political settlement in Afghanistan” and the US also needs to work with the country to defeat al-Qaeda and the Islamic State-Khorasan Province and enhance regional stability.

He added that he intended to “press Pakistan to prevent its territory from being used as a sanctuary for militants and violent extremist organizations”. Continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will “provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues”, he said.

In response to a question on his priorities for India, Austin said his “overarching objective for our defense relationship with India would be to continue elevating the partnership”.

He added, “I would further operationalise India’s ‘Major Defense Partner’ status and continue to build upon existing strong defence cooperation to ensure the US and Indian militaries can collaborate to address shared interests. I would also seek to deepen and broaden our defence cooperation through the Quad security dialogue and other regional multilateral engagements.”


Iraqi Source: US Attack against Jurf Al-Nasr Aimed at Paving Ground for ISIL’s Revival



A senior Iraqi source said that the early Tuesday airstrikes against Jurf al-Nasr region at the bordering areas of Iraq and Syria were aimed at preparing the ground for the ISIL to enter the country.


Al-Qadir news network quoted a "special source" as saying on Tuesday that the attack on Iraqi army units in Jurf al-Nasr area was part of the US ongoing attempts to destabilize Iraq.

He added that the air raids targeted a number of Iraqi army units, killing several forces and wounding a number of others.

The source noted that the US attacks were aimed at undermining Iraq's military power in the region in a bid to the pave the ground for the ISIL terrorists to penetrate into Jurf al-Nasr area from the Syrian border, specially from the US-occupied Al-Tanf base.

Loud explosions were heard South of Iraq's capital of Baghdad Tuesday overnight, according to Lebanese Al-Meyadeen TV.

Al-Meyadeen also reported that American warplanes were heard flying over Syria's border with Iraq prior to the explosions.

The explosions were heard in Jurf al-Nasr, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) Southwest of Baghdad, an area taken by the ISIL in 2014 and liberated that year by the Iraqi army and popular forces.


Former Israeli Intelligence Officer Reported To Be Working In Keir Starmer's Office

19 January 2021


Labour leader Keir Starmer urged to act over ‘Islamophobic’ property developer

Keir Starmer


The opposition Labour Party under Keir Starmer’s direction appears to be shifting ever closer to Israel and pro-Zionist causes, this time by employing a former Israeli intelligence officer.

According to the specialist online publication, The Electronic Intifada (which covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), Assaf Kaplan has been recruited by the Labour Party to help manage and improve the party’s social media operations.

According to the Electronic Intifada, Kaplan is a former officer in Unit 8200, an intelligence wing of the Israeli military.

Unit 8200’s core mission is to collect signals intelligence and decrypt intercepted encrypted communications.

Electronic Intifada claims it has established that Kaplan served in Unit 8200 from May 2009 to November 2013, initially working as an intelligence analyst before getting promoted to officer level.  

The job now occupied by Kaplan was advertised by the labour Party in September 2020 and he started work three months later, a source reportedly informed the Electronic Intifada.

Kaplan’s full job title is “Social Listening and Organizing Manager”, which mostly involves monitoring online conversations about Labour Party policies and positions.

The former Israeli intelligence officer is reportedly working inside the office of party leader, Keir Starmer, thus adding to worries about Labour’s profound pro-Zionist shift under the latter’s leadership.


Antony Blinken, Biden's Nominee For Secretary Of State Says To Review Taliban Deal

Jan 20, 2021

WASHINGTON: President-elect Joe Biden's pick for his top diplomat said Tuesday he would undertake a review of a deal with Afghanistan's Taliban and believed the United States needed means to prevent any resurgence of terrorism.

Outgoing president Donald Trump's administration signed a deal on February 29 last year with the Taliban to end America's longest war but controversially kept some annexes classified.

"We want to end this so-called forever war. We want to bring our forces home. We want to retain some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism, which is what brought us there in the first place," Antony Blinken, Biden's nominee for secretary of state, told his Senate confirmation hearing.

"We have to look carefully at what has actually been negotiated. I haven't been privy to it yet."

In the accord signed in Doha, the United States said it would withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by May 2021 and the Taliban pledged not to allow extremists to operate from Afghanistan, although the group continued attacks on government forces.

The removal of al-Qaida was the original reason for the US invasion following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

But the agreement came with annexes that remain classified, leading to criticism in the United States that there were secret understandings with the Taliban.

On its way out, the Trump administration said Friday it had reduced troop levels to just 2,500, the lowest in decades.

Biden was an early advocate of ending the war in Afghanistan but his aides have more recently spoken of the need for a small force to counter outbreaks of violence -- a stance unlikely to be stomached by the Taliban.

Under questioning from Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a fellow Democrat, Blinken promised to consider the rights of women and girls whose freedoms were severely curtailed during the Taliban's 1996-2001 regime.

"I don't believe that any outcome that they might achieve," Blinken said of nascent talks between the Taliban and Afghan government, "is sustainable without protecting the gains that have been made by women and girls in Afghanistan over the last 20 years."

"I would acknowledge to you that I don't think that's going to be easy, but we will work on it."


Uttar Pradesh govt seeks transfer of all pleas against anti-conversion law to SC

Jan 19, 2021

PRAYAGRAJ: The Uttar Pradesh government has informed the Allahabad high court that it has filed a petition before the apex court seeking transfer of all the writ petitions, which have challenged the recent ordinance against religious conversion, from the HC to the Supreme Court for adjudication.

Additional advocate general, Manish Goyal, representing the state government made this disclosure during the hearing of a bunch of writ petitions against Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020.

Taking this statement, moved on behalf of the additional advocate general on record, a division bench comprising chief justice Govind Mathur and Justice Saurabh Shyam Shamshery said that “in view of the statement so given, we deem it appropriate to adjourn this petition for writ. Let this petition along with other similar petitions be listed for final hearing at this stage on January 25, 2021”. The court passed this order on a PIL filed by one Saurabh Kumar.

It is relevant to mention that the UP government passed the anti-conversion ordinance in November which was challenged through multiple PILs and writs in the high court. The government recently approached the Supreme Court seeking transfer of all pending writ petitions from the Allahabad high court to the apex court.

In addition to it, an application was also filed in the high court on behalf of Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives through its managing trustee Tulika Srivastava to join the writ proceedings.

The court allowed this application for the reasons mentioned therein, saying “The Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives through its Managing Trustee - Tulika Srivastava is allowed to participate in the writ proceedings as an intervenor."

The court further directed the counsel for the intervenor to supply the grounds on which she wanted to support the writ petition to additional advocate general, Manish Goyal.

The court passed this order on January 18.


Pakistan Arrests Suspected Islamic State 'Fundraiser', Umar Bin Khalid

By Ayaz Gul

January 18, 2021

ISLAMABAD - Authorities in Pakistan said Monday they have arrested a university student in the southern port city of Karachi for allegedly collecting and sending funds to Islamic State militants fighting in Syria. 

Separately, the Pakistani military said its forces raided a hideout near the country’s western border with Afghanistan and killed two senior “terrorists” in the ensuing firefight. It said that a third militant “got injured and apprehended.”

The counterterrorism department in Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, identified the detained suspected IS operative as Umar Bin Khalid, a final year student at the city’s NED University of Engineering and Technology. He was trying to board a train before being taken into custody on Sunday.

The department noted that a “forensic examination” of Khalid’s two cellphones established his links to a group “raising funds in Pakistan for Daesh and sending them to Syria.” Daesh is the Arabic name for Islamic State.

The statement said the detainee was involved in the fundraising activity for the last two years, and he was in contact “directly with families of terrorists plotting terrorism in Pakistan and Syria.”

IS has taken credit for plotting deadly attacks in Pakistan in recent years. They include the kidnapping and slaughtering earlier this month of 10 coal miners in the southwestern Baluchistan province.

Raid near Afghan border

The Pakistani military, while sharing details of Monday’s raid in the South Waziristan border district, said the two slain militants were “active members” of the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban. 

The statement said the men were “terrorist trainers,” experts in bomb-making, and plotted attacks against security forces in the region. One of the slain militants, it said, played a role in a bomb attack three months ago that killed six soldiers and injured several others.

South Waziristan and the adjoining North Waziristan districts had until a few years ago served as sanctuaries for local and foreign militants blamed for terrorist attacks on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. 

However, Pakistani officials say sustained security operations in recent years have killed thousands of militants and forced others to take refuge in volatile Afghan border areas.


Iran’s Rouhani calls on US President-elect Biden to return to nuclear deal

20 January 2021

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged US President-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday to return to a 2015 nuclear deal and lift crippling sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Biden, who takes office on Wednesday, has said the United States will rejoin the pact that includes restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work if Tehran resumes strict compliance.

“The ball is in the US court now. If Washington returns to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, we will also fully respect our commitments under the pact,” Rouhani said in a televised cabinet meeting.

“Today, we expect the incoming US administration to return to the rule of law and commit themselves, and if they can, in the next four years, to remove all the black spots of the previous four years,” he said.

Tensions have grown between Tehran and Washington since 2018, when US President Donald Trump exited the deal between Iran and six world powers that sought to limit Tehran’s nuclear program and prevent it developing atomic weapons. Washington reimposed sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

Iran, which denies ever seeking nuclear arms, retaliated to Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy by gradually breaching accord. Tehran has repeatedly said it can quickly reverse those violations if US sanctions are removed.

Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, said on Tuesday the United States would not take a quick decision on whether to rejoin the pact.

“US President Donald Trump’s political career is over today and his ‘maximum pressure’ policy on Iran has completely failed,” Rouhani said. “Trump is dead but the nuclear deal is still alive.”


At least 48 dead in militia attack on El Geneina, West Darfur - SUNA

JANUARY 17, 2021

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - At least 48 people died and 97 people were injured in a militia attack on the West Darfur city of El Geneina on Saturday, Sudan’s state news agency SUNA said, citing a local doctors union.

The attack came just weeks after UN peace-keepers began withdrawing from the region, where violence is increasing, and was triggered when a member of the Masalit tribe stabbed a member of an Arab tribe, human rights organisation the Darfur Bar Association said in a statement.

“Armed militias took advantage of the incident and attacked El Geneina from all sides,” the association said, as well as the nearby Kreinding camp for internally displaced people, from where SUNA said there was now a wave of people moving towards the city.

The association accused the militias of looting and human rights abuses.

Similar incidents have occurred in Darfur since conflict began in 2003, when the government of Omar al-Bashir armed militias to help repress a revolt.

“We have warned several times about the deteriorating security situation in Darfur ... as armed militias still pose a constant threat,” a coordinating committee for IDP camp residents said in statement.

Camp residents have protested the exit of UNAMID, the peace-keeping mission that had patrolled the region until its mandate ended on January 1.

On Saturday, the governor of West Darfur declared a state of emergency, authorising the use of force in order to stabilise the situation and imposing a curfew.

While the military had begun to deploy, the bar association said the commander for the region had not responded to the state governor’s directives.

The West Darfur doctors union said it had asked for help protecting medical facilities and staff, but called the response “weak”, SUNA reported.

Sudan’s civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has dispatched a high-level group led by the public prosecutor to El Geneina, his office said in a statement.



North America


FBI probes possible connections between extremist groups at heart of Capitol violence

By Devlin Barrett and Spencer S. Hsu

Jan. 19, 2021

The FBI investigation of the Capitol riot has begun to zero in on potential key figures in the chaos, including some self-styled militia members who in some videos and photos appear to be planning or urging further violence.

Though no one has been charged with leading or directing the violence, investigators are working to find out whether certain individuals helped coordinate aspects of the attack, before and during the chaos, or were merely opportunistic instigators.

In nearly two weeks since the assault, the Justice Department has charged more than 100 people — mostly individuals who revealed themselves as participating in the Jan. 6 riot through social media boasts. But the weekend arrests of people with alleged ties to extremist groups reflects the FBI’s increasing attention to the more prepared, organized and determined groups among the larger mass of rioters.

One of those newly charged was Robert Gieswein, 24, of Woodland Park, Colo. Charging documents and videos indicate he may have links to the three extremist groups that have drawn the most attention from the FBI: the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters. Some of the videos appear to include members who discussed storming the Capitol about an hour ahead of the riot.

In court papers, FBI agents say Gieswein — charged with assaulting police, civil disorder and obstruction of police and government — runs a private paramilitary training group and is affiliated with the Three Percenters. The FBI said in court filings that Gieswein was apparently recorded multiple times inside and outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, decked out in military garb with two distinctive markings that made it easier for investigators to trace his actions that day — a patch for his paramilitary group, the Woodland Wild Dogs, and a black pouch on his chest that said, “MY MOM THINKS I’M SPECIAL,” evocative of the Proud Boys anthem, “Proud of Your Boy.”

Someone who appears to match the description of Gieswein laid out in FBI arrest affidavits shows up on a live-streamed Proud Boys video from about 11:14 a.m. to 12:55 p.m. that day. About 30 minutes into the video, viewed by The Washington Post, one member in the group with people in blaze-orange hats, camouflage backpacks and military-style vests yells, “Let’s take the f---ing Capitol!” Someone else then admonishes, “Let’s not ­f---ing yell that.”

The group in the video waits at the Capitol until 12:48 p.m. to link up with milling supporters of President Trump who have made their way to the west front of the Capitol after the president’s speech at the Ellipse, the live stream shows. Once there, the Proud Boys group surges forward, toppling barricades and charging up the steps, with a Proud Boys narrator saying, “We’re storming the Capitol!”

Then, about 2:13 p.m., according to FBI affidavits, Gieswein appears in a different video with a helmeted group breaking a window on the Senate side of the Capitol using a riot shield and a piece of lumber, one of the earliest breaches of the building.

Gieswein turned himself in to authorities Monday and was in custody in Colorado. Information about his attorney was not available. Efforts to reach Gieswein and relatives, including people associated with his addresses and inoperative Web domains he registered in 2019, such as and, were unsuccessful.

The charges filed against Gieswein on Saturday do not include accusations that he conspired with others to attack Congress. But investigators are still working to better understand his role and interactions with others on the day of the attack and in the run-up to the violence, according to people familiar with the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Before the attack, Gieswein gave a media interview in which he echoed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, the affidavit said, and said his message to Congress was “that they need to get the corrupt politicians out of office. Pelosi, the Clintons ... every single one of them, Biden, Kamala.

On Monday, prosecutors unsealed charges against a Texas man associated with the Three Percenters who allegedly threatened to kill his children if they exposed him and a Pennsylvania 29-year-old accused of attacking police with a metal barricade.

Others also charged in recent days include a heavy-metal guitarist from Indiana and two self-styled militia members from Ohio — further signs that the FBI is ratcheting up its investigation of the role extremist organizations played in storming the building.

Jon Schaffer, who founded the band Iced Earth, turned himself in to FBI agents in Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon, officials said. On Jan. 6, Schaffer was photographed inside the Capitol, wearing a hat that said “Oath Keepers Lifetime Member.”

Schaffer was charged with six crimes, including engaging in an act of physical violence. Authorities said Schaffer was among the rioters who targeted Capitol Police with bear spray. At a pro-Trump march in November attended by Oath Keepers, the FBI said, Schaffer said: “We’re not going to merge into some globalist, communist system. It will not happen. There will be a lot of bloodshed if it comes down to that, trust me.”

Also arrested Sunday were Donovan Crowl, 50, a former Marine interviewed by the New Yorker, and Army veteran Jessica Watkins, 38. A bartender, Watkins recently told the Ohio Capital Journal that she formed the “Ohio State Regular Militia” in 2019 — a unit of the Oath Keepers, the FBI said — and that the group has appeared at a dozen rallies to “protect people.”

The FBI said Watkins posted to Parler a photograph of herself in uniform on Jan. 6, writing: “Me before forcing entry into the Capitol Building. #stopthesteal #stormthecapitol #oathkeepers #ohiomilitia.”

Watkins and Crowl were among about 10 people recorded at the Capitol wearing combat helmets, ballistic goggles, tactical vests and Oath Keepers patches who were shown to “move in an organized and practiced fashion and force their way to the front of the crowd” outside the Capitol, FBI affidavits said.

