A suicide attack at an education institute in the Afghan capital of Kabul killed 19 people and wounded dozens, police said on Friday, but there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. Many of those living in the western area where the blast occurred are Hazara, an ethnic minority targeted in past attacks launched by militant group Islamic State, among others. Kabul police spokesperson Khalid Zadran said that 27 people had also been injured in the attack, revising the number of wounded down slightly from the 29 announced earlier. He said the attack took place at an education institute where an entrance exam was taking place. Schools are normally closed in Afghanistan on Fridays. "Attacking civilian targets proves the enemy's inhuman cruelty and lack of moral standards," he said, without specifying who they believed was behind the attack. Since taking over Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban have emphasised that they are securing the nation following decades of war, but recent months have seen a series of blasts at mosques and civilian areas. Teenage students were among the 24 people killed in a 2020 attack claimed by Islamic State at an education centre in west Kabul.
An American navy veteran detained in Afghanistan since 2020 was released in exchange for a Taliban ally imprisoned in the US for heroin smuggling, US and Afghan officials announced yesterday. The Taliban government freed Mark Frerichs, a navy veteran who was working as a civil engineer on construction projects in Afghanistan when he was detained 31 months ago. The US government meanwhile released Bashar Noorzai, a former regional strongman who was sentenced to life imprisonment in a US court 17 years ago for smuggling large amounts of heroin. “After long negotiations, US citizen Mark Frerichs was handed over to an American delegation and that delegation handed over (Noorzai) to us today at Kabul airport,” Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said at a press conference. “We are happy that at Kabul International Airport, in the capital of Afghanistan, we witnessed the wonderful ceremony of one of our compatriots returning home.” Frerichs meanwhile flew to Doha, a US official said, adding that he was “in stable health.” “Today, we have secured the release of Mark Frerichs, and he will soon be home,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly,” he said. Noorzai was welcomed with a hero’s fanfare by the government of the newly-styled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). Photos show he was greeted by masked Taliban soldiers bearing floral garlands. “If the IEA had not shown its strong determination, I would not have been here today,” Noorzai said. “My release in exchange for an American will be a source of peace between Afghanistan and Americans.” Noorzai is the second Afghan inmate released by the United States in recent months. In June, Assadullah Haroon was released after 15 years of detention in the United States’ notorious Guantanamo Bay prison. Haroon was accused of links to Al Qaeda but languished without charge for years at the US detention centre in Cuba, after his arrest in 2006 while working as a honey trader. Afghan security analyst Hekmatullah Hekmat said Noorzai’s release was a “major achievement” for Kabul’s new rulers. “The Taliban can tell their foot soldiers and Afghans that they are able to bring back their people held by opposition groups,” he told AFP. Muttaqi said the homecoming of Noorzai marks the beginning of a “new chapter” in relations between Afghanistan and the United States. For Washington Frerichs’ release was a priority issue to resolve after US forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021 following the Taliban’s seizure of power. The United States and allies have refused to recognise the new government, with Washington repeatedly telling the Taliban that they will have to “earn” legitimacy. Biden had warned in January that the Taliban must release Frerich “before it can expect any consideration of its aspirations for legitimacy.” Noorzai, a militia commander, once fought with US-backed mujahideen forces against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and was a close associate of the Taliban’s late founder Mullah Omar. While he held no official position, Noorzai had “provided strong support including weapons” for the Taliban in the 1990s, Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP yesterday. After travelling to the United States in 2005 he was arrested, accused of running a “worldwide narcotics network.” When released he had served 17 years of a life sentence in a federal prison. Biden, who spoke to Frerichs’ family ahead of the release, did not mention the deal involved. But a senior Biden administration official said that the president okayed the swap in June after the Taliban made clear they wanted Noorzai in exchange for Frerichs’ freedom. Granting Noorzai clemency and returning him would “not materially change” the situation for Americans or the state of the Afghan drug trade, the US official said. The official said the deal was delayed as Biden ordered the drone strike that killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in his Kabul residence on July 31. Immediately after that, Washington quickly resumed pressure on Kabul for the exchange, warning them not to harm Frerichs and that a release could “begin to rebuild trust,” the official said.
A Black Hawk helicopter commandeered by the Taliban after the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan crashed during a training session at the weekend, killing two pilots and a crew member, the defence ministry said. The incident occurred Saturday on the campus of the country's defence university in the capital Kabul. The Black Hawk crashed due to "a technical problem during a training exercise", the ministry said, adding five crew members were also injured. When exiting the country last year, the US military left behind billions of dollars worth of aircraft, vehicles, weapons and other hardware -- much of which it said had been rendered inoperable. Some helicopters were also flown by former Afghan government forces to central Asian countries before the Taliban took full control of the country. The Taliban have managed to repair some aircraft, including helicopters, which are believed to be now flown by pilots from the former government forces. The regime showcased an array of equipment during a military parade on August 31 when they celebrated the first anniversary of their return to power.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres condemned on Monday the explosion that took place near the Russian embassy in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and resulted in casualties. The Secretary-General strongly condemns Monday's attack in Kabul in the immediate vicinity of the Embassy of the Russian Federation, Spokesman for the Secretary-General Stephane Dujarric said in a statement. "The Secretary-General reiterates that attacks against civilians and civilian objects, including diplomatic missions, are strictly prohibited under international humanitarian law," Dujarric said in the statement. Moscow announced earlier that two employees of the diplomatic mission at the Russian Embassy in Afghanistan were killed in an explosion in Kabul.
