Afghanistan, Aug 21 (AP/UNB) — The United States envoy negotiating with the Taliban for an end to nearly 18 years of fighting in Afghanistan was departing Tuesday for Qatar to resume talks, the State Department said, amid concerns about a growing threat by an Islamic State affiliate.
Zalmay Khalilzad also will visit with the Afghan government, which has been sidelined from the talks, to discuss the "peace process and encourage full preparation for intra-Afghan negotiations," the U.S. said.
In Washington, President Donald Trump told reporters he believes the Taliban insurgents are eager to stop fighting and that they could "very easily" prevent Afghanistan from being a breeding ground for terrorism. The U.S. will, nonetheless, keep a close eye on Taliban influence, he said, even as it thins its troop presence.
"That's what we have to watch. And we'll always have intelligence, and we'll always have somebody there," Trump said.
The new talks in Qatar, where the insurgent group has a political office, come after a horrific suicide bombing at a wedding in Kabul over the weekend. The blast, claimed by the IS affiliate that has emerged as a brutal threat in recent years, led outraged Afghans to question whether a U.S.-Taliban deal would mean peace for long-suffering civilians.
Afghanistan was the world's deadliest conflict in 2018, and the United Nations has said more civilians died last year than in the past decade. Afghan officials have said Saturday's bombing killed more than 63. Over 32,000 civilians have been killed in the past 10 years.
The Pentagon's special inspector general for Afghanistan, meanwhile, reported Tuesday that the conflict remains largely a stalemate, with the Taliban unable to expand their territorial holdings and the Afghan government forces unable to reclaim lost land.
"The available measures of security indicated little change in the violence during the quarter," a report said, referring to the April-June period.
Some 14,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, and their withdrawal is a central part of the U.S.-Taliban talks. Some analysts have warned, however, that Trump's eagerness to bring at least some troops home ahead of next year's election could weaken the U.S. stance in the negotiations as the Taliban might see little need to make significant concessions.
The U.S., for its part, seeks Taliban guarantees that Afghanistan, which hosted al-Qaida and its leader Osama bin Laden before the 9/11 attacks, will not be used as a launch pad for global terror assaults.
Both Khalilzad and the Taliban earlier this month signaled they appeared close to an agreement, and Trump was briefed on the talks with his national security team on Friday.
Intra-Afghan talks on the country's political future are expected to follow an agreement, though the Taliban has refused so far to negotiate with the Afghan government, dismissing it as a U.S. puppet. The insurgent group now controls roughly half of Afghanistan and is at its strongest since its 2001 defeat by a U.S.-led invasion.
Khalilzad has expressed interest in a deal by Sept. 1, less than a month before Afghanistan's presidential election. The uncertainty around the talks has led many Afghans, including some candidates, to question whether the vote will occur.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, stung at being left out of the talks, has insisted the election is needed to give the government a strong mandate to deal with the Taliban.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, hundreds of people gathered in mosques in Kabul for memorials for scores of people killed in the weekend bombing. Even in mourning, fears of a follow-up attack were high as armed community self-defense forces stood on guard.
Some mourners criticized the Afghan government.
"They should apologize to the people for not bringing security" to the country, said Zia Mohammad, a relative of one victim. He called on Ghani to resign.
The Associated Press has learned of additional deaths in the attack that were not included in the toll announced by Afghan officials, but officials on Tuesday would not comment.
"One of the wounded victims just died whom we hoped would survive and we are getting ready for his funeral," relative Hassan Mohammadi said. "Now we just hope that the rest of the wounded victims will get well soon."
Nearly 200 people were wounded in the blast, Afghan officials have said.
Afghanistan's minority Shiite Hazara community, targeted in the bombing, feels especially vulnerable. The IS affiliate which emerged in Afghanistan in 2014 has launched several large-scale attacks on minority Shiites, who it views as apostates deserving of death.