Attorneys for Crowl, Watkins and Schaffer could not immediately be identified.

The Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters and the Proud Boys, a male-chauvinist group with ties to white nationalism, have drawn particular attention from FBI agents investigating the attack on Congress as they work to determine whether those groups organized or directed the violence to block certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory. Officials have said the Proud Boys in particular are an important focus of the FBI investigation.

“All these extremist groups are being looked at in terms of their participation at the Capitol,” Michael Sherwin, acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said Friday.

Oath Keepers patches and logos were prominently worn by a number of those in the mob that day. It is one of the largest self-described militia groups in the United States, claiming tens of thousands of members who assert the right to defy what they deem “illegal” government orders.

The Oath Keepers gained a measure of notoriety last summer when members showed up at Black Lives Matter protests wearing military gear and carrying weapons as a kind of self-declared vigilante force to prevent vandalism. Before that, they appeared at the 2014 standoff at the Bundy ranch in Nevada and the protests in Ferguson, Mo.

A related group, the Three Percenters, formed in 2008 and is named after the bogus claim that only 3 percent of the population fought against the British in the American Revolution. The self-described militia group espouses right-wing libertarian ideals and has embraced Trump. The group also has provided security services for various right-wing protests and movements, the FBI said.

Overall, many of those charged by the Justice Department have been what one senior law enforcement official characterized as “low-hanging fruit” — people who revealed themselves as participating in the riot on Jan. 6.

Federal investigators are now accelerating efforts to determine whether the assault was planned and led by groups of people — rather than an impulsive outburst of violence — particularly because some of the men shown on video laying siege to the building were equipped with handheld radios and headsets and at times appeared to work in unison on particular objectives, investigators said.

“There are breadcrumbs of organization in terms of what maybe was taking place outside the Capitol ... with perhaps some type of communication with core groups of people ingressing into the Capitol,” Sherwin said, but he cautioned it could be weeks or months before the FBI settles on an answer “to find out the actual motivations of some of those groups.”

Even before the riot, the Oath Keepers had garnered attention and alarmed law enforcement officials. Stewart Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper who founded the group in 2009, threatened ahead of November’s election to deploy members to polling places, preemptively accusing Democrats of voter fraud on Alex Jones’s online show “Infowars.”

Members also demonstrated in Washington after the election in support of Trump. Rhodes, who has predicted the nation will descend into civil war, said allies would not recognize Biden’s victory as legitimate, adding in an interview with news outlet the Independent, “We’ll end up nullifying and resisting.”

Before the riot, law enforcement agencies were also increasingly concerned about the Proud Boys. The group’s chairman, Enrique Tarrio, had planned to attend Trump’s Jan. 6 rally but was arrested when he arrived in D.C. and charged with misdemeanor destruction of property in connection with the burning of a Black Lives Matter banner taken from a Black church during an earlier protest in Washington. He is also accused of felony possession of two extended gun magazines.

Tarrio told The Post last week that his group did not organize the Capitol siege.

“If they think we were organizing going into the Capitol, they’re going to be sadly mistaken,” he said. “Our plan was to stay together as a group and just enjoy the day. We weren’t going to do a night march, anything like that. That’s it as far as our day.”

In the Proud Boys’ Jan. 6 live-stream video, marchers refer to Tarrio and some address him via the stream. One leader taunts police by bullhorn, shouting before the riot, “You took our boy in, and you let our stabber go,” apparently referring to Tarrio’s arrest and a man allegedly involved in stabbing several Proud Boys in a December march on D.C.

U.S. authorities on Friday arrested Dominic Pezzola, 43, of Rochester, N.Y., a former Marine and Proud Boys member known as“Spaz” or Spazzo” who is allegedly visible helping Gieswein climb through the riot-shield-shattered Capitol window and confronting police with him inside the building. In court papers, the FBI cited a witness who told them that the group Pezzola was with would have killed “anyone they got their hands on,” including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Vice President Pence.

Since the attack, Proud Boys leaders have urged members to pull out of pro-Trump protests planned around Biden’s inauguration Wednesday.

Tarrio said he is actively discouraging members from attending planned armed marches. The Proud Boys, he said, are on a “rally freeze and will not be organizing any events for the next month or so.”


Pompeo: Chinese Genocide Against Muslims 'Crime of the Century'

By Sandy Fitzgerald 

19 January 2021

The Chinese Communist Party's "crimes against humanity" against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been the "crime of the century" and the State Department's declaration that genocide is being committed is a move to convince the Chinese government to cease its actions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday.

"We've been working on this for a long time in the Trump administration," Pompeo said on Fox News' "America's Report." "We sanctioned officials. We have told businesses they couldn't bring products out of those regions ... this is forced labor, forced sterilizations, forced abortions, the kinds of thing we haven't seen in a long time in this world, crimes against humanity and genocide."

Before the interview, Pompeo in a statement accused the Chinese ruling Communist Party of committing “crimes against Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang as far back as March 2017, reports Politico.

The declaration, coming on the last full day of the outgoing Trump administration, comes as a culmination of the pressure that has been put on China's communists over its internment of the Muslim minorities in work and reeducation camps.

The House has also passed a bill to ban any imports from Xinjiang unless companies can prove that forced labor had not been used to produce products, but the bill has stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Pompeo Tuesday defended the eleventh-hour nature of the announcement, saying that it was a "serious matter" that was not taken lightly and that as it was a bipartisan analysis, "we want to continue to work."

"There were vigorous discussions across the United States government," said Pompeo. "We relied on facts that came from nongovernmental entities, journalists, to make sure we had everything right. We wouldn't have done this if we didn't think this determination that I issued today was proper, appropriate, and would hopefully lead to better lives for people in this region."

He added that he is "counting on" the Biden administration to be able to handle the threat China continues to pose to the United States.

"The threat from the Chinese party is real," he said. "I have great confidence that the American people have come to understand this challenge from the Chinese Communist Party."

Meanwhile, he said he hopes his probable successor Antony Blinken will not launch an "apology tour" after the Biden administration takes office.

"I'm proud of this country," he said. "This is the most exceptional nation in the history of civilization. I'm proud of the work the Trump administration has done in the Middle East, China. We made life better for people all across the world ... let's not be an America we should apologize for. We should be proud of the greatness, uniqueness, and exceptionalism of the United States of America."


Biden administration to revive military-to-military ties with Pakistan

Anwar Iqbal

January 20, 2021

The Biden administration sees Pakistan as an “essential partner” in any peace process in Afghanistan and believes that “continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues,” says its nominated defence chief Gen Lloyd J Austin.

Gen Austin made these remarks during his confirmation hearing for the post of secretary of defence before the United States Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

“Pakistan is an essential partner in any peace process in Afghanistan," Austin, a former head of the US Central Command, told the committee. "If confirmed, I will encourage a regional approach that garners support from neighbours like Pakistan, while also deterring regional actors, from serving as spoilers to the Afghanistan peace process.”

When asked what changes he would recommend to US relations with Pakistan as the new defence chief, Gen Austin said: “I will focus on our shared interests which include training future Pakistan military leaders through the use of International Military Education and Training funds. Pakistan will play an important role in any political settlement in Afghanistan. We also need to work with Pakistan to defeat al Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and to enhance regional stability.”

Asked if he has perceived any change in Pakistan’s cooperation with the US since the Trump administration’s decision in 2018 to withhold security assistance, Gen Austin said: “I understand Pakistan has taken constructive steps to meet US requests in support of the Afghanistan peace process. Pakistan has also taken steps against anti-Indian groups, such as Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-i-Mohammad, although this progress is incomplete.”

The general, however, acknowledged that “many factors in addition to the security assistance suspension may impact Pakistan’s cooperation, including Afghanistan negotiations and the dangerous escalation following the Pulwama terrorist attack.”

“Pakistan is a sovereign country,” he said when asked what tools and options the US had to influence Pakistan.

“I will press Pakistan to prevent its territory from being used as a sanctuary for militants and violent extremist organisations. Continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues.”

Peace deal review

Meanwhile, Tony Blinken, who appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for his confirmation hearing for the post of secretary of state, said he wanted to review the US-Taliban peace deal but clarified that the new administration would also continue the peace process started by the Trump administration.

Blinken, who is a former State Department official, would undertake a review of the peace deal because like the outgoing Trump administration, which negotiated the deal, the new US rulers also want to end the almost 20-year long war in Afghanistan.

“We want to end this so-called forever war," he insisted. "We want to bring our forces home. We want to retain some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism, which is what brought us there in the first place," Blinken said. “We have to look carefully at what has actually been negotiated. I haven't been privy to it yet."

America's President-elect Joe Biden has stated that while he would reduce the number of combat troops in Afghanistan, he would not withdraw US military presence.

Last year, during a debate between Democratic presidential candidates, Biden had said: "We can prevent the United States from being the victim of terror coming out of Afghanistan by providing for bases — insist the Pakistanis provide bases for us to air lift from and to move against what we know."

In his hearing on Tuesday, Blinken also promised to consider the rights of Afghan women and girls whose freedoms were severely curtailed during the Taliban regime.

"I don't believe that any outcome that they might achieve," Blinken said of nascent talks between Taliban and the Kabul government, "is sustainable without protecting the gains that have been made by women and girls in Afghanistan over the last 20 years."

Relations with India

The Biden administration, Blinken said, would also like to continue a close relationship with India.

“India has been a bipartisan success story of our successive administrations. It started towards the end of the Clinton administration,” he said.

“During the Obama administration, we deepened cooperation on defence procurement and information sharing. The Trump administration carried that forward including its concept of Indo-Pacific and to make sure we were working with India so that no country in the region, including China, could challenge its sovereignty.”

The US, he said, would also continue to work with India on concerns that the two countries share about terrorism.

“There are many ways we can deepen that cooperation that successive administrations have put us on," Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


Iran sanctions US President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, other American officials

Yaghoub Fazeli and Emily Judd

19 January 2021

Iran’s foreign ministry imposed sanctions on outgoing US President Donald Trump, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and several current and former members of the Trump administration, on Tuesday.

Current American officials sanctioned include Trump, Pompeo, acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, CIA Director Gina Haspel, US Special Representative to Iran and Venezuela Elliot Abrams, and Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) chief Andrea Gacki.

Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, former US envoy for Iran Brian Hook, and former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper were also sanctioned.

The US State Department told Al Arabiya English it was aware of the reports of the Iranian sanctions and called the move a “transparently political stunt.”

“This is a transparently political stunt by the Iranian government that does not deserve the seriousness of a substantive response,” a State Department spokesman told Al Arabiya English.

Iran sanctioned the officials for their alleged involvement in the killings of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, as well as “supporting acts of terror against Iran” and imposing sanctions against the Islamic republic, the semi-official ISNA news agency cited foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh as saying.

The sanctions are based on a law that was approved by Iran’s parliament in 2017, meant to “confront America’s human rights violations and adventurist and terrorist acts in the region.”

According to the law, sanctioned individuals are not allowed entry to Iran, any assets they own within the Islamic republic are confiscated, and their bank accounts in the country are frozen.

Last month, Iran also blacklisted the US ambassador in Yemen, one day after Washington imposed terrorism-related sanctions on Tehran’s envoy to the Yemeni Houthis.

Tensions between Iran and the US have escalated since Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran in 2018 as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign.

Experts argue the maximum pressure campaign has created leverage for US President-elect Joe Biden to negotiate a better nuclear deal.

Biden has pledged to rejoin the accord if Iran returns to complying with it. However, his incoming Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said the US is not close to rejoining the deal during her confirmation hearing on Tuesday.


US not close to rejoining Iran deal, says Biden’s pick for national intelligence

Joseph Haboush

19 January 2021

The United States is not close to rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, incoming Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said during her confirmation hearing Tuesday.

“I think, frankly, we are a long ways” from Iran coming back into compliance with the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Haines said.

President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee suggested that Iran’s ballistic missile program and other destabilizing activities in the region needed to be studied as well.

Separately, Haines said China would be a priority and a challenge. “It’s something I will have to focus on,” she said.


US soldier charged with plotting ISIS attack on 9/11 memorial

20 January 2021

A US Army soldier was arrested on Tuesday for allegedly trying to help ISIS fighters attack American troops and targets in New York, including the 9/11 Memorial.

Cole James Bridges – who is 20 and from the state of Ohio – faces federal terrorism charges, United States prosecutors said in a statement.

Bridges – a private based at Fort Stewart, Georgia – began researching extremist ideology and expressing support for ISIS on social media shortly after joining the army in September 2019, prosecutors say.

In October 2020, they claim that he started communicating online with an undercover FBI agent posing as an ISIS supporter who claimed to be in contact with ISIS fighters in the Middle East.

“During these communications, Bridges expressed his frustration with the US military and his desire to aid ISIS,” said the statement issued by the Southern District of New York.

“Bridges then provided training and guidance to purported ISIS fighters who were planning attacks, including advice about potential targets in New York City, such as the 9/11 Memorial.”

He is accused of later providing information about how to attack US forces in the Middle East, including by providing “specific military maneuvers.”

This month, Bridges sent the agent a video of himself in body armor standing in front of an ISIS flag, the prosecutors added.

“Bridges betrayed our country and his unit when he plotted with someone he believed was an ISIS sympathizer to help ISIS attack and kill US soldiers in the Middle East,” said William Sweeney, an official at the FBI’s New York office.

Bridges has been charged with attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization and attempting to murder US military service members.

The two counts carry up to 20 years in prison each.


Incoming US intel chief vows to release report on who ordered Khashoggi murder

20 January 2021

US President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for the United States’ top intelligence position has pledged to release an unclassified report on who directed the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as per a congressional demand that the outgoing Donald Trump administration defied.

Biden’s nominee for director of national intelligence (DNI), Avril Haines, made the pledge during her confirmation hearing at the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday in response to a question by a ranking Senator on whether the DNI under her watch would release the Khashoggi report as mandated by Congress.

“Yes, senator, absolutely we’ll follow the law,” Haines said when pressed by Oregon’s Democratic Senator Ron Wyden whether she would “submit to the Congress the unclassified report required by the law.”

The Senator reminded Haines that the US lawmakers had passed a law requiring the DNI to submit to Congress the unclassified report on who was responsible for the brutal murder of Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.

Wyden, who has been pushing for the release of the US intelligence community’s findings on Khashoggi’s killing, called on Haines to reverse the Trump administration’s “excessive secrecy and lawlessness.”

The incoming spy chief also responded affirmatively in written testimony — with a simple “Yes” — when asked a similar question about releasing the long-sought report.

Later on Tuesday, Wyden hailed Haines’ commitment to releasing the report in a Twitter post, saying, “This is huge: Incoming DNI, Avril Haines, just committed to releasing an unclassified report on the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

“For two years, I’ve been fighting for transparency and accountability for those responsible. We are closer than ever to getting #JusticeForJamal,” he added.

Khashoggi, a US resident and columnist for both the US-based Washington Post and the UK-based Middle East Eye, was killed by Saudi regime agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018.

With Democrats set to control the Senate by the end of the month with the swearing-in of two new members who won races in Georgia earlier this year, Haines and other Biden appointees are expected to easily win confirmation, barring the emergence of any major opposition.

The outgoing administration of Republican President Trump had been pushing to shield the despotic Saudi regime from criticism, citing the Persian Gulf Arab kingdom’s arms purchases from the US — worth hundreds of billions of dollars — as well as Washington’s geopolitical alliance with the Saudi rulers against Iran’s growing influence in the region.

In Congress, however, many lawmakers have been pushing to punish Riyadh over Khashoggi’s murder, as well as the regime’s brutal military aggression against neighboring Yemen and other human rights abuses.

In late 2019, US legislators included a provision in the Pentagon budget calling on the DNI to submit to Congress within 30 days an unclassified report outlining “the advance knowledge and role” of any Saudi official in “the directing, ordering, or tampering of evidence in the killing of Khashoggi.”

