UN Documents 30% Drop in Afghan Civilian Casualties

The United Nations says the conflict in Afghanistan has killed and injured nearly 6,000 civilians during the first nine months of 2020, representing a 30% decline compared to the same period last year.The report compiled by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) comes as direct peace negotiations between Afghanistan’s warring parties have been underway in Qatar since September 12, though without any progress. 
Just hours after the world body released its findings Tuesday, a bomb went off in Kabul, the Afghan capital, killing at least three civilians and injuring 10 others.
 
UNAMA has documented 2,117 civilian deaths and 3,822 injures from January 1 to September 30, saying the war-ravaged country remains among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian.  
 
Child casualties during the reported period amounted to 31% of all civilian casualties, and women casualties 13%.
 
“While the number of civilian casualties documented is the lowest in the first nine months of any year since 2012, the harm done to civilians remains inordinate and shocking,” the report said.
 
UNAMA noted the outgoing month is outside of the scope of the report, but intensified battlefield attacks, a suicide bombing and an Afghan government airstrike together have killed and injured more than 400 civilians since October 1.Airstrike Kills 12 Children in Northeastern AfghanistanMeanwhile, roadside bomb blast in southern Kandahar province injures two Romanian soldiers The report lamented that the ongoing Afghan peace process has failed to slow the number of civilian casualties.
 
“The peace talks will need some time to help deliver peace. But all parties can immediately prioritize discussions and take urgent, and frankly overdue, additional steps to stem the terrible harm to civilians,” said Deborah Lyons, the mission’s chief in Kabul.  
 
The U.N. report blamed the Taliban insurgency and other anti-government forces for causing 58% of the civilian casualties. The Taliban were responsible for 45 percent of the total casualties.  It noted, however, that the overall number of civilian casualties attributed to the Taliban dropped by 32%.
 
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid rejected as propaganda the U.N. findings, saying they were founded on baseless reports shared with the world body by Afghan security and intelligence institutions.  
 
UNAMA said pro-Afghan government forces were responsible for 28% of the harm inflicted on civilians in the first nine months and documented its concerns about the 70% increase in civilian casualties caused by Afghan Airforce airstrikes.   
There was no immediate response from the Kabul government to the report.  
 
“Our interviews with victims and their families reveal the near complete failure of parties to the conflict to acknowledge harm caused, nor even to make contact with them following an incident,” said Fiona Frazer, UNAMA’s Human Rights chief.  
 
The report finds that in the period under review there were fewer civilian casualties attributed to the ISIL-Khorasan Province, the Afghan branch of Islamic State terror group, due to a decrease in the number of attacks.
 
The U.N. mission noted that harm caused to civilians by U.S.-led international forces “all but ceased in the reporting period,” attributing it to the landmark peace-building agreement the United States signed with the Taliban in February.  
 
The U.S.-Taliban deal has bound the insurgents not to attack foreign forces committed to stage a “conditions-based” complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 2021. In return American forces have significantly scaled back military operations, including airstrikes, against the Taliban.  
 
The pact requires the insurgents to negotiate a permanent cease-fire with rival Afghan groups and a political arrangement to govern the post-war country.  
 
But both U.S. and Taliban officials have lately accused each other of violating the terms of the agreement and lingering disputes have slowed, if not stalled, the peace talks between the Taliban and representatives of the Kabul government being hosted by Doha, the Qatari capital.
 
