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Exclusive-Baby handed to U.S. soldiers in chaos of Afghanistan airlift still missing

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November 5, 2021

By Mica Rosenberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) -It was a split second decision. Mirza Ali Ahmadi and his wife Suraya found themselves and their five children on Aug. 19 in a chaotic crowd outside the gates of the Kabul airport in Afghanistan when a U.S. soldier, from over the tall fence, asked if they needed help.

Fearing their two-month old baby Sohail would get crushed in the melee, they handed him to the soldier, thinking they would soon get to the entrance, which was only about 16 feet (5 meters) away.

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But at that moment, Mirza Ali said, the Taliban – which had swiftly taken over the country as U.S. troops withdrew – began pushing back hundreds of hopeful evacuees. It took the rest of the family more than a half hour to get to the other side of the airport fence.

Once they were inside, Sohail was nowhere to be found.

Mirza Ali, who said he worked as a security guard at the U.S embassy for 10 years, began desperately asking every official he encountered about his baby’s whereabouts. He said a military commander told him the airport was too dangerous for a baby and that he might have been taken to a special area for children. But when they got there it was empty.

“He walked with me all around the airport to search everywhere,” Mirza Ali said in an interview through a translator. He said he never got the commander’s name, as he didn’t speak English and was relying on Afghan colleagues from the embassy to help communicate. Three days went by.

“I spoke to maybe more than 20 people,” he said. “Every officer – military or civilian – I came across I was asking about my baby.”

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He said one of the civilian officials he spoke to told him Sohail might have been evacuated by himself. “They said ‘we don’t have resources to keep the baby here.’”

Mirza Ali, 35, Suraya, 32, and their other children, 17, 9, 6 and 3 years old, were put on an evacuation flight to Qatar and then to Germany and eventually landed in the United States. The family is now at Fort Bliss in Texas with other Afghan refugees waiting to be resettled somewhere in the United States. They have no relatives here.

Mirza Ali said he saw other families handing their babies over the Kabul airport fence to soldiers at the same time. One video clip https://www.reuters.com/news/picture/the-only-way-out-scenes-from-the-kabul-a-idUSRTXFVLJR of a small baby in a diaper being hoisted by her arm over razor wire went viral on social media. She was later reunited with her parents.

Ever since his baby went missing dates are a blur, Mirza Ali said. Every person he comes across – aid workers, U.S. officials – he tells them about Sohail. “Everyone promises they will do their best, but they are just promises,” he said.

An Afghan refugee support group created a “Missing Baby” sign with Sohail’s picture on it and are circulating it among their networks in the hopes that someone will recognize him.

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A U.S. government official familiar with the situation said the case had been flagged for all the agencies involved, including the U.S. bases and overseas locations. The child was last seen being handed to a U.S. soldier during the chaos at the Kabul airport but “unfortunately no one can find the child,” the official said.

A Department of Defense spokesperson and a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is overseeing resettlement efforts, referred queries on the matter to the State Department, since the separation took place overseas.

A State Department spokesperson said the government is working with international partners and the international community “to explore every avenue to locate the child, which includes an international amber alert that was issued through the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”

Suraya, who also spoke through a translator, said she cries most of the time and that her other children are distraught.

“All I am doing is thinking about my child,” Suraya said. “Everyone that is calling me, my mother, my father, my sister, they all comfort me and say ‘don’t worry, God is kind, your son will be found.’”

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(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Jonathan Landay in Washington;Editing by Mary Milliken and Rosalba O’Brien)

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Blinken downbeat about nuclear talks as Iran floats proposals

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December 2, 2021

By Parisa Hafezi and Humeyra Pamuk

VIENNA/STOCKHOLM (Reuters) -The United States said on Thursday it had little cause for optimism about reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and would know in a day or so if Iran would negotiate in good faith as Tehran put forward fresh proposals.

“I think, in the very near future, the next day or so, we’ll be in a position to judge whether Iran actually intends now to engage in good faith,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Stockholm.

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“I have to tell you, recent moves, recent rhetoric, don’t give us a lot of cause for … optimism. But even though the hour is getting very late, it is not too late for Iran to reverse course and engage meaningfully,” he added.

Iran has provided European powers who are shuttling between U.S. and Iranian officials with drafts on sanctions removal and nuclear commitments, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator said on Thursday, as world powers and Tehran try to reinstate the pact.

The announcement came on the fourth day of indirect talks in Vienna between Iran and the United States on bringing both fully back into the deal, under which Iran limited its nuclear program in return for relief from U.S., European Union and U.N. economic sanctions.

