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Afghan officials: Taliban take at least 100 people hostage

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Kabul  |  The Taliban ambushed a convoy of buses today on a road in northern Afghanistan and took more than 100 people hostage, including women and children, in the latest brazen assault by insurgents, provincial officials said.

The ambush came despite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s announcement of a conditional ceasefire with the Taliban during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha this week.

The fate of the abducted in Kunduz province in an area that has recently fallen under Taliban control was not immediately known and there was no statement from the insurgents.

The Taliban have resurged in recent years, seizing entire districts across Afghanistan and regularly carrying out large-scale bombings and attacks that have killed scores of people.

According to Mohammad Yusouf Ayubi, the head of the provincial council in Kunduz, the insurgents stopped three busses on the road near Khan Abad district and forced the passengers to come with them.

Ayubi said he believes the Taliban were looking for government employees or members of the security forces who usually go home for the holidays.

Abdul Rahman Aqtash, police chief in neighbouring Takhar province, said the passengers were from Badakhshan and Takhar provinces and were travelling to the capital, Kabul.

“So far, there is no news on the fate of the passengers, but tribal elders and local officials are trying to negotiate with the Taliban,” Ayubi added.

In his call yesterday for the truce, Ghani said, “The cease-fire should be observed from both sides, and its continuation and duration also depend on the Taliban’s stand.” Ghani made the announcement during celebrations of the 99th anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence, just a day after the leader of the Afghan Taliban said that there will be no peace in the country as long as the “foreign occupation” continues.

The militant leader, Maulvi Haibatullah Akhunzadah, reiterated the group’s position that the country’s 17-year war can only be brought to an end through direct talks with the United States.

In a message released on the occasion of Eid al-Adha and without pointing to any cease-fire the Taliban leader said on Saturday that the insurgents remain committed to “Islamic goals,” the sovereignty of Afghanistan and ending the war.

For his part, Ghani said he hoped extensions could also be agreed upon to make the cease-fire last until November 20, which will mark the birth anniversary of Prophet Muhammad.

The government had previously announced a cease-fire with the Taliban during the Eid al-Fitr holiday in June. The Taliban accepted that three-day cease-fire, but later rejected a call by the president to extend it.

Earlier this month, the Taliban launched a major assault on the eastern city of Ghazni, just 120 kms from Kabul and the capital of a province with the same name.

Afghan security forces battled the militants inside the city for five days, as the US carried out airstrikes and sent advisers to help the Afghan ground forces.

The battle for Ghazni killed at least 100 members of the Afghan security forces and 35 civilians, according to Afghan officials.

The heavy casualties underscore the challenges the government in Kabul faces since the US and NATO officially ended their combat mission at the end of 2014. Since then, American forces, now in a training and advising role, have repeatedly come to the aid of Afghan forces.

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‘I can’t breathe’ were Jamal Khashoggi’s final words: Reports

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Washington | Jamal Khashoggi‘s final words were “I can’t breathe”, CNN has said, citing a source who has read the transcript of an audio tape of the final moments before the journalist’s murder. The source told the US network the transcript made clear the killing was premeditated, and suggests several phone calls were made to give briefings on the progress.

CNN said on Sunday Turkish officials believe those calls were made to top officials in Riyadh. Khashoggi, a Saudi contributor to The Washington Post, was killed shortly after entering the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2. The transcript of the gruesome recording includes descriptions of Khashoggi struggling against his murderers, CNN said, and references sounds of the dissident journalist’s body “being dismembered by a saw.”

The original transcript was prepared by Turkish intelligence services, and CNN said its source read a translation version and was briefed on the probe into the journalist’s death. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister on Sunday meanwhile rejected demands to extradite suspects connected to the murder of Khashoggi as sought by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan has repeatedly called on Saudi Arabia to hand over suspects in the killing. According to Turkey, a 15-member Saudi team was sent to Istanbul to kill Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia, however, holds that it was a “rogue” operation gone wrong — a claim undercut by the reported transcript.

For his part US President Donald Trump has refrained from blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, even though the CIA reportedly concluded that he ordered the assassination. The murder has damaged Riyadh’s international reputation and Western countries including the United States, France and Canada have placed sanctions on nearly 20 Saudi nationals.

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Macron to address nation on ‘yellow vest’ crisis Monday: French presidency

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Macron, also set to meet trade unionists and business leaders Monday, is expected to announce “immediate and concrete measures” to respond to the crisis.