 

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With Eye on China, India and US Sign Landmark Military Agreement

India and the United States have signed a landmark agreement to share military information and vowed to ramp up security and strategic ties as top U.S. officials emphasized the need for enhanced cooperation to confront Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.”Our leaders and our citizens see with increasing clarity that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is no friend to democracy, the rule of law, transparency, nor to freedom of navigation, the foundation of a free and open and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in New Delhi. He and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper met their Indian counterparts at an annual 2+2 ministerial dialogue on Tuesday.New Delhi was the first stop of a four-nation Asia tour that Pompeo has said will focus on the “threats” posed by China.The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) signed on Tuesday will give India access to topographical and aeronautical data considered vital for targeting missiles and armed drones.It is the last of four pacts that the two countries have sealed in recent years, setting the ground for significantly bolstering their military partnership.U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, center, speaks as Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, left, and Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh sit beside him during a joint press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, Oct. 27, 2020.Both the U.S. and India sounded an upbeat note about their growing partnership. Although Indian officials did not directly refer to China, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar called the movement of the relationship with Washington “exceptionally positive,” while Esper emphasized their growing cooperation in the region.“We stand shoulder to shoulder in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific for all, particularly in light of increasing aggression and destabilizing activities by China,” he said.The talks were held as India remains locked in a months-long military standoff with Beijing on its borders and concerns grow in Washington about China flexing its muscle from Hong Kong and the South China Sea to the Himalayas.Before heading into the talks, the U.S. officials paid tribute to Indian troops at a war memorial, including 20 soldiers who died earlier this year in an incident with China.“The United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their freedom and sovereignty,” Pompeo said.In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin dismissed U.S. accusations about its assertiveness. “We urge him (Pompeo) to abandon the Cold War and the zero-sum game mentality and stop sowing discord between China and regional countries as well as undermining the regional peace and stability,” Wang said.U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper lay wreaths at the National War Memorial in New Delhi, India, Oct. 27, 2020.The pact signed between New Delhi and the U.S. on Tuesday has been under negotiation for nearly a decade, but India had been hesitant. “India has been very cautious in the past, but it is now taking a more categorical position,” according to Harsh Pant, director of studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “Basically, as China challenges India on its borders, New Delhi is now out in the open about aligning its priorities with the U.S. and like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific.”The talks between the two countries worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic also focused on cooperation in vaccines that are under development and testing and that are being seen as key measures to control the rampaging infection.Delayed due to the pandemic, the dialogue was held just one week before the U.S. presidential elections. But analysts point out that there is wide political agreement in both countries about the need to shore up their partnership amid mutual worries about China.“No one is questioning why this conversation is happening at this time because India is one area where there is perhaps more consensus between the two U.S. presidential candidates than anywhere else,” according to Pant. “There is bipartisan support in Washington for strengthening ties with India.”From India, Pompeo travels to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia in a bid to bolster allies in the Indo-Pacific – these are all strategically located countries that Washington hopes can play a role in pressing back against Beijing in the region.The visit to Sri Lanka, where a government widely seen as pro-China was elected in August, is seen as a pushback against Beijing’s influence in the Indian Ocean country that has seen a flood of Chinese investment in the past decade.Pompeo’s Asia tour follows his visit earlier this month to Tokyo for a meeting among the U.S., India, Japan and Australia, a group known as “the Quad” that also aims to be a counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region.In a sign that the “Quad” countries are set to enhance their cooperation, Australia next week is set to join naval exercises that have in the past been held by the U.S., Indian and Japanese navies. 

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Russia Issues National Mask Mandate After Coronavirus Cases Surge

Russian authorities issued a national mask requirement Tuesday as the country set a single day record for coronavirus deaths amid a resurgence of new cases.Health officials reported 16,550 new cases and 320 new deaths Tuesday, the highest daily death toll since the pandemic started.In response, Russia’s consumer safety and public health agency, Rospotrebnadzor, ordered all Russians to wear masks in crowded public spaces, on public transit, in taxis, parking lots and elevators starting on Wednesday.The agency also recommends regional authorities put a curfew on entertainment events, cafes, restaurants and bars from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.Russia has the world’s fourth largest tally of more than 1.5 million confirmed cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking the pandemic.The government’s coronavirus task force has been reporting more than 15,000 new infections every day since Sunday, which is much higher than in spring.Russia has reported more than 26,000 virus-related deaths.Despite the sharp spike in daily infections, Russian authorities have repeatedly dismissed the idea of imposing a second national lockdown or shutting down businesses.Most virus-related restrictions were lifted in July as cases dropped, but masks were still encouraged.