More than a year after the passage of the legislation, Congress has only received a single unclassified page from the DNI stating that it will not release the information publicly to protect “sources and methods.”

The Washington Post has reported that the CIA established in late 2018 that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered the murder — an assessment shared by lawmakers who received classified intelligence briefings on the assassination.

Meanwhile, the United Nations rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, who also found in 2019 that the killing of Khashoggi was a state-sanctioned crime, has been calling on Washington to share what it knows about the murder case with the rest of the world.

“From an international legal standpoint and an international political standpoint, the public release of a document with the CIA assessment - a document that could be probed by others - will make it far more difficult for the rest of the world, particularly governments, to ignore Mohammed bin Salman’s personal involvement in the operation that led to the killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi,” Callamard said in an interview with the Middle East Eye last year.


US engaged in 30-year futile war in Middle East: Expert

19 January 2021

An American political commentator has said that the United States has been engaged in a 30-year long futile war in the Middle East to regain the monopoly on the world's energy reserves.

Bill Dores, a writer for Struggle/La Lucha and longtime antiwar activist, made the comments in an interview with Press TV on Monday.

“Today we celebrate the life of great Black leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who fought for peace and justice and was likely murdered by agencies of the US government,” he said.

“Dr. King pointed out the bombs the United States was then dropping on Vietnam also explode at home, destroying the possibility of a decent life for millions here, especially for working class and oppressed people. Washington's wars and sanctions still have that effect today,” he added. 

“For the past 30 years, the United States has been engaged in a long and futile war to try and regain the monopoly that US oil companies once had on the world's energy reserves. This is only for the benefit of a handful of multibillionaires not the majority of people,” the analyst said. 

“We do not benefit from sanctions on other countries, or giant war fleets roaming the seas thousands of miles away, or the endless stream of arms and aid to Israel, which occupies Palestine and bombs and shells Gaza and Syria, on an almost daily basis,” he stated.

Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations says the United States should stop its hostility toward Iran and recognize the Islamic Republic as a regional power in order to improve its image in the eyes of its own and world people.

“Americans must stop hostility toward Iran and understand that Iran is a definite reality and a powerful country in the region, which intends to live in peace with its neighbors within framework of the international law,” Majid Takht-Ravanchi said on Monday.

Iran’s UN envoy made the remarks in an exclusive interview with IRNA when asked about the possible impact of a change in the US foreign policy apparatus under the new administration of president-elect, Joe Biden.

“The ambassador said that the United States should recognize Iran as a regional power. Iran is part of the region. It has helped other nations in West Asia to develop their economies, and defend themselves. The United States intervention there has been purely destructive. The sanctions have killed millions on top of the bomb. These cruel and inhumane sanctions must end right now,” Dores said. 

“The United States has no business trying to dictate to the people of the region. Endless wars and sanctions enrich the few and prevent the possibility of a better world for people everywhere. The US should get all its military forces out of that region, out of the so-called Middle East and stop funding the Israeli occupation of Palestine.  It should engage in peaceful trade and relations with Iran and the other countries in the region,” he noted.



Arab World


Gulf states, Israel demand seat at Iran nuclear deal negotiations: UAE Diplomat

Rawad Taha

20 January 2021

The UAE does not have a problem with rapprochement with Iran but that any talks of a nuclear deal need to be conditional and participatory, a UAE diplomat told CNBC during an interview.

“We need to be able to engage also with the Biden administration, with the Iranians, with the region. I think that was the problem with the JCPOA [nuclear deal], is that it didn’t take our concerns into account. It treated us as bystanders and spectators when we felt that it was directly concerned with our security,” said UAE’s Assistant Minister of Culture and Public Diplomacy at the Foreign Ministry Omar Ghobash.

US President-elect Joe Biden has stated his intention to return to the Iran nuclear deal, if Tehran fully complies with the agreement. The original nuclear deal signed under the Obama administration between Iran and international actors did not include the Gulf states and Israel and did not tackle Iran’s ballistic missile program and proxies in the region.

“We do business with Iran and we have sort of a significant Iranian population here. We don’t have an issue with that. We do have an issue with ballistic missiles, nuclear technology, looking at a nuclear weapon and the corrosive influence that they have on many Arab economies. So, if we can put an end to all of that, fantastic, everybody would be very happy to deal with Iran and on an equal basis when we think about how this is all going to play out in the future,” he added.

Ghobash added that it’s kind of “low hanging fruit” to use the UAE’s relationship with Israel to present a more unified position across the region in terms of what happens with Iran.

“We do have common interests [with Israel], it’s clear, because we stand on the side of stopping nuclear proliferation in the region and we stand on the side of sort of developing local economies and developing our human resources. In that sense, we stand on the same side, how the Biden administration will take that into account, it’s something that we all need to work on,”

“We in the Emirates are a positive influence. The Gulf states are a positive influence. And it’s our belief that the Biden administration and the group of nations that have been negotiating with Iran take us on board and see the positive influence that we can bring to discussions on Iran,” Ghobash added.


Iraq tightens security along Syria border to curb ISIS movement: Military

19 January 2021

Iraq is tightening security along its 600 km (400 mile) border with Syria to curb the movement of ISIS militants, drug smuggling and other illegal activities.

Iraqi commanders on Monday toured the remote desert frontier controlled by various different forces, including the Iraqi military, Iran-aligned militias, the Syrian army, anti-Damascus opposition forces, and US-backed Kurdish forces.

The border is a flashpoint for tension between Iran-backed groups and the United States and is also tense because of ISIS incursions and Turkish pressure on Kurdish rebel groups.

At an outpost facing into Syria, Lieutenant-General Abdul Amir al-Shammari said the Iraqi side was under the control of state forces and was being more tightly secured, but that the main challenges came from inside Syria.

“One of the biggest challenges is there’s no one single or unified security partner on the Syrian side,” he said.

“In this area, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are across the border - whom we coordinate with via the (US) coalition,” he said, referring to US-backed, Kurdish-dominated paramilitaries battling ISIS remnants and also opposed to Turkey.

“Further south, there’s the Syrian army, and in some areas beyond that, control by Syrian opposition groups,” Shammari said.

Iraq was stepping up use of high-tech thermal cameras and observation balloons, he said.

Reuters reporters touring the border by air with the military saw diggers making deeper trenches along large sections of the Iraqi side of the frontier, which is sparsely peppered with border guard towers, earth berms and metal fences.

Shammari said some families of ISIS fighters had recently been detained after crossing from al-Hol, a displacement camp on the Syrian side housing tens of thousands of people who fled ISIS’s final enclaves.

Officials worry al-Hol is a breeding ground for extremism and fear the return of thousands of Iraqis with ties to ISIS.

The border has recently also seen Israeli air strikes against Iranian-linked targets including Revolutionary Guards commanders as Israel increases pressure on allies of Iran and of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Iraqi military is in the difficult position of coordinating with state paramilitaries that include the Iran-aligned groups which are facing off with Israel and the United States and transfer weapons and personnel across the frontier.

Iraq also navigates a growing relationship with Turkey which wants Baghdad to help clamp down on activities of the Kurdish PKK insurgent group, which has bases in northern Iraq and allies in the SDF.


Did Islamic State make comeback to opposition areas in countryside of Aleppo?

Khaled al-Khateb

Jan 16, 2021

ALEPPO, Syria — Syria TV correspondent and journalist Bahaa al-Halabi survived an assassination attempt Jan. 6 in the Turkish-backed opposition-controlled city of al-Bab in the northeastern countryside of Aleppo. The attempt took place outside Halabi's home, as masked individuals intercepted his private car and fired their bullets directly at him.

The incident sparked controversy and fear among activists and journalists in the opposition areas in the countryside of Aleppo. Speculations soared about the entity behind this type of operations. Some believe the incident is due to the security chaos that al-Bab and other opposition-controlled areas are experiencing in the countryside of Aleppo. They believe bombings and assassinations are usually carried out by agents of the Syrian regime or the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which both share an interest in perpetuating the security chaos in the region.

Other journalists believe the attempt to assassinate Halabi has the Islamic State's (IS) fingerprints all over it. IS members excel in this type of assassination. In their view, the incident ushers in the return of the organization to the opposition areas in the countryside of Aleppo through its agents.

On Dec. 12, 2020, journalist Hussein Khattab was assassinated in a similar manner in al-Bab. Two masked individuals shot him in the city center while he was preparing a press report. Opposition police and public security forces have so far been unable to reveal the perpetrators’ identity.

The Union of Syrian Media in Aleppo countryside issued a statement Jan. 6, calling on “all authorities that have set themselves up as trustees and responsible for the region, its security and the protection of its residents to assume their role in maintaining security and deterring terrorist cells.”

“We will not stand by idly while we watch our safe areas turn into a hotbed of terrorism,” it warned.

Al-Monitor met President of the Union of Syrian Media Saad al-Saad, who said, “The attempt to assassinate Halabi and the assassination of Khattab reaped terror in the hearts of journalists and activists in the opposition areas. All of us could be a target for terrorism if the security situation is not controlled and the agents working in favor of the terrorist organizations are not prosecuted. I do not rule out that IS could be the culprit, but the regime or SDF may be behind these operations as well. This matter is open to many speculations since the opposition police forces have so far been unable to determine the identity or affiliation of the perpetrators."

Galal Talawi, journalist and member of the Union of Syrian Media, told Al-Monitor that opposition security and military institutions must intensify their efforts in managing the security situation in al-Bab and Aleppo's countryside. “Terrorists could expand their activities in the coming period if they are not prosecuted and hit with an iron fist,” he said.

Fears of an IS comeback in the opposition-controlled areas in the countryside of Aleppo through operations carried out by IS cell members seem justified right now.

IS is witnessing a revival and has spread in the areas of the Syrian desert (Badia). Its fighters are constantly attacking the regime forces and allied militias. IS has been also targeting SDF in the areas it controls in northeastern Syria, and will naturally try to penetrate and target opposition-controlled areas in northwestern Syria. What’s more, IS claimed responsibility for previous assassinations in al-Bab.

Of note, IS claimed about 600 attacks in Syria during 2020, most of them in eastern Syria. According to a Jan. 6 statement published by the IS-affiliated Amaq news agency, 593 attacks were carried out in Syria during 2020. IS stated that its operations killed 1,327 persons and wounded 901 individuals affiliated with the SDF, 407 Syrian regime forces and 19 fighters from various opposition factions.

Most of IS’ attacks and operations concentrated in Deir ez-Zor, where IS said it conducted 389 attacks, followed by 59 in Raqqa, 38 in Homs, 39 in Hasakah, 36 in Aleppo and 29 in Daraa. According to the statement, the attacks destroyed and damaged 292 vehicles, including 172 in Deir ez-Zor, 51 in Raqqa and 25 in Homs. The Amaq statement noted that 256 of the attacks were carried out with explosive devices, 191 were assassinations and 123 clashes.

Meanwhile, journalist Majed Abdel Noor argued that recently, through its security cells, IS has penetrated deep into the city of al-Bab. He told Al-Monitor, “IS cells are carrying out operations in broad daylight. The problem is the security failure and shortcomings shown by the opposition's security institutions. These instructions ought to exert all possible efforts and tap on any capabilities to eradicate these criminals.”

Abdel Noor noted, “The eradication of these cells must begin as soon as possible, otherwise we will soon wake up to see IS expanding tremendously. Then the available security solutions will not be enough.”

He added that the method of these assassinations provide several signs about the perpetrator. “IS is the most capable opponent to penetrate our regions so easily. All opponent parties — including the SDF and the Syrian regime — are involved in the terrorist operations carried out in the liberated area. However, operations of this kind — targeting journalists — bear the hallmarks of IS cells,” he concluded.


Obscure Islamist Group Targets Turkish Military in Northwest Syria

By Sirwan Kajjo

January 17, 2021

WASHINGTON - A small Islamist militant group has claimed responsibility for an attack on Turkish forces in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. 

The Ansar Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Squadron said it was behind the attack Saturday that targeted a Turkish military outpost in the northern countryside of Idlib.  

“The sniper platoon of the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Squadron targeted one of the main bases of the ‘Turkish NATO’ military stationed near the town of Batbo, north of Idlib,” the extremist group said Sunday in a statement published on social media.  

Three Turkish soldiers were wounded as a result of the assault, according to local news media. The Turkish government has not commented.   

Idlib is the last major stronghold controlled by forces opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is the most powerful Islamist group present in Idlib, but other al-Qaida-affiliated groups and Turkish-backed rebels also have a significant presence in the Syrian enclave. 

The HTS, formerly known as al-Nusra Front, is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.   

As part of a de-escalation agreement with Russia, Turkey has deployed forces in Idlib and set up several observation posts throughout the rebel-held parts of the province.  

Russia has been a staunch supporter of the Assad government, while Turkey backs several rebel groups. 

New group  

Since its founding in August 2020, Ansar Abu Bakr al-Siddiq has claimed responsibility for at least three other attacks on Turkish forces in Idlib.  

Experts say the extremist group represents a trend among jihadis in northwest Syria that openly oppose the HTS and Turkey.   

“They actually believe that you have to actively fight against the Turkish presence in northwest Syria because they think it’s an apostate occupation of Muslim lands,” said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a Syria researcher at Swansea University in Britain. 

Although the group has no allegiance to al-Qaida or the Islamic State terror groups, its leaders promote the establishment of a strict Islamist state in Syria.  

“Khayal al-Manhaj is considered as the main theorist of Ansar Abu Bakr al-Siddiq whose works support these trends,” al-Tamimi told VOA.  

It is not clear how many fighters are in Ansar Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, but experts believe most of its members have defected from the HTS and other al-Qaida-affiliated groups.  

Several other Islamist factions also have emerged in recent months in Idlib in opposition to a new cease-fire deal reached between Turkey and Russia in March 2020. Their attacks have primarily targeted Russian-Turkish joint patrols on the strategic M4 highway.


ISIS Landmines Kill 10 Russia-backed Fighters in Syria’s Homs

18 January, 2021

Ten Russia-backed fighters were killed when ISIS landmines exploded in al-Tayba area in al-Sukhna, in Syria's eastern Homs countryside near the administrative border with the Deir Ezzor province.

Meanwhile, Russian warplanes carried out on Sunday 40 airstrikes targeting ISIS positions in Aleppo, Hama and Raqqa.

The Russia-backed forces launched a security campaign in the deserts of Deir Ezzor and Homs, where forces from the al-Quds Brigade, 5th Corps and National Defense militias continue to comb the area from Kabajib and al-Shoula to al-Sukhna, in an attempt to secure the Deir Ezzor-Homs road.

ISIS has recently increased its attacks against regime forces, killing and injuring dozens.

Analysts believe this reflects the difficulty of completely eliminating ISIS remnant cells operating in the Badia desert area stretching from eastern Homs, in central Syria, to the easternmost parts of the Deir Ezzor province in the east.

On December 30, ISIS targeted three busses carrying pro-regime militants and members of the 4th Division, in al-Shula desert on Deir Ezzor-Homs road, killing 39 and injuring others.

The terrorist organization also ambushed various vehicles on the Damascus-al-Raqqah highway in the beginning of the year. The attack resulted in the death of 12 regime soldiers and affiliated militias, as well as three civilians, including a little girl.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented the killing of at least 1,199 regime soldiers and loyalists of various nationalities, including two Russians and 145 Iran-backed militants.

They were all killed during ISIS attacks, bombings and ambushes in the deserts of Deir Ezzor, Homs and al-Suwaida from March 2019 to this day.

The Observatory also announced that during the same period, four civilians working in gas fields, 11 shepherds and four other people were killed in terrorist attacks, while 633 ISIS members died in attacks and bombardment.


Israel, Syria officials discuss removal of Iran and its militias from Syria: Report

Rawad Taha

20 January 2021

Israel’s demand to remove Iran and its militias from Syria was discussed by Syrian and Israeli officials last month at the Russian Hmeimim base in Syria’s Latakia, according to the Syrian Bridges Center for Studies.