The United Nations is set to end travel ban exemptions for 13 Taliban officials Friday, pending any deal by Security Council members on a possible extension, diplomats told AFP. Under a 2011 UN Security Council resolution, 135 Taliban officials are subject to sanctions that include asset freezes and travel bans. But 13 of them were granted exemptions from the travel ban to allow them to meet officials from other countries abroad. In June, the 15-member UN Security Council's Afghanistan Sanctions Committee removed two Taliban education ministers from the exemption list over the regime's curtailment of women's rights. At the same time, they renewed the exemption for the others until August 19, plus a further month if no member objected. Ireland objected this week, according to diplomatic sources. China and Russia have called for an extension, while the United States has sought a reduced list of the officials allowed to travel and the destinations they can travel to. The latest proposal on the table would allow just six officials to travel for diplomatic reasons, diplomatic sources told AFP. If no member of the Council objects by Monday afternoon, it will come into force for three months. In the meantime, the exemptions for the 13 officials end at midnight on Friday. Among the 13 are Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai. They were instrumental in negotiations with the US government of then-president Donald Trump which led to a deal in 2020 paving the way for America's withdrawal from Afghanistan. A spokesperson for the Chinese mission at the UN, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council, this week called the Western position linking the travel ban to human rights "counterproductive." The exemptions are "needed as much as ever," the spokesperson said, adding that if reimposing a travel ban is all other members of the Council want to do, "clearly they have learned no lessons at all." Despite their promises to be more flexible after they seized power in August last year, the Taliban have largely reverted to the harsh Islamist rule that characterised their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001. In particular, they have severely restricted the rights and freedoms of girls and women, calling for them to don burkas, effectively halting girls' education and systematically removing women from Afghan workplaces. No country has so far recognised the government.
A ruined village in eastern Afghanistan, just 10 kilometres (six miles) from the epicentre of this week's deadly earthquake, is struggling back to life as aid trickles into the isolated region. Wuchkai, three hours away from the nearest town of any substance, can only be reached by a narrow, rutted dirt road -- with space for just one vehicle in places. Isolated, without electricity and water, the village sprawls over a large basin surrounded by imposing hills and bisected by an almost-dry river. Many of the village dwellings, workshops and stores were destroyed by Wednesday's 5.9-magnitude earthquake, whose epicentre was recorded on the other side of the hills that flank it. More than 1,000 people were killed in the quake -- the country's deadliest in over two decades -- with Wuchkai alone accounting for at least three dozen. Now the survivors are trying to find shelter in the ruins of their homes, desperately dependent on the aid convoys that have started to arrive. "I ask and expect the world and the government to provide us with the basic things we need to live," says Raqim Jan, 23. - Almost every family lost someone - Jan lost 11 members of his extended family when their single-storey dwelling caved in on them as they slept early Wednesday. Almost every family lost at least one member -- and most lost many more -- so they are coming together to share resources. Jan now lives with four other families -- including 15 women and about 20 children -- in three large tents set up near their ruined homes. Help has arrived, but he worries for how long it will last. "The tents, food and flour that we have received for a few days are not enough," Jan says, as a communal fire for cooking sends smoke spiralling above the makeshift campsite. Nearby, children are playing -- seemingly oblivious to their plight -- while babies wail for attention. A cow tied to a pole ruminates as chickens strut around the dusty compound, pecking at nothing in the dust. The village men make occasional forays into the ruins of their houses, looking to salvage whatever valuables can be found in the debris. But they tread gingerly, as any walls still standing are cracked -- threatening to collapse at any moment -- and aftershocks are still being felt. A violent tremor killed five people in the same district early Thursday. - Aid vehicles arriving - In the centre of Wuchkai, a steady stream of aid vehicles arrive, kicking up clouds of dust from roads that are finally drying after days of torrential rain. While the big operators appear organised -- such as the World Food Program and Doctors Without Borders -- smaller Afghan-led distribution is more chaotic. Tempers flared as dozens of villagers scrambled over the back of a truck Thursday, trying to grab bags of beans that had been donated by a businessman from Kabul. A platoon of armed Taliban grabbed one particularly exuberant young man and roughed him away in their vehicle. Not far away, bent double under the weight of the bundle, Kawsar Uddin, 20, and his uncle carry a tent that will become the family's temporary home. Faced with the influx of aid that is now arriving, Uddin is sceptical of the motivation and accuses aid organisations of staging "photo ops". "They have distributed food and tents... but some are doing business on the blood of Afghans," he says.