The talks resumed on Monday after a five-month hiatus prompted by Iran’s election of an anti-Western hardliner as president.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog on Wednesday said Iran has started producing enriched uranium with advanced centrifuges at its Fordow plant dug into a mountain, further eroding the nuclear deal during talks with the West on saving it.

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“What Iran can’t do is sustain the status quo of building their nuclear program while dragging their feet on talks. That will not happen,” Blinken told reporters in Stockholm in a possible reference to that development.

It was unclear whether Blinken had been briefed on the latest proposals by the Iranians when he made his comments.

“We have delivered two proposed drafts to them … Of course they need to check the texts that we have provided to them. If they are ready to continue the talks, we are in Vienna to continue the talks,” Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani told reporters in the Austrian capital.

A European diplomat in Vienna confirmed draft documents had been handed over.

Under the pact, Tehran limited its uranium enrichment programme, a potential pathway to nuclear weapons though Iran says it seeks only civilian atomic energy, in exchange for relief from the economic sanctions.

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But in 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the deal, calling it too soft on Iran, and reimposed harsh U.S. sanctions, spurring Tehran to breach nuclear limits in the pact.

“We want all sanctions to be lifted at once,” Bagheri told reporters. He said an Iranian proposal regarding how to verify the removal of sanctions – Tehran’s overriding priority in the talks – would be handed over to the European parties later.

A senior European diplomat estimated on Tuesday that 70-80% of a draft deal on salvaging the 2015 accord was completed when Iran and world powers last met in June, though it remained unclear if Tehran would resume talks where they left off.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Vienna and Humeyra Pamuk in Stockholm; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Simon Lewis in Washington; Writing by Parisa Hafezi and Arshad Mohammed;Editing by Peter Graff, Mark Heinrich and Marguerita Choy)

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Jailed former paralympic athlete Pistorius moved closer to victim’s family

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December 2, 2021

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – Former South Africa paralympic superstar, Oscar Pistorius, jailed in 2016 for killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, has been moved closer to her family ahead of reconciliation talks that could help pave the way for his early release from prison.

Pistorius, known as “Blade Runner” for his carbon-fibre prosthetic legs, went from public hero to convicted murderer in a trial that drew worldwide interest. He becomes eligible for parole after serving half of his 13-year sentence.

Pistorius is set to speak to Steenkamp’s parents, June and Barry Steenkamp, in a process known as victim-offender dialogue – an integral part of South Africa’s restorative justice programme in its prison system that brings parties affected by a particular crime together in a bid to achieve closure.

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“They are participating in the process because they have committed themselves to being part of the victim-offender dialogue. They feel they have to do this for Reeva,” Tania Koen, lawyer for the Steenkamps, said of the family.

Pistorius’ lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

‘SENSITIVE PROCESS’

Gold medalist Pistorius, once the darling of the Paralympic movement for pushing for greater recognition and acceptance of disabled athletes, shot dead Steenkamp, a model and law student, in his bathroom in 2013.

Pistorius said he had believed she was an intruder but was jailed in 2016, initially for a six-year term. After an appeal by prosecutors who said this was too lenient the term was increased to 13 years.

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He has now been moved from a prison near Johannesburg to one on South Africa’s east coast, near where Steenkamp’s parents live.

Neither their lawyer Koen nor Singabakho Nxumalo, a spokesman for the department of correctional services, could provide Reuters with a timeline for the discussions.

“It is very sensitive process, highly emotional… and we do not force people to participate in it,” Nxumalo said.

“But we are saying at least it does lay a foundation where people can, if possible, forgive each other, find one another and then try to move forward in harmony,” he said.

(Reporting by Wendell Roelf and Siyabonga Sishi; editing by Gareth Jones)

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Omicron may soon cause over half of COVID infections in Europe -EU

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December 2, 2021

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union’s public health agency said on Thursday that the Omicron variant could be responsible for more than half of all COVID-19 infections in Europe within a few months.

The estimate could lend weight to preliminary information about the very high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, above that of the Delta variant, which before Omicron was considered the most contagious of the main coronavirus strains.

“Based on mathematical modelling conducted by ECDC, there are indications that Omicron could cause over half of all SARS-CoV-2 infections in the EU/EEA within the next few months,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said in a statement.

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There is no conclusive evidence about Omicron’s transmissibility so far but the World Health Organization’s lead person on COVID-19, Maria van Kerkhove, said on Wednesday the agency expected to have data on this within days.

Europe has so far recorded a few dozens of infections with the Omicron variant, which was first detected in southern Africa last month.

The European Union and European Economic Area (EEA) include the 27 EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

Earlier on Thursday, the French government’s top scientific adviser Jean-Francois Delfraissy said that Omicron could take Delta’s place already by the end of January.

(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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