According to the report, the meeting included the Director of Syria’s National Security Office Major General Ali Mamlouk, Security Advisor at the Syrian Palace Bassam Hassan, Israel’s former chief of staff of the Israeli army Gadi Eisenkot and former Mossad general Ari bin Menashe. Alexander Tchaikov, the commander of the Russian forces in Syria, was also present at the meeting.

Observers and international affairs experts have been monitoring Russia’s work as a mediator between Syria and Israel in recent weeks. Sources have confirmed that Israeli army has been informing the Russians of airstrikes on Syria beforehand. After the recent “Abraham Accords” peace deals between Israel and Arab states, some have speculated that Syria may be next, despite Iranian presence on its soil, after multiple Syrian officials openly discussed the possibility of peace after negotiations.

The center said that the Syrian delegation requested facilitating the return to the Arab League and obtaining financial aid to pay off Iranian debts along with stopping western sanctions to open the way for Syria to expel Iran.

The center added that Israeli demands included “completely removing Iran, Hezbollah and Tehran's militias and forming a government that includes the opposition, restructuring the security and military establishment.”

The center added that the meeting did not conclude with specific agreements, but that it constituted the beginning of a path that Russia is pushing toward and is expected to witness a major expansion in 2021.

The report added that Moscow believes that building a direct relationship between the regime and Israel could constitute a lifeline for the regime and obtain international support for its political project in Syria.

Last Tuesday, Israel, with US support, launched the heaviest raids on Iranian and Syrian sites in northeastern Syria.

The Israeli army announced in its annual report for 2020 that it carried out 50 air strikes on targets in Syria and launched more than 500 missiles and smart missiles during the past year, with the aim of preventing Iran's positioning in Syria.


Lebanon returns two stolen 18th-century religious icons to Greece

19 January 2021

Lebanon handed back two 18th-century religious icons of Jesus and Mary to Greece on Tuesday after they were seized during an auction, a judicial source said.

The paintings were stolen from an exhibition in Athens in 2016, and Greece put out an international notice calling for their return.

Icons are Christian religious paintings, often of saints, and are viewed as sacred.

Lebanon has launched an investigation, but it is not clear who stole them, or how they were brought to the country.

“The person who bought the paintings at the auction in Lebanon was questioned,” the source said, adding that the buyer was about to ship them to Germany “to sell them on at an international auction there.”

The paintings were handed to the Greek ambassador in Beirut.

Greece has retrieved several other religious icons worth thousands of dollars in recent years.

In 2011, Greek officials blocked the sale of a dozen religious icons by two art galleries in Britain and the Netherlands after finding the items had been stolen years before.

The icons, which dated from before the 18th century and could have each fetched from $7,000 to $21,000, were stolen from unguarded monasteries and churches in the sparsely-populated Epirus region of northwestern Greece.

In 2008, Britain returned to Greece a 14th-century icon stolen from a Greek Orthodox monastery 30 years earlier, and found in the hands of a London-based collector.





Azerbaijan says lost 2,855 troops in Nagorno-Karabakh war

19 January 2021

Azerbaijani says it lost more than 2,800 troops during the 44-day war with neighboring Armenia over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the Azeri Defense Ministry said that the army had lost at least 2,855 soldiers during the war with Armenia over the region.

It updated the death toll from the war after learning of some funerals and the identities of the deceased soldiers.

The ministry added that at least 50 Azerbaijani troopers were also still missing.

Baku had previously provided a slightly lower death toll from the war.

Armenia has announced that 2,317 of its troops were killed during the war, which also killed more than 90 Azerbaijani and 50 Armenian civilians.

Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but it has been occupied by ethnic Armenian separatists backed by Armenia since 1992 when they broke from Azerbaijan in a war that killed some 30,000 people.

The conflict erupted on September 27 last year and ended on November 10 with a Russian-brokered truce.

As part of the truce agreement, Armenia returned swathes of territory it had occupied for decades to Azeri control.

The agreement was signed after the Azerbaijani army overwhelmed Armenian forces and threatened to advance on Karabakh’s main city of Khankendi, which Armenians call Stepanakert after a 19th-century Bolshevik militant.

The truce, which was warmly welcomed as a victory in Azerbaijan, has prompted anger in Armenia, with protesters demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

Also under the ceasefire, nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers have been stationed along the Lachin corridor in Azerbaijan, a 60-kilometer-long route that links Khankendi to Armenia.

Once the handover of the occupied territories is complete, the next phase of the ceasefire would include the withdrawal of Armenian forces and separatists from Karabakh and the return of refugees to their homes, where Azerbaijanis and Armenians are about to live together under the suzerainty of Baku.,855-troopers-in-Nagorno-Karabakh-war


Greece arrests suspected Syrian militant wanted in Netherlands

JANUARY 15, 2021

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek authorities have arrested a 37-year-old Syrian asylum seeker wanted in the Netherlands for suspected terrorism offences, a police official said on Friday.

The man arrived on the island of Samos from Turkey on Oct. 4, 2018, and was later transferred to a migrant facility near Thessaloniki where he was arrested on Wednesday under an international arrest warrant issued by Dutch authorities, according to the official.

Two earlier applications for asylum in Greece had been rejected, he added.

The unnamed man was suspected of terrorist offences and being a member of al Nusra, a Syrian group affiliated with al Qaeda as well as migrant trafficking. Extradition procedures were under way.

Tens of thousands of migrants have arrived in Greece in recent years, many fleeing the civil war in Syria.


2 Syrians charged with terrorism over army officer's killing

18 January 2021

BERLIN -- Two Syrians have been charged in Germany for alleged links to a terrorist organization on suspicion they were involved in the killing of an army officer in their homeland in 2012, prosecutors said Monday.

Khedr A.K. was charged with membership in a terrorist organization while Sami A.S. was charged with supporting a terrorist organization on allegations they were acting on behalf of the Nusra Front, as al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria was known at the time of the alleged offenses.

Neither of their last names were given in line with German privacy laws.

The two were arrested last summer in Naumburg, in eastern Germany, and in the western city of Essen.

The pair are suspected of taking part in the killing of a captured lieutenant colonel of the Syrian government forces in July 2012, prosecutors said. They said that Khedr A.K. guarded the man as he was brought to the execution site. Sami A.S. is suspected of filming the officer’s shooting and preparing the footage for use as propaganda.

It was not immediately clear when the two came to Germany.


‘Extremist’ Sydney man accused of breaching anti-terrorism control order over online material

JANUARY 16, 2021

A Sydney man has been arrested after he allegedly failed to comply with a condition of a control order by accessing online material that supported executions, beheadings and torture.

Australian Federal Police acting commander Alex Nicholson fronted the media on Saturday, detailing how the 25-year-old was accused of breaching the Federal Court of Australia direction.

The man, who was released from jail on January 1, was subject to the control order until December 30.

“The man has an extremist ideology aligned to the ISIS terror network,” acting commander Nicholson said.

The AFP High Risk Terrorist Offenders team arrested the man at his Denistone home on Saturday morning.

Commander Nicholson said there was no threat to the community.

“This man is now the fifth person arrested by the AFP for breaching a control order since July,” he said.

“While we are continuing to see high risk terrorist offenders breach their control orders, police are ensuring offenders who breached their orders are arrested, charged and face the consequences of their actions.

“AFP offices continue to work with our state and territory counterparts and security agencies to protect the community from extremist material and the violence it promotes.”

The man has been charged with three counts of contravening a Federal Court of Australia control order.

He faces a maximum penalty of five years in jail if found guilty.

The man was arrested in July 2019 by the NSW Joint Counter Terrorism team for being or associating with people suspected to be part of an ISIS terrorist network, according to acting commander Nicholson.

He was sentenced on December 12 after pleading guilty to two counts of associating with a terrorist organisation and was released from jail about two weeks ago.

Conditions vary for each individual under a control order, and the man had a curfew and restrictions on accessing particular material online, acting commander Nicholson said.

Anyone with information about extremist activity or possible threats to the community should contact the National Security Hotline on 1800 123 400.



South Asia


Myanmar agrees to start taking back Rohingya this year

SM Najmus Sakib


DHAKA, Bangladesh

Myanmar agreed to calls by Bangladesh at a tripartite meeting facilitated by China to start the much-awaited repatriation of Rohingya in the second quarter of this year, officials said Tuesday.

Bangladesh pushed hard to begin the repatriation, but Myanmar again delayed it, seeking time for logistical arrangements.

“We pushed to initiate the repatriation in the first quarter, but Myanmar sought more time for logistical arrangements and some physical arrangements. So we asked to start repatriation in the second quarter, and they agreed on it,” Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen said after the meeting.

In addition, China and Myanmar also understood and agreed on the proposal pushed by Bangladesh to maintain the international community’s presence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State when the repatriation occurs, added the official, who led the Bangladeshi side in the virtual trilateral meeting with Myanmar and China on the Rohingya.

China will provide free COVID-19 vaccinations to the Rohingya people in the first phase of repatriation.

Days before the meeting, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said “repatriation is the only solution to end the Rohingya crisis, and there will be no alternative.”

Bangladesh also proposed a village-based repatriation of the Rohingya to their homeland while Myanmar wanted a sporadic collection of refugees who are currently taking shelter in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh following a military crackdown in Myanmar in 2017 and repatriation.

China’s Vice Minister Luo Zhaohui virtually joined in the first secretary level meeting between Bangladesh and Myanmar under the mediation of China.

A proposal was also tabled at the meeting to send a group of Rohingya to visit Rakhine directly to create an environment for those returning.

Myanmar’s preparation for repatriation

Myanmar’s Deputy Minister for International Cooperation U Hau Do Suan participated in the tripartite meeting held via videoconference.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement issued later said: “Myanmar has made all necessary arrangements for the repatriation and reaffirmed Myanmar’s readiness to receive the verified displaced persons in line with the bilateral agreements.”

The statement, however, did not mention a specific date for the repatriation to take place.

“The Pilot Project is underway for the repatriation of displaced persons. Myanmar is willing to commence the process with verified displaced persons who will be repatriated under the Pilot Project,” the statement added, quoting the deputy minister.

He also highlighted the need for prospective returnees to fill in and sign the agreed forms containing two points to ensure their voluntariness to return and obligation to abide by the existing laws of Myanmar.

The deputy minister urged Bangladesh to address the issue of terrorist elements intimidating and threatening the displaced persons not to return to Myanmar.

Bangladesh, however, said it does not and will not allow any insurgents in the country and is aware of the issue.

The last two attempts to take back Rohingya under a bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar signed in 2017 failed to achieve any results, despite Myanmar’s repeated assurances to commence repatriation.

The last tripartite meeting was held on Jan. 20 last year in New York, and since then, Myanmar has been allegedly postponing the bilateral talks despite repeated attempts by Bangladesh.

Persecuted people

According to Amnesty International, more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh after Myanmar forces launched a crackdown on the minority Muslim community in August 2017.

Since Aug. 25, 2017, nearly 24,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed by Myanmar’s state forces, according to a report by the Ontario International Development Agency (OIDA).

More than 34,000 Rohingya were thrown into fires, over 114,000 more were beaten, and as many as 18,000 Rohingya women and girls were raped by Myanmar’s army and police, said the OIDA report, titled Forced Migration of Rohingya: The Untold Experience.

Over 115,000 Rohingya homes were burned and 113,000 others vandalized, the report added.


Afghan Security Members Face Heavy Casualties in Kunduz

By Mohammad Haroon Alim

19 Jan 2021

Chahar Darreh district, Kunduz province, Afghanistan.MITCH MAKOWICZ/U.S. ARMY

Kunduz officials reported that 13 members of the Afghan national army and four NDS members were killed in a Taliban attack on two security checkpoints in the province.

Sources in Kunduz province confirmed to Khaama Press, that 13 ANA soldiers and 4 members of the National Directorate of Security were killed and 5 others were wounded in a Taliban attack on a security checkpoint in Dasht-e-Archi district of Kunduz Province.

Reports indicate that 15 Taliban fighters were also killed during the skirmish.

On the other hand, Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban tweeted, that 21 Afghan security members had been killed in an attack on two security checkpoints in the Dasht-e-Archi district of the Kunduz.

Kunduz is one of the most insecure provinces in the country, where the Taliban are present in large numbers.


Taliban attacks, violence kills dozens: Afghan officials

JAN 19, 2021

A wave of Taliban attacks and violence has killed dozens across Afghanistan, even as talks are underway between the government and the insurgents in Qatar, officials said on Tuesday.

A statement from the defence ministry said four army soldiers were killed late Monday night in Taliban attacks on checkpoints in Kunduz province.

According to the ministry, 15 Taliban fighters were also killed and 12 were wounded. The details were impossible to independently verify as Kunduz is off limits to journalists and the Taliban hold sway across most of the province's rural areas.

However, Ghulam Rabani Rabani, a provincial council member in Kunduz, gave a significantly higher casualty toll. At least 25 members of the security forces were killed by the Taliban in separate attacks in the Dasht-e-Archi district, including 13 soldiers and four policemen, he said.

At least eight other soldiers were killed near Kunduz city, the provincial capital, he said.

Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the insurgents were behind all the attacks. The Taliban were able to seize weapons and ammunition from the checkpoints, he said.

Meanwhile, in southern Helmand province, Abdul Zahir Haqyar, administration chief in Washer's district, was shot and killed by unknown gunmen on Monday night, said Abdul Nabi Elham, the provincial governor of Helmand.

Two of Haqyar's bodyguards were wounded in the shooting. No one immediately claimed responsibility for that attack.

Separately, in southern Urozgan province, at least 10 people, including women and children, were wounded, when a sticky bomb placed on a motorcycle exploded, according to the provincial governor, Mohammad Omar Sherzad.

A private car belonging to police officers was the target of the explosion, he said.

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks in the capital of Kabul in recent months, including on educational institutions that killed 50 people, most of them students. IS has claimed responsibility for rocket attacks in December targeting the major US base in Afghanistan. There were no casualties.

Taliban representatives and the Afghan government earlier this month resumed peace talks in Qatar, the Gulf Arab state where the insurgents maintain an office. The stop-and-go talks are aimed at ending decades of conflict. Frustration and fear have grown over the recent spike in violence, and both sides blame one another.

There has also been growing doubt lately over a US-Taliban deal brokered by the outgoing Trump administration. That accord was signed last February. Under the deal, an accelerated withdrawal of US troops ordered by Trump means that just 2,500 American soldiers will still be in Afghanistan when President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20.


Peace talks at 'snail's pace' due to Taliban, says Afghan government

Jan 20, 2021

Afghan authorities lambasted the Taliban Wednesday for failing to actively participate in peace talks seeking to end the country's long-running war.

Following months of deliberations and a first-round that failed to achieve any major breakthrough, the Afghan government and Taliban are meeting again in Qatar, but so far only discussing the agenda for round two.

"Unfortunately, the talks are going at a snail's pace," Waheed Omar, media adviser to President Ashraf Ghani told reporters.

"The Taliban have no clear vision. We see no changes in them."

Kabul is pushing for a permanent ceasefire and to protect governance arrangements in place since the ouster of the Taliban by a US-led invasion following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

But since the second round of talks began on January 6 in Doha there has been no significant announcement about how negotiations were proceeding.

The talks have been marred by a surge in violence, with a recent spate of high-profile killings of officials, judges, journalists and activists leaving the war-weary country reeling.

Omar said there was no plan to release more Taliban prisoners to help spur the talks along, saying the government's previous experience of releasing insurgents failed to reduce fighting.

"The Taliban not only did not reduce the violence, but they increased the violence," Omar said.

Before the start of the peace talks on September 12, authorities released more than 5,000 Taliban inmates as demanded by the group in a deal with Washington last year.

In return, the Taliban agreed to give some security guarantees and participate in peace talks aimed at ending the country's war.

Under the landmark deal signed last year, the US pledged to pull out all foreign forces from Afghanistan by May 2021.