Many survivors of Afghanistan's deadliest earthquake in more than two decades were on Friday without food, shelter and water as they waited in devastated villages for relief workers to reach them, with rain compounding their misery. Wednesday's 5.9-magnitude quake struck hardest in the rugged east along the border with Pakistan, killing more than 1,000 and leaving thousands homeless. Entire villages have been levelled in some of the worst affected districts, where survivors said they were even struggling to find equipment to bury their dead. "There are no blankets, tents, there's no shelter. Our entire water distribution system is destroyed. There is literally nothing to eat," 21-year-old Zaitullah Ghurziwal told an AFP team that reached his village in hard-hit Paktika province. Mohammad Amin Huzaifa, head of information for the province, said heavy rain and floods were hampering efforts to reach those affected. Communications have also been hit as the quake toppled mobile phone towers and power lines. The earthquake struck areas already suffering the effects of heavy rain, causing rockfalls and mudslides that wiped out hamlets perched precariously on mountain slopes. Officials say nearly 10,000 houses were destroyed, an alarming number in an area where the average household size is more than 20 people. "Seven in one room, five in the other room, four in another, and three in another have been killed in my family," Bibi Hawa told AFP from a hospital bed in the Paktika capital Sharan. Save the Children said more than 118,000 children were impacted by the disaster. "Many children are now most likely without clean drinking water, food and a safe place to sleep," the international charity said. - UN mobilises - The disaster poses a huge logistical challenge for the Taliban government, which has isolated itself from much of the world by introducing hardline Islamic rule. The aid-dependent country saw the bulk of its foreign assistance cut off following the Taliban takeover last August, and even before Wednesday's disaster the United Nations warned of a humanitarian crisis that threatened the entire population. But the quake has prompted an outpouring of sympathy from abroad -- although many are wary how any aid will be used. "The aid distribution will be transparent," government spokesman Bilal Karimi told AFP, adding "many countries have supported us and stood with us". UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the global agency has "fully mobilised" to help. According to his office, refugee agency UNHCR has dispatched tents, blankets and plastic sheeting; the World Food Programme has delivered food stocks for about 14,000; and the World Health Organization has provided 10 tonnes of medical supplies sufficient for 5,400 surgeries. Afghan government officials said Thursday that aid flights had landed from Qatar and Iran, while Pakistan had sent trucks carrying tents, medical supplies and food across the border. Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan's emergency response teams were stretched to deal with the natural disasters that frequently strike the country. But with only a handful of airworthy planes and helicopters left since they returned to power, any immediate response to the latest catastrophe is further limited. "We hope that the International Community & aid agencies will also help our people in this dire situation," tweeted Anas Haqqani, a senior Taliban official. Afghanistan is frequently hit by earthquakes, especially in the Hindu Kush mountain range, near the junction of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates. Afghanistan's deadliest recent earthquake killed 5,000 in 1998 in the northeastern provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan.
Aid began arriving yesterday in a remote part of Afghanistan where an earthquake killed at least 1,000 people, with Taliban officials saying that the rescue operation was almost complete. The magnitude 6.1 earthquake struck early on Wednesday about 160km (100 miles) southeast of Kabul, in arid mountains dotted with small settlements near the border with Pakistan. The earthquake downed mobile phone towers and power lines while triggering rock and mudslides which blocked mountain roads. Entire villages have been levelled in some of the worst affected districts, where survivors said they were struggling to find equipment to bury their dead. Poor communications and a lack of proper roads are hampering relief efforts in a country already grappling with a humanitarian crisis which has deteriorated since the Taliban took over last August. “The rescue operation has finished, no one is trapped under (the) rubble,” Mohamed Ismail Muawiyah, a spokesman for the top Taliban military commander in the hardest-hit Paktika province, told Reuters. Mohamed Nassim Haqqani, a spokesperson for the disaster ministry, told Reuters that rescue operations had finished in major districts but are continuing in some isolated areas. The United Nations said yesterday the Taliban ministry of defence had indicated as early as Wednesday that 90% of search and rescue operations had been completed. Two retired officers in Nepal involved in the aftermath of the 2015 quake that killed 9,000 people expressed surprise that the rescue operation could be close to completion so soon, but one noted that if most damaged homes were small, it was possible. The earthquake killed about 1,000 people and injured 1,500, Muawiyah said. More than 3,000 houses were destroyed. The death toll makes it Afghanistan’s deadliest earthquake in two decades, according to US government data. About 1,000 people had been rescued by morning yesterday, Sharafat Zaman, a spokesperson for the health ministry, told Reuters. “Aid has arrived to the area and it is continuing but more is needed,” he said. The town of Gayan, close to the epicentre, sustained significant damage with most of its mud-walled buildings damaged or completely collapsed, a Reuters team said. The town, with only the most basic roads, was bustling with Taliban soldiers and ambulances as a helicopter bringing in relief supplies landed nearby, whipping up huge swirls of dust. About 300 people sat on the ground waiting for supplies. The rescue operation will be a major test for the Taliban, who took over as US-led international forces withdrew after two decades of war. The humanitarian situation has deteriorated alarmingly since the Taliban takeover, aid officials say, with the country cut off from much international assistance because of sanctions. Abdul Qahar Balkhi, spokesperson for the Afghan foreign ministry, repeated calls yesterday for international aid. “We call on natural disaster management agencies and the international community to provide immediate and comprehensive aid to the Afghan people,” he said in a tweet. Afghanistan’s economy has all but collapsed, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in an appeal to aid donors in late March. Drought has undermined food production and 9mn Afghans face famine. Some families have been forced to selling children and organs to survive, he said. The United Nations said that its World Food Programme (WFP) is sending food and logistics equipment to affected areas, with the aim of initially supporting 3,000 households. “The Afghan people are already facing an unprecedented crisis following decades of conflict, severe drought and an economic downturn,” said Gordon Craig, WFP deputy country director in Afghanistan. “The earthquake will only add to the already massive humanitarian needs they endure daily.” Survivors in Bermal district, a collection of remote mountain villages, said they were struggling to find equipment to dig graves. “We did not have even a shovel to dig ... so we used a tractor. We buried 60 people yesterday and 30 more are still remaining to be buried. People are working continuously,” said Ghurziwal. “There are no blankets, tents, there’s no shelter. Our entire water distribution system is destroyed. Everything is devastated, houses are destroyed. There is literally nothing to eat.” An AFP correspondent reported a military helicopter flying over villages devastated by the earthquake in Bermal. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates all said yesterday that they plan to send aid. Supplies from neighbour Pakistan have already crossed the border. Large parts of South Asia are seismically active because a tectonic plate known as the Indian plate is pushing north into the Eurasian plate. In 2015, an earthquake struck the remote Afghan northeast, killing several hundred people in Afghanistan and nearby northern Pakistan.
