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Discord on intra-Afghan talks, truce hold up deal in Doha

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WASHINGTON: US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad announced that he has completed a marathon round of talks with the Taliban in Doha and is now heading to Washington for consultations.

Apparently, disagreements on a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops and counter-terrorism measures are preventing the two sides from reaching a final agreement. The Taliban are also refusing to hold face-to-face talks with the US-backed government in Kabul.

The fifth round of US-Taliban talks began in Doha, Qatar, on Feb 24 but were paused for two days on Feb 27 to give both sides time for consultations on issues relevant to the negotiations.

 

“Just finished a marathon round of talks with the Taliban in Doha. The conditions for peace have improved. It’s clear all sides want to end the war. Despite ups and downs, we kept things on track and made real strides,” Ambassador Khalilzad wrote.

In a series of tweets , the veteran diplomat, who is heading Washington’s efforts for reconciliation in Afghanistan, also underlined the issues that are preventing the two sides from concluding a final deal.

“Peace requires agreement on four issues: counter-terrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue, and a comprehensive ceasefire,” he wrote.

Khalilzad recalled that in January the US and Taliban delegates had “agreed in principle” on these four elements. “We’re now ‘agreed in draft’ on the first two,” he added.

“When the agreement in draft about a withdrawal timeline and effective counter-terrorism measures is finalised, the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government, will begin intra-Afghan negotiations on a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire,” he wrote.

Ambassador Khalilzad, who has been travelling across South Asia and the Middle East for almost a month for soliciting support for his peace efforts, is now returning to the US capital.

“My next step is discussions in Washington and consultations with other partners. We will meet again soon, and there is no final agreement until everything is agreed,” he wrote.

Khalilzad said on Feb 27 that his first “three solid days of talks” with the Taliban in Doha were productive and both sides had agreed to “continue to take slow, steady steps toward understanding and eventually peace.”

During the pause, the Taliban and US teams held two days of internal deliberations and resumed their talks last Saturday on “all key issues.”

While he was engaging the Taliban in Doha, Mr Khalilzad encouraged Kabul to form a national team for an intra-Afghan dialogue with the insurgents.

The US State Department announced that Mr Khalilzad’s trip to the region has been extended to give him more time for negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban.

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said at a public meeting in Iowa that he may visit Doha as well to help finalise a deal.

This is the nature of diplomacy. Opportunities present themselves; we change course, we correct,” said the State Department’s spokesman Robert Palladino when asked if he was satisfied with the progress made so far.

Palladino said that the talks were focusing on “four interconnected issues that are going to compose any future agreement: counter-terrorism, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan dialogue, and a ceasefire”.

He said there were no deadlines for the talks to conclude, as “Mr Khalilzad is engaging on this on a daily basis … and progress is being made.”


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Trump’s 2016 campaign didn’t conspire with Russia, finds Mueller report

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Washington: US Attorney General William Barr has said Special Counsel Robert Mueller did not find proof that Donald Trump or his campaign conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential elections, following which the US president claimed “complete and total exoneration”.

In his four-page letter to the Congress, which was later made public, Brar however said that “while this (Mueller’s) report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” and sets out evidence on “both sides of the question”.

The investigation had cast a shadow over the Trump presidency for nearly two years with the Democratic leadership alleging that Russian interference helped him in the 2016 polls.

 

Barr said that Mueller found no proof of such a conspiracy “despite multiple offers from Russia-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign”.

“The special counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election,” the attorney general said.

Mueller, in his report, “did not draw a conclusion – one way or the other – as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction”, Barr told the lawmakers.

“For each of the relevant actions investigated, the report sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the special counsel views as ‘difficult issues’ of law and fact concerning whether the president’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction,” Barr said, adding Mueller “ultimately determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment”.

In the letter, he also said the Department of Justice has determined that there is not sufficient evidence to establish that Trump committed obstruction of justice.

“After reviewing the special counsel’s final report on these issues; consulting with department officials, including the Office of Legal Counsel; and applying the principles of federal prosecution that guide our charging decisions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the special counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense,” the letter read.

“The special counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election,” it said, adding, “the report identifies no actions that, in our judgement, constitute obstructive conduct.”

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Pak PM orders probe into alleged forced conversion, underage marriages of two Hindu girls

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Islamabad: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has ordered a probe into reports of alleged abduction, forced conversion and underage marriages of two teenage Hindu girls in Sindh province and to take immediate steps for their recovery, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said on Sunday.

