Kabul, Jan 22 (AP/UNB) — Afghanistan was reeling on Tuesday from a brazen Taliban assault on a military base in the country's east the previous day that killed at least 45 people and wounded as many as 70, most of them military personnel, according to provincial officials.
There were fears, however, that the death toll from the daytime assault on the base, which also serves as a training center for a pro-government militia and is run by the country's intelligence service, was even higher.
The attack began when a suicide bomber first drove a Humvee into the base in eastern Maidan Wardak province and detonated his load as he rammed the vehicle into the main building there, according to Khawanin Sultani, a council member.
The building collapsed from the explosion, which likely contributed to the high casualty numbers.
The Taliban, who promptly claimed responsibility in a statement to the media just hours after the attack, later said in a separate statement that they had met again on Monday with U.S. representatives to discuss "ending the invasion of Afghanistan" in talks that would continue on Tuesday. They are meeting in Qatar, where the Taliban have a political office.
The simultaneousness of the events — the deadly attack, one of the worst Taliban assaults on Afghan forces in recent years — and the Qatar meeting that was meant to pave way for peace talks aimed at resolving Afghanistan's 17-year war underscored the audacity of the insurgents in the face of stepped-up U.S. peace efforts.
The Taliban, who now hold sway in almost half of Afghanistan, carry out attacks on a daily basis, mainly targeting the country's beleaguered security forces.
The base that was hit is located on the outskirts of Maidan Shar, the provincial capital, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Kabul. Sultani said that after the Taliban bombing, four other attackers engaged in a shootout with Afghan troops and that all the attackers were killed.
"The main building inside the base collapsed and most of the bodies were under the destroyed building," he said.
A provincial security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, told the AP that he personally counted as many as 75 dead bodies at the base.
Dozens of ambulances took the wounded to the main provincial hospital as well as to Kabul for further treatment, he said, adding that there were fears the death toll would keep rising. The blast was so strong that even on distant houses seen from the base the windows of the civilian homes were shattered, he said.
There were no official statements from the government in Kabul and it was not known how many of the dead were members of the militia in training and how many were military and intelligence officers and instructors.
The Taliban statement on Monday said they had met with U.S. representatives to discuss "ending the invasion of Afghanistan" in talks that would continue on Tuesday in Qatar.
Last week, the Taliban threatened to walk away from the talks, accusing Washington of seeking to "expand the agenda" — presumably a reference to American demands that the insurgents hold direct talks with the Kabul government.
The Taliban view the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet and have long insisted they will only negotiate directly with Washington.
Hong Kong, Jan 22 (Xinhua/UNB) -- An earthquake measuring 6.4 magnitude jolted 85km SSW of Bogorawatu, Indonesia on Tuesday, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
The epicenter, with a depth of 27.01 km, was initially determined to be at 10.4663 degrees south latitude and 119.0309 degrees east longitude.
Toronto, Jan 22 (AP/UNB) — More than 100 academics and former diplomats are calling on China to release two Canadians who have been detained in apparent retaliation for the arrest of a top Chinese tech executive in Canada.
The letter by a wide array of China experts from around the world is addressed to Chinese President Xi Jinping. It says the arrests of the two Canadians sends a worrisome signal to those who work in policy and research in China.
China detained former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor on Dec. 10 in an apparent attempt to pressure Canada to release Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested Dec. 1 at the request of U.S. authorities.
Meng is the chief financial officer of the Chinese tech giant Huawei and the daughter of its founder. The U.S. wants her extradited to face charges that she committed fraud by misleading banks about Huawei's business dealings in Iran.
The letter, released Monday, notes Kovrig is a former diplomat who was working as an expert on Asia for the International Crisis Group think tank. It notes that Spavor devoted his time to building relationships between North Korea and China, Canada and United States.
It praises Kovrig and Spavor as bridge-builders between China and the world and said their arrests make writers "more cautious" about travelling to China.
"Meetings and exchanges are the foundation of serious research and diplomacy around the world, including for Chinese scholars and diplomats," the letter says. "Kovrig and Spavor's detentions send a message that this kind of constructive work is unwelcome and even risky in China."
The letter said the arrests will lead to "less dialogue and greater distrust, and undermine efforts to manage disagreements and identify common ground. Both China and the rest of the world will be worse off as a result."
More than 20 diplomats from seven countries and more than 100 scholars and academics from 19 countries signed.
Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, signed the letter and noted it comes as Canada is working to rally international support for the case.
"It will be noticed in Beijing and I hope that it will make clear for them that the arrests of Kovrig and Spavor are not only a China-Canada problem but it's also having an impact on the image of and reputation of China," Saint-Jacques said. "It's an impressive list."