• Over 1,500 injured as 5.9-magnitude tremor tests mettle of Taliban rescue operation The death toll from an earthquake in Afghanistan yesterday hit 1,000, disaster management officials said, with more than 1,500 injured and the toll expected to grow as information trickles in from remote mountain villages. Houses were reduced to rubble and bodies swathed in blankets lay on the ground after the magnitude 5.9 earthquake, photographs on Afghan media showed. An unknown number of people remained stuck under rubble and in outlying areas, health and aid workers said, and rescue operations were complicated by difficult conditions including heavy rains, landslides and many villages being nestled in inaccessible hillside areas. “Many people are still buried under the soil. The rescue teams of the Islamic Emirate have arrived and with the help of local people are trying to take out the dead and injured,” a health worker at a hospital in the hard-hit Paktika province said, asking for anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to media. Mounting a rescue operation will prove a major test for the Taliban authorities, who took over the country last August after two decades of war and have been cut off from much international assistance because of sanctions. The Taliban-led ministry of defence is leading rescue efforts. Loretta Hieber Girardet from the United Nations’ disaster risk reduction office said efforts to provide relief and save people trapped under rubble would face huge challenges due to the terrain and weather. “The roads are poor even at the best of times so having a humanitarian operation put in place is going to be immediately challenged by the lack of easy access to the area,” she said, adding that rain combined with the tremor created a further risk of landslides for humanitarian workers. The UN humanitarian office said it was deploying medical health teams and providing medical supplies. Interior ministry official Salahuddin Ayubi said the death toll was likely to rise “as some of the villages are in remote areas in the mountains and it will take some time to collect details.” Yesterday’s quake was the deadliest in Afghanistan since 2002. It struck about 44km from the southeastern city of Khost, near the border with Pakistan, the US Geological Survey (USGS) said. Shaking was felt by about 119mn people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) said on Twitter, but there were no immediate reports of damage or casualties in Pakistan. The USGC said it was 5.9. Disaster experts and humanitarian workers said the impoverished hilly areas struck by the quake were especially vulnerable, with landslides and poorly built houses adding to widespread destruction. “We were all sleeping at home... and the room fell over us,” said Gul Faraz as he received treatment for injuries with his wife and children at a hospital in Paktika. Some family members had been killed, he said. “All the houses in our area were destroyed, not one, but the entire region has been destroyed.” Most of the confirmed deaths were in the eastern province of Paktika, where 255 people were killed and more than 200 injured, Ayubi said. In the province of Khost, 25 were dead and 90 had been taken to hospital. A view of the damaged houses following the tremor in the same area. (AFP)
A powerful earthquake struck a remote border region of Afghanistan overnight killing at least 1,000 people and injuring hundreds more, officials said Wednesday, with the toll expected to rise as desperate rescuers dig through collapsed dwellings. The 5.9 magnitude quake struck hardest in the rugged east, where people already lead hardscrabble lives in a country in the grip of a humanitarian disaster made worse by the Taliban takeover in August. "People are digging grave after grave," said Mohammad Amin Huzaifa, head of the Information and Culture Department in hard-hit Paktika, adding that at least 1,000 people had died in that province alone. "It is raining also, and all houses are destroyed. People are still trapped under the rubble," he told journalists. The death toll climbed steadily all day as news of casualties filtered in from hard-to-reach areas in the mountains, and the country's supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, warned it would likely rise further. Earlier, a tribal leader from Paktika said survivors and rescuers were scrambling to help those affected. "The local markets are closed and all the people have rushed to the affected areas," Yaqub Manzor told AFP by telephone. Photographs and video clips posted on social media showed scores of badly damaged mud houses in remote rural areas. Some footage showed local residents loading victims into a military helicopter. - Offers of help - Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan's emergency response teams were stretched to deal with the natural disasters that frequently struck the country. But with only a handful of airworthy planes and helicopters left since the hardline Islamists returned to power, any immediate response to the latest catastrophe is further limited. "The government is working within its capabilities," tweeted Anas Haqqani, a senior Taliban official. "We hope that the International Community & aid agencies will also help our people in this dire situation." The United Nations and European Union were quick to offer assistance. "Inter-agency assessment teams have already been deployed to a number of affected areas," the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Afghanistan tweeted. Tomas Niklasson, EU special envoy for Afghanistan, tweeted: "The EU is monitoring the situation and stands ready to coordinate and provide EU emergency assistance to people and communities affected." Afghanistan is frequently hit by earthquakes -- especially in the Hindu Kush mountain range, which lies near the junction of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates. Scores of people were killed and injured in January when two quakes struck rural areas in the western province of Badghis, damaging hundreds of buildings. In 2015, more than 380 people were killed in Pakistan and Afghanistan when a 7.5-magnitude earthquake ripped across the two countries, with the bulk of the deaths in Pakistan. From the Vatican City, Pope Francis offered prayers for the victims of the latest quake. "I express my closeness with the injured and those who were affected," the 85-year-old pontiff said at the end of his weekly audience. Aid agencies and the United Nations say Afghanistan needs billions of dollars this year to tackle its ongoing humanitarian crisis. Aid agencies have particularly stressed the need for greater disaster preparedness in Afghanistan, which remains extremely susceptible to recurring earthquakes, floods and landslides. The quake was felt as far away as Lahore in Pakistan, 480 kilometres (300 miles) from the epicentre, according to responses posted on the USGS and European Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) websites.
