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Taliban being used as ‘hedge’ against India: US Army officer

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Washington/ New Delhi: Days after US President Donald Trump sought Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s help in the Afghan peace process, a top American commander has told lawmakers that Islamabad’s policy seems to be unchanged and it continues to use the Taliban as a hedge against India.

“Pakistan is an essential element in long-term stability in Afghanistan,” Marine Corps Lt Gen Kenneth McKenzie Jr told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday during his confirmation hearing for commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM).

Pakistan could play a key role in facilitating talks between the Taliban and government of Afghanistan, he said, adding, “I would welcome that development. At this time, however, Pakistan does not appear to be using the full extent of its influence to encourage the Taliban to come to the table.”

 

“We continue to see the Taliban being utilised as a hedge against India rather than as part of a stable, reconciled Afghanistan,” McKenzie told the lawmakers during his confirmation hearing.

His answers to the Senate Armed Services Committee in response to a set of written questions come a day after it became public that Trump has written a letter to Imran Khan, seeking his help in the Afghan peace process.

“President Trump sent a letter to Prime Minister (Imran) Khan, requesting Pakistan’s full support to the US-led Afghan peace process and Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s upcoming trip to the region,” a spokesperson of the National Security Council, White House, told PTI.

“In the letter, the President recognises that Pakistan has the ability to deny the Taliban sanctuary on its territory,” the spokesperson said.

“The letter also makes it clear that Pakistan’s assistance with the Afghan peace process is fundamental to building an enduring US-Pakistan partnership,” the spokesperson said.

McKenzie told lawmakers that he did not see much of a change in Pakistan’s behaviour towards Afghanistan or its stand against terrorist groups.

Despite Pakistan’s positive rhetoric in support of the South Asia Strategy, violent extremist organisations or VEOs operate along its border with Afghanistan, he said.

While Pakistan has conducted some operations against VEOs in the country, they must continue to expand these operations and remain aggressively engaged, McKenzie said.

“Taking concrete steps that deny VEO safe havens in Pakistan, as well as VEO freedom of movement from Pakistan to Afghanistan, remains an important ask that Pakistan needs to fulfil. Pakistan must leverage their influence over the Taliban leadership to help compel them to come to the table for reconciliation negotiations,” he added.

McKenzie said the US CENTCOM would continue to support the State Department as it works towards a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Afghanistan which includes ensuring that Islamabad’s equities are acknowledged in any future agreement.

Pakistan’s action or inaction, as it relates to stability in Afghanistan, has often led to US’s frustration, he said, adding that stability in the South Asia region remains the most important mutual strategic interest for both the US and Pakistan.

“We must continue to engage with the Pakistani leadership to realise how we can achieve this mutual interest,” McKenzie said.


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International

Two States only just solution for Israel-Palestine conflict: UN chief

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United Nations: A “peaceful and just solution” to the longstanding Israel-Palestine conflict can only be achieved through creation of two States living side-by-side in peace and security, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said, asserting that there is no plan B.

In his address to the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, which was established by the UN General Assembly in 1975, Guterres said on Friday that “based on relevant UN resolutions, long-held principles, previous agreements and international law”, Jerusalem should be the capital of both States.

“Unfortunately, over this past year, the situation has not moved in that direction”, he rued, pointing to protests that began along the border fence with Gaza last year that left hundreds dead and thousands wounded by Israeli security forces.

 

He also cited “security incidents and provocations by Hamas and other militants in Gaza”, including the launching of rockets and incendiary kites that dangerously escalated the situation.

“Thanks to the UN and Egyptian mediation efforts, a major escalation was avoided”, he said, appealing to Hamas authorities in Gaza to “prevent provocations”.

The UN chief said under International Humanitarian Law Israel too has a responsibility to exercise “maximum restraint”, except as a last resort.

Guterres said he regretted Israel’s decision not to renew the mandate of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, saying “I hope an agreement can be found by the parties to preserve this long-standing and valuable arrangement”.

