More than 300,000 children in war-ravaged Afghanistan face freezing winter conditions that can lead to illness and death without proper winter clothing and heating, a humanitarian organization said Thursday.
The ongoing military conflict in Afghanistan has destroyed many homes and forced thousands of children to shelter in camps for the homeless. There they are at risk of not only hunger and disease, including COVID-19, but also death from freezing temperatures, reports AP.
Chris Nyamandi, Afghanistan country director for Save the Children, said in a statement Thursday that early snow in northern Afghanistan has impacted children particularly badly.
“The most vulnerable children are those whose schools have shut because of the worsening winter conditions," he said. “Their families don’t have the money to buy winter clothing. Instead children are forced to huddle at home to escape the bitter cold.”
Schools are closed until March in the coldest parts of Afghanistan, where the temperature can plummet to as low as minus 27 degrees Celsius (minus 16 degrees Fahrenheit).
Save the Children has provided winter kits to more than 100,000 families in 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The kits include fuel and a heater, blankets and winter clothes for children including coats, socks, shoes, hats.
“The situation is bleak for children forced to live in camps in places like Balkh province. It is already very cold in this northern province with overnight temperatures as low as minus ten. But it will get much colder before March,” Nyamandi said. “For thousands of children the Afghan winter is a time of grim survival.”
Violence has been on the upswing in Afghanistan even as Taliban and Afghan government negotiators hold talks in Qatar, trying to hammer out a peace deal that could put an end to decades of war.
A report from Save the Children released Thursday cites 12-year-old Rohina, who lives in a camp for people forced to flee their homes in northern Balkh province. She attends Save the Children supported, community-based education classes.
“We are poor and are living under open sky," she said. “Me and my siblings are not able to sleep for the night because of the cold. How can someone learn like this?”
At a camp in the northern part of the capital Kabul, there are more than 700 families, the majority of them displaced by violence in their hometowns. They and other families keep warm and cook by burning the garbage that surrounds them.
“It is cold at night, cold in morning, we don't have wood, we don't have charcoal," said 10-year-old Mohammad Dad, who lives at the camp. “We don't have blankets we make fire out of plastic to keep us warm.”
Mohammad's grandmother, 50-year-old Raihan, lives with seven members of her son's family at the camp. She said the fires they make from discarded plastic does little to keep them warm.
“The children are sick, from night till morning they are coughing,” she said.
A large explosion struck the airport in the southern Yemeni city of Aden on Wednesday, shortly after a plane carrying the newly formed Cabinet landed there, security officials said. At least 25 people were killed and 110 wounded in the blast.
Yemen's internationally recognized government said Iran-backed Houthi rebels fired four ballistic missiles at the airport. Rebel officials did not answer phone calls from The Associated Press seeking comment. No one on the government plane was hurt, reports AP.
Officials later reported another explosion close to a palace in the city where the Cabinet members were transferred following the airport attack. The Saudi-led coalition later shot down a bomb-laden drone that attempted to target the palace, according to Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV channel.
The Cabinet reshuffle was seen as a major step toward closing a dangerous rift between the government of embattled Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and southern separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates. Hadi's government and the separatists are nominal allies in Yemen's years-long civil war that pits the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed military coalition against the Houthis, who control most of northern Yemen as well as the country’s capital, Sanaa.
AP footage from the scene at the airport showed members of the government delegation disembarking as the blast shook the grounds. Many ministers rushed back inside the plane or ran down the stairs, seeking shelter.
Thick smoke rose into the air from near the terminal building. Officials at the scene said they saw bodies lying on the tarmac and elsewhere at the airport.
Yemeni Communication Minister Naguib al-Awg, who was on the plane, told the AP that he heard two explosions, suggesting they were drone attacks. Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed and the others were quickly whisked from the airport to the Mashiq Palace.
Military and security forces sealed off the area around the the palace.
“It would have been a disaster if the plane was bombed,” al-Awg said, insisting the plane was the target of the attack as it was supposed to land earlier.
Prime Minister Saeed tweeted that he and his Cabinet were safe and unhurt. He called the explosions a “cowardly terrorist act” that was part of the war on “the Yemeni state and our great people.”
Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad Bin Mubarak blamed the Houthis for the attacks. His ministry said in a statement later that the rebels fired four ballistic missiles at the airport, and launched drone attacks at the palace, the Cabinet's headquarters. They did not provide evidence.
Health Minister Qasem Buhaibuh said in a tweet the attacks at the airport killed least 25 people and wounded 110 others, suggesting the death toll could increase further because some of the wounds were serious.