An earthquake of magnitude 6.1 killed 920 people in Afghanistan early on Wednesday, disaster management officials said, with more than 600 injured and the toll expected to grow as information trickles in from remote mountain villages. Photographs on Afghan media showed houses reduced to rubble, with bodies swathed in blankets lying on the ground. Helicopters were deployed in the rescue effort to reach the injured and fly in medical supplies and food, said an interior ministry official, Salahuddin Ayubi. "The death toll is likely to rise as some of the villages are in remote areas in the mountains and it will take some time to collect details." Collapsed mud houses following an earthquake in Gayan district, Paktika province. Wednesday's quake was the deadliest since 2002. It struck about 44 km from the southeastern city of Khost, near the border with Pakistan, the US Geological Survey (USGC) said. Most of the confirmed deaths were in the eastern province of Paktika, where 255 people were killed and more than 200 injured, Ayubi added. In the province of Khost, 25 were dead and 90 had been taken to hospital. Haibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme leader of the ruling Taliban, offered his condolences in a statement. A member of the Afghan Red Crescent Society giving medical treatment to a victim. Mounting a rescue operation could prove a major test for the Taliban, who took over the country in August and have been cut off from much international assistance because of sanctions. Shaking was felt by about 119 million people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, the EMSC said on Twitter, but there were no immediate reports of damage or casualties in Pakistan. The EMSC put the earthquake's magnitude at 6.1, though the USGC said it was 5.9. Adding to the challenge for Afghan authorities is recent flooding in many regions, which the disaster agency said had killed 11, injured 50 and blocked stretches of highway. The disaster comes as Afghanistan grapples with a severe economic crisis since the Taliban took over, as US-led international forces withdrew following two decades of war. In response to the Taliban takeover, many nations imposed sanctions on Afghanistan's banking sector and cut billions of dollars worth of development aid. Humanitarian aid has continued, however, with international agencies, such as the United Nations, operating. A man standing beside a collapsed mud house following an earthquake in Gayan district, Paktika province The UN's office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said Afghanistan had asked humanitarian agencies to help with rescue efforts, and teams were being despatched to the quake-hit area. A spokesman of Afghanistan's foreign ministry said it would welcome international help. Neighbouring Pakistan said it was working to extend assistance. Large parts of South Asia are seismically active because a tectonic plate known as the Indian plate is pushing north into the Eurasian plate. In 2015, an earthquake struck the remote Afghan northeast, killing several hundred people in Afghanistan and nearby northern Pakistan. In January, an earthquake struck western Afghanistan, killing more than 20 people.
At least six people were killed and 11 wounded Tuesday by two bomb blasts at a boys' school in the Afghan capital, with social media showing grisly images from the Hazara Shiite neighbourhood. The number of bomb blasts in the country has significantly declined since the Taliban ousted the US-backed Afghan government in August, but the jihadist Islamic State group has claimed several attacks since then. Kabul police spokesman Khalid Zadran told AFP that Tuesday's blasts at the Abdul Rahim Shahid school were caused by improvised explosive devices and left at least six people killed and 11 wounded. "These are preliminary figures. We are at the site and waiting for more details," he said. Zadran said a third blast had occurred at an English language centre in the same area, but did not specify whether it was caused by an explosive. Zadran earlier tweeted that three blasts had rocked the school, which is in an area mainly inhabited by the Hazara community and has been previously targeted by the jihadist Islamic State group. Tuesday's blasts occurred as students were coming out of their morning classes at the school, a witness told AFP. Grisly images posted on social media networks showed several bodies lying at the gate and compound of the school. Images showed patches of blood, burnt books and school bags scattered at the premises. Taliban fighters were seen cordoning off the area. Victims were taken to hospital, but Taliban fighters kept journalists from the premises. Attacks on public targets have largely diminished since the Taliban seized power in August last year, but IS continues to operate across the country. The Taliban have also been blamed previously for attacks targeting the Hazara community, who make up between 10 to 20 percent of the country's 38 million population. Taliban officials insist their forces have defeated IS, but analysts say the jihadist group is a key security challenge to the hardline Islamists who now rule Afghanistan. Since seizing power the Taliban have regularly carried out raids on suspected IS hideouts, mainly in the eastern Nangarhar province. IS has claimed some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan in recent years. In May last year at least 85 people -- mainly girl students -- were killed and about 300 were wounded when three bombs exploded near their school in Dasht-e-Barchi. No group claimed responsibility, but in October 2020 IS claimed a suicide attack on an educational centre in the same area that killed 24, including students. In May 2020, the group was blamed for a bloody attack on a maternity ward of a hospital in the neighbourhood that killed 25 people, as well as new mothers.