Both the Taliban and the Afghan government are anxiously awaiting President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration and any new policy directions from the incoming administration.





Major infiltration bid foiled in Jammu: Three militants killed, four soldiers injured

January 20, 2021

Three militants were killed while four soldiers sustained injuries after the Army foiled a major infiltration bid along the LoC in the Keri Battal area of Jammu’s Akhnoor.

According to army sources, on the intervening night of January 18-19, a group of five heavily armed militants tried to sneak into this side through the Keri Battal sector, but they were intercepted and challenged by alert troops leading to an exchange of fire between the two sides.

Three militants were killed, sources said, adding searches were going on for the other two who may have gone back or may be hiding in the area.

Four soldiers also sustained gunshot wounds and were evacuated to the hospital.


India: Muslim comedian detained over anti-Hindu jokes he might crack

Seerat Chabba


Indian stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui is facing legal action in two states after he was arrested for allegedly insulting Hindu deities, in a case that critics say is an attack on freedom of speech.

Faruqui and four others were detained in India’s central city of Indore on January 1 after the leader of a right-wing vigilante group filed a complaint against them for hurting religious sentiments.

Eklavya Singh Gaur is the son of Malini Gaur, a politician from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. He said he and his associates were in the audience when the comedian made the objectionable remarks. They created a ruckus and forced the event to stop, local media outlet NDTV reported.

Legal action in two states

The 28-year-old performer has been booked on suspicion of outraging religious feelings and helping the spread of disease.

He has also been asked to appear before a court in the state of Uttar Pradesh over an earlier case of “insulting” Hindu deities as well as senior BJP leader Amit Shah, local news publication The Wire reported.

Nearly three weeks later, Faruqui has been denied bail by lower courts. His lawyers approached the Madhya Pradesh High Court last week but the hearing was adjourned after the police failed to produce the case diary.

Talking to NDTV, Faruqui's defender Anshuman Shrivastav said this was the result of police "negligence" and that the document was located in a police station across the street from the court.

Police: Lack video evidence doesn't matter

Authorities are pursuing the case despite Indore police admitting they had no evidence, Indian Express reported.

"There’s no evidence against him for insulting Hindu deities or Union Minister Amit Shah," local police officer Kamlesh Sharma told the news daily days after the initial arrest. He added that the two videos submitted by the complainant were of another comedian.

Last week, Indore’s Superintendent of Police Vijay Khatri told news portal Article 14 that Faruqui was arrested after Gaur, son of the BJP politician, said he overheard some jokes during rehearsal. The lack of video evidence was not important.

"Doesn’t really matter," Khatri told the website. "There was ruckus at the venue even before Faruqui could perform. But, we were told [by the complainants] that they [the comedians] were cracking jokes about Ram and Shiv ji [the Hindu deities] while rehearsing."

Rising intolerance

Faruqui’s arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention have been criticized as an attempt to stifle freedom of speech in India. Fellow comedians and activists have come out in support of their colleagues.

Comedian Vir Das took to Twitter to share a screenshot of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2017 tweet that talked about the importance of humor.

"I think we need more satire and humour. Humour brings happiness in our lives. Humour is the best healer," Modi had said in the tweet.

Others, including popular comedians Rohan Joshi, Kaneez Surka and Abish Mathew, shared a video where Faruqui is trying to reason with those offended with his jokes.

"Turns out now you can just assault people while they’re doing their job and the cops will take 'them' to the police station," Joshi said on Instagram.





Pakistan opposition demand swift verdict against Imran and his party in graft case

Jan 20, 2021

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), the anti-government alliance of opposition parties, on Tuesday held a protest rally outside the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in Islamabad, demanding a swift verdict in a foreign funding case against the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

The foreign funding case was filed in November 2014 by Akbar S Babar, a founding member of PTI, alleging serious financial irregularities in the party’s accounts. The allegations included illegal sources of funding, concealment of bank accounts in Pakistan and abroad, money laundering, and using private bank accounts of PTI employees as a front to receive illegal donations from the US and countries in Europe and Middle East.

The ECP is expected to hear the funding case against the ruling party on Wednesday.

Addressing the mammoth rally, ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s daughter and vice-president of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Maryam Nawaz said the PDM parties had gathered outside the ECP to remind it of its constitutional obligations.

Terming the PTI foreign funding case the “biggest fraud in Pakistan’s history”, she said that cases against her father were expedited and decided within days but the ECP had only held 70 hearings of the case against PTI since 2014.

“Today the PDM and public ask you, if you (PM Imran Kahn) did not steal, then why did you try to stop the case 30 times?” Maryam said, referring to requests submitted by the PTI in the court that the ECP could not decide the foreign funding case.

“If you (Imran) were so innocent why did you give applications to keep the proceedings secret? Maryam asked. “This means theft took place and very big theft was done,” she added.

Maryam said the State Bank of Pakistan had identified 23 secret accounts of the PTI which, according to her, were being operated through Imran’s signatures. “The person crying chor-chor (thief) turned out to be the biggest thief,” Maryam said, alleging that funds had come into Imran’s accounts through ‘hundi’ channels. She also alleged that Imran had received funds from Israel and India, saying: “Do you know who funded him from India? BJP member Inderjeet Dosanjh. And the Israeli who funded him was Barry Sisheps.”

The rally was also addressed by other opposition leaders, including PDM chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman and former PM Raja Pervez Ashraf.

Ahead of the rally, authorities had completely sealed the ECP headquarters and buildings surrounding it with concrete blocks and barbed wire. More than a thousand security officials, including police and 300 personnel of paramilitary force, were also deployed outside the ECP building.


NAB let Dar off the hook after getting his help: UK judge

 January 20, 2021

ISLAMABAD: UK’s arbitrator Sir Anthony Evans in his December 2018 final award on quantum in the Broadsheet LLC case has highlighted that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) never agreed to include former finance minister Ishaq Dar as a target since he had rendered some assistance to the bureau during 2000-01 on the assets belonging to the Sharif family.

“Talat Ghumman — a witness in the quantum award hearing and who remained in NAB until 2004 — said in his evidence that there was a reason why NAB never agreed to its inclusion, because Mr Dar gave some assistance to NAB regarding Sharif family’s assets in 2000/1,” noted the quantum award.

Mr Dar had been a prominent politician even before the establishment of NAB and closely associated with former premier Nawaz Sharif throughout that period and to date. The ex-minister had been the subject of the investigations by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) constituted by the Supreme Court in 2017-08 during the Panama Papers case, recalled the award.

He was never in the list of registered persons in the Schedule 1 to the June 2000 Asset Recovery Agreement (ARA) signed between NAB and the Broadsheet LLC, but his name was included in a list submitted by Broadsheet through its letter of August 12, 2000 and again in a further letter from Broadsheet to NAB on Jan 5, 2001.

It was stated during the hearing on behalf of the respondents (NAB) that there was no evidence that they ever agreed to its inclusion in the list, as required by clause 1.2 of the ARA, the award said, adding that a number of procedural issues regarding Mr Dar’s inclusion or otherwise was raised at the quantum hearing and in their respective closing submissions, after the August 2016 liability hearing, the claimants (Broadsheet) produced a list of registered persons which included Dar’s name, but the respondents (NAB) disputed it.

One of the agreed issues for decision in the liability award was on the true construction of Schedule 1 of the ARA, which individuals or entities were registered as targets pursuant to clause 1.2 of the ARA and although the liability award did not adopt the parties list, it included references to the agreed list, the award recalled.

The respondents submitted that the claimant was barred from raising the issue as to Dar’s inclusion and it was indicated to the parties on the first day of the quantum hearing that they might like to consider their positions regarding this issue overnight, the award said, adding that no further application was made in this regard.

Mr Ghumman’s third witness statement testified that NAB never agreed Dar could be a registered target, recollecting that there were no investigations against Dar during his time at NAB (until August 2004), the award said. In the end, the award held that Mr Dar was never a registered target under the ARA.

When Broadsheet, registered in the Isle of Man, was formally dissolved in April 2007, negotiations were under way between NAB represented by distinguished lawyer Ahmer Bilal Soofi and Jimmy James’s associates representing another company International Asset Recovery (IAR) that had made an agreement similar to the ARA but relating to other parts of the world also in 2000 at about the same time as he entered into the ARA on behalf of Broadsheet, the award said.

In addition, the award said, James representing Broadsheet without disclosing that the company was in liquidation and was recently formally dissolved began to negotiate a settlement agreement with NAB, which was represented by Advocate Soofi. His purpose in doing so can readily be inferred from the facts that at about this time he formed a new Colorado company (also called Broadsheet) that he represented as a successor to Broadsheet LLC. When the settlement agreement was signed on May 20, 2008, it provided that NAB would make payments totalling $1.5 million in settlement of the claim made under the ARA, not to Broadsheet or its liquidator but to Broadsheet Colorado that James controlled in effect to him personally, the award said.

When these facts became known to Kaveh Moussavi of the Broadsheet LLC, he took steps to have the dissolution of Broadsheet set aside and a new liquidator was appointed who authorised these arbitration proceedings against NAB, the award said.

The settlement agreement was authorised for NAB by an executive decision in which Ahmer Bilal Soofi was not involved and there was no evidence who the decision-makers were, the award said, also stating that in addition to $1.5m paid under the settlement agreement, NAB also paid $2.25m in settlement of the claim by IAR also in about 2008. James later died in 2011-12.

Meanwhile, Ahmer Bilal Soofi in a statement clarified that he was neither present in London at the Pakistan High Commission’s meeting nor was he invited to attend it and, therefore, he did not make payments via cheques to Jerry James.

The August 2016 final award on liability, which was based on evidence, also recorded that Mr Soofi was not personally involved in the signing and execution of the settlement agreement.

Mr Soofi said it was an admitted fact that he was kept out of the meeting in London for reasons unknown to him in which James was required to bring the complete record illustrating the requisite authorisation and necessary documents.


Qureshi says Pakistan’s focus has shifted to geo-economics

Peerzada Salman

January 20, 2021

KARACHI: A nasty and vulgar cyberspace invasion from Indian individuals tried, but failed, to sabotage a webinar on ‘Reset of US-Pakistan Relations’ organised by the Karachi Council on Foreign Relations (KCFR) on Tuesday evening as the event went on successfully.

The principal speaker was Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. He said Indian leaders have publicly spoken about their desire to use military force against Pakistan. Nothing can be more irresponsible in a nuclearised environment.

He said while Pakistan will continue to work with the US for peace in the region, our relationship has to be larger. The advent of a new administration in Washington gives us an opportunity to have a long-term, broad-based and multidimensional relationship. Such a partnership will require an institutionalised and structural engagement that is based on mutual respect. [There should be] a strong US-Pak relationship on its own merits and on its own weight. It is compelling because of geo-economics.

Pakistan is a nation of 220 million people, two-thirds of whom are under 30 years of age. We sit at crossroads of China, South and Central Asia. Pakistan envisions itself as a future hub for trade in the region.

Experts suggest a broad-based approach to Pak-US ties in view of a new administration in Washington

Mr Qureshi said Pakistan and the US must work together to strengthen Afghanistan and seek opportunities for co-investment by Pakistan, Afghanistan, US and China. The potential for Pak-US relations in the economic sector is immense. The US is emerging as a major energy supplier.

Pakistan’s emphasis on providing high-quality subsidised healthcare to all its citizens actually predated the Covid-19 crisis but has acquired a greater urgency. Similarly, Pakistan has been a regional trailblazer in combating climate change. Our massive tree plantation drives have won international acclaim. We hope to get the Biden administration’s assistance in mitigating the health crisis and its economic fallout as well as combating climate change.

The foreign minister said eradiating corruption is high on our agenda. We welcome President Biden’s call on cracking down on money laundering and illicit safe havens that inflict enormous damage on developing countries. The people of Pakistan have always had personal affinity with the US. The commonality of values is ultimately the bedrock of any strong relationship.

“Our shared interests, common aspirations for economic development and enhanced connectivity in the region, and the rare moment of hope for peace in Afghanistan, provide a strong foundation for both sides to take the bilateral relationship forward,” he said.

After the speech, the foreign minister in response to a question said: “Our focus has shifted towards geo-economics and that demands peace in the region. That is why we have a new approach to Afghanistan, facilitating peace over there. We want a healthy relationship with India as well, but unfortunately the present regime [in India] has by their actions vitiated that.”

‘Disconnect is emerging in US-Pak relations’

Analyst Michael Kugelman of Woodrow Wilson International Centre said the US-Pak relationship already experienced a reset a few years ago when the Trump administration decided that it wanted to work with Pakistan to help launch a bilateral negotiation with the Taliban.

Once the two started cooperating on the Afghan reconciliation process the relationship stabilised. That remains the case today. The big question is whether the relationship [with the incoming Biden administration] will lose or progress the momentum that it enjoyed over the last two years. The simple answer is that it can go either way.

“I do feel that a disconnect is emerging in the relations. The government in Pakistan has been relatively quiet. What’s being said about Pakistan’s hopes for the relationship may not find that much sympathy with the next administration,” he said.

Ambassador Zamir Akram said foreign policy of any country is driven by its national security interests. The change of administration in Washington does not necessarily mean that the parameters of US foreign policy will change.

Former US ambassador Robin L. Raphel said a certain reset has already taken place but there’s still need for more to be done. The key to any constructive reset is to be honest with ourselves, with each other and tell each other the truth. The important truths are twofold. One, Pakistan is an important country. Two, the US is still the preeminent global power. Despite this, from the Pakistani perspective the US has appeared to be an inconstant friend, unable to take into account Pakistan’s national security concerns particularly with regard to India.

The US, for its part, has been frustrated when it saw Pakistan’s insufficient support for its efforts in Afghanistan. And the US has been perplexed by what it saw as Pakistan acting against its own long-term interests, particularly in support of various militant groups. Neither side worked hard enough to understand one another, she said.

Ambassador Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry in his address made three initial points.

One, Pak-US relations have always oscillated. Second, the people-to-people contact has been robust. Third, the US has seen Pakistan through five lenses: security, China, Afghanistan, India and nuclear programme which has underrated Pakistan’s importance.

He argued with the Biden administration in place a broad-based approach to the ties was needed.

The event was moderated by Kalim Farooqui.


Bilawal asks ECP to respond to allegation of PTI’s foreign funding

A.B. Arisar

January 20, 2021

UMERKOT: Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has said that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) will have to answer the questions about alleged funding of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) from India and Israel.

He was speaking at a public meeting organised here on Tuesday to celebrate the victory of PPP candidate Syed Ameer Ali Shah in Monday’s by-election for PS-52 Umerkot-II.

He pointed out that democratic forces of the country were protesting outside the ECP office today to seek its answer to the question being raised since 2014.

“To date, the ECP has not been able to give an answer,” he said, and asked the commission to explain why the matter had not been taken up over the years.

He insisted that the ECP should disqualify PTI chief Imran Khan. “If this was not done now, the people of Umerkot will march to Islamabad to forcibly oust him,” he said.

Mr Bhutto-Zardari recalled that that his mother and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto had been labelled ‘security risk’ on certain allegations but now “those who have brought PTI into power by funding it from foreign countries must be exposed and the selected and sponsored PTI government must be disqualified”.

He thanked the people of Umerkot for using their right to vote for the “right person”.

He claimed that farmers and workers had lost their lives “in the tsunami of inflation”, and alleged that the person who had been raising a hue and cry over alleged corruption himself turned out to be a corrupt. “His entire party turned out to be corrupt,” he added.

The PPP chairman said that the people of Umerkot had sent a clear message to Islamabad by voting for PPP in the by-election and by rejecting the “selected one”.

He said that the people of Umerkot also adequately responded to the “political orphans the way they deserved as they were with [General Pervez] Musharraf yesterday and are with Imran Khan today”.

Paying homage to the late MPA, Syed Ali Mardan Shah, Bhutto-Zardari said that he had always stood by the PPP and supported the party leadership. He said he was sure that Syed Ameer Ali Shah, like his late father, would always support and help the people of Umerkot.