Images shared on social media from the scene showed rubble and broken glass strewn about near the airport building and at least two lifeless bodies, one of them charred, lying on the ground. In another image, a man tries to help another man whose clothes were torn to get up from the ground.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said three of its workers were killed in the airport blast: two Yemeni nationals and a Rwandan. Three other workers were wounded. ICRC workers were at the airport transiting with other civilians when the blast took place, it said.
“This is a tragic day for the ICRC and for the people of Yemen,” said Dominik Stillhart, ICRC’s director of operations.
Yemeni Belqees television said its reporter Adeeb al-Ganabi was also killed in the airport blast. Information Minister Moammer al-Iryani said at least 10 other journalists were wounded.
A statement from Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said the “Secretary-General condemns the deplorable attack on Aden airport shortly after the arrival of the newly formed Yemeni cabinet, which killed and wounded dozens of people.”
Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirates' minister of state for foreign affairs, said the attack on Aden's airport was meant to destroy the power-sharing deal between Yemen's internationally recognized government and the southern separatists.
U.S. Ambassador in Yemen Christopher Henzel said the U.S. condemned the attacks in Aden. “We stand with the Yemeni people as they strive for peace, and we support the new Yemeni Government as it works towards a better future for all Yemenis,” he said.
Egypt, Jordan and other Arab and Western nations also condemned the airport attack.
The Yemeni ministers were returning to Aden from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, after being sworn in last week as part of a reshuffle following a deal with the separatists. Yemen’s internationally recognized government has worked mostly from self-imposed exile in Riyadh during the country’s years-long civil war.
The Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed al-Jaber, described the attack as a “cowardly terrorist act targeting the Yemeni people, their security and stability.”
Despite “the disappointment and confusion caused by those who create death and destruction,” the peace agreement between the government and southern separatists “will go forward,” he said.
Hadi, in exile in Saudi Arabia, announced the Cabinet reshuffle earlier this month.
Naming a new government was part of a power-sharing deal between the Saudi-backed Hadi and the Emirati-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council, an umbrella group of militias seeking to restore an independent southern Yemen, which existed from 1967 until unification in 1990.
The blast underscores the dangers facing Hadi’s government in the port city, the scene of bloody fighting between forces of the internationally recognized government and the UAE-backed separatists.
In a video message posted on his Twitter account later, Saeed, the Yemeni prime minister, said his government was in Aden “to stay.” The city has been the seat of Hadi’s government since Houthi rebels overran the capital Sanaa in 2014.
Last year, the Houthis fired a missile at a military parade of newly graduated fighters of a militia loyal to the UAE at a military base in Aden, killing dozens.
In 2015, then-Yemeni Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and members of his government survived a missile attack, blamed on the Houthis, on an Aden hotel used by the government.
Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, has been engulfed in civil war since 2014, when the Houthis overran the north and Sanaa. The following year, a Saudi-led military coalition intervened to wage war on the Houthis and to restore Hadi's government to power.
The war has killed more than 112,000 people and brought about the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The United States flew strategic bombers over the Persian Gulf on Wednesday for the second time this month, a show of force meant to deter Iran from attacking American or allied targets in the Middle East.
One senior U.S. military officer said the flight by two Air Force B-52 bombers was in response to signals that Iran may be planning attacks against U.S. allied targets in neighboring Iraq or elsewhere in the region in the coming days, even as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office. The officer was not authorized to publicly discuss internal assessments based on sensitive intelligence and spoke on condition of anonymity, reports AP.
The B-52 bomber mission, flown round trip from an Air Force base in North Dakota, reflects growing concern in Washington, in the final weeks of President Donald Trump's administration, that Iran will order further military retaliation for the U.S. killing last Jan. 3 of top Iranian military commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Iran's initial response, five days after the deadly U.S. drone strike, was a ballistic missile attack on a military base in Iraq that caused brain concussion injuries to about 100 U.S. troops.
Adding to the tension was a rocket attack last week on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad by Iranian-supported Shiite militia groups. No one was killed, but Trump tweeted afterward that Iran was on notice.
"Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over,” Trump wrote on Dec. 23.
Because of the potential for escalation that could lead to a wider war, the U.S. has sought to deter Iran from additional attacks. Strategic calculations on both sides are further complicated by the political transition in Washington to a Biden administration that may seek new paths to dealing with Iran. Biden has said, for example, that he hopes to return the U.S. to a 2015 agreement with world powers in which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
In announcing Wednesday's bomber flight, the head of U.S. Central Command said it was a defensive move.
“The United States continues to deploy combat-ready capabilities into the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to deter any potential adversary, and make clear that we are ready and able to respond to any aggression directed at Americans or our interests,” said Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of Central Command. “We do not seek conflict, but no one should underestimate our ability to defend our forces or to act decisively in response to any attack.”