New York, Aug 21 (AP/UNB) — The toy maker said Tuesday that all its packaging for new products will be mostly plastic free by the end of 2022. It plans to stop using plastic bags, elastic bands and the shrink wrap that's usually found around Monopoly, Scrabble and other board games.
But Hasbro's toys, such as Mr. Potato Head, will still be made with plastic. The company said it is testing materials to replace it, but said it's challenging to find an alternative that's still safe for kids and keeps toys looking the same as the plastic ones. Hasbro, however, said it has a program that allows people to ship in their GI Joes or My Little Pony figurines to be recycled.
Plastic is a menace to the environment. Much of it ends up in landfills and doesn't disintegrate, breaking down into tiny pieces that can harm birds and other animals if eaten. Some cities and states have banned plastic bags and several companies have made their own changes to reduce plastic waste. Starbucks, for example, plans to get rid of plastic straws. And toy maker Lego is looking to find an alternative to plastic for its colorful bricks.
Hasbro, which is based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, said it will begin cutting down on plastic packaging next year.
Rome, Aug 21 (AP/UNB) — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday amid the collapse of the 14-month-old populist government, raising the possibility of new elections in the fall that could bring to power the anti-migrant interior minister who engineered Conte's downfall.
Addressing the Senate, Conte blasted Matteo Salvini for setting in motion a "dizzying spiral of political and financial instability" by essentially pulling the plug on the government. Salvini's right-wing League party sought a no-confidence vote against Conte earlier this month, a stunningly bold move for the government's junior coalition partner.
Conte blamed Salvini for sacrificing the government's survival in favor of his eagerness to become premier himself.
A lawyer with no political experience who was tapped to break a postelection stalemate last year, Conte struggled to hold together his often ideologically opposed coalition's forces — Salvini's right-wing League and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement. He handed his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella at the presidential palace Tuesday night.
Mattarella, who is head of state, asked Conte and the rest of the government to stay on in a caretaker role. The president could test if there's enough support for a new government. Failing that, he might try to build a consensus to back a "neutral" figure to head a government whose main goal would be to lead the country through year's end, enough time to make painful budget cuts to meet European Union parameters.
If no other path is feasible, Mattarella would have to dissolve Parliament. Elections could then be held as soon as late October — 3 ½ years ahead of schedule.
Salvini, who sat next to Conte during his speech, smirking at times, declared, "I'd do it all again." He repeatedly kissed a rosary he slipped out of his pocket right after Conte rebuked him for associating "political slogans with religious symbols."
Pressing for elections as soon as possible, Salvini said: "I don't fear Italians' judgment."
Salvini's party is soaring in opinion polls and triumphed in European Parliament elections in May. He's intent on capitalizing on this popularity with national elections.
His crackdown on migrants, whom the party's voter base largely blames for crime, appears to be a huge factor in Salvini's climbing popularity. The interior minister has adopted especially harsh measures against private rescue boats, which he contends essentially facilitate human trafficking of migrants across the Mediterranean from smugglers' bases in Libya to European shores.
Salvini insists that citizens are also behind his call for less influence by the European Union on everyday Italian life. Supporters at his rallies cheer his "Italians first" policies.
Should any early elections sweep Salvini into power, financial markets could be rattled by his Euro-skepticism.
Depicting himself in counterpoint to Salvini's often-derogatory depiction of European Union rules, Conte said he had "tried in these 14 months to guide Italy's policy along the path of a critical pro-Europe line, but always oriented constructively."
Analysts will be focused on prospects that any Salvini-led government could further fray Italy's relation with Brussels.
A League-led government would have a "stronger Euro-skeptic stand — fighting with Brussels on everything that is politically salient in Italy," Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of London-based Teneo analyst firm, told The Associated Press.
The outgoing government enacted some populist measures, including the 5-Star Movement's guaranteed minimum income to the jobless. Whoever holds the helm of government this fall, will have to slash spending, likely displeasing constituencies. Failure to do so would trigger another highly unpopular measure — an automatic increase of the sales tax.
