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Taliban Increase Efforts To Target Enemies as Airport Evacuations Continue

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Conditions in Afghanistan continued to deteriorate days after the Taliban effectively gained control over most of the country, with a U.N. assessment from Friday warning that the Taliban are targeting what they call “collaborators” in major cities.


Amnesty for Some

Conditions in Afghanistan continued to deteriorate days after the Taliban effectively gained control over most of the country, with an assessment from the United Nations warning on Friday that the Taliban are targeting what the Taliban call “collaborators” in major cities.

The Norwegian Center for Global Analysis, a U.N.-linked intelligence support center, said Taliban fighters are going door-to-door in major cities looking to arrest or kill their alleged enemies and/or their family members. There are also reports of checkpoints that have been set up throughout the country in an effort to stop and identify potential enemies of the Taliban, although it’s unclear at this time just how many have been affected by the practices. The move comes just two days after the Taliban promised a general amnesty.

One of the most prominent people targeted despite the amnesty pledge was Haji Mullah Achakzai, the police chief for Baghdis province near Herat. Achakzai’s execution was captured on camera and shared online, drawing concerns that the Taliban’s claims to not engage in acts of vengeance or reprisals against former enemies may not be true.

Doubts Over Media Commitments

Adding to this fear are reports of Taliban efforts to target journalists. Like other groups, the Taliban promised to respect journalists and promote a free press in Afghanistan so long as they follow Islamic rules. However, German outlet DW reported that several of its journalists, translators, and their families have all been hunted down by the Taliban.

In one instance, the Taliban went door-to-door looking for a DW journalist who has already left the country and is working in Germany. Regardless, his family was targeted, with at least one member being killed and another seriously injured. Peter Limboiurg, DW‘s Director-General issued a statement about the slaying, condemning the attack and calling on the German government to take action.

“The killing of a close relative of one of our editors by the Taliban yesterday is inconceivably tragic, and testifies to the acute danger in which all our employees and their families in Afghanistan find themselves,” Limbourg said. “It is evident that the Taliban are already carrying out organized searches for journalists, both in Kabul and in the provinces. We are running out of time!”

DW has had at least three journalists targeted in total. Nematullah Hemat of the private television station Ghargasht TV is believed to have been kidnapped by the Taliban, and Toofan Omar, who ran Paktia Ghag Radio, was shot dead by Taliban fighters. Additionally, a translator for Die Zeit was shot dead by two Taliban members this week.

Panjshir Valley and the National Resistance Front

While the Taliban continue to try and consolidate their rule, there are still some efforts to push back against the group. Hundreds attended protests throughout major cities in the country on Wednesday and Thursday saw to defend the Afghan National Flag, which the Taliban have largely replaced with their own. These protests were most often met with brutal reprisals, including beatings and shootings.

Beyond that, Amrullah Saleh, the former Vice President of the now-defunct Afghan National Government, continues to fight the Taliban from the Panjshir Valley. The region is infamous for having never been conquered during the Soviet invasion of the country in the ’80s, and for being home to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. The latter was a group that allied with the United States to bring down the Taliban in 2001, although it remained largely autonomous from the control of the National Afghan Government.

Panjshir Valley now hosts some of the most senior members of the ousted Afghan government, with Saleh declaring himself caretaker president after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country with over $160 million.

“I will never, ever and under no circumstances bow to the Taliban terrorists,” Saleh wrote on Twitter. “I will never betray the soul and legacy of my hero Ahmad Shah Mas[s]oud, the commander, the legend, and the guide.”

Massoud was a commander of the Northern Alliance and remains a venerated figure for many Afghans. His son, alongside Saleh, is hoping that a second alliance can topple the Taliban.

In an op-ed he wrote in The Washington Post on Wednesday, Ahmad Massoud said the regions have prepared for a Taliban takeover for twenty years, adding that “we also have the weapons carried by the Afghans who, over the past 72 hours, have responded to my appeal to join the resistance in Panjshir.”