Earlier, speaking at the meeting, Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah said that people of Umerkot had always rejected anti-democratic forces. “People need protection and PPP has always protected them,” he said, and added that under the leadership of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, PPP would sweep by-elections in Sanghar, Tharparkar and Malir soon.

Minister for Culture Syed Sardar Ali Shah alleged that on the polling day, around “30,000 vandals” were brought to Umerkot to sabotage the election process.


Cross-examination in defamation suit: Iffat says can’t recall details of harassment on Meesha

Wajih Ahmad Sheikh

January 20, 2021

LAHORE: Actor Iffat Omar said on Tuesday during her cross-examination in the court that though singer Meesha Shafi had told her about two alleged incidents of sexual harassment, she did not remember the exact details of the occurrences.

“It is correct that I was not present on the occasion when the alleged incidents of sexual harassment took place. I don’t remember as to who was present when Meesha told me about the incidents, but I was present at Meesha’s mother’s house [when informed of it],” said Ms Omar during her cross-examination by the counsel for actor-cum-singer Ali Zafar, who faced the charges of causing sexual harassment to Ms Shafi.

Additional District and Sessions Judge Imtiaz Ahmad, who is seized with a defamation suit of Zafar, administered the cross-examination, while the counsel for Ms Shafi was also present in the court.

Responding to the queries of the plaintiff’s counsel, Ms Omar said Meesha had told her that the first alleged incident took place in a jamming session, and the second one at the house of Zafar’s in-laws.

The actor said only Ms Shafi could explain as to why she and her husband attended the birthday party of Zafar even after the alleged incidents of sexual harassment.

To a question, she denied having come across any woman who made false accusations of sexual harassment against someone and started a defamatory campaign.

To a query about the allegations of rape levelled by US blogger Cynthia D. Ritchie against former prime minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani and former interior minister Rehman Malik, Ms Omar admitted that she, in a video, had said that Ms Ritchie launched a defamatory campaign against the two politicians. She also admitted having said that Ms Ritchie’s allegation of sexual harassment and rape were political stunt and false. She said it was correct that Ritchie, being a woman, falsely levelled serious allegations against Mr Gilani and Mr Malik.

Plaintiff’s counsel Umar Tariq Gill also played the video clip featuring Ms Omar before posing his query to the witness.

To another query about another case of alleged sexual harassment involving actor Omair Rana, the witness said she did not make any statement in support of the female students since they did not come forward publically to accuse the actor.

“It is incorrect to say that my opinion as to who is right and who is wrong, especially viz-a-viz Ali Zafar and Meesha, Omair Rana and students, Cynthia and Rehman Malik – Yousuf Raza Gilani is based on my personal likes and dislikes,” the actor said.

Shafi’s witness, who also hosts a political satire show on Youtube, said she believed the allegations of sexual harassment levelled by former MNA Ayesha Gulalai against Prime Minister Imran Khan were true.

“I agree if a false allegation is made by a woman against any person, then she is damaging the case of real victims,” she said and added that even a false allegation could destroy a person and his family.

She said any person leveling false accusations must be burdened with heavy damages.

As the cross-examination of the actor was in process, the judge adjourned hearing on the request of the lawyers from both sides.





US fighting alongside Daesh, al-Qaeda against Yemen: Houthi official

19 January 2021

A senior Yemeni official has slammed the US for designating the country’s Houthi Ansarullah movement as a “terrorist” organization, saying Washington is fighting alongside Takfiri terror outfits such as Daesh and al-Qaeda against Yemen.

“This American description [of Ansarullah] comes from the same people, who is fighting on the same front with Daesh and al-Qaeda against us,” Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a member of Yemen’s Supreme Political Council, told Russia Today on Monday.

Washington announced the decision to label the Houthi movement as a foreign “terrorist” organization on the weekend.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said three leaders of what it called the “Iran-backed” Yemeni group would also be branded as “especially designated global terrorists.”

The designation went into effect as of today, just a day before the administration of US President Donald Trump leaves office.

Al-Houthi said the US was supporting the two terror groups so it can use them as “its two arms” to fight Yemen’s defense forces.

Washington, he added uses similar labels against the Palestinian resistance movements that are defending their nation against the Israelis. The Israeli regime, however, is conversely spared such “terrorist” designations, al-Houthi said.

However, the official said, such American maneuvers bore no significance for Yemen’s revolutionary and political leaders.

‘Killer of Yemeni people’

The official, meanwhile, denounced the US as the “killer of the Yemeni people,” which had to apologize to the nation and compensate it.

He was referring to the unreserved arms, logistical, and political support that Washington has been lending Saudi Arabia and its allies during a war they have been waging against Yemen since March 2015.

Tens of thousands of Yemenis have died, millions more been displaced, and the entire impoverished country turned into the site of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The US-backed Saudi-led war was launched to restore Yemen’s former Riyadh-backed officials, who had fled the country amid a power crisis and refused to stay behind and negotiate.

Al-Houthi said the fugitive officials did not represent the nation, calling them “the former regime’s thieves, who [rather] preferred their own interests.”


Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine constitute intl. law violation: UN chief

19 January 2021

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has condemned the Israeli regime’s recent plan to construct hundreds of new settler units in the occupied West Bank, saying such structures are considered illegal under international law.

“The establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem al-Quds, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law,” Guterres said in a statement on Monday.

He added, “Settlement expansion... further erodes the possibility of ending the occupation and establishing a contiguous and viable sovereign Palestinian State, based on the pre-1967 lines.”

The UN chief also said the Tel Aviv regime’s latest decision to build approximately 800 units in the settlements of Beit El, Tal Menashe, Rehelim, Shavei Shomron, Barkan, Karnei Shomron and Givat Zeev, is “a major obstacle to the achievement of the (so-called) two-state solution, and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace” in the Middle East.

Italy urges Israel to reconsider new land grab scheme

Separately, the Italian Foreign Ministry renewed Rome’s deep concern about Israel's decision to start building some 800 new housing units in the West Bank.

The ministry, in a statement released on Monday, called on the Israeli authorities to reconsider their decision.

The statement noted that Israel's settlements expansion activities in the West Bank violate international law, and threaten to undermine the viability of a just and sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in line with internationally-recognized standards and relevant United Nations resolutions.

The ministry called on Israel to refrain from any unilateral action that undermines the ongoing efforts to restore the climate of confidence between the two parties and jeopardizes the resumption of direct negotiations with the Palestinians.

Ireland expresses disappointment at Israel's plan

Furthermore, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney expressed extreme disappointment at the announcement by Israeli authorities to build new settler units in the West Bank.

“Settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territory is illegal under international law,” he said in a press statement.

"I continue to be very concerned about the tender for construction of a new settlement of over 1,200 housing units in Givat Hamatos,” the top diplomat said.

The expansion of settlements in the strategically sensitive area between Jerusalem al-Quds and Bethlehem will undermine the viability and territorial contiguity of a future Palestinian state and the possibility of a negotiated "two-state solution" in line with internationally-agreed parameters, the statement pointed out.

“I reiterate my call on Israel to reverse this decision and to halt all settlement activity. I urge all parties to respect international law and to avoid unilateral actions which erode trust and confidence - critical components to the resumption of meaningful negotiations - between the parties,” it concluded.

More than 600,000 Israelis live in over 230 settlements built since the 1967 Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem al-Quds.

All Israeli settlements are illegal under international law as they are built on occupied land.

After outgoing US President Donald Trump took office in December 2016, Israel stepped up its settlement construction activities in defiance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which pronounce settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem al-Quds “a flagrant violation under international law.”

But US President-elect Joe Biden has indicated his administration will restore US policy opposing settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories.


Iranian Army Divers Conduct Combined Operations in Ground Force Wargames


"In this phase of the drills, divers of the Special Forces Brigade 65 were divided into two groups and landed on the surface of the water with Chinook helicopters and penetrated deep into the sea, destroying naval targets; the second group destroyed bases located on the coast," Deputy Commander of the Iranian Army Ground Force and Spokesman of the Drills Brigadier General Kiomars Sharafi said.

Relying on their multiple skills, the divers conducted various skills, including free fall and tactical penetration from land, air and sea, in Eqtedar (Might) 99 drills of the Ground Force and successfully implemented infiltration and offensive tactics, he added.

General Sharafi said that disrupting the enemy's command and control systems and electronic warfare and communications system at sea as well as combined operations of the Army Ground Force’s diver paratroopers with the support of various helicopters of the Airborne Unit on the surface and in the waters of the Sea of Oman were among the tactics successfully performed in these drills.

Earlier today, the paratroopers of the Iranian Army Ground Force had also launched offensive operations during the first phase of Eqtedar 99 wargames along the country’s Makran coasts in the Sea of Oman.

“In the first phase of the drills, the Airborne Brigade 55 of the Army Ground Force performed parachuting operations and launched offensive operations using BMP2 personnel carriers which were performed in combination for the first time during the wargames,” General Sharafi said.

He added that hundreds of Airborne forces on several C-130 aircraft landed at designated points to operate as paratroopers with airdropped weapons and military equipment, including motorcycles, 107-mm rocket launchers and 23-mm cannons in the general zone of the drills, attacking and capturing targets on the beach.

General Sharafi said using upgraded personnel carriers by the Airborne unit, carrying out raid operations by means of a variety of weapons, capturing coastal areas, loading and mounting armored equipment and semi-heavy weapons in the shortest possible time and carrying out operations based on reality-based battle scenes are among the strong points of the Airborne unit and rapid-reaction forces of the Iranian Army Ground Force.

The Iranian Army Ground Force started wargames, codenamed Eqtedar 99, in the country’s Southeastern regions on Tuesday morning.

The drills are participated by the airborne units, special forces and rapid reaction brigades, and Army Chief Commander Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi, Army Ground Force Commander Brigadier General Kiomars Heidari and other senior military officials.

According to General Heidari, the offensive wargames will involve rapid reaction units and mobile and offense brigades.

He said the troops attending the drill will be receiving logistical and combat support from the Air Force and the Army Ground Force Airborne Division in the coastal areas.

General Heidari noted that the main purpose of the wargames is to evaluate the mobility and offense power of the rapid reaction brigades and corps and the mobile offense units of the Army Ground Force.


Iran: No Message Received from Biden’s Team


"We have not received any message from Mr. Biden's team," Rabiyee told reporters in Tehran on Tuesday.

He added that negotiations are pointless until Iran will be assured that the US fully fulfills its legal responsibilities while returning to its nuclear deal undertakings unconditionally.

“Our focus now is on the full revival of the nuclear deal by all parties to the agreement and we expect the new US administration to focus on gaining Iran's trust through the full and immediate implementation of all its undertakings. The US government should first implement its undertakings under the nuclear deal and the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, and this is the only way forward for the new US administration,” Rabiyee said.

“This reality will not change that the policy of maximum pressure on the Iranian people has turned into a lasting scandal in history; today, the US accountability and respect for international laws and norms is a global demand. The new US administration should not make up for the legacy and, in fact, the stigma left by the previous administration selectively,” he added.

In relevant remarks on Monday, Iranian Envoy and Permanent Representative to the UN Majid Takht Ravanchi underlined that if Biden decides to return to the nuclear deal, Washington should comply with all its undertakings in exact accordance with the internationally-endorsed agreement.

“We make decision and take reciprocal action considering Biden's moves vis a vis the nuclear deal. We have repeatedly demanded the US to return to the nuclear deal and this return should be complete and without preconditions, that is to say, no issue related or unrelated to the nuclear deal should be put forward for discussion,” Takht Ravanchi said.

“It should only be clear that the US international undertakings cannot be half-fulfilled. If they claim to return to the nuclear deal, this return should be accompanied by the full implementation of their undertakings with no hesitation or controversy,” he added.

Takht Ravanchi stressed Iran’s clear position towards the nuclear deal, and said, “We live up to our undertakings.”

He referred to the parliament’s bill to take strategic measures to counter the US sanctions against Iran, and said, “There is a timetable in the parliament’s bill and we are moving in the same direction, so we (at the foreign ministry) are not entitled to specify the period for how long we will wait. In the first place, we make decisions based on national interests, and secondly, we should act on the basis of and within the framework of the parliamentary bill.”

His remarks came after Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Ali Akbar Salehi announced that the country is at present producing nearly half a kilo of uranium enriched to the 20% purity level, meantime, saying that Tehran’s steps to reduce nuclear deal undertakings after the West’s disloyalties can all be backtracked.

“Based on the latest news I have, they (the Iranian scientists at nuclear installations) are producing 20 grams (of 20% enriched uranium) every hour; meaning that practically, we are producing half a kilo every day,” Salehi said in an interview with the Persian-language website released on Monday.

“We produce and store this 20% (enriched uranium) and if they return to the nuclear deal, we will return to our undertakings too,” he added.

Asked about the recent bill approved by the parliament to adopt strategic measures to remove sanctions against Iran, Salehi said that the AEOI is required to implement it.

“It is a reality and both the government and the AEOI have declared that they do not have any technical problems with implementation of the parliament’s bill and we launched 20% enrichment within 24 hours,” he said.

Salehi also underlined the need for Washington to remove all sanctions against Iran, specially those which prevent the country’s oil sales and banking transactions.

Iranian legislators last Tuesday praised the AEOI for restarting enrichment of uranium at 20-percent purity level, and called for the full implementation of the recent parliamentarian law to counter the illegal US sanctions against the country.

In a statement on Tuesday, 190 legislators expressed their support for the AEOI’s resumption of 20% uranium enrichment and urged the body to fully and precisely implement the law ratified as a counteractive move to the sanctions illegally imposed on the country, especially those by the United States.

The lawmakers said the parliament approved the ‘Strategic Counteractive Plan for Lifting Sanctions and Safeguarding Rights of Iranian People’ to highlight Iran’s legitimate right to use peaceful nuclear technology and the importance of lifting all cruel sanctions against the country.

The Iranian parliamentarians in a meeting on December 1, 2020 ratified the generalities of a bill to adopt strategic measures to remove sanctions against the country and defend the nation’s interests.

The lawmakers, in November, had given the green light to the single-urgency of the strategic motion, but the plan turned into a double-urgency on Sunday after the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh's car was targeted by an explosion and machinegun fire in Damavand's Absard 40 kilometers to the East of Tehran on Friday November 27, 2020.

Under the bill, the AEOI is required to start in two months after the approval of the present bill to produce at least 120 kg of 20%-enriched uranium annually at Fordow nuclear site and store it inside the country, increase the enrichment capacity and production of enriched uranium to at least 500 kg per month, start the installation of centrifuges, gas injection, enrichment, and storage of materials up to proper purity levels within 3 months, via at least 1000 IR-2m centrifuges in the underground part of Shahid Ahmadi Roshan facility in Natanz, transfer any enrichment, research, and development operations of IR-6 centrifuges to the nuclear site of Shahid Ali Mohammadi in Fordow, and start enrichment operation via at least 164 centrifuges and expand it to 1000 by the end of 20 March 2021 (end of the Iranian calendar year) and return the 40 megawatts Arak heavy water reactor to its pre-JCPOA condition by reviving the heart (calandria) of the reactor within 4 months from the date of the adoption of this law.

Also, the government is required to suspend the nuclear deal-based regulatory access beyond the Additional Protocol within 2 months after the adoption of the law based on the articles 36 and 37 of the nuclear deal.

Also, after 3 months from the adoption of this law, if Iran's banking relations in Europe and the amount of oil purchases by them from Iran is not back to normal and to satisfactory conditions, the government is required to stop the voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol.

Meantime, if after 3 months from the adoption of the law, the nuclear deal parties return to fulfill their undertakings, the government is required to submit a proposal to the parliament for Iran's reciprocal action to return to the nuclear deal undertakings, the bill said.

Iran signed the JCPOA with six world states — namely the US, Germany, France, Britain, Russia, and China — in 2015.