Salvini is already campaigning for a slashed income tax, raising concerns about where a League-led government would find the money to deliver on that promise.
While lawmakers argued, hundreds of kilometers (miles) to the south, the latest migrant standoff played out near a tiny Italian island. For weeks, more than 100 migrants had been stuck aboard a Spanish rescue ship and not allowed by Salvini to disembark at Lampedusa as part of his crusade against humanitarian rescue groups.
But hours after Conte resigned, the migrants finally set foot on Lampedusa. The Italian news agency ANSA said a Sicilian prosecutor ordered the seizure of the Open Arms rescue vessel and the migrants' evacuation. Prosecutors are investigating the humanitarian group's complaint against Salvini for alleged kidnapping for refusing to open the ports.
Former Premier Matteo Renzi, a leader of the Democrats, Parliament's largest opposition party, seized on Salvini's rosary display to blast the migrant crackdown.
"Minister Salvini, I respect your religious faith," Renzi said, launching into a barb that played off their common first name, Matteo. "But if you believe in Chapter 25 of the Gospel, naturally by Matthew, 'I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was naked and you dressed me,'" if you have these values, unblock those persons held hostage by your policies."
Salvini has taken to dangling a rosary and invoking the protection of the Virgin Mary in political rallies around the country.
Cairo, Aug 19 (AP/UNB) — A Sudanese health official says flooding triggered by heavy rains has killed at least 46 people in the past two months and destroyed thousands of houses across the country.
Acting deputy health minister Suliman Abdel-Gabar also said Sunday that around 100 people have been injured since June 14.
The rainfall has affected 16 of Sudan's 18 provinces and inundated at least 14,500 houses, about two-thirds of which totally collapsed, Abdel-Gabar said.
An estimated 16,000 families were impacted, and more than 3,100 cattle died as large swathes of agricultural land flooded, he added.
Recent images online show waters cutting off roads and sweeping away structures and objects, particularly on the southern outskirts of the capital of Khartoum.
Military troops have been deployed to help.
Dhaka, Aug 19 (UNB) - Marking the 10th anniversary of World Humanitarian Day on Monday, the United Nations is honouring the contributions of tens of thousands of women humanitarian aid workers who provide life-saving support to millions of people caught in crises in some of the world’s most dangerous places.
“This year, we pay special tribute to women humanitarians and the huge difference they make for millions of women, men and children in urgent need,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video message.
He said from supporting civilians caught up in crisis to addressing disease outbreaks, women humanitarians are on the front lines, according to UN office in Dhaka.
"Their presence makes aid operations more effective by increasing their reach,” he said, calling on world leaders and parties to conflict everywhere to live up to their legal obligations to protect all humanitarians from harm.
Across the globe, 250,000 aid workers are women – a figure that amounts to more than 40 per cent of the humanitarian workforce. But aid work is becoming increasingly dangerous.
Since August 2003, more than 4,500 aid workers of all genders have been killed, injured, detained, assaulted or kidnapped while carrying out their work.
That equates to five attacks per week on average. Women humanitarians are at particularly high risk of robbery, sexual assault and other violence.
This World Humanitarian Day, the UN and partners are launching the #Women Humanitarians global campaign to pay special tribute to and raise support for the work women do to save lives and alleviate human suffering.
The campaign tells the stories of 24 women over 24 hours to show the range and diversity of their roles in humanitarian action.
They include a driver in the Central African Republic who brings food to people in need; an international model who has established a school for girls in
her native Democratic Republic of the Congo; a midwife in Liberia who has cared for mothers and babies for three decades and has more than 800 girls named after her; and a woman who provides legal advice to refugee women and children from Somalia.
Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said this World Humanitarian Day, they showcase the commitment and drive of some truly amazing women in the humanitarian community.
"The dedication of these women to help the world’s most vulnerable people is admirable, particularly those women who are often the first to respond in their communities when faced with a crisis,” he said.