“But that is not enough. If Taliban warlords launch an assault, they will of course face staunch resistance from us,” he said, adding, “The flag of the National Resistance Front will fly over every position that they attempt to take, as the National United Front flag flew 20 years ago.”

He ended with a plea for the U.S. to remain “a ‘great arsenal of democracy,'” and arm the so-called National Resistance Front.

Lifeline at the Kabul Airport

While many Afghans continue to lay low in their homes or flee into Panjshir Valley in preparation to fight the Taliban, evacuations from the Kabul Airport have continued to be a tense affair. Throughout the week, flights were required to intermittently pause as the situation on the ground worsened, leading to chaos over boarding the flights.

Outside of the airport, the scenes are chaos. Crowds of thousands have waited outside in attempts to enter the airport. The Taliban claimed they had no interest in anyone seeking to leave the country but have since set up checkpoints at the two entrances to the airport.

In footage from Thursday, Taliban fighters can be seen beating crowds of would-be refugees back, or according to some reports, even firing at the crowd.

Thousands of American troops continue to guard the airport and direct evacuation flights; however, Britain and France also maintain troops at airport facilities and have sent ore over the last week. Unlike the American mission, which is limited to the airport at this point in time, French and British forces have conducted raids throughout Kabul in an effort to extract their citizens. According to The Telegraph, at least 200 British Nationals have been successfully extracted so far.

As evacuations continue, the U.S. and U.N. are asking more and more nations to accept Afghan Refugees as common destinations, such as Qatar, are reaching their capacity to successfully take care of them.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (DW) (Military Times)

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U.K. Court Rules Julian Assange Can Be Extradited to U.S.

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The judgment overrules a lower court decision that blocked the WikiLeaks founder’s extradition on the grounds that his mental health was not stable enough to weather harsh conditions in the American prison system if convicted.


New Developments in Assange Extradition Battle

A British court ruled Friday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States to face charges of violating the Espionage Act that could land him in prison for decades.

Prosecutors in the U.S. have accused Assange of conspiring with former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 to hack into a Department of Defense computer network and access thousands of military and diplomatic records on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The information obtained in the hack was later published by WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011, a move U.S. authorities allege put lives in danger.

In addition to a charge of computer misuse, Assange has also been indicted on 17 espionage charges. Collectively, the charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 175 years.

The Friday decision from the High Court overturns a lower court ruling in January, which found that Assange’s mental health was too fragile for the harsh environment he could face in the U.S. prison system if convicted.

Notably, the January ruling did not determine whether or not Assange was guilty. In fact, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser explicitly rejected the defense’s arguments that the charges against him were politically motivated and that he should be protected under freedom of press.

However, she agreed that the defense had provided compelling evidence that Assange suffers from severe depression and that the conditions he could face in the U.S. prison system were “such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.”

The U.S. appealed the ruling, arguing that Assange’s mental health should not be a barrier to extradition and that the psychiatrist who examined him had been biased. 

In October, the Biden administration vowed that if Assange were to be convicted, he would not be placed in the highest-security U.S. prison or immediately sent to solitary confinement. Officials also said that the native Australian would be eligible to serve his sentence in his home country.

High Court Ruling

The High Court agreed with the administration’s arguments in its ruling, arguing that the American’s assurances regarding the conditions of Assange’s potential incarceration were “sufficient.” 

“There is no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say,” the ruling stated. “There is no basis for assuming that the USA has not given the assurances in good faith.”

Assange’s fiancé, Stella Moris, said in a statement that his legal team would appeal the decision to the British Supreme Court at the “earliest possible moment,” referring to the judgment as a “grave miscarriage of justice.”

The Supreme Court will now decide whether or not to hear the case based on if it believes the matter involves a point of law “of general public importance.” That decision may take weeks or even months.

