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Exclusive-U.S. hopes to soon relocate Afghan pilots who fled to Tajikistan, official says

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October 22, 2021

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States hopes to soon relocate around 150 U.S.-trained Afghan Air Force pilots and other personnel detained in Tajikistan for more than two months after they flew there at the end of the Afghan war, a U.S. official said.

The State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to offer a timeline for the transfer but said the United States wanted to move all of those held at the same time. The details of the U.S. plan have not been previously reported.

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Reuters exclusively reported first-person accounts from 143 U.S.-trained Afghan personnel being held at a sanatorium in a mountainous, rural area outside of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, waiting for a U.S. flight out to a third country and eventual U.S. resettlement.

Speaking on smuggled cell phones kept hidden from guards, they say they have had their phones and identity documents confiscated.

There are also 13 Afghan personnel in Dushanbe, enjoying much more relaxed conditions, who told Reuters they are also awaiting a U.S. transfer. They flew into the country separately.

The Afghan personnel in Tajikistan represent the last major group of U.S.-trained pilots still believed to be in limbo after dozens of advanced military aircraft were flown across the Afghan border to Tajikistan and to Uzbekistan in August during the final moments of the war with the Taliban.

In September, a U.S.-brokered deal allowed a larger group of Afghan pilots and other military personnel to be flown out of Uzbekistan to the United Arab Emirates.

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Two detained Afghan pilots in Tajikistan said their hopes were lifted in recent days after visits by officials from the U.S. embassy in Dushanbe.

Although they said they had not yet been given a date for their departure, the pilots said U.S. officials obtained the biometric data needed to complete the process of identifying the Afghans. That was the last step before departure for the Afghan pilots in Uzbekistan.

PREGNANT AFGHAN PILOT

U.S. lawmakers and military veterans who have advocated for the pilots have expressed deep frustration over the time it has taken for President Joe Biden’s administration to evacuate Afghan personnel.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was pressed on the matter in Congress last month, expressing concern at a hearing for the pilots and other personnel.

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Reuters had previously reported U.S. difficulties gaining Tajik access to all of the Afghans, which include an Afghan Air Force pilot who is eight months pregnant.

In an interview with Reuters, the 29-year-old pilot had voiced her concerns to Reuters about the risks to her and her child at the remote sanatorium. She was subsequently moved to a maternity hospital.

“We are like prisoners here. Not even like refugees, not even like immigrants. We have no legal documents or way to buy something for ourselves,” she said.

The pregnant pilot would be included in the relocation from Tajikistan, the U.S. State Department official said.

Even before the Taliban’s takeover, the U.S.-trained, English-speaking pilots had become prime targets of the Taliban because of the damage they inflicted during the war. The Taliban tracked down the pilots and assassinated them off-base.

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Afghanistan’s new rulers have said they will invite former military personnel to join the revamped security forces and that they will come to no harm.

Afghan pilots who spoke with Reuters say they believe they will be killed if they return to Afghanistan.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Grant McCool)

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Pope says willing to go to Moscow to meet Orthodox Patriarch

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December 6, 2021

By Philip Pullella

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (Reuters) – Pope Francis said on Monday he was willing to go to Moscow for to meet Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill “brother to brother” in what would be the first trip by a pope to Russia.

The pair’s meeting in Cuba in 2016 was the first by a pope and a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church since the great schism that split Christianity into Eastern and Western branches in 1054.

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Both sides have declared a willingness to work towards unity but they are still far apart theologically and over what role the pope would play in an eventually reunited Church.

“We are brothers and we talk straight to each other. We do not dance the minuet,” Francis told reporters aboard his plane returning from a trip to Cyprus and Greece.

“We have to move forward, walking and working towards unity.”

He said he was willing to go Moscow and that a top Russian Orthodox official was expected in Rome next week to decide the time and location of the meeting.

Francis said working out the protocols would be less important than meeting “brother to brother” with Kirill.

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The Pope normally travels to countries with a joint invitation from its religious authorities as well as one from the government, meaning that Francis would most likely need an invitation from President Vladimir Putin to visit Russia.

The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest in Christian Orthodoxy, with about 100 million members, is closely aligned with the Kremlin.

Francis said the meeting with Kirill was “on the not too distant horizon”.

He said Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, who is responsible for the Russian Orthodox Church’s external relations, would be coming to the Vatican to meet him to discuss where and when the next meeting can take place.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alison Williams)

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Yemen Houthis bury their dead as Marib fighting rages

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December 6, 2021

By Adel Al-Khader

SANAA (Reuters) – Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis held military funerals on Monday for 25 fighters killed in battles with a Saudi-led coalition, as fighting shows no sign of abating despite intense international diplomacy to end the seven-year-old conflict.

The funerals took place as fighting has raged in the gas-rich Marib region, while warplanes from the coalition have intensified their bombing of Sanaa, Marib and other areas.

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The Houthis have also stepped up cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia using armed drones and missiles.

An honour guard carried the coffins – draped with flags, flowers and photographs of the dead – with military music through the capital Sanaa. Relatives gathered to mourn their loved ones.

“We are in these days inspired by these martyrs’ pride and dignity and say to them: ‘congratulations! You have preceded us to a paradise as wide as the heavens and earth’,” said Ali Muhyaddin, a relative of one of the dead.

The war in Yemen has killed tens of thousands and caused what the United Nations describes as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

U.N.-led efforts to agree a ceasefire have stalled in the conflict, which is seen largely as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthis say they are fighting a corrupt system and foreign invasion.

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Houthi media showed fighters exchanging heavy artillery fire with coalition forces in Marib on Sunday as warplanes flew overhead. All the 25 fighters buried in Sanaa were killed in Marib, Houthi officials said.

The Houthis have launched a year-long offensive to take Marib, which hosts Yemen’s biggest gas fields. The city is the last stronghold of the internationally recognised government.

Marib is home to 3 million people, including nearly 1 million who fled other parts of Yemen after the Houthis ousted the government from the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014, prompting the Saudi-led coalition to intervene.

The number of displaced people in camps in the province has risen nearly 10-fold since September, with more than 45,000 people fleeing their homes as Houthi forces press the offensive, the U.N. migration agency IOM said last month.

(Writing by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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Putin and Modi discuss trade, humanitarian situation in Afghanistan

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December 6, 2021

By Alasdair Pal and Neha Arora

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Russian President Vladimir Putin in New Delhi on Monday, with trade and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan both on the agenda.

Afghanistan’s takeover by the Taliban earlier this year has led to a humanitarian crisis in the country, which New Delhi and Moscow have both previously said risks destabilising the region.

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“The fight against terrorism is also a fight against drug trafficking and organised crime,” Putin said in introductory remarks broadcast by Indian media. “In that regard, we are concerned about developments of the situation in Afghanistan.”

The visit by Putin and several top Russian officials comes amid increasingly strained relations between Russia and the United States, also a key Indian ally.

Earlier on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a deal to supply India with S-400 air defence missile systems was being implemented despite what he said were U.S. efforts to undermine the accord.

India and Russia are expected to cement several trade and defence pacts at the summit.

“The relation between India and Russia is truly a unique and reliable model,” Modi said.

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(Reporting by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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