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‘Glimmer of hope’ as Ukraine grain ship leaves Odesa

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KYIV:

The first ship to carry Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea since Russia invaded Ukraine five months ago left the port of Odesa for Lebanon on Monday under a safe passage deal described as a glimmer of hope in a worsening global food crisis.

The sailing was made possible after Turkey and the United Nations brokered a grain and fertiliser export agreement between Russia and Ukraine last month – a rare diplomatic breakthrough in a conflict that has become a drawn-out war of attrition.

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The Sierra Leone-flagged ship Razoni will head to the port of Tripoli, Lebanon, after transiting the Bosphorus Strait linking the Black Sea, which is dominated by Russia’s navy, to the Mediterranean. It is carrying 26,527 tonnes of corn.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 has led to a worldwide food and energy crisis and the United Nations has warned of the risk of multiple famines this year.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he hoped Tuesday’s departure would be the first of many such cargos and that the UN would charter a ship to replenish supplies of aid.

Read more: Putin says no one can win a nuclear war

“People on the verge of famine need these agreements to work, in order to survive,” Guterres told reporters in New York. “Countries on the verge of bankruptcy need these agreements to work, in order to keep their economies alive.”

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Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called it a “day of relief for the world, especially for our friends in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.”

Ukraine, known as Europe’s breadbasket, hopes to export 20 million tonnes of grain in silos and 40 million tonnes from the harvest now underway, initially from Odesa and nearby Pivdennyi and Chornomorsk, to help clear the silos for the new crop.

Moscow has denied responsibility for the food crisis, blaming Western sanctions for slowing its exports and Ukraine for mining the approaches to its ports. The Kremlin called the Razoni’s departure “very positive” news.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said the vessel would anchor off Istanbul on Tuesday afternoon and be inspected by Russian, Ukrainian, United Nations and Turkish representatives.

“It will then continue as long as no problems arise,” Akar said.

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Read more: On navy day, Putin says US, NATO ‘main threats’ to Russia

Before the Razoni left, Ukrainian officials said 17 ships were docked in Black Sea ports with almost 600,000 tonnes of cargo, mostly grain. Countries expressed hope more would follow.

“This is a glimmer of hope in a worsening food crisis,” a German foreign ministry spokesperson told a government briefing.

France welcomed the shipment while condemning what it called “indiscriminate” Russian strikes against Ukraine, including on Odesa’s port, which it said were undermining the agreement. Russia struck what it said was military infrastructure in the port the day after the deal was agreed. Ukraine said the strikes landed near a pumping station.

Relief

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A junior engineer on the vessel, Abdullah Jendi, said the crew were happy to be moving after their prolonged stay in Odesa and that he, a Syrian, had not seen his family in more than a year. read more

“It is an indescribable feeling to be returning to my home country after suffering from the siege and the dangers that we were facing due to the shelling,” he said.

He said he was scared the ship might hit a mine in the hours it would take to leave regional waters.

The US Embassy in Kyiv also welcomed the shipping resumption and said the world would be watching out for more.

Chicago wheat and corn prices fell amid hopes that Ukraine’s cereals exports could resume on a large scale. Procedures must still be worked out for empty vessels to collect grain, Neil Roberts, head of marine and aviation insurance with Lloyds Market Association, told Reuters. read more

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Bombardments in South and East

Elsewhere, the war continued, with three civilians reported killed by Russian shelling in the eastern Donetsk region – two in Bakhmut and one in nearby Soledar – in the last 24 hours, regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.

An industrial city and transport hub, Bakhmut has been under Russian bombardment for the past week as the Kremlin’s forces try to occupy all of Donetsk after seizing most of the neighbouring region, Luhansk, last month.

Russian strikes also hit Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second biggest city and near the border with Russia, regional governor Oleh Synegubov said. Two civilians were wounded, he said.

After failing to quickly capture the capital Kyiv early in the war, Russia has been aiming to capture the eastern Donbas region, made up of Donetsk and Luhansk and partially occupied by separatists before the invasion, and more of the south, where it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

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Ukraine, which has launched a counter-offensive in the south, has pleaded with the West to supply more long-range artillery as it tries to turn the tide in the conflict.

Ukraine’s defence minister said Kyiv had received four more US-made HIMARS rocket systems from the United States. A third multiple rocket launcher system – the MARS II MLRS – had also arrived from Germany.

Moscow says Western arms supplies to Ukraine only drag out the conflict and the supply of longer-range weapons justifies Russia’s attempts to expand control over more Ukrainian territory for its own protection.

Russia invaded Ukraine in what it called a “special operation” to demilitarise its neighbour. Ukraine and Western nations have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for war.



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Afghan Taliban stronger than ever a year after takeover

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AFGHANISTAN/
BAZARAK:

A year since returning to power in Afghanistan, the Taliban are a stronger military force than ever, but threats to their rule do exist.

