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Islamic State violence dents Taliban claims of safer Afghanistan

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November 9, 2021

By James Mackenzie

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Last month, the family of Mawlavi Ezzatullah, a member of Afghanistan’s Hizb-e Islami party, received a WhatsApp message from his phone: “We have slaughtered your Mawlavi Ezzat, come and collect his body.”

Ezzatullah’s killing, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, was one of a steady stream of assassinations and bombings that have undermined Taliban claims that they have brought greater security to Afghanistan after 40 years of war.

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Victims have ranged from former security officials from the ousted government to journalists, civil society activists, mullahs, Taliban fighters and apparently random targets like Ezzatullah, whose family said he had no enemies they knew of.

The Taliban have said their victory has brought stability to Afghanistan, where thousands of people were killed in fighting between the group and Western-backed forces between 2001 and 2021 before the hardline Islamists emerged victorious.

But on just one day last week, pictures from Jalalabad – the provincial capital of Nangarhar – appeared online showing two bodies swinging from a rope. Residents also reported a mullah’s murder and video footage was circulated of a group of gunmen firing into a car, apparently killing its occupants, one of whom was identified by local journalists as a Taliban official.

Reuters was unable to verify the images and footage independently.

On Sunday, according to locals, three bodies were brought into a hospital in Jalalabad after a roadside bomb explosion that apparently targeted Taliban fighters in a pickup truck.

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Later that day, gunmen shot a former Afghan army soldier in front of his house, killing him and two friends standing nearby.

The Taliban have downplayed such incidents, saying that after decades of war, it will take time for the country to be completely pacified.

“There are 34 provinces in the country and in a week, 20 cases will be prevented for every one that takes place,” said spokesman Bilal Karimi. “We have had 20 years of revolution and invasion and the level of these incidents will go down.”

Some former soldiers and intelligence officers from the ousted government blame members of the Taliban for targeting them since taking over. The group has promised there would be no reprisals, but accepts rogue fighters may have acted alone.

Many targeted killings remain unclaimed and some may be the result of local vendettas.

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But others look the result of increasingly open conflict between the Taliban and a local affiliate of Islamic State, a development which the new U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan, Tom West, said on Monday was causing concern https://www.reuters.com/world/us-says-worried-about-increase-attacks-by-isis-k-afghanistan-2021-11-08 in Washington.

The militant jihadi group has claimed some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan in recent months in which hundreds of people have been killed, mainly in big cities.

“They are trying to undermine and discredit the Taliban Emirate. The Emirate promised security and they’re trying to show they can’t deliver it,” said Antonio Giustozzi, a specialist in jihadi groups from the Royal United Services Institute in London.

He said Islamic State, which he estimated to have around 4,000 fighters, had been carrying out a campaign of targeted killings since around the summer of 2020 and had continued since the Taliban victory in August on a “roughly comparable scale”.

‘BIDEN HIRELINGS’

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For many going about their business, the violence feels particularly menacing.

“I have never been as terrified as I am now,” said a university professor in Nangarhar who has also worked as a journalist and who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted. He described events in Nangarhar as “total chaos.”

The violence has fuelled fears that Afghanistan could collapse into anarchy and even return to a new phase of civil war, creating a haven for militant groups to launch attacks in neighbouring countries and the West.

“This is the scenario that has everyone worried,” said one Western official with long experience of the region.

Islamic State, which first appeared in Afghanistan in late 2014 and adopted the title Islamic State Khorasan after an ancient name for the region, has been trying to recover from a bruising series of defeats in 2018 and 2019.

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The group has claimed a series of strikes against Shi’ite mosques and other targets since the Taliban’s victory in August, most recently on the main military hospital in Kabul which killed at least 25 people.

Less commonly reported are frequent, smaller atrocities which have been taking place not only in Nangarhar, long a stronghold of Islamic State.

Areas affected include Ghazni in central Afghanistan, Herat in the west, Balkh in the north, and Paktia, Paktika and Khost in the southeast.

“The Taliban militia are lost in panic, they do not know how to conceal their shame,” an Islamic State video posted on the group’s Telegram channel on Sunday said, accusing the Taliban of being “Biden hirelings”.

As an insurgency the Taliban proved an effective and cohesive fighting force. Keeping the peace in a country in crisis presents fresh challenges, including uniting different factions, values and norms within the movement.

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Giustozzi, who wrote a book on Islamic State in Afghanistan, said the group, which had retreated into remote strongholds in the east and northeast of the country, was trying to hit the Taliban while the group is still grappling with the transition from insurgency to government.

“They know that if they allow the Taliban Emirate to consolidate, next spring the Taliban will move to destroy them,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Islamabad newsroom; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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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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