The signatories include former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and Chris Patten, former British governor of Hong Kong. Two former U.S. ambassadors to China, Gary Locke and Winston Lord, also signed.
David Mulroney, another former Canadian ambassador to China, said the letter is significant because it shows the international breadth of support for the two men.
"This isn't simply a Canada-China dispute," Mulroney said. "A lot of serious people, including many who have spent years working in China, are worried about how it is closing itself off, and punishing those who seek to understand and interpret it for others."
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he encourages friends and allies around the world to point out that all countries should stand up for the rule of law.
Marawi, Jan 22 (AP/UNB) — Muslims in the southern Philippines voted Monday in a referendum on a new autonomous region that seeks to end nearly half a century of unrest, in what their leaders are touting as the best alternative to a new wave of Islamic State group-inspired militants.
The vote caps a tumultuous peace effort by the government in Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main rebel group, to seal a deal that was signed in 2014 but languished in the Philippine Congress until it was finally approved last year. Bloodshed including the siege of Marawi city by IS-linked militants and other bombings and attacks in the south threatened to derail it.
Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, chairman of the Moro rebels, has repeatedly said that the creation of a viable Muslim autonomous region is the best antidote to about half a dozen smaller IS-linked radical groups that remain a threat in Mindanao, the homeland of minority Muslims in the largely Roman Catholic nation.
"We can roughly conclude that all these splinter groups are a result of the frustration with the peace process," Murad said in July, when President Rodrigo Duterte signed the legislation creating the new region, called Bangsamoro.
Under the deal, the rebels gave up their goal of an independent state in exchange for broad autonomy, although they originally wanted a federal unit with more powers. Their 30,000 to 40,000 fighters are to be demobilized. Murad has appealed to the international community to contribute to a trust fund to be used to finance the insurgents' transition from decades of waging one of Asia's longest rebellions.
People remaining in battle-scarred Marawi voted in schools set up as voting centers, and evacuees voted in Saguiaran, with some hoping peace would mean they could get their homes and lives back in the city where military troops stand guard at checkpoints and homes are filled with bullet holes.
"We believe that this plebiscite will be the key to peaceful life," said teacher Gehariariah Daroninbang, who was voting "yes" and said while the deal was not assured to be perfect, it was "near to perfect."
Centuries of conquest — first by Spanish and American colonial forces that had ruled the Philippine archipelago followed by Filipino Christian settlers — have gradually turned Muslims into a minority group in Mindanao, triggering conflict over land, resources and sharing of political power. Uprisings seeking self-rule have been brutally suppressed, feeding more resentment. Insecurity is fueled by proliferation of weapons and armed groups that have resorted to ransom kidnappings and extortion for survival, such as the brutal Abu Sayyaf, which is not part of any peace process.
Bangsamoro replaces an existing poverty-wracked autonomous region with a larger, better-funded and more powerful entity. An annual grant, estimated at $1.3 billion, is to be set aside to bolster development.
Western governments have welcomed the autonomy pact. They worry that small numbers of IS-linked militants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia could forge an alliance with Filipino insurgents and turn the south into a breeding ground for extremists.
In 2017, Philippine troops backed by U.S. and Australian surveillance aircraft routed the militants who occupied Marawi for five months in battles that left more than 1,200 people, mostly Islamic fighters, dead and the mosque-studded city in ruins. Overall, the conflict has left about 150,000 people dead over several decades and stunted development in the resource-rich but underdeveloped southern region that is the country's poorest.
The Commission on Elections said it has printed 2.1 million ballots for the plebiscite. Results are expected no later than Jan. 26. If the measure is approved, a second referendum on Feb. 6 will ask residents of Lanao del Norte province and seven towns in North Cotabato province with a sizeable Muslim population to decide whether they want to join the new region as well.
Possible pitfalls include petitions to the Supreme Court to strike down the autonomy deal.
Kabul, Jan 21 (AP/UNB) — A coordinated Taliban assault on a military base and police training center in eastern Afghanistan on Monday morning killed at least 12 and wounded over 30 people, provincial officials said.
Salem Asgherkhail, head of the area's public health department, said that most of those killed in the attack in Maidan Wardak province were military personnel. Some of the wounded were taken to provincial hospitals for treatment while the more serious cases were sent to the capital, Kabul.
Nasrat Rahimi, deputy spokesman for the interior minister, said a suicide car bomber struck the base first, followed by insurgents who opened fire at the Afghan forces. At least two Taliban fighters were killed by Afghan troops, he added.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement to the media.
The attack was the latest in near-daily assaults by the Taliban who now hold sway in almost half of Afghanistan. The violence comes despite stepped-up efforts by the United States to find a negotiated end to the country's 17-year war.