If the U.K. Supreme Court court objects to hearing Assange’s appeal, he could ask the European Court of Human Rights to stay the extradition — a move that could set in motion another lengthy legal battle in the already drawn-out process.

Assange and his supporters claim he was acting as an investigative journalist when he published the classified military cables. They argue that the possibility of his extradition and prosecution represent serious threats to press freedoms in the U.S.

U.S. prosecutors dispute that Assange acted as a journalist, claiming that he encouraged illegal hacking for personal reasons.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)

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Early Data Indicates Omicron is More Transmissible But Less Severe

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The studies come as Pfizer and BioNTech claim that preliminary research shows a third shot of their COVID vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the new variant, but two doses alone may not.


More Information About Omicron

Several preliminary studies published in recent days appear to show that the new omicron COVID-19 variant may be more transmissible but less severe than previous strains.

One recent, un-peer-reviewed study by a Japanese scientist who advises the country’s health ministry found that omicron is four times more transmissible in its initial stage than delta was.

Preliminary information in countries hit hard by omicron also indicates high transmissibility. In South Africa —  where the variant was first detected and is already the dominant strain — new COVID cases have more than doubled over the last week.

Health officials in the U.K. said omicron cases are doubling every two or three days, and they expect the strain to become dominant in the country in a matter of weeks.

In a statement Wednesday, World Health Organization Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while early data does seem to show high transmissibility, it also indicates that omicron causes more mild cases than delta.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevent Director Rochelle Walensky echoed that sentiment, telling reporters that of the 40 known omicron cases in the U.S. as of Wednesday, nearly all of them were mild. One person has been hospitalized so far and none have died.

Studies on Vaccine Efficacy 

Other recent studies have shown that current COVID vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness and death in omicron patients, and boosters provide at least some added protection.

On Wednesday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that laboratory tests have shown a third dose of their COVID-19 vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the omicron variant, though two doses may not.

According to the companies, researchers saw a 25-fold reduction in neutralizing antibodies for omicron compared to other strains of the virus for people who had just two Pfizer doses. 

By contrast, samples from people one month after they had received a Pfizer booster presented neutralizing antibodies against omicron that were comparable to those seen against previous variants after two doses.

Still, Pfizer’s chief executive also told reporters later in the day that omicron could increase the likelihood that people might need a fourth dose earlier than previously expected, which he had initially said was 12 months after the third shot.

Notably, the Pfizer research has not yet been peer-reviewed, and it remains unclear how omicron will operate outside a lab, but other studies have had similar findings.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Bloomberg) (NBC News)

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40 Camels Disqualified From Beauty Contest After Breeders Inject Their Faces With Botox

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The animals were barred from competing for $66 million in prizes at this year’s King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Saudi Arabia.


Camels Booted From Beauty Contest

More than 40 camels were disqualified from a beauty contest in Saudi Arabia this week after judges found artificial enhancements in their faces, marking the biggest crackdown on contestants in the competition to date.

The animals were competing for $66 million in prizes at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, a month-long event that is estimated to include around 33,000 camels.

However, according to The Guardian, they were forced out of the contest when authorities found that breeders had “stretched out the lips and noses of the camels, used hormones to boost the animals’ muscles, injected heads and lips with Botox to make them bigger, inflated body parts with rubber bands, and used fillers to relax their faces.”

Those types of alterations are banned since judges look at the contestant’s heads, necks, humps, posture, and other features when evaluating them.

An announcement from the state-linked Saudi Press Agency said officials used “specialized and advanced” technology to detect tampering.

“The club is keen to halt all acts of tampering and deception in the beautification of camels,” the SPA report added before warning that organizers would “impose strict penalties on manipulators.”

While it’s unclear what that actually entails, this isn’t the first time people have tried to cheat in this way.

In 2018, 12 camels were similarly disqualified from the competition for injections in their noses, lips, and jaw.

See what others are saying: (Insider) (The Guardian) (ABC News)

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