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Exclusive: Detained Afghan pilots preparing to fly out of Tajikistan on U.S.-brokered flight

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November 9, 2021

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – More than 150 U.S.-trained Afghan pilots and other personnel, held in neighboring Tajikistan for nearly three months since escaping with their planes as the Taliban seized their country, were preparing to depart on Tuesday on a flight arranged by the U.S. government, two of the pilots and others close to them said.

The Afghans had spent a full day waiting at the airport in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, for a flight that appeared to have been delayed. They were hoping it would not be canceled and they would depart before the end of the day.

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“We hope to go out soon,” one of the Afghans told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. embassy in Dushanbe could not be immediately reached for comment.

The plight of the Afghan pilots — including one who is at a very advanced stage of her pregnancy — became a focus of U.S. lawmakers and military veterans, who grew frustrated by what they believed was a sluggish U.S. relocation effort.

They arrived in Tajikistan with advanced military aircraft at the end of the war, were detained by Tajik authorities and have been awaiting a U.S. relocation ever since — hoping to move to a third country for eventual U.S. resettlement.

Reuters exclusively detailed first hand accounts from the pregnant pilot and other members of the group about their frustrations with their detention, and was first to report U.S. plans to relocate them.

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Afghan Air Force personnel flew dozens of advanced military aircraft to Tajikistan and to Uzbekistan in August as the Taliban swept to power.

The Afghan personnel in Tajikistan represent the last major group of U.S.-trained pilots who fled abroad and are still known to be in limbo.

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.

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.

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

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a congressional hearing in September he was concerned about the pilots in Tajikistan and would work with the State Department to “see if we can move this forward”.

But the process of relocating the Afghans from Tajikistan proved to be more time consuming and complex than the similar effort in Uzbekistan.

A U.S. official told Reuters that the United States faced difficulty securing Tajik authorization to access the pilots.

Most of the Afghan pilots and other personnel were held at a sanatorium in Tajikistan. Those in that group who communicated with Reuters did so on cell phones kept hidden from guards and said the Tajik authorities took away their identity documents.

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In an interview with Reuters, the pregnant pilot, who is 29, had voiced her concerns to Reuters about risks to her and her child at the remote sanatorium. She was subsequently moved to a maternity hospital before being transferred back to the sanatorium ahead of her departure.

“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 last month.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Peter Graff)

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Russian court remands mine director, inspectors in custody after deadly accident

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November 27, 2021

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A court in Siberia on Saturday remanded five people in custody for two months to face charges related to a mining accident that killed more than 50 people this week.

Three managers of the Listvyazhnaya mine, including its director, were ordered to remain in custody until late January for flouting industrial safety standards, a spokesperson for the regional prosecutor’s office said.

The court also ordered two safety inspectors, who had issued a certificate for the mine this month but had not actually checked the facility, to remain in custody until late January.

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The accident, which regional authorities say was likely caused by a methane explosion, claimed the lives of 51 people, including five rescuers who were sent to bring out dozens of men stuck deep underground.

The health ministry said on Saturday that 60 people were being treated in hospital for injuries sustained at the mine, TASS news agency reported.

The accident at the mine, located some 3,500 km (2,200 miles) east of Moscow in the Kemerovo region, was Russia’s worst since 2010 when explosions killed 91 people at the Raspadskaya mine in the same region.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Christina Fincher)

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Russia spy chief says Ukraine invasion plan ‘malicious’ U.S. propaganda

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November 27, 2021

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has no plans to invade Ukraine and suggestions to the contrary are malicious U.S. propaganda, Moscow’s foreign intelligence chief said on Saturday.

U.S., NATO and Ukrainian officials have raised the alarm in recent weeks over what they say are unusual Russian troop movements near the border with Ukraine, suggesting that Moscow may be poised to launch an attack.

Russia has repeatedly said it is free to move its troops on its own territory and that such movements should not be a cause for concern.

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“I need to reassure everyone. Nothing like this is going to happen,” Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, said in an interview broadcast on state television, referring to comments on Russia’s alleged invasion plans.

“Everything that is happening around this topic right now is of course malicious propaganda by the U.S. State Department.”

Naryshkin spoke a day after the State Department’s top U.S. diplomat for European affairs said all options were on the table in how to respond to Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine’s border and that NATO would decide on the next move after consultations next week.

While U.S. officials have voiced concerns about a possible Russian attack on Ukraine, Moscow has accused Washington, Kyiv and NATO of provocative and irresponsible behaviour near its borders.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Spanish police march in Madrid to protest against ‘Gag Law’ reform

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November 27, 2021

By Miguel Gutierrez and Marco Trujillo

MADRID (Reuters) – Thousands of Spanish police officers marched through Madrid on Saturday to protest against a proposed reform of a security law which they say will hamper their ability to do their work.

Politicians from Spain’s three main conservative parties joined police officers in the protest against proposed changes to the 2015 Citizens Security Law, which critics say violates the right to protest and limits free expression.

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Dubbed the “Gag Law” by those who oppose it, the legislation allows authorities to fine media organisations for distributing unauthorised images of police, strictly limits demonstrations and imposes heavy fines for offenders.

Spain’s leftist government has proposed reforms including no longer classifying the taking of photographs or making of recordings of police at demonstrations as a serious offence.

Under the changes, police will also have to use less harmful materials at protests after a number of people were seriously injured by rubber bullets fired by officers.

The time that suspects who are arrested at protests can be held in custody will be cut from six hours to two and fines will be proportional to how much offenders earn.

“They should either leave the current law as it is or make it better for the police and for the citizens,” Civil Guard officer Vanessa Gonzalez told Reuters.

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Ivan Espinosa de los Monteros, of the far-right Vox party, said: “There is strong opposition against (the reform) of this law. It is against our police and we will not let it happen.”

However, Isa Serra, spokeswoman for the far-left Unidas Podemos party, said at a rally in Cantabria in northern Spain that the law had done a “lot of damage to Spanish democracy”.

Organisers said 150,000 people took part in the Madrid demonstration but the government put the figure at 20,000.

(Reporting by Graham Keeley, Miguel Gutierrez and Marco Trujillo; Editing by Alexander Smith)

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