Also read: Iran sues Trump for killing Gen Soleimani
He did not mention Iran by name.
In advance of the announcement, the senior U.S. military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said that U.S. intelligence has detected recent signs of “fairly substantive threats” from Iran, and that included planning for possible rocket attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq in connection with the one-year anniversary of the Soleimani killing.
The U.S. is in the process of reducing its troop presence in Iraq from 3,000 to about 2,500. Trump ordered that the reduction be achieved by Jan. 15; officials say it is likely to be reached as early as next week.
The United States also has picked up signs that Iran may be considering or planning “more complex” and broader attacks against American targets or interests in the Middle East, the senior U.S. military officer said, adding that it represented the most concerning signs since the days immediately following the Soleimani killing. The officer cited indications that advanced weaponry has been flowing from Iran into Iraq recently and that Shiite militia leaders in Iraq may have met with officers of Iran's Quds force, previously commanded by Soleimani.
The U.S. officer said Iran might have its eye on economic targets, noting the September 2019 missile and drone attack on Saudi oil processing facilities. Iran denied involvement but was blamed by the United States for that attack.
In recent weeks the U.S. military has taken a range of steps designed to deter Iran, while publicly emphasizing that it is not planning, and has not been instructed, to take unprovoked action against Iran.
Last week, a U.S. Navy guided-missile submarine made an unusual transit of the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic waterway between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. Earlier in December, a pair of B-52 bombers from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana flew what the military calls a “presence” mission over the Gulf — a demonstration of U.S. force and a signal of U.S. commitment to the region, but not an attack mission. That flight was repeated this week, with two B-52s flying nonstop from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and heading home Wednesday after cruising over the western side of the Gulf.
Tensions with Iran escalated with the killing in November of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian scientist named by the West as the leader of the Islamic Republic’s disbanded military nuclear program. Iran has blamed Israel for the killing, but U.S. officials are concerned that any Iranian retaliation could hit U.S. interests.
A series of explosions hit the Afghan capital on Saturday morning, killing at least four people including two police officers, officials said.
The deaths were caused by a sticky bomb attached to a police vehicle detonated in western Kabul, police spokesman Ferdaws Faramarz said. The explosion wounded two civilians, reports AP.
Two other police officers were wounded when a bomb attached to their car exploded earlier Saturday in southern Kabul, Faramarz said.
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Maooma Jafari, deputy spokeswoman for the health ministry, said that four corpses and four wounded people were taken to hospital following the two explosions.
A third sticky bomb detonated in eastern Kabul but caused no casualties, he said.
There were reports of at least two other blasts elsewhere in the city but police had no immediate details.
In a separate report form northern Balkh province, a senior army officer was killed when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb, said Arif Iqbali, a Sholgara district police chief.
Iqbali said that Mohammad Tareq, the garrison commander of the army brigade in Balkh was the apparent target who was killed in the attack.
The latest attacks came as Taliban and Afghan government negotiators held talks in Qatar, trying to hammer out a peace deal that could put an end to decades of war.
No one has immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks in Kabul. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks in the capital in recent months, including on educational institutions that killed 50 people, most of them students.
The talks in Doha have been suspended until early January and there is speculation they could be further delayed.
At the same time, Taliban militants have waged bitter battles against IS fighters, particularly in eastern Afghanistan, while continuing their insurgency against government forces and keeping their promise not to attack U.S. and NATO troops.
IS has also claimed responsibility for last week’s rocket attacks targeting the major U.S. base in Afghanistan. There were no casualties.
One by one, the flags belonging to a patchwork of armed forces were lowered in a northern Iraqi town once brutalized by the Islamic State group. The territorial claims symbolized by each were replaced by the fluttering of just one: The Iraqi state’s.
The hoisting of the national flag in Sinjar, home to Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, is the result of a deal months in the making for the federal government to restore order from a tangled web of paramilitaries, who sowed chaos in the district during the bedlam following liberation from IS three years ago, reports AP.
This month, Iraq’s army deployed there for the first time since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.
Lt. Imad Hasan hiked up a rocky ascent overlooking the deserted ruins of Sinjar’s old town, vacant since IS was dislodged. His gaze fell on a lookout on the other side of the mountain — the last, he said, that belongs to a local affiliate of an outlawed Kurdish guerrilla group, known as the PKK.
“We have problems with them,” he said. “Their leaders have agreed to withdraw, but some of their fighters have not.”
Sealing the deal was hard enough. Implementing it brings new problems. Critics say it will take more than a change of flags to cement rule of law in Sinjar.