To tighten their grip, the Taliban have poured thousands of fighters into the Panshjir Valley, home to the only conventional military threat the group has faced since their takeover.

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The scenic valley, located in northeastern Afghanistan, was for decades a bastion of resistance against outside forces, and the birthplace of the National Resistance Front (NRF).

On the other side of the spectrum, the Islamic State-Khorasan group (IS-K) has planted bombs and staged multiple suicide attacks in the past 12 months.

But the militants have focused on soft targets — chiefly mosques and Sikh temples — rather than tackle the Taliban head-on.

Following the chaotic exit of US-led troops on August 31 last year, Western threats to Taliban rule have also been crushed.

Still, the recent assassination of al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri by a US drone strike on his hideout in Kabul shows how vulnerable Taliban leaders could be to a high-tech enemy.

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While the Panjshir Valley is what worries the Taliban the most, analyst Michael Kugelman of the Washington-based Wilson Centre think-tank believes serious resistance is a long way off.

“If we start to see IS-K pick up its attacks and start carrying out more strikes… I think that the NRF could really benefit from that,” he told AFP.

“If Afghans are seeing their families getting blown up by IS-K… that could, I think, deliver a major dent to the Taliban legitimacy and that could benefit the NRF, and give them a window.”

‘Fear in our hearts’

Panjshir was the last province to fall to the Taliban in their lightning takeover of the country last year — holding out until September 6, three weeks after the capture of Kabul.

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An uneasy calm then enveloped the valley — around 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Kabul — until May, when the NRF emerged from the mountains to strike again.

In response, the Taliban sent in more than 6,000 fighters in long columns of armoured vehicles, striking fear into the hearts of residents.

“Since the Taliban arrived in the valley, people are in panic, they can’t talk freely,” said Amir, speaking to AFP in hushed tones in the provincial capital as a patrol passed by.

“The Taliban think that if youths are sitting together, then they must be planning something against them,” he added, asking not to be identified by his real name.

In the 1980s, fighters led by Ahmad Shah Massoud — nicknamed the Lion of Panjshir — fought the Soviet forces from its rugged peaks of Panshjir.

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When the Red Army pulled out, Afghanistan descended into civil war and the Taliban seized control of the country.

Panjshir held out, though Massoud was assassinated two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The NRF is led by his son Ahmad Masood, who like many NRF leaders is now in undisclosed exile.

Taliban forces now firmly control the main road that cuts through the valley, with checkpoints everywhere.

Thousands of people have fled the valley — once home to around 170,000 — and an atmosphere of fear prevails, with residents speaking only if their real names were not revealed.

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“Previously, we used to feel good to come here,” said a visitor named Nabila, who was in the valley with her four sisters to attend their mother’s funeral.

“Now we have fear in our hearts. We are scared that if our husbands come, they will be dragged from the car,” she said, asking that her full name be withheld for fear of retribution.

Will vs capacity

Rights groups have accused the Taliban of committing widespread abuses in Panjshir — allegations they deny — including extrajudicial executions.

“Those arbitrarily arrested are also facing physical torture and beatings that, in some cases, even resulted in death,” Amnesty International said in June.

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“The Taliban arrested and threatened to kill relatives of fighters who are with the resistance,” said Jamshed, a resident of a Panjshir town.

“These threats compelled many fighters to come down from the mountains and surrender.”

Still, Taliban authorities send mixed messages about the threat the NRF poses — denying their existence, on one hand, yet sending in troops to fight them.

“We have not seen any front; the front does not exist,” Abdul Hameed Khurasani, head of a Taliban special force unit deployed in the valley, told AFP.

“There are (only) a few people in the mountains. We are chasing them.”

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Ali Nazary, head of the NRF’s foreign relations department, questions the Taliban’s claims.

“If we were a few fighters, and if we have been pushed to the mountains, why are they sending thousands of their fighters?” he asked.

Nazary said the NRF now had a fighting force of 3,000, and bases across the province — a claim impossible to independently verify.

Kugelman believes the NRF have the will to fight, but not the capacity.

“For NRF to be a truly effective group, it’s going to need… more external support, military and financial,” he said.

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International economists ask Biden to release Afghan bank funds

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ISLAMABAD:

More than 70 economists and experts, including Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, called for Washington and other nations to release Afghanistan’s central bank assets in a letter sent to US President Joe Biden on Wednesday.

The letter said foreign capitals needed to return the roughly $9 billion in Afghan central bank assets to Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB) to allow the economy to function, despite criticism of behaviour by the ruling Taliban towards women and minorities.

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“The people of Afghanistan have been made to suffer doubly for a government they did not choose,” the letter said. “In order to mitigate the humanitarian crisis and set the Afghan economy on a path toward recovery, we urge you to allow DAB to reclaim its international reserves.”

The letter, also addressed to US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, was signed by 71 economists and academic experts, many based in the United States as well as Germany, India and the United Kingdom.