Outgoing US President Donald Trump, a stern critic of the historic deal, unilaterally pulled Washington out of the JCPOA in May 2018, and unleashed the “toughest ever” sanctions against the Islamic Republic in defiance of global criticism in an attempt to strangle the Iranian oil trade, but to no avail since its "so-called maximum pressure policy" has failed to push Tehran to the negotiating table.

In response to the US’ unilateral move, Tehran has so far rowed back on its nuclear commitments four times in compliance with Articles 26 and 36 of the JCPOA, but stressed that its retaliatory measures will be reversible as soon as Europe finds practical ways to shield the mutual trade from the US sanctions.

Tehran has particularly been disappointed with failure of the three European signatories to the JCPOA -- Britain, France and Germany -- to protect its business interests under the deal after the US' withdrawal.

On January 5, Iran took a final step in reducing its commitments, and said it would no longer observe any operational limitations on its nuclear industry, whether concerning the capacity and level of uranium enrichment, the volume of stockpiled uranium or research and development.

Meantime, Biden has recently said in a CNN article that he wants a renegotiation of the contents of the deal before he agrees to rejoin the agreement.

“I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal's provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern,” he wrote, mentioning that he wants changes to the contents of the nuclear deal and guarantees from Tehran that it would be open for compromise to strike multiple deals over its missile and regional powers as well as a number of other issues that have been the bones of contention between the two sides in the last four decades.

In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had stressed that the US has violated the nuclear deal and is in no position to ask for any conditions for its return to the JCPOA, adding that it's Tehran that has its own terms to allow the US back into the internationally endorsed agreement.

The foreign minister has reiterated time and again that Tehran would not change even a single word of the agreement, and cautioned the US that it needs to pay reparations for the damage it has inflicted on Iran through its retreat from the nuclear agreement and give enough insurances that it would not go for initiating the trigger mechanism again before it could get back to the deal.

In relevant remarks earlier this month, Spokesman for the AEOI Behrouz Kamalvandi said his country enjoys the capability to produce 120 kg of uranium with 20% purity in 8 months, that's 4 months faster than the one-year period required by a recent parliament approval.


Spokesman: Uranium Metal Necessary to Treat Iranian Patients with Special Needs


“As announced by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), operation of Isfahan Metal Uranium Production Plant under the bill approved by the parliament and the production of advanced fuel (silicide) for use in Tehran research reactor are two completely different issues. What the (International Atomic Energy) Agency has reported is the start of R&D activities to design a more advanced fuel for Tehran research reactor called silicide fuel and Iran had informed the Agency of its plan two years ago, and recently provided it with relevant design plan,” Khatibzadeh said on Tuesday in reaction to the three European states’ statement about Iran’s plans to produce uranium metal.

He explained that in the process of producing silicide fuel, metal uranium is an intermediate product, and said, “The design information questionnaire of Isfahan Metal Uranium Plant has not been submitted to the Agency yet and it will be performed after making the necessary arrangements and within the deadline set by rules and regulations.”

Khatibzadeh criticized the “baseless” hues and cries about Iran’s decision, and said, “Metal uranium also has peaceful uses, and some countries are now using metal uranium-based fuel for their reactors which does not violate the NPT and the safeguards undertakings.”

“At the same time, this technology is a requirement for Iran which should provide its patients with the best quality radiomedicine, and it has a completely humanitarian and peaceful use,” he added.

Last week, Iran's Ambassador and Permanent Representative to Vienna-based International Organizations Kazzem Qaribabadi announced that the country has kicked off research and development activities to produce an advanced type of fuel for the Tehran research reactor.

“This activity is carried out in three stages, and in the first stage, metal uranium is produced using natural uranium,” Qaribabadi said on Wednesday.

He added that the IAEA director-genera has released a report on Wednesday and informed the member countries about the matter.

“This measure will technically place Iran among the leading countries in the production of new fuels,” Qaribabadi said.

He added that all these steps have been notified to the Agency and the IAEA's inspectors have also visited the fuel plate factory three days ago.

In a statement on Saturday, France, Germany and the United Kingdom – the three European signatories of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers – claimed that Tehran’s plans to produce uranium metal has “potentially grave military implications” and the country has “no credible civilian use” for the product.


Pro-Hezbollah journalist says party cannot continue with current ties with Iran

19 January 2021

Pro-Hezbollah Lebanese journalist Kassem Kassir said Hezbollah cannot continue with its current relationship with Iran and that it must become a Lebanese political party.

Kassir’s statements have been heavily attacked by supporters of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia after his interview aired on NBN TV station which is largely funded by Hezbollah’s Shia ally movement Amal.

Kassem Kassir is a political writer who specializes in Islamist movements and has written a book about the change in Hezbollah’s discourse between 1982 and 2016. He has been seen as a writer who has generally supported Hezbollah, according to observers. Kassir’s recent comments on Hezbollah come at a time of rising frustration from Iran’s growing influence in Lebanon and an international and regional pressure to suspend Iran’s presence in Syria via Hezbollah and other militia groups.

“There are two issues that Hezbollah must resolve. The first issue is the relation with Iran, Hezbollah cannot continue with the same relationship it has had with Tehran, Hezbollah has to become a Lebanese political party, [it is fine if] there is a religion or sentimental relationship with Iran, but Hezbollah shouldn’t be led with orders from Wali al-Faqih [Supreme leader Ali Khamenei],” Kasser said during the interview.

The second issue that Kassir discussed was Hezbollah’s role in “resisting Israeli threats” to Lebanon.

“Hezbollah cannot stay resisting alone, it must fall under a national defense strategy, the idea that the Shiaa have a transnational role to play must seize to exist, they must integrate within their countries’ communities” Kassir added.

“We need Hezbollah, and the Shia in general, to [remain humble],” he added.

“In the past 10 years, for geo-political reasons, Hezbollah was pressured into mobilizing outside of Lebanon, however, Hezbollah in its internal organization and manifesto states that is must not interfere in other nation’s issues, Hezbollah learned from the experiments of other resistance movements, like Fatah,” Kassir added.

“Hezbollah meddled in Syrian affairs for one reason or another, that has happened, I don’t have to state my position on that matter, but from now on Hezbollah must return to Lebanon”, Kassir added.

Kassir commented on the mass media campaign that was held on Soleimani’s death memorial saying that it has negatively impacted Lebanon internally.

“Regardless of the role Soleimani has played in Lebanon during the 2006 war with Israel, we must do an internal critic, [everything that is over-done has negative consequences],” he added.

Kassir received different reactions on his prior statements which were heavily criticized by some of Hezbollah’s followers.

NBN channel removed his statements from its social media networks.

Kassir had to clarify his stances in a social media post where he mentioned that he is not partisan and does not have role or responsibility within Hezbollah.

“I am just a writer, a journalist, or a humble viewer and a university researcher who works to spread dialog. I was and still am with the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine and against every occupier. I wish for those who want to discuss opinions to do so calmly in the interest of our nation and for the sake of the unity of our country. I have worked and still work within my conviction and freedom,” he added.


US issues sanctions waivers to UN, ICRC in Yemen after Houthi sanctions

19 January 2021

The US on Tuesday exempted aid groups, the United Nations, the Red Cross and the export of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices from its designation of Yemen’s Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist organization.

It was not immediately clear whether the carve-outs would be enough to allay UN fears that the Houthi blacklisting would push the country into a large-scale famine. The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, with 80 percent of its people in need.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the move against the Iran-aligned Houthis last week and it took effect on Tuesday, one day before Democratic President-elect Joe Biden succeeds Republican President Donald Trump.

Biden’s incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan posted on Twitter on Saturday: “Houthi commanders need to be held accountable, but designating the whole organization will only inflict more suffering on Yemeni people and impede diplomacy critical to end the war.”

An Arab-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Houthis in a war widely seen as a proxy conflict between US ally Saudi Arabia and Iran. UN officials are trying to revive peace talks to end the war as the country’s suffering is also worsened by an economic and currency collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The designation freezes any US-related assets of the Houthis, bans Americans from doing business with them and makes it a crime to provide support or resources to the movement. The United Nations has urged Washington to revoke the designation.

UN officials and aid groups have warned it will scare off commercial trade in Yemen, which relies almost solely on imports, creating a gap that the humanitarian operation cannot fill regardless of US humanitarian exemptions.

The US Treasury said on Tuesday that official business of the United Nations and its agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies would be exempt from the designation.

It also approved work by aid groups to support humanitarian projects to meet basic human needs in Yemen, democracy building, education and environmental protection, and the export of agricultural commodities, medicine and medical devices.


Israeli tanks attack Gaza after alleged rocket fire into occupied lands

20 January 2021

Israeli tanks have targeted the Gaza Strip in a new act of aggression against the blockaded Palestinian territory.

In a statement released on Tuesday night, the Israeli army said its tanks had attacked outposts belonging to the Hamas resistance movement in Gaza.

Hamas-linked media also reported that the Israeli assault had lightly injured a Gaza resident.

Elsewhere in its statement, the Israeli military claimed the tank fire was “a response” to an incident earlier on Tuesday, in which a rocket launched from Gaza hit an open field near the community of Kibbutz Nahal Oz in the southern parts of the occupied territories.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

On Monday, Israeli warplanes bombed Hamas sites in southern Gaza following the alleged firing of two rockets from the coastal sliver toward Ashdod in the occupied lands.

The Israeli regime often launches strikes against positions in the blockaded enclave, accusing the resistance groups there of launching rockets.

Gaza has been under a crippling Israeli siege since June 2007. The blockade has caused a decline in living standards as well as unprecedented levels of unemployment and unrelenting poverty in the Gaza Strip.

Since 2008, Israel has waged three wars against Gaza, killing and injuring thousands of Palestinians.

The Gaza-based resistance movements have warned Tel Aviv against trying a new bout of adventurism against the besieged enclave, saying any such aggression will be met with a firm response.





Tunisia rocked by four consecutive nights of riots

19 January 2021

Tunisia was rocked by a fourth night of street clashes between riot police and youths in mostly working class neighbourhoods, and there were calls on social media for more rallies on Tuesday.

More than 600 people had been arrested by Monday over the disturbances in which teenagers and adolescents have hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at police who have fired volleys of teargas at them.

The social unrest comes at a time of economic crisis, worsened by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the tourism-reliant North African country, that has deepened poverty and driven up inflation and unemployment.

In the latest unrest until the early hours of Tuesday, hundreds of youths in the capital battled police in several districts including the vast Ettadhamen city on the outskirts of Tunis.

In Sfax, the second largest city, protesters blockaded roads with burning tyres, an AFP correspondent reported. Clashes were also reported in the towns of Gafsa, Le Kef, Bizerte, Kasserine, Sousse and Monastir.


Sudan deploys troops to Darfur to contain tribal violence

20 January 2021

Sudan's transitional government has deployed military units to the conflict-ridden Darfur region in an attempt to help restore calm there following three days of tribal violence.

The heavy deployment of troops on Tuesday came after violent clashes claimed at least 155 lives, wounded scores, and displaced tens of thousands in the restive state. 

The violence reportedly started as a local dispute on Saturday between the Massalit tribe and Arab nomads in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur State, before quickly morphing into broader fighting involving armed militias in the area.

State Governor Mohamed Abdalla al-Douma said at least 100 people were killed, more than 130 others were injured and up to 50,000 people were forced to flee areas in and around the Kerindig camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Sudanese authorities imposed a state-wide curfew in West Darfur, while the Khartoum government dispatched a "high-profile" delegation to help contain the situation.

On Sunday, the head of Sudan's ruling body, army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, met top security chiefs to discuss the violence.

"There have been no clashes since Sunday, but there were incidents of looting, especially of houses and farms of people living at the Kerindig IDP camp," Douma said.

Douma said houses were burned and farm produce stolen in villages near El Geneina, but added that "we sent security to surround these villages and they are now secure."

"The situation is calm in the state as security forces have spread in and around the city of El Geneina and Kerindig," he added.

Separate clashes on Monday in South Darfur between members of the Fallata ethnic group and the Arab Rizeigat tribe also claimed the lives of at least 55 people and wounded 37 others.

Sudan's state news agency, SUNA, reported that a heavy troop presence had also restored order in the town of Gereida, where the deadly clashes took place.

"The situation is calm today in our village in South Darfur. There are no clashes," tribal leader Mohamed Saleh said. But he said people were "tense, fearing a renewed outbreak of violence."

The latest attacks came just weeks after a long-running peacekeeping mission ended its operation in the region.

On December 31, the hybrid United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) formally ended its operations in the region. It plans a phased withdrawal of its approximately 8,000 armed and civilian personnel within six months.

People in Darfur protested the departure of the UN peacekeepers, citing fears of renewed violence.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Tuesday that "any further violence needs to be prevented and perpetrators brought to justice."

He also called for the "fast implementation" of a peace deal that was signed in early October last year with rebel groups to end years of conflict in Sudan, and cooperation with the newly established UN political mission installed in Darfur after the end of UNAMID's mandate.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has already expressed concern about the violence in Darfur.

"The Secretary-General calls on the Sudanese authorities to expend all efforts to de-escalate the situation and bring an end to the fighting, restore law and order and ensure the protection of civilians," his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement on Sunday.

Brokering lasting peace in Darfur and other parts of Sudan is one of the main challenges facing military and civilian authorities sharing power following the overthrow of former president Omar al-Bashir last April.

Conflict broke out in Darfur in 2003 after mostly non-Arab rebels rose up against Khartoum. Up to 300,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced, including more than 180,000 displaced in West Darfur, according to UN estimates.

Back then, the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum responded by recruiting and arming a notorious Arab-dominated militia known as the Janjaweed. The main conflict has subsided over the years, but ethnic and tribal clashes still flare periodically.

Sudan is undergoing a rocky political transition after the ouster of Bashir in April 2019 triggered by mass protests against his rule. Bashir, who is currently in custody in Khartoum, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged genocide and war crimes in Darfur perpetrated over a decade ago.


Tunisians press on with protests against poverty, high cost of living

20 January 2021

Tunisians have once again protested against poverty and high cost of living, in the fourth night of street clashes between riot police and protesters in the North African country.

Tunisian people, in their hundreds, held on Tuesday another protest against economic hardships in the capital, Tunis, after several nights of violent street demonstrations across the country.

The protesters chanted slogans against the government and called for its downfall.

In Sfax, the second largest city in Tunisia, protesters blocked roads with burning tires. Clashes were also reported in the towns of Gafsa, Le Kef, Bizerte, Kasserine, Sousse and Monastir.

"There is a denial and an underestimation of the anger among young people," said Olfa Lamloum, who heads the International Alert peace-building campaign group in Tunisia.

She underlined that Tunisia's past 11 governments "have not had a strategy to answer the central question of employment.”

Lamloum also warned that "as long as there is a purely security response, with mass arrests, and no social or political response, tensions will remain high.”

The powerful labor union and other rights groups have voiced support for peaceful protests against “policies of marginalization, impoverishment and starvation.”

They accuse the Tunisian government of dashing the hopes generated by the 2011 revolution.

The demonstrations began on Friday after a video went viral showing an officer mishandling a shepherd, with more than 600 people having been arrested and troops been deployed in some regions since then.

The protests come even as Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi announced on Saturday a major cabinet reshuffle amid unprecedented economic crisis in the country.

A decade ago, Tunisia was beset by violence following a massive uprising – sparked after a fruit seller set himself ablaze in the central town of Sidi Bouzid following an altercation with a police officer -- that led to the downfall of long-time ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The revolt inspired other revolutions in a host of Arab dictatorships across the Middle East and North Africa. However, Tunisia was the only nation among other Arab countries in the region that maintained a smooth, peaceful transition to democracy.

The Tunisian economy, which has been crippled in recent years by high debt and declining public services, deteriorated due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a year of political instability has complicated efforts to address such issues.

Tunisia’s tourism-dependent economy shrank 21.6 percent in the second quarter of 2020, compared with the same period last year, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Since a general election in 2019, the political class in Tunisia has been more fragmented than ever and paralyzed by infighting, fueling discontent over the continued economic crisis.