 

Paris| French President Emmanuel Macron will address the nation on Monday, the Elysee said, following the four weeks of “yellow vest” anti-government protests, which have turned violent.

The president’s office said he would address the nation at 19.00 GMT, but did not provide other details. Macron, also set to meet trade unionists and business leaders Monday, is expected to announce “immediate and concrete measures” to respond to the crisis, according to Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud.

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Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou facing US extradition, appears in court

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Vancouver | A Canadian prosecutor urged a Vancouver court to deny bail to a Chinese executive at the heart of a case that is shaking up US-China relations and worrying global financial markets. Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of telecommunications giant Huawei and daughter of its founder, was detained at the request of the US during a layover at the Vancouver airport last Saturday — the same day that Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping of China agreed over dinner to a 90-day ceasefire in a trade dispute that threatens to disrupt global commerce.

The US alleges that Huawei used a Hong Kong shell company to sell equipment in Iran in violation of US sanctions. It also says that Meng and Huawei misled American banks about its business dealings in Iran. The surprise arrest, already denounced by Beijing, raises doubts about whether the trade truce will hold and whether the world’s two biggest economies can resolve the complicated issues that divide them.

“I think it will have a distinctively negative effect on the US-China talks,” said Philip Levy, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and an economic adviser in President George W Bush’s White House.  “There’s the humiliating way this happened right before the dinner, with Xi unaware. Very hard to save face on this one. And we may see (Chinese retaliation), which will embitter relations.” Canadian prosecutor John Gibb-Carsley said in a court hearing on Friday that a warrant had been issued for Meng’s arrest in New York August 22.  He said Meng, arrested en route to Mexico from Hong Kong, was aware of the investigation and had been avoiding the United States for months, even though her teenage son goes to school in Boston.

Gibb-Carsley alleged that Huawei had done business in Iran through a Hong Kong company called Skycom. Meng, he said, had misled US banks into thinking that Huawei and Skycom were separate when, in fact, “Skycom was Huawei.” Meng has contended that Huawei sold Skycom in 2009. In urging the court to reject Meng’s bail request, Gibb-Carsley said the Huawei executive had vast resources and a strong incentive to bolt: She’s facing fraud charges in the United States that could put her in prison for 30 years.

Meng’s lawyer, David Martin, argued that it would be unfair to deny her bail just because she “has worked hard and has extraordinary resources.” He told the court that her personal integrity and respect for her father, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, would prevent her violating a court order. Meng, who owns two homes in Vancouver, was willing to wear an ankle bracelet and put the houses up as collateral, he said. There was no bail decision by the judge on Friday so Meng will spend the weekend in jail and the hearing will resume Monday.

Justice William Ehrcke said he would think about proposed bail conditions over the weekend. Huawei, in a brief statement emailed to the AP, said that “we have every confidence that the Canadian and US legal systems will reach the right conclusion.” The company is the world’s biggest supplier of network gear used by phone and internet companies and long has been seen as a front for spying by the Chinese military or security services. “What’s getting lost in the initial frenzy here is that Huawei has been in the crosshairs of US regulators for some time,” said Gregory Jaeger, special counsel at the Stroock law firm and a former Justice Department trial attorney.

“This is the culmination of what is likely to be a fairly lengthy investigation.” Meng’s arrest came as a jarring surprise after the Trump-Xi trade cease-fire in Argentina. Exact details of the agreement are elusive. But the White House said Trump suspended for 90 days an import tax hike on USD 200 billion in Chinese goods that was set to take effect January 1; in return, the White House said, the Chinese agreed to buy a “very substantial amount of agricultural, energy, industrial” and other products from the United States.

The delay was meant to buy time for the two countries to resolve a trade conflict that has been raging for months. The US charges that China is using predatory tactics in its drive to overtake America’s dominance in technology and global economic leadership. These allegedly include forcing American and other foreign companies to hand over trade secrets in exchange for access to the Chinese market and engaging in cyber theft.

Washington also regards Beijing’s ambitious long-term development plan, “Made in China 2025,” as a scheme to dominate such fields as robotics and electric vehicles by unfairly subsidising Chinese companies and discriminating against foreign competitors. The United States has imposed tariffs on USD 250 billion in Chinese goods to pressure Beijing to change its ways.

Trump has threatened to expand the tariffs to include just about everything China ships to the United States. Beijing has lashed back with tariffs on about USD 110 billion in American exports.

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