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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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China hopes resumption of Sino-India military drills will provide impetus to bilateral ties

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Beijing: China expressed hope that the resumption of military exercises between the Indian and Chinese armies that will begin on Tuesday would inject impetus and yield good results for the improvement of bilateral ties.

An Indian military team headed by Col Puneet Tomar has arrived in China’s southwestern Chengdu city to take part in the ‘Hand-in-Hand’ military drills between the two armies starting there from Tuesday, the Indian Embassy here said.

Officials earlier said both sides would field 100 personnel to take part in the seventh edition of the exercises. The inaugural ceremony would be held on Tuesday and the drills would be concluded on December 23.

The drills are being held after a gap of one year as they could not be held last year because both armies were locked in a 73-day standoff at Doklam in the Sikkim sector.

Asked about how China viewed the exercises being resumed after Doklam, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said “we hope this can have a good results”.

He referred to the informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping at Wuhan in April this year and the “important consensus” reached between the two leaders to improve relations.

He noted that the two leaders had met four times this year.

The two countries should implement the consensus between the two leaders including the exchanges between the two militaries, Lu said.

“Under the guidance of the consensus between the two leaders and through the concerted efforts of the two sides, I hope the exchanges between the two militaries can achieve positive outcomes, injecting impetus to the bilateral ties,” he said.

The Chinese military earlier said the subject of the exercises will include adoptive and basic training, and live shooting.

“The drills will promote understanding between the two militaries and improving their capabilities in fighting terrorism,” Chinese defence ministry spokesman Col Ren Guoqiang had said last month.

“True to its name which is ‘Hand-in-Hand’, we believe China and India’s militaries should work hand-in-hand to bring benefits to our people,” he said.

After the Doklam standoff, the two militaries made efforts to improve relations following the Wuhan summit.

Besides resuming the defence dialogue after the standoff, the two countries also held the 21st round of border talks.

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who are the Special Representatives for the border talks, held the discussions on November 24 in Chengdu during which they called for intensifying efforts to find a solution to the vexed border dispute.

The two sides also held the ninth defence dialogue on November 13 led by Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra and Lt General Shao Yuanming, Deputy Chief of Joint Staff Department of Central Military Commission of China.

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135 hurt in ‘yellow vest’ protests in France, PM calls for ‘dialogue’

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Paris: A total of 135 people have been injured after violence broke out between police and groups of masked youth in several French cities during protests against high living costs, said Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.

Besides, 1,385 people have also been detained.

Created on social media, the “yellow vest” movement which got its name from the high visibility vests drivers keep in their cars, has lured people of all ages and backgrounds.

With no leader, it had turned into a bigger movement denouncing a squeeze on household spending, high living costs caused by Macron`s fiscal and economic policy which they say favours the rich. Some even demanded Macron to step down.

In a joint press briefing with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Saturday, the Minister added that 974 individuals remained in police custody and that the figure could rise.

At least 10,000 demonstrators participated in the Paris march, while 125,000 protesters turned out across the country.

Among the injured were 17 police officers who were hurt in the scuffles mainly in the French capital and Bordeaux city, Xinhua news agency reported.

“The situation is under control,” Castaner said, adding “…but totally unacceptable.”

“Time for dialogue. This dialogue has begun, it must continue. The French nation must find itself. No tax can threaten national unity,” said Prime Minister Philippe, noting that President Emmanuel Macron would propose further measures to abate the social anger.

After a calm start, tension flared in Les Grands Boulevards and streets near the Champs Elysees and the Republic Square where a group of hooded men joined the protest and hassled police by setting barricades and setting afire garbage bins and trees.

Scores of vehicles were burnt and shops damaged, forcing the police to fire tear gas and use water cannon to push back the rioters.

Armoured vehicles were also deployed for the first time in the capital since Paris suburbs riot in 2005 amid intensified security measures that the government implemented to avoid the chaos two weeks ahead of the peak of Christmas holidays.

As part of an “exceptional” security plan, the government has deployed 89,000 officers in the French cities.

In Paris, 8,000 officers have been put in place to maintain law and order to avoid any incident similar to last Saturday`s rioting that plunged the French capital into chaos, its worst unrest in decades.

Earlier this week, the French government dropped a plan to increase fuel tax next year, bowing to the force of the streets.

However, the protest movement shows no sign of abating. Protesters still demand concrete moves, notably a rise in minimum wage and lower taxes.

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Decision to assassinate Arafat approved by Saudis: Former senior advisor

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Washington : A former senior adviser to Yasser Arafat, the late leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), has said that Arafat’s death was not natural and he was actually assassinated, with Saudi Arabia approving the decision to assassinate him.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with Palestine’s Arabic-language Shehab news agency, Bassam Abu Sharif said former US president, George W. Bush, had contacted Saudi officials after a meeting with former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, during which Arafat’s liquidation was discussed, and Saudi authorities consented.

Abu Sharif went on to say that the Riyadh regime approved of Arafat’s assassination, because it viewed him as an obstacle to the Arab Peace Initiative, which envisioned a so-called two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Sharon met with Bush at the White House and told him that he could no longer keep his promise of not physically attacking Yasser Arafat, because he was a leading terror figure and collaborating with Hamas, and that Hamas operations were carried out with the approval and blessing of Arafat,” the senior member of the PLO pointed out.

Abu Sharif highlighted that Bush contacted Saudi officials the following day and informed them of the matter, and the Al Saud regime agreed to the decision to assassinate Arafat.

The late Palestinian leader’s adviser noted that his new book, titled Salty Fish, contains many secrets about the assassination of Arafat; Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the former leader of the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2004; as well as senior Hamas figure, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was found dead in his hotel room in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, back in 2010.

Arafat, who led an armed struggle against Israel in the late 1960s, died of unknown causes at a hospital near the French capital, Paris, on November 11, 2004. He was 75.

Israeli forces have attacked a group of Palestinian students, who planned to hold a ceremony to mark the death anniversary of Yasser Arafat,In 2012, Arafat’s widow, Suha, filed a legal complaint in France, claiming that her husband had been assassinated while staying at the Mercy military hospital near Paris in 2004. He had been moved to the hospital the previous month for diarrhea and vomiting.

According to French doctors, he died of a massive stroke, although the origin of his illness was unknown.

Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah was opened the same year, so that three teams of French, Swiss, and Russian investigators could collect samples for investigation.

A subsequent French investigation found no proof of poisoning. However, separate probes from Swiss and Russian experts found that Arafat had been poisoned to death with polonium.

An investigation has proved Israel assassinated the former leader of Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat.

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