“Palestinians have endured more than a half-century of occupation and denial of their legitimate right to self-determination” with both sides continuously suffering from “deadly cycles of violence”, the Secretary-General said.

He indicated that leaders bore the responsibility to reverse this negative trajectory and pave the way toward peace, stability and reconciliation.

Guterres praised the Committee for keeping the focus on the ultimate objective of a “peaceful solution with two States coexisting in peace and security” as the only way to achieve the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.

“As I have said repeatedly, there is no Plan B,” Guterres said.

He underscored that the UN firmly supports Palestinian reconciliation and “the return of the legitimate Palestinian Government to Gaza” as “an integral part of a future Palestinian State”.

Noting that the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza must be immediately addressed, he detailed that some two million Palestinians remained mired in increasing poverty and unemployment, with limited access to adequate health, education, water and electricity, leaving young people with “little prospect of a better future”.

“I urge Israel to lift restrictions on the movement of people and goods, which also hamper the efforts of the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies, without naturally jeopardising legitimate security concerns,” Guterres said.

Lauding the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for its “critical work” in Gaza, the occupied West Bank and across the region, he called on the international community to “significantly” increase efforts to revitalise Gaza’s economy.

Touching upon the risk of further unrest in the West Bank, the UN chief flagged that Israeli construction and settlement plans have expanded, including in East Jerusalem.

“Settlements are illegal under international law”, he asserted.

“They deepen the sense of mistrust and undermine the two-State solution”.

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Five killed in US industrial park shooting

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Washington: Five persons have been killed and several others injured after a gunman opened fire at an industrial park in the US state of Illinois, police said.

The gunman was also killed, a police spokesman said. He added that five police officers also sustained injuries after being hit by gunfire.

The attack took place in Aurora, a suburb about 65 km from Chicago, the BBC reported.

 

It comes a day after the first anniversary of a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 dead.

The shooting is reported to have happened at Henry Pratt Company, a manufacturing firm that makes valves for large water pipes.

Police named the gunman as Gary Martin, 45, who they said was an employee at the industrial park.

Bill Donnell, an elected official in Aurora, told CNN that a number of civilians had been wounded in the shooting.

Chris Southwood of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police described the Aurora officers who attended and were shot at as “courageous”.

“(These) officers and their colleagues did not hesitate to literally put their lives on the line today to stop further bloodshed,” Southwood said in a statement.

An employee at nearby Capitol Printing told ABC7 they had hid in a closet when the shooting began.

Witness John Probst, who works at the plant, told ABC7 that he saw the attacker, whom he recognised as a colleague.

He said the man was carrying a handgun equipped with a laser sight, but this has yet to be confirmed by officials.

Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth said: “This is a scary, sad day for all Illinoisans and Americans.”

US President Donald Trump has been briefed on the incident, according to White House Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s first visit to Pak delayed

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Islamabad: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s arrival in Pakistan on his first official visit to the country has been delayed by a day for “unknown reasons”. He was scheduled to reach Islamabad on Saturday but due to a slight change, he will arrive on Sunday, according to the Foreign Office.

However, the programmes of his stay in Pakistan will remain unchanged, it said. Prince Mohammad, who is also the deputy prime minister and minister of defence, will be conferred with Nishan-e-Pakistan – the highest civilian award — during his visit to the country, the Express Tribune reported.

A top official said that the arrival has been delayed by a day for “unknown reasons”. Preparations have been made to give an “unprecedented warm welcome” to the Saudi Prince who will be received personally by Prime Minister Imran Khan and his cabinet members at the Nur Khan Airbase, the report said.

 

Abdul Razzak Dawood, Advisor to prime minister on trade, said investment deals worth USD 10-15 billion dollars would be signed during the trip. On the top of the list is an agreement to set up an oil refinery in Pakistan. Elaborate security arrangements have been planned during the visit of the powerful heir to the Saudi throne.

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