One of Afghanistan's top news presenters is being detained by the Taliban for reporting that foreign dramas had been banned from local TV screens, his network confirmed Friday. Rights groups have condemned a decline in media freedoms and increasing attacks on journalists since the Taliban swept back to power last year with the United Nations calling for an end to "intimidation and threats against journalists" after the latest arrest. TOLOnews, the country's leading independent television network, said presenter Bahram Aman was detained at the channel's office on Thursday evening along with news director Khpolwak Sapai and legal adviser Nafi Khaleeq. "The three were arrested for broadcasting news that the authorities had banned television channels from airing foreign drama serials," TOLOnews said in a statement. Sapai and Khaleeq were released later Thursday. "Our whole family is concerned," a relative of Aman told AFP, asking not to be named. "Previously... they had threatened him." After seizing power the Taliban banned TV stations from broadcasting dramas or soaps unless they had an Islamic theme, although it was loosely observed. They appear now to be more strictly enforcing that directive, which TOLOnews reported on. Reports of the trio's arrest prompted a strong reaction from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. "The UN urges the release of all those taken away by gunmen and an end to the intimidation and threats against journalists and independent media," it said on Twitter. During the Taliban's first stint in power from 1996-2001, there was little Afghan media to speak of and the militants banned television, movies and most other forms of entertainment as immoral. Despite promising a softer version of their rule since taking power last year, they have cracked down on journalists, critics of the regime, and women activists demanding rights to work and education.
One of the Taliban’s most secretive leaders, whose only picture on US “most wanted” lists is a grainy semi-covered profile, was photographed openly for the first time yesterday at a passing-out parade for new Afghan police recruits. Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who also heads the feared Haqqani Network, has previously only been photographed clearly from behind — even since the hardliners seized power last August. “For your satisfaction and for building your trust... I am appearing in the media in a public meeting with you,” he said in a speech at the parade. Before the Taliban’s return, Haqqani was the most senior of three deputies to leader Hibatullah Akhundzada. Akhundzada himself hasn’t been seen in public for years, and many Afghan analysts believe he may not even be alive. Haqqani heads a powerful subset of the Taliban blamed for some of the worst violence of the past 20 years. The United States has offered a reward of up to $10mn for information leading to his arrest, saying he was responsible for a string of terror attacks. Pictures of Haqqani were being widely shared on social media yesterday by Taliban officials who had previously only posted photographs that didn’t show his face, or if it had been digitally blurred. At the police parade yesterday, Haqqani was dressed like many of the senior Taliban officials — very heavily bearded and wearing a black turban and white shawl. He said he was showing his face so “you could know how much value we have with our leadership”. Haqqani’s appearance also suggests the Taliban have grown even more confident of their hold on the country since seizing power on August 15, two weeks before the last US-led foreign forces left. Several diplomats were in the crowd — including Pakistan’s ambassador — even though no country has officially recognised the new Taliban regime. The Haqqani Network, founded in the 1970s by Jalaluddin Haqqani, was heavily supported by the CIA during the Mujahideen war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is believed to be in his 40s, is his son, and succeeded him following his death in 2018. The latter was blamed for the deadly 2008 attack on Kabul’s Serena Hotel that killed six people, as well as at least one assassination attempt against former Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
Afghanistan’s main universities reopened yesterday six months after the Taliban returned to power, but only a trickle of women went back to now-segregated classes. Most secondary schools for girls and all public universities were shuttered following the Taliban’s August 15 takeover, sparking fears women would be barred from education — as happened during the first rule of the hardline Islamists, from 1996-2001. The Taliban insist they will allow girls and women to be educated this time around — but only in segregated classes and according to an Islamic curriculum. Some public tertiary institutions in the south of the country resumed last month, but yesterday Kabul University, the oldest and biggest with a student body of around 25,000 last year, re-opened without fanfare — and few students in attendance. Taliban guards refused journalists access to the sprawling campus and chased away media teams lingering near the entrance. AFP, however, spoke to some students away from the gates, who expressed mixed feelings after their first day back. “I am happy that the university resumed... we want to continue our studies,” said an English major who asked to be identified only as Basira. But she said there were “some difficulties” — including students being scolded by Taliban guards for bringing their mobile phones to class. “They did not behave well with us... they were rude,” she said. Another English student, Maryam, said only seven women attended her class. “Before we were 56 students, boys and girls,” she said. There was also a shortage of lecturers, she said, adding: “Maybe because some have left the country.” A similar picture emerged from campuses across the country, although no students returned to class at Panjshir University, in the heartland of a nascent resistance to the Taliban’s rule. “I do not know if they will come tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or not,” said Professor Noor-ur-Rehman Afzali. Panjshir was the last province to fall to the Taliban last year, and Jaber Jibran, a faculty head, said several classrooms destroyed in that fighting had still not been repaired. Some students said they thought many stayed away out of fear of the new authorities, or because they could not afford the fees. Long dependent on foreign aid for survival, Afghanistan has plunged into economic crisis and the country’s overseas assets have been seized by the United States. “Most of the students might not be able to afford it,” said one named Haseenat, while another said her friends had asked her to “report back” on what conditions were like before they decided on attending. The Taliban have said previously that women students must wear a black abaya over their bodies and hijab on their heads, but stopped short of insisting on the all-covering burqa that was compulsory during their previous rule. Several students, however, appeared dressed no differently yesterday than they would have before the Taliban takeover, with a simple shawl covering their heads. “I have never worn any hijab before... it’s new for me,” said Sohaila Rostami, a biology student in her last semester at Bamiyam University. “I used to wear jeans and other normal clothes. It will be difficult for me to observe hijab,” she told AFP. In Herat, the ancient Silk Road city near the Iranian border and once one of the Islamic world’s most important intellectual centres, students also complained about a lack of tutors.