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Italians Protest New COVID Restrictions

Violent protests erupted in more than 15 cities across Italy after the government announced new measures to rein in a second wave of COVID-19 infections. Italian leaders are rushing to stave off criticism with a financial rescue package for struggling businesses.
 
Angry protesters took to the streets of some of Italy’s largest cities but also smaller ones from the north to the south of the country to show their discontent with the new nationwide COVID-19 restrictions.
 
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told Italians he was well aware “this is a complex moment as this is a pandemic that is harshly challenging us, causing anger, frustration and new inequalities. Aware of how many businesses are suffering, Conte said the government had worked out a plan.
 
He said that compensation has already been earmarked for all those who will suffer under the new restrictions.
 
Government officials hope the measures will be enough to quell the anger.  
 
Italians were the first to face a widespread outbreak of the virus earlier this year and were hit with one of the world’s toughest lockdowns, which did serious damage to the country’s economy.  
 
At the time, they complied with the government’s rules and the tough action managed to rein in the virus by the summer.Police officers are seen in front of a garbage bin set on fire during a protest against new government restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in Turin, Italy, Oct. 26, 2020.This time, reactions were far from measured and it appeared not everyone in the country was ready to adhere to the government’s guidelines and rules. Far-right groups and organized crime also appear to be behind the recent clashes.
 
In cities like Turin, Milan, Naples and Rome, hundreds of protesters ransacked stores, vandalized trams and set garbage cans on fire. Groups of young people threw glass bottles and chanted “freedom, freedom.”
 
Many opposition politicians and even some members of parliament of the ruling coalition government voiced their disapproval of the tough new measures saying the already battered economy would not be able to cope. Far-right leader Matteo Salvini announced he was launching a legal challenge to the government’s decisions.
 
Business owners are in despair saying some will have to close forever. But some scientists say the measures adopted until November 24 still do not go far enough and that beds in intensive care units of hospitals are quickly running out.
 
Up for approval Tuesday was a package of up to $6 billion  to support businesses in the restaurant, sports and entertainment sectors, hard hit by the new restrictions.
 

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Argentina Relaxes COVID-19 Restrictions

Authorities in Buenos Aires have loosened coronavirus restrictions, allowing people inside businesses, including restaurants, bars and gyms for the first time in seven months. Under the new guidelines, businesses are allowed up to 25 percent of their capacity, with assurances they provide proper ventilation. The Associated Press reports the easing of restrictions comes as new COVID-19 cases have trended downward in recent months in Argentina’s capital. Authorities say coronavirus cases have not dropped in other areas of the country and people in Buenos Aires are urged to remain vigilant in following safety protocols. Argentina has confirmed more than 1,100,000 coronavirus cases and at least 29,301 deaths. 

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Hurricane Zeta Makes Landfall on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula 

Hurricane Zeta pounded Mexico’s northern Yucatan Peninsula with strong winds and heavy rains late Monday into Tuesday. The U.S.-based National Hurricane Center said Zeta made landfall north of Tulum with maximum sustained winds of 130 kilometers per hour. A hurricane warning is posted for the resort island of Cozumel, and from Punta Allen to Progreso, Mexico. People in the Mexican resort city of Cancun are also bracing for Hurricane Zeta. Forecasters say Zeta is expected to regain strength Tuesday as it moves into the Southern Gulf of Mexico on a northerly pattern toward the United States, where a hurricane watch is in effect for the metropolitan New Orleans area and Morgan City, Louisiana, east  to the Mississippi-Alabama border.   People in the U.S. central Gulf Coast will begin seeing the effects of Zeta by Tuesday night before the storm moves inland toward Georgia Wednesday then into the southern Appalachians Wednesday night and the Mid-Atlantic region on Thursday. Zeta is the second storm to strike Mexico this month. Hurricane Delta hit the Yucatan Peninsula in early October, downing