The two girls, Raveena (13) and Reena (15), were allegedly kidnapped by a group of “influential” men from their home in Ghotki district in Sindh on the eve of Holi.

Soon after the kidnapping, a video went viral in which a cleric was purportedly shown soleminising the Nikah (marriage) of the two girls. In a separate video, the minor girls can be seen saying that they accepted Islam of their own free will.

 

In a Twitter post in Urdu on Sunday, Information Minister Chaudhry said that the prime minister has asked the Sindh chief minister to look into reports that the girls in question have been taken to Rahim Yar Khan in Punjab.

Chaudhry said the prime minister has also ordered the Sindh and Punjab governments to devise a joint action plan in light of the incident, and to take concrete steps to prevent such incidents from happening again.

“The minorities in Pakistan make up the white of our flag and all of our flag’s colours are precious to us. Protection of our flag is our duty,” he said.

On Saturday, Chaudhry said that the government had taken notice of reports of the forced conversion and underage marriages of the two girls.

The Hindu community in Pakistan has carried out massive demonstrations calling for strict action to be taken against those responsible, while reminding Prime Minister Khan of his promises to the minorities of the country.

Last year, Khan during his election campaign had said his party’s agenda was to uplift the various religious groups across Pakistan and said they would take effective measures to prevent forced marriages of Hindu girls.

Sanjesh Dhanja, President of Pakistan Hindu Sewa Welfare Trust, an NGO, earlier urged Prime Minister Khan to take note of the incident and prove to everyone that minorities were indeed safe and secure in Pakistan.

“The truth is minorities suffer from different sorts of persecution and the problem of young Hindu girls being kidnapped at gunpoint and forced to convert to Islam or get married to much older men is widespread in Sindh,” he said.

Dhanja said the Hindu community had staged several sit-ins in Ghotki district after which police reluctantly registered FIR against the accused persons. The Hindu community leaders have claimed that the accused belonged to the Kohbar and Malik tribes in the area.

Following the incident, an FIR was filed by the girls’ brother, alleging that their father had an altercation with the accused sometime ago and on the eve of Holi they armed with pistols forcibly entered their home and took the sisters away.

A Pakistan Muslim League-Functional MPA Nand Kumar Goklani, who had initially moved a bill against forced conversions, urged the government to get the law passed immediately.

Hindus form the biggest minority community in Pakistan. According to official estimates, 75 lakh Hindus live in Pakistan. However, according to the community, over 90 lakh Hindus are living in the country. Majority of Pakistan’s Hindu population is settled in Sindh province where they share culture, traditions and language with their Muslim fellows.

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ISIS terrorists emerge from tunnels to surrender to US forces after Caliphate fails

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Baghouz: Dozens of ISIS group militants emerged from tunnels to surrender to US-backed forces in eastern Syria , a day after their “caliphate” was declared defeated.

Syria’s Kurds warned that despite the demise of the proto-state, the thousands of foreign militants they have detained are a time-bomb the world urgently needs to defuse.

An AFP reporter saw dozens of people — mostly men — file out of the battered encampment in the remote village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border to board pickup trucks.

 

“They are IS fighters who came out of tunnels and surrendered today,” Kurdish spokesman Jiaker Amed said.

Some sported thick beards and wore long woollen kaftans over their dark-coloured robes, or a chequered scarf around their faces, as they trudged out of their final hideout under the drizzle.

“Some others could still be hiding inside,” said Amed.

World leaders were quick to hail Saturday’s announcement by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that the last shred of land controlled by ISIS in Syria had been conquered.

But the top foreign affairs official for the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region warned the members captured during the assault still posed a threat.

“There are thousands of fighters, children and women and from 54 countries, not including Iraqis and Syrians, who are a serious burden and danger for us and for the international community,” Abdel Karim Omar told AFP.

“Numbers increased massively during the last 20 days of the Baghouz operation,” he said.

He also warned of the continuing danger posed by ISIS sleeper cells.

The SDF is continuing to carry out operations to rout out any remaining terrorists in the area and uncover possible weapons caches.

“This back-clearance operation will be deliberate and thorough and help ensure the long-term security for the area,” the US-led coalition backing the SDF wrote on Twitter.

As the SDF’s months-long assault closed in against the last ISIS strongholds in the Euphrates Valley, terrorists and their families gradually gathered in Baghouz.


While some managed to escape, many foreigners stayed behind, either surrendering or fighting to the death.

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