Afghanistan will be forced to reconsider its policy towards the United States unless Washington reverses a decision to freeze part of the country’s assets as compensation for victims of the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban said yesterday. US President Joe Biden last week seized $7bn in assets belonging to the previous Afghan government, aiming to split the funds between compensation for victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and desperately needed aid for post-war Afghanistan. The move drew an angry response from the country’s new Taliban leaders, which branded the seizure a “theft” and a sign of US “moral decay.” “The 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with Afghanistan,” said yesterday’s statement, signed by deputy spokesman Inamullah Samangani. “Any misappropriation of the property of the Afghan people under the pretext of this incident is a clear violation of the agreement reached with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the statement added, using the Taliban’s name for the country. “If the United States does not deviate from its position and continues its provocative actions, the Islamic Emirate will also be forced to reconsider its policy towards the country.” Biden’s unusual step saw the conflicting, highly sensitive issues of a humanitarian tragedy in Afghanistan, the fundamentalist Taliban fight for recognition and the push for justice from families impacted by the 9/11 attacks collide, with billions of dollars at stake. The money, which a US official said largely stems from foreign assistance sent to help the now-defunct Western-backed Afghan government, had been stuck in the New York Federal Reserve since last year’s Taliban victory. The government appointed by the Taliban — who fought US-led forces for 20 years and now control the whole of Afghanistan — has not been recognised by any other nation, mostly because of its human rights record. However, with an economic crisis gripping the country, Washington is seeking ways to assist while also side-stepping the Islamists. The White House said Biden will seek to funnel $3.5bn of the frozen funds into a humanitarian aid trust “for the benefit of the Afghan people and for Afghanistan’s future”. The fate of the other $3.5bn is more complex. Families of people killed or injured in the 9/11 attacks using hijacked airliners on New York and the Pentagon, as well as a fourth that crashed in Pennsylvania, have long struggled to find ways to extract compensation from Al Qaeda and others responsible. In US lawsuits, groups of victims won default judgements against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which hosted the shadowy terrorist group at the time of the attacks, but were unable to collect any money. They will now have the opportunity to sue for access to the frozen Afghan assets.
A raging measles outbreak in Afghanistan infected tens of thousands and killed more than 150 people last month alone, the World Health Organization said Friday, warning of more deaths. The UN health agency said the outbreak was particularly concerning since Afghanistan is facing massive food insecurity and malnutrition, leaving children far more vulnerable to the highly contagious disease. "Measles cases have been increasing in all provinces since the end of July 2021," WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva. He said cases had surged recently, ballooning by 18 percent in the week of January 24 and by 40 percent in the last week of the month. In all, 35,319 suspected measles cases were reported in January, including 3,000 that were laboratory confirmed, and 156 deaths. Ninety-one percent of the cases and 97 percent of the deaths were children under the age of five. Lindmeier stressed that the measles-related deaths were likely underreported and the numbers were expected to swell. "The rapid rise in cases in January suggests that the number of deaths due to measles is likely to increase sharply in the coming weeks," Lindmeier said. Measles is a highly-contagious disease caused by a virus that attacks mainly children. The most serious complications include blindness, brain swelling, diarrhoea, and severe respiratory infections. The latest surge in cases comes as Afghanistan is in the grip of a humanitarian disaster, worsened by the Taliban takeover in August -- when Western countries froze international aid and access to assets held abroad. The United Nations has warned that half the country is threatened with food shortages. "Malnutrition weakens immunity, making people more vulnerable to illness and deaths diseases like measles, especially children," Lindmeier said. The best protection against measles is broad vaccination, with the WHO recommending that countries ensure at least 95-percent vaccination coverage -- a difficult goal in the Afghan context. Lindmeier said the WHO and its partners had been working to scale up their measles surveillance capacities and provide support for things like lab testing and immunisation campaigns. Last December, a vaccination campaign in the hardest-hit areas reached 1.5 million children, he said. They have also been providing Vitamin A supplements, which are important to help reduce sickness and death from measles, reaching 8.5 million children in a nationwide campaign last November. The WHO, Lindmeier said, was now working towards a larger measles vaccination drive starting in May, aimed at reaching more than three million children.
Afghanistan’s public universities opened yesterday for the first time since the Taliban took over the country last year, with female students joining their male counterparts heading back to campus. The Taliban administration has not officially announced its plan for female university students, but education officials told Reuters women were permitted to attend classes on the condition that they were separated from male students. A Reuters witness in the eastern city of Jalalabad saw female students entering via a separate door at Nangarhar University, one of the large government universities opening this week. Under their previous rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban barred women and girls from education. The group says it has changed since resuming power on August 15 as foreign forces withdrew. But it has been vague on its plans and high school-aged girls in many provinces have still not been allowed to return to school. Some private universities have reopened, but in many cases female students have not been able to return to class. A female medical student at Nangarhar University who asked not be named for security reasons said that classes had already been separated by gender, but it was not clear if they were still able to be taught by male lecturers or interact outside the classroom with male students. “Only our studying shifts are separated, although we have been told not to walk around the university until the boys’ time is complete,” she said. “Despite all the changes and conditions, I still want to continue because my education should not be incomplete,” she added. The international community has made education of girls and women a key part of its demands as the Taliban seek more foreign aid and the unfreezing of overseas assets. Aid groups have raised the alarm that the stalled financial system and a stark drop in foreign funding that used to form the backbone of the economy are creating a humanitarian catastrophe in the country, already battered by decades of war. The United Nations late on Tuesday praised the inclusion of female students at public universities, appearing to indicate official confirmation. “Let’s all support the return of Afghan young female and male students to the universities across Afghanistan,” the UN’s Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, added in a Tweet. “Supporters can consider a range of scholarship programmes and ongoing support to female and male professors,” she said. An education official who asked not be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media said universities had been given different options to keep female students isolated, including separated classes and staggered operating hours. Khalil Ahmad Bihsudwal, the head of Nangarhar University, told Reuters male and female students at the institution would attend separate classes, a practice already in place in many provinces. Only universities in warmer provinces opened on Wednesday. Tertiary institutions in colder areas, including Kabul, are due to resume on February 26.