Residents flee Islamist insurgent attack on town in northeast Nigeria

JANUARY 17, 2021

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Government troops and several hundred residents have been forced to flee after Islamist insurgents overran a town in northeast Nigeria in an attack claimed by Islamic State, security sources said on Saturday.

Friday’s assault on Marte, which lies on Lake Chad in Borno state, came just two months after residents driven from their homes by Islamist attacks had returned to the town under a government programme.

It underscores the precarious security situation in northeast Nigeria, where Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) are active, and the difficulties the government faces as it tries to return people displaced by the violence.

Soldiers fled during Friday’s assault and Marte remained under the control of the militants on Saturday, the sources said.

An unspecified number of wounded people could not be reached, and it was not immediately clear whether there had been any deaths. The sources said they believed the insurgents were part of ISWAP.

An army statement said troops “tactically withdrew” to defend against a militant attack outside Marte. Troops had “effectively destroyed” seven gun trucks and “decimated” an unconfirmed number of attackers, it said.

Islamic State later posted a statement on its Amaq news channel on Telegram claiming responsibility for the attack.

Without giving further details, it said seven people had been killed, and one captured, and that its fighters had seized weapons, ammunition and six four-wheel-drive vehicles, as well as burning down the army barracks.

Sources from the military and police said most residents had fled to the nearby Dikwa local government area and to Maiduguri, Borno’s state capital.

“The situation is grim,” one said.

On Thursday, five soldiers were killed and 15 others wounded by a landmine planted by Boko Haram in the remote village of Chibok in the southern part of Borno, two military sources told Reuters.


Armed group captures military base in northeast Nigeria

16 Jan 2021

Government troops and hundreds of residents have been forced to flee after an armed group overran a town and captured a military base in northeast Nigeria’s Borno state in an attack claimed by the ISIL (ISIS) group, security sources said.

Machinegun-wielding fighters from the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) attacked the base in the town of Marte in the Lake Chad area overnight on Friday into Saturday, two sources told AFP news agency.

“The priority now is to reclaim the base from the terrorists and an operation is under way,” one of the sources said on Saturday.

“We took a hit from ISWAP terrorists. They raided the base in Marte after a fierce battle.”

The second source said the army had “incurred losses” but it was not yet clear how many people had died or the level of destruction inflicted by the armed group.

An army statement said troops “tactically withdrew” to defend against an attack outside Marte. Troops had “effectively destroyed” seven gun trucks and “decimated” an unconfirmed number of attackers, it said.

The ISIL later posted a statement on its Amaq news channel on Telegram claiming responsibility for the attack.

Without giving further details, it said seven people had been killed, and one captured, and that its fighters had seized weapons, ammunition and six four-wheel-drive vehicles, as well as burning down the army barracks.

Marte remained under the control of the armed group on Saturday, security sources told Reuters news agency.

Precarious situation

Friday’s assault came just two months after residents driven from their homes by the violence had returned to the town under a government programme.

It underscores the precarious security situation in northeast Nigeria, and the difficulties the government faces as it tries to return people displaced by the violence.

ISWAP, which split from Boko Haram in 2016, maintains camps on islands in Lake Chad – where Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad meet – and the area is known to be the group’s bastion.

Last week, the fighters attacked the Marte base but were repelled, prompting them to mobilise more fighters for the overnight raid, sources said.

The raid was seen as a “fightback” after recent losses – troops recently overran ISWAP’s second-largest camp in Talala village, according to sources.

The town, 130km (80 miles) from the regional capital Maiduguri, was once considered the breadbasket of the Lake Chad region.

At least 36,000 people have been killed in the armed conflict since 2009 and violence has spread into neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, prompting the formation of a regional military coalition.



Southeast Asia


Group slams deputy minister for ‘political’ attack on LGBT when country suffering from Covid-19

20 Jan 2021


KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 20 — Rights group Lawyers For Liberty (LFL) today chided Putrajaya for intending to prescribe harsher punishments against the lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT) community.

In a statement, LFL accused the remark by deputy religious affairs minister Ahmad Marzuk Shaary from Islamist party PAS as a mere “political ploy” to distract the public from focusing on the real issue affecting Malaysians, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

“In a time when the country is in crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is disappointing that the deputy minister chooses to focus on the vilification of the LGBT community, which is nothing more than a tired and cheap political ploy to detract from the real issues currently affecting Malaysian citizens,” the group said.

LFL said the move amounts to targeted harassment by the government to invade the rights and privacy of LGBT Muslims, explaining that any heavier punishments would place the community under undue hardships.

“This would be in clear violation of Article 8 of the Federal Constitution as LGBT Muslims are entitled to equality before the law and therefore deserve protection from laws that target them solely due to their sexual orientation,” it said.

Article 8 states that “all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law”.

Yesterday, deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department was reported saying the government does not rule out the possibility of amending the Shariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965, also known as Act 355, to provide for heavier punishments on LGBT community.

The deputy minister added that the current punishment under the Act, which provides for a three year imprisonment, a fine of RM5,000 and six strokes of the cane, was deemed “ineffective”.

LGBT Muslims already face a number of Shariah offences directed at them under Shariah law, and remain among marginalised groups which are now more affected by the pandemic due to the public stigma.

LFL also urged the government to follow in the footsteps of other Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt and Iran, which have recognised LGBT rights and avoid taking restrictive view of Islamic law.

“Egypt and Iran have issued ‘fatwas’ since the 1980s that allows gender reassignment surgeries, and even Pakistan has enacted the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act in 2018 which is a formal recognition of transgender rights in Pakistan.

“It is obvious therefore that the recognition and protection of the transgender community is not contrary to the precepts of Islam and is in fact mandatory under our Federal Constitution,” it added.


US declares China guilty of committing ‘genocide’ against Uighurs

January 20, 2021

WASHINGTON: The US declared Tuesday that China is carrying out genocide against the Uighurs and other mostly Muslim people, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dramatically raising pressure over Beijing’s sweeping incarceration of minorities on his last full day in office.

“I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state,” Pompeo said in a statement.

“We will not remain silent. If the Chinese Communist Party is allowed to commit genocide and crimes against humanity against its own people, imagine what it will be emboldened to do to the free world, in the not-so-distant future,” he said.

Pompeo’s vociferous criticism of Beijing has been a hallmark of his tenure but he had earlier danced around directly alleging genocide, saying repeatedly that the treatment of Uighurs was reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s policies.

Pompeo urged all international bodies including courts to take up cases over China’s treatment of the Uighurs and voiced confidence that the US would keep raising pressure.

Rights groups believe that at least one million Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking Muslims are incarcerated in camps in the western region of Xinjiang.

Witnesses and activists say that China is seeking to forcibly integrate the Uighurs into the majority Han culture by eradicating Islamic customs, including by forcing Muslims to eat pork and drink alcohol, which are both forbidden by their faith.

China denies wrongdoing and contends that its camps are vocational training centres meant to reduce the allure of Islamic extremism in the wake of attacks.

Unlike many decisions by Pompeo seen as boxing in Joe Biden, the incoming president had called for more pressure on China on human rights with his campaign last year using the term genocide.

Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick to succeed Pompeo, agreed with the genocide determination, saying in response to a question at his confirmation hearing, “That would be my judgment as well.”

Blinken and other Biden nominees all promised firm action against China, although Pompeo’s statement potentially allows the next administration to avoid the expected blowback by Beijing.

Culmination of pressure

Omer Kanat, executive director of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, hoped that the genocide determination would lead to further steps such as a boycott of next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics.

“The implications are enormous. It’s unthinkable to continue ‘business as usual’ with a state committing genocide and crimes against humanity,” he said in a statement.

The Trump administration has already taken a number of steps to pressure China over its treatment of the Uighurs, including blocking all imports of cotton from Xinjiang – one of the major global producers of yarn used in textile manufacturing.

Pompeo – described this week by Beijing as a “praying mantis” – has not been shy about criticising China but made the determination after extended debate on the legal implications at home and abroad.

Previous administrations have been cautious about using the term.

George W Bush’s administration described Sudan’s scorched-earth campaign in Darfur as genocide, while Barack Obama’s administration said likewise about the Islamic State extremist group’s mass killings, rape and enslavement of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities.

Lawmakers across the political spectrum have called on the US to declare that China is carrying out genocide against the Uighurs, saying that evidence was increasingly clear.

In a study last year, German researcher Adrian Zenz found that China has forcibly sterilised large numbers of Uighur women and pressured them to abort pregnancies that exceed birth quotas.

China denied the account, saying that Uighur women were breaking free from “extremism” by using contraception.

Pompeo in his statement called on China to “abolish its system of internment, detention camps, house arrest and forced labour” and “cease coercive population control measures, including forced sterilisations, forced abortion, forced birth control, and the removal of children from their families”.

He also urged China to “end all torture and abuse” in custody and allow Uighurs and other minorities to emigrate.


Most Umno leaders in favour of PPBM alliance, says Hadi

Ainaa Aiman

January 19, 2021

PETALING JAYA: PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang says the majority of Umno leaders are in favour of working with PPBM as part of the Muafakat Nasional (MN) alliance.

He was responding to a question during an online forum organised by the National Professors Council today, on whether Umno and PPBM being at loggerheads would prevent the formation of a strong Malay-Muslim coalition for the next general election (GE15).

Hadi said PAS and Umno had already agreed to invite similarly-aligned organisations and parties to join their MN coalition to form a strong Malay-Muslim leadership.

“However, when it came time for us to invite them (PPBM), there was a political conflict between Umno and PPBM. Despite that, thank God, the majority of Umno leaders were positive (about the alliance),” he said.

When asked who PAS would support in the event of a snap GE15, he said the party would still push for a strong Malay-Muslim leadership, because “there would be no one party that could win the elections on their own”.

“We need to strengthen MN and reinforce Perikatan Nasional (PN). This is so that the Malay-Muslim leadership can be united.”

Earlier this month, a majority of the 191 Umno party divisions passed resolutions calling for Umno to withdraw its cooperation with PPBM.

As a result, the Umno Supreme Council said any decision on the party’s support for PPBM was to be finalised at its annual general assembly, which was scheduled to be held on Jan 31 but has since been postponed due to the movement control order (MCO) and the emergency.


Remembering the Malaysia-Indonesia Confrontation, 58 years on

Noel Wong @ FMT Lifestyle

January 20, 2021

Indonesia is one of Malaysia’s closest neighbours today, with mutually beneficial relationships forged between the two countries. However, this was not always the case. At one point in our history, we were at each other’s throats.

From Jan 20, 1963 to Aug 11, 1966, Malaysia and Indonesia were embroiled in an undeclared war, better known as the Confrontation, which mostly took place in the frontier regions of Sabah and Sarawak.

The fighting was on a small scale but the death toll was still high, with about 700 killed.

But why the bloodshed? What led to this series of unfortunate events between the two countries?

When Malaysia was first formed in 1963, opposition emerged from the Philippines and Indonesia.

Indonesia, which was led by President Sukarno at the time, was something of a powerhouse in Southeast Asia, having thrown off the yoke of Dutch colonialism during the Indonesian War of Independence. It demanded that the Dutch also cede control of Western New Guinea, now known as Papua.

The Dutch, under international pressure, agreed to this in 1962.

However, the Indonesian government was suspicious that the formation of Malaysia was a neo-colonial ploy to maintain British power in Southeast Asia.

Some people have suggested that the existence of Malaysia was a spanner in the works for Sukarno, who had ambitions of uniting Malaya and Borneo under Indonesian rule.

Hence, on Jan 20, 1963, the Indonesian government published a declaration of Confrontation which denounced the formation of Malaysia.

Thankfully, unlike bloodier proxy wars such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the Confrontation did not feature invasions by full-scale armies.

Instead, small-scale conflicts were largely triggered by squads of Indonesian special forces slipping past the borders from Kalimantan into Sabah and Sarawak.

There were also occasions when Indonesian troops crossed the Straits of Melaka to conduct operations in West Malaysia.

The first recorded infiltration and attack took place on April 12, 1963, when a police station in the Malaysian border town of Tebedu was attacked and captured by Indonesian soldiers. Then, infiltrators made their way to other parts of Borneo.

For the average civilian, these incidents were sudden and stressful affairs.

Cecelia Polo, 66, was only eight when the conflict took place in Kalabakan, Tawau.

“It was Dec 29, 1963. That night, we were celebrating my father’s birthday when suddenly, the lights went off, a siren blared and sandflies were all over us,” she told FMT.

“But they were not sandflies, they were bullets! So, we laid down on the floor to take cover. The next morning, we went out and we saw dead men in front of our house. And we saw armies, Gurkha battalions, marching everywhere.”

According to Polo, the soldiers told her family to dig a hole under the house, stock up on food and hide inside the hole if there were any more fights.

Her sister, Erlinda, 70, meanwhile, thought the loud explosions were early new year celebrations.

“Friends that were present peeped through the window and saw that the rapid “fireworks” were actually machine guns!”

She also shared her opinion as to why Kalabakan was the point of attack.

“They wanted to capture the resident general manager of the Bombay Burma Trading Company, which was run by the British at the time. They wanted him and his wife for ransom and as a bargaining factor.

“Fortunately, they were not in their residence as they were out at the monthly show at the club.”

Come morning, the manager did his rounds and told people to stay home as there would be curfews to avoid more casualties. He, too, advised them to dig a hole underneath their houses to hide.

And they did. Erlinda said they had to spend long hours in the holes, even chasing away frogs that decided to share their hideouts, especially when it rained.

“There were many casualties of the Malaysian army. Food was rationed and it was pitch dark during the nights. My father, being a driver, had to drive the army into the jungles to search for insurgents – dead or alive,” said Erlinda.

Another civilian, James Escobia, 60 who grew up in Kalabakan, Tawau, was only five years old when the Confrontation happened.

“A few days before the Confrontation, my father told us that there was an intelligence report saying Indonesian soldiers had infiltrated Kalabakan,” said Escobia, who added that his father was employed with North Borneo Timber (NBT) at the time.

On the night of the attack, his father had returned to his office around 6pm to send his latest report to NBT and inform them that everything was peaceful in Kalabakan Camp.

He was very wrong. Within an hour after he reached home, the attack started at the police station.

“The attack was timed exactly during the Muslim prayer time when the policemen were praying. My dad believed that even when he was communicating with NBT, the infiltrators had been nearby,” said Escobia.

Gunfire erupted throughout the night, not directed at local civilians, but at the police station and the British army camp.

“The next day, nobody was allowed to leave their houses. We heard that a few policemen were killed.

“In the days that followed, all encounters with the infiltrators happened outside the camp, and the army even requested Filipino truck drivers to drive and guide them in the jungles.”

Indonesian employees, on the other hand, were advised to stay at home – perhaps because the infiltrators were Indonesians.

While Malaysia was a fledgling nation back then, it was still a member of the Commonwealth, which proved to be a boon to its security.

Troops from the British, New Zealand and Australian armies, as well as Gurkha troops, were sent to defend the country, and these soldiers would fight alongside newly-founded Malaysian regiments.

In addition to small-scale attacks, the Indonesian authorities hoped to stir up ethnic tension in Malaysia, by sowing division and distrust among the many ethnic groups living in Borneo.

The attacks did not go only one way, however. When a concentration of Indonesian troops was detected near Kuching, the British decided to launch Operation Claret to harass them.

They laid ambushes near the border and pursued any Indonesian forces across the border, forcing the Indonesians to go on the defensive there.

But how did it all finally end?

The fall of Sukarno proved to be instrumental in ending the pointless fighting, with the man being replaced by Suharto in 1966.

Suharto was not interested in continuing his predecessor’s policies, and peace negotiations began in May 1966 and finally ended with a ratified agreement on Aug 11, 1966, three years after the formation of Malaysia.

Since then, relations between Malaysia and Indonesia have normalised and it is common for many people in east Malaysia as well as the peninsula to have relatives from both sides of the border.

Peace, after all, is something that citizens of both nations would benefit from.



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