Among them was former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and Stiglitz, a Columbia University professor who received the Nobel Prize in economics in 2001 and is on the advisory board to the Washington-based think tank the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which organised the letter.

Afghanistan’s economy has plunged deep into crisis since the Taliban took over almost a year ago as foreign forces withdrew. The sudden cut in aid and other factors including inflation driven by conflict in Ukraine have contributed, but economists say the country is severely hampered by the inability of its central bank to function without access to its reserves.

This has resulted in a sharp depreciation of the Afghan currency, pushing up import prices, and led to a near collapse of the banking system with citizens facing problems accessing their savings and receiving salaries.

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“Without access to its foreign reserves, the central bank of Afghanistan cannot carry out its normal, essential functions … the economy of Afghanistan has, predictably, collapsed,” the letter said.

Washington and other capitals say they want to find a way to release the funds for the benefit of the Afghan people while not benefiting the Taliban, whom they have condemned for imposing severe restrictions on women’s freedoms in the last year and allegedly carrying out human rights abuses including vendettas against former enemies.

The Taliban say they respect rights in accordance with their interpretation of Islamic law and that individual abuses would be investigated.

Despite their widely differing stances, both sides are engaged in detailed discussions over plans to possibly release the central bank assets, around $7 billion of which is held in the United States. Roughly half of that is currently set aside as it is the subject of a court battle related to the 9/11 attacks.

Key sticking points remain in the banking talks, in particular over US objections to the Taliban’s appointment of a deputy governor of the central bank who is subject to US sanctions.

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Taliban fighters swap arms for books as hundreds return to school

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KABUL:

Gul Agha Jalali used to spend his nights planting bombs — hoping to target an Afghan government soldier or, better still, a foreign serviceman.

These days, the 23-year-old Taliban member is studying English and has enrolled in a computer science course in the capital, Kabul.

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“When our country was occupied by infidels, we needed bombs, mortars and guns,” says Jalali, an employee at the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation.

Now there is a greater need for education, he told AFP.

Since the Taliban swept back to power in August last year, hundreds of fighters have returned to school — either on their own or pushed by their commanders.

The word “Taliban” actually means “students” in Arabic, and the hardline group movement’s name stems from the religious schools in southern Afghanistan it emerged from in the 1990s.

Most Taliban fighters were educated in these madrassas, where studies are largely limited to the Koran and other Islamic themes.

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Many conservative Afghan clerics — particularly among the Taliban — are sceptical of more modern education, apart from subjects than can be applied practically, such as engineering or medicine.

“The world is evolving, we need technology and development,” said Jalali, who planted bombs for five years but is now among a dozen Taliban studying computers at the transport ministry.

‘Motivated mujahideen’

The desire of fighters like Jalali to go back to school showed Afghans yearned for education, government spokesman Bilal Karimi said.

“Many motivated mujahideen who had not completed their studies reached out to educational institutions and are now studying their favourite courses,” he told AFP.

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But education is a hugely problematic issue in the country, with secondary school girls barred from classes since the Taliban returned to power — and no sign of them being allowed back despite promises from some in the leadership.

While the earlier curriculum largely remains the same, studies on music and sculpture have been scrapped at schools and universities, which are suffering a paucity of teachers and lecturers following an exodus of Afghanistan’s educated elite.

But some Taliban students, like Jalali, have big plans.

Kabul’s Muslim Institute has a student body of around 3,000 — half of them women — and includes some 300 Taliban fighters, many distinctive with their bushy beards and turbans.

On a recent tour, AFP saw one Taliban fighter retrieve a pistol from a locker room at the end of his lessons — an incongruous sight in a pastel-coloured room adorned with posters of smiling co-ed students.

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“When they arrive, they hand over their weapons. They don’t use force or take advantage of their position,” said an institute official who asked not to be named.

Desire to study

Amanullah Mubariz was 18 when he joined the Taliban but never gave up his desire to study.

“I applied to a university in India, but I failed my English test,” said Mubariz, now 25, declining to reveal his current position in the Taliban.

“That’s why I enrolled here,” he said, referring to the Muslim Institute.

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Mohammad Sabir, in contrast, is happy to admit he works for the Taliban’s intelligence agency despite also being a student at the private Dawat University.

“I resumed my studies this year after the victory of the Islamic Emirate,” he says, his long hair and eyes lined with traditional kohl eyeliner peeking out from beneath a white turban.

Like Jalali, he paused his education to join the Taliban and also planted bombs and carried out ambushes with his brother in Wardak province.

All the Taliban students AFP spoke to said they wanted to use their education to help develop the country, so how do they feel about girls being deprived of that opportunity?

“Personally, as a young man, a student and a member of the Emirate, I think that they have the right to education,” said Mubariz.

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“They can serve our country the way we are doing.”

“This country needs them as much as it needs us,” added Jalali.



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