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30 dead, several wounded in Kabul hotel attack, casualty likely to rise

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KABUL: Gunmen in army uniforms who stormed Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel late and battled Afghan Special Forces through the night killed more than 30 people and wounded many more, although the final toll of dead and wounded may still be higher.
Wahid Majroh, a spokesman for the ministry of public health, said that 19 bodies had been brought into city hospitals, with six identified as foreigners. However a senior Afghan security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said the death toll was over 30 and might climb higher. The dead included hotel staff and guests as well as members of the security forces who fought the attackers.
All five attackers were also killed, interior ministry spokesman Najib Danesh said. The raid was the latest in a series of attacks that have underlined the citys vulnerability and the ability of militants to mount high-profile operations aimed at undermining confidence in the Western-backed government.
More than 150 guests were able to flee as parts of the building caught fire, with some shimmying down sheets tied together and dropped from upper-floor windows and others rescued by Afghan forces.
Local airline Kam Air said around 40 of its pilots and air crew, many of whom are foreigners, were staying in the hotel and as many as 10 had been killed. Local media reports said the dead included Venezuelans and Ukrainians. Zamari Kamgar, the airline
s deputy director, said it was still trying to locate staff.
The Taliban, which attacked the same hotel in 2011, claimed responsibility for the attack, its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement. A statement from the interior ministry put the blame on the Haqqani network, a group affiliated with the Taliban that is notorious for its attacks on urban targets.
Abdul Rahman Naseri, a guest who was at the hotel for a conference, was in the hall of the hotel when he saw four gunmen dressed in army uniforms. “They were shouting in Pashto (language), Dont leave any of them alive, good or bad.Shoot and kill them all,’ one of them shouted,” Naseri said.
“I ran to my room on the second floor. I opened the window and tried to get out using a tree but the branch broke and I fell to the ground. I hurt my back and broke a leg.” Even after officials said the attack was over, sporadic gunshots and explosions could be heard from the site.
As day broke on Sunday, thick clouds of black smoke poured from the building, an imposing 1960s structure set on a hilltop and heavily protected like most public buildings in Kabul. The Intercontinental is one of two main luxury hotels in the city and had been due to host an information technology conference . More than 100 IT managers and engineers were on site when the attack took place, said Ahmad Waheed, an official at the telecommunications ministry.
Danesh said a private company had taken over responsibility for security at the hotel three weeks ago and there would be an investigation into possible failings, just days after a U.S. embassy warning of possible attacks on hotels in Kabul. Several armoured U.S. military vehicles with heavy machine guns could be seen close to the hotel along with Afghan police units as Special Forces manoeuvred around the site.
Hotel manager Ahmad Haris Nayab, who escaped unhurt, said the attackers had got into the main part of the hotel through a kitchen before going through the hotel, with many guests trapped in their rooms. The senior security official said that the attackers had moved directly from the first floor to the fourth and fifth floors, suggesting the attack had been carefully prepared, possibly with inside help.
“When the sixth floor caught fire this morning, my roommate told me, either burn or escape,” said Mohammad Musa, who was hiding in his room on the top floor. “I got a bed sheet and tied it to the balcony. I tried to come down but I was heavy and my arms were not strong enough. I fell down and injured my shoulder and leg.”
Although U.S. and Afghan officials say the Taliban has been forced onto the back foot after the United States increased its help to Afghan security forces and stepped up air strikes last year, security remains precarious across the country.
In separate incidents , eight people were killed by a roadside bomb in the western province of Herat and 18 members of local militia forces were killed at a checkpoint in the northern province of Balkh. As pressure on the battlefield has increased, officials have warned that the danger of attacks on high-profile targets in Kabul and other cities would increase. The insurgents have carried out dozens of such attacks over recent years.


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US withdrawal to drag neighbours back into Afghan war, warns report

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WASHINGTON: The Taliban will lose interest in negotiating peace and Afghanistan’s neighbours will get even more involved in war if the United States withdrew its forces, a US report warns.

But a Republican senator, Rand Paul, said after a recent meeting with Donald Trump that the US president was ready to end America’s 17-year involvement in Afghanistan.

The report — co-authored by two former US special envoys for Afghanistan and two former defence officials — highlights the consequences of a possible withdrawal of half of the 14,000 US from Afghanistan that President Trump suggested last month.

 

The report — written for the RAND Corporation, a US think-tank that specialises in defence affairs — argues that Pakistan, Russia, Iran, India and Uzbekistan, have a history of backing various ethnic groups, such as the Pashtuns, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara.

“These relationships will likely be reinforced as the central government’s financial base collapses, its writ weakens, and its cohesion erodes,” the report warns, adding that a US withdrawal will do both — undermine the Kabul government and weaken the Afghan economy.

“Pakistan has long tolerated and facilitated use of its territory by the Taliban. In the event of a precipitous US withdrawal, Pak­istan will likely become more open in its backing,” the report claims.

Pakistan has long rejected such claims as “negative speculations”, insisting instead that it no longer allows any terrorist group to use its territories for carrying out attacks inside Afghanistan.

The authors also note that since 2001, Russia and Iran have generally supported the Kabul government but, in recent years, they have also “provided limited aid to the Taliban as a hedge”.

They point out that the Taliban’s main goal in “recently energised” talks with the US “is a negotiated timetable for a US military withdrawal”. An early withdrawal, they argue, will cause the insurgents to “lose interest in negotiating peace with the United States”.

The authors also underline US expectations from the talks: Taliban forswearing ties with extremist groups, denying such groups access to Afghan territory, and becoming part of a new Afghan political and security architecture that is agreed upon among Afghans.

“If Taliban leaders receive or come to expect a cost-free US withdrawal, they will have little incentive to bargain with the United States or with the US-backed Afghan government,” the authors warn.

The report also highlights other consequences of an early US withdrawal, such as: Other North Atlantic Treaty Organi­sation (Nato) forces also leave Afghanistan. The US and other international civilian presence is sharply reduced. External economic and security assistance diminishes. Power moves from the centre to the periphery. Responsibility for security increasingly devolves to regional militias and local warlords.

The Taliban extend their control over territory and population but encounters resistance. Afghanistan descends into a wider civil war.

Civilian deaths rise sharply and refugee flows increase. Extremist groups, including Al Qaeda and Daesh, gain additional scope to organise, recruit and initiate terrorist attacks against US regional and homeland targets.

Senator Paul, however, says that he returned with his White House meeting with President Trump with the impression that he believes “we’ve been at war too long and in too many places”.

In general, “the idea is that we’re going to do things differently. We’re not going to stay forever. The Afghans will have to step up”, he added.

The report’s authors include James Dobbins, a former US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Jason H. Campbell, former country director for the US Secretary of Defence, Sean Mann, a former analyst for the US Special Operations Joint Task Force, Laurel E. Miller, an acting special representative from 2016 to 2017.

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Trump says no amnesty for ‘Dreamers’, bashes Democrats for offer rejection

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Washington: President Donald Trump said that his proposed immigration deal to end a 30-day partial government shutdown would not lead to amnesty for “Dreamers,” but appeared to signal support for amnesty as part of a broader immigration agreement.

In a morning Twitter storm, Trump also said he would not seek the removal of millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States, while bashing House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats for turning down an offer he made on Saturday, including for Dreamers, the undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.

“No, Amnesty is not a part of my offer. It is a 3-year extension of DACA. Amnesty will be used only on a much bigger deal, whether on immigration or something else,” Trump said on Twitter.

 

“Likewise there will be no big push to remove the 11,000,000 plus people who are here illegally-but be careful Nancy!”

The Dreamers are protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

DACA was put in place under former President Barack Obama. The Trump administration said in September 2017 it would rescind DACA but it remains in effect under court order.

Trump did not make clear what he was referring to regarding the 11 million people mentioned in his tweet. About 12 million people are living in the United States illegally, according to US Department of Homeland Security estimates.

Speech from the White House, Trump offered three years of protections for Dreamers and for holders of temporary protected status (TPS), another class of immigrants from designated countries affected by armed conflict, natural disaster, or other strife.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell welcomed the plan as a “bold solution”, while a spokesman said McConnell would seek Senate passage of the proposal this week.

The legislation will include bills to fund government departments that have been closed during the shutdown, as well as some disaster aid and the president’s immigration proposal, a McConnell aide said.

But Trump’s amnesty tweet caught some Republicans off guard.

“I don’t know what the president’s calling amnesty,” Senator James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, told ABC’s “This Week” program. “That’s a longer debate and obviously not something we can solve quickly.”

Trump appeared to be responding to conservative critics who accused him of proposing amnesty and reneging on a campaign promise, which could alienate his right-wing base.

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Turkey is ready to take over Syria’s Manbij: Erdogan

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WASHINGTON: Turkey is ready to take over security in Syria`s Manbij, where four U.S. citizens died in an Islamic State-claimed bombing last week, President Tayyip Erdogan told U.S. President Donald Trump in a telephone call on Sunday, the Turkish presidency said.

Erdogan told Trump that the suicide bombing in Manbij, a town in northeast Syria controlled by a militia allied to U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, was a provocative act aimed at affecting Trump`s decision last month to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

Trump confounded his own national security team with a surprise decision on December 19 to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, declaring the Islamic State militant group had been defeated there, a view not shared by many experts.

 

Manbij, which U.S.-backed forces captured from Islamic State in 2016, has emerged as a focal point of tensions after Trump`s decision to withdraw U.S. forces whose presence has effectively deterred Turkey from attacking Kurdish forces.

Manbij is controlled by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia allied to the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG. Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has for decades waged a separatist insurgency in Turkey.

In its description of the call, the White House made no mention of Erdogan`s offer to take over security in Manbij but said the two men agreed to keep pursuing a negotiated settlement for northeastern Syria that meets both nations` security needs.

“President Trump underscored the importance of defeating terrorist elements that remain in Syria,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a description of the call.

“The two leaders agreed to continue to pursue a negotiated solution for northeast Syria that achieves our respective security concerns. They also discussed their mutual interest in expanding the trade relationship between the United States and Turkey,” the spokeswoman added.

Trump has previously warned Turkey not to attack the Kurds in Syria and appeared to threaten Turkey`s economy if it did.

In its statement, the Turkish presidency also said that the two leaders had agreed to accelerate discussions between their chiefs of staff about a safe zone in northeastern Syria.

Last week, Trump suggested creating a safe zone, without elaborating. The SDF said on Wednesday it was ready to help create a safe zone, as fears grow that the U.S. withdrawal will give Turkey the opportunity to mount a new assault.

Turkey wants the zone to be cleared of the Kurdish group.

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