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Afghan Taliban announce surprise three-day Eid ceasefire

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Kabul:The Afghan Taliban on Saturday announced a three-day ceasefire over the Eid holiday at the end of this week, their first offer of its kind, following a ceasefire announced by the government on Thursday. The militants said foreign forces would be excluded from the ceasefire and that operations against them would continue. They also said they would defend themselves against any attack.
“In three days, maybe the unity of Taliban insurgents will be put to test,” a European diplomat told Reuters. “If different factions don’t accept the ceasefire, then attacks will continue.”
Gunmen armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers stormed the heavily fortified headquarters of the Afghan interior ministry on Wednesday, battling security forces for more than two hours in the latest attack on the capital Kabul.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced an unconditional ceasefire with the Taliban on Thursday, until June 20, coinciding with the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, but excluding other militant groups, such as Islamic State.
Ghani’s decision came after a meeting of Islamic clerics declared a fatwa, or ruling, against suicide bombings, one of which, claimed by Islamic State, killed 14 people at the entrance to the clerics’ peace tent in Kabul.
The clerics also recommended a ceasefire with the Taliban, who are seeking to reimpose strict Islamic law after their ouster in 2001, and Ghani endorsed the recommendation, saying it would last until June 20.
It was not immediately clear when the Taliban ceasefire would begin, as Eid starts when the moon is first sighted on either the 29th or 30th day of Ramadan, and the moon appears at different times across the country.
Ghani has urged ceasefires with the Taliban before, but this was the first unconditional offer since he was elected in 2014.


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US vows to coordinate with allies on any Afghanistan pullout

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BRUSSELS: Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan sought to reassure nervous NATO allies that any potential U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will be done in a coordinated fashion, which could calm European concern about a precipitous drawdown.

U.S. officials have held several rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar since last year, in what is widely seen as the most serious bid for peace in the 17-year war.

Both the hardline Islamist movement and the United States hailed progress after the end of the last round of negotiations last month, although Western diplomats familiar with discussions say that many tough hurdles lie ahead.

 

Shanahan said he told his NATO counterparts that the U.S.-led alliance would work together to increase what he called diplomatic leverage over the Taliban as the West seeks a political settlement.

“There will be no unilateral troop reduction, it will be coordinated,” Shanahan told reporters following his first meeting of NATO defense ministers after his predecessor quit in December. “We came out of here much stronger and coordinated.”

In his State of the Union address last week, President Donald Trump said progress in negotiations with the Taliban would allow a reduction in the approximately 14,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan and a renewed focus on counter terrorism. Taliban negotiators will meet their U.S. counterparts on Feb. 18 in Pakistan`s capital Islamabad.

U.S. officials have told Reuters the military is planning what a withdrawal of about half of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan would look like.

That has raised concerns about whether a smaller force would be able to support the Afghan military and whether other European armies that rely on American helicopters and other gear would pull out.

Concern was also fueled by Trump`s abrupt announcement last year that he would withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. Despite public fatigue in Western countries about their involvement in the 17-year conflict, European governments including Germany are wary of withdrawing from Afghanistan before a peace deal with Taliban militants is reached.

Many fear seeing the country collapse and then having to send troops back in again to deal with a new threat. U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad briefed NATO envoys on Monday about his push to agree a political settlement and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg promised the alliance would draw down its military presence together if a deal was agreed.

Shanahan echoed that. “We work together, President Trump said it is an opportunity for peace … so what we talked about was how do we double down in our support for an Afghan national defense and security forces to put even more pressure on the Taliban,” he told reporters.

“I feel really good about our alignment I feel we are creating the diplomatic leverage that Ambassador Khalilzad needs.”

The U.S. troops in Afghanistan are part of a NATO-led mission known as Resolute Support, and a U.S. counter-terrorism mission largely directed against groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda.

Some 8,000 troops from 38 other countries are participating in Resolute Support.

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Turkish police believe Khashoggi remains may have been burned

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ANKARA: Turkish police believe the remains of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi may have been burned, Turkey`s state-run news agency Anadolu said , citing a police report.

Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a team of Saudi operatives on October 2, provoking international revulsion.

The consulate had two wells and a gas and wood floor furnace that could reach heat of over 1,000 degrees, destroying any DNA traces, Anadolu said on Thursday, quoting a report by the Turkish police.

 

After making numerous contradictory statements about Khashoggi`s fate, Riyadh said he had been killed and his body dismembered when negotiations to persuade him to return to Saudi Arabia failed.

Police believe information obtained in the investigation indicate that the dismembered remains of Khashoggi may have been burned, Anadolu said.Despite Turkey`s investigation looking at the kingdom`s consulate in Istanbul, the consul`s residence and several other locations, Khashoggi`s remains have not been found.

Khashoggi`s killing has severely strained ties between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, although Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has good ties with the Saudi monarch, King Salman.

Erdogan has said Khashoggi`s killing was ordered by the highest level of Saudi leadership and has repeatedly called on Saudi officials to identify a “local cooperator” involved in the killing. Riyadh has rejected accusations that the crown prince was involved.

Footage from the police report shown on Turkish televisions showed a man believed to be a Khashoggi impersonator walking alongside a man police say is the “local cooperator” in the case. The identity of the man was not immediately clear.

Turkish police also believe Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi`s fiancée, may have been a second victim in the murder if she had entered the Saudi consulate with Khashoggi, Anadolu said.

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US House backs measure to end support for Saudis in Yemen war

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WASHINGTON: The Democratic-led US House of Representatives approved a resolution that would end US support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in the war in Yemen, as many lawmakers sought to push President Donald Trump to toughen his policy toward the kingdom.

It was the first time the House of Representatives has ever supported a war powers resolution, but the 248-177 vote – almost entirely along party lines – would not be enough, however, to overcome Trump`s promise to issue what would likely be his first veto.

Only 18 of Trump`s fellow Republicans in the House joined 230 Democrats in supporting the resolution seeking to stop the US military from any hostilities in or affecting Yemen, including refuelling aircraft conducting missions in the Yemen civil war, without authorization from Congress.

 

Democrats and Republicans reintroduced the war powers resolution two weeks ago as a way to send a strong message to Riyadh about the humanitarian disaster in Yemen and condemn the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Yemen`s almost four-year war has killed tens of thousands of people, collapsed the economy and brought millions of people to the brink of famine. The administration – and many of Trump`s fellow Republicans in Congress – said the resolution was inappropriate because US forces had provided aircraft refuelling and other support in the Yemen conflict, not combat troops. It also said the measure would harm relationships in the region and hurt the US ability to prevent the spread of violent extremism.

The Senate is expected to vote on the resolution within 30 days. A previous version of the resolution passed the Senate by 56-41 in December. But it was not brought up for a vote in the House, where Republicans held a majority until Democrats took control on Jan. 3, following sweeping victories in November`s elections.

The United States has supported the Saudi-led air campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen with mid-air refuelling support, intelligence and targeting assistance. December`s Senate vote was the first time either chamber of Congress backed a resolution to withdraw US forces from a military engagement under the War Powers Act. That law, passed in 1973, limits the president`s ability to commit US forces to potential hostilities without congressional approval.

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