The Yazidis, traumatized by the mass killing and enslavement that IS unleashed against them, have no trust in the Iraqi authorities they say abandoned them to the militants’ brutality. With the central government weak, they fear militias — including Iranian-backed Shiite factions — will gain sway over them.
The militias policing Sinjar the past three years are a mix. They include peshmerga fighters from Iraq’s Kurdish autonomy zone, as well as the PKK and its affiliate made up of local Yazidi fighters, called the Sinjar Resistance Units or YBS. There are also Yazidi units belonging to the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of state-sanctioned paramilitaries created in 2014 to defeat IS.
There are signs of recovery of Sinjar. Its city center hummed with shoppers, merchants — and the odd Iraqi army tank. More of the 200,000 Yazidis displaced by the 2014 IS onslaught are coming back — some 21,600 returning between June to September, many times the rate of previous years.
But scratch the surface, and almost everyone harbors raw, unresolved trauma. Everyone vividly recalls the IS attack that murdered fathers and sons, enslaved thousands of women and sent survivors fleeing up Sinjar mountain.
In Sinjar’s market, a farmer, Zaidan Khalaf, introduced himself first by telling The Associated Press how many relatives he lost under IS: 18. Others in the market did the same.
“We lost our dignity,” he said.
Communities remain deeply divided and bitterly resentful of one another.
“What agreement?” scoffed Farzo Mato Sabo, an 86-year-old in the predominantly Yazidi village of Tal Binat, south of Sinjar. She and her three daughters were taken by IS militants and later saved by smugglers. Eleven of her family members are still unaccounted for.
“I lost everyone,” she sobbed. “Will it bring them back?”
Neighboring Tal Binat is the Sunni Arab village of Khailo.
“We used to be like brothers, but now the Yazidis stay away from us,” said a tribal elder, Sheikh Naif Ibrahim. “They can’t distinguish between civilians and IS members.”
Many Yazidis accuse local Sunni Arabs of supporting IS. Since the militants’ fall, Sunni Arabs have had frictions with Yazidi militias — and a number of Sunnis have been killed. At the same time, many Yazidis reject the Kurdish peshmerga, who consider the Sinjar area part of their domain.
“Seven flags ruled over us, you never knew who had power over you which day,” said Khalaf, the farmer.
The U.N. has focused on the return of displaced Yazidis, but this is not the only criterion for success, said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at The Century Foundation. “It’s about services, schools, security and the ability to move around without being shaken down by various groups,” he said.
“This is a test for the effectiveness of post-war governance and post-war liberation,” he said. “Is the government prepared enough to allow the return to normalcy?”
The Iraqi military will secure the area for now, with other factions leaving their positions, although many remain in the Sinjar area. Under the plan, the Kurdish authority is to appoint a mayor — a prospect many Yazidis oppose — and local police are eventually to take over security, working under the government’s intelligence agency and National Security Adviser. The plan calls for 2,500 new security personnel to be hired locally.
Most Yazidi leaders and residents interviewed said they were irate the community was not consulted by the government in the making of the plan.
“We are the ones who sacrificed, lost our lives,” said Fahed Hamed, Sinjar’s district mayor. “We should have been the main interlocutors.”
“We want a force from our own. We don’t trust anyone.”
The force most trusted by locals is a faction the plan seeks to eject — the YBS, whose fighters are largely Sinjar Yazidis. While other forces retreated from the IS onslaught in 2014, many recall it was the YBS that fought to secure a safe route for civilians.
“They were the only ones who stayed to protect us,” said Sherko Khalaf, a Yazidi village mukhtar.
Despite protests by locals, negotiations led to the withdrawal of YBS from Sinjar’s city center.
YBS fighters interviewed said they expected to be subsumed as a unit of the Popular Mobilization Forces, providing them with much-needed political legitimacy. A portion of the 2,500-3,500 YBS fighters are already on the PMF payroll.
In theory, the plan calls for the PMF to end its presence in the city as well. To date, they are supporting forces and securing Sinjar’s peripheries. But Khal Ali, the commander of the Lalish Brigades, a Yazidi unit of the group, told the AP, “The (PMF) will stay forever, we are kings over the heads of the security forces in Sinjar.”
That prospect has divided Yazidis. Some want Yazidi PMF factions included in the security arrangement. Others fear it will bring Sinjar under the influence of the Shiite Arab factions close to Iran that dominate the umbrella group.
“If the international community and central government don’t care about Sinjar, the PMF will take control,” one prominent Yazidi leader said, requesting anonymity to speak freely. “This is clear.”
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