The first Taliban delegation to visit Europe since returning to power in Afghanistan began talks yesterday in Oslo with Afghan civil society members focused on human rights, ahead of highly-anticipated meetings with Western officials. Headed by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, the delegation is to dedicate the first day of their three-day visit to talks with women activists and journalists, among others. The discussions, which are being facilitated by Norway and are to focus on human rights and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, are taking place behind closed doors at the Soria Moria Hotel on the outskirts of Oslo. The humanitarian situation has deteriorated drastically since August, when the Taliban stormed back to power 20 years after being toppled. International aid came to a sudden halt after their takeover, worsening the plight of millions of people who were already suffering from hunger after several severe droughts. The Islamists were ousted by a US-led coalition in 2001 but took over again amid a hasty withdrawal by international forces. No country has yet recognised the Taliban government, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks would “not represent a legitimisation or recognition of the Taliban”. “But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster,” Huitfeldt said Friday. A handful of demonstrators protested outside the Norwegian foreign ministry on Saturday. Today, the Taliban will meet with representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the European Union, while tomorrow will be dedicated to bilateral talks with Norwegian officials. In an interview with AFP on Saturday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the hardline Islamists hoped the talks would help “transform the atmosphere of war... into a peaceful situation”. Joining the delegation from Kabul is Anas Haqqani, a leader of the most feared and violent faction of the Taliban movement — the Haqqani network, responsible for some of the most devastating attacks in Afghanistan. A senior official with no formal government title, he was jailed for several years at the United States’ Bagram detention centre outside of the capital Kabul before being released in a prisoner swap in 2019.
Afghan businessman Shoaib Barak is struggling to pay his workers and suppliers, unable to access funds from a banking system crippled by the freezing of the nation’s overseas assets. They, in turn, can’t pay their bills — and so the country’s economic woes trickle down and hurt everyone along an unbroken chain of misery. “I feel very ashamed,” said Barak, who until recently employed some 200 people across the country — mostly in his construction business. “For me, for every Afghan, it’s really disgusting. I do not even have the ability to pay salaries for my staff.” To avoid giving the Taliban access to Afghanistan’s reserves, Washington froze an estimated $10bn held by the central bank abroad after the hardline Islamists seized power on August 15. Equating to around half what the country’s economy produced last year, that move in turn starved banks used by Afghan businesses and citizens of access to dollars. Even if limited funds were released, the bulk could be tied up in the American legal system for years while subject to claims by victims of the September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attacks on the US. Ordinarily, the reserves could be dipped into to pay overdue government bills and development projects, but the freeze has trickled down to the rest of the economy. “Just release the reserves,” Barak pleaded. “If you have a problem with... the Taliban, don’t take revenge on the nation, the people.” Barak’s cash flow crisis illustrates the problems faced by tens of thousands of Afghans who simply can’t access most of their money. He says he has around $3mn tied up in Afghan banks — money earned over the years from lucrative private and government contracts, which were paid in dollars as aid poured into the public purse under the pre-Taliban regime. But with local banks limiting weekly withdrawals to five percent of a business account’s balance — up to a maximum of $5,000 — Barak is months behind on both invoices and salaries to his staff. Ahmad Zia is one of them. The 55-year-old engineer was earning 60,000 Afghanis per month — equivalent to $770 before the Taliban took over and the currency plunged 25%. Four months later, Zia is struggling to make ends meet and fears his once comfortably-off family of six will only “eat one or two times” per day. It isn’t just Barak’s employees who are suffering. Ehsanullah Maroof’s now-defunct law business relied heavily on a monthly retainer from Barak’s construction company. “The kids went to a very good school,” he told AFP, noting proudly that his nine-year-old daughter Rana topped her year. But now he can’t afford the right medicine for an epileptic son, and Rana has been expelled because the family can’t pay school fees. The misery trickles down even further — to the Maroof family maid, who is now jobless. Gulha, 42, earned 8,000 Afghanis a month and was the main breadwinner in her seven-strong family. Now she is two months behind on rent and running out of food. “I have 14kg (30 pounds) of rice, 20-21kg of flour and some oil,” she told AFP in a one-room apartment where she allows neighbours to share the nightly warmth of a wood-burner as winter descends. “It will last 10 days.” Once that is gone she will join millions of her compatriots who are utterly dependent on aid. The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday unanimously adopted a US resolution to help humanitarian aid reach desperate Afghans while seeking to keep funds out of Taliban hands — a move welcomed by the Islamists as a “good step”. But whether enough cash arrives to contain the unfolding humanitarian disaster ultimately still depends on “the viability of the banking system”, said Hanna Luchnikava-Schorsch, Principal Asia Pacific economist at IHS Markit. Many Afghan banks are “pretty close to collapse”, she told AFP, and overseas institutions will probably be “terrified” of falling foul of sanctions despite the UN resolution. For many ordinary Afghans, any relief will come too late. International organisations warn one million Afghan children could die this winter, Barak notes. “Who do you think will be blamed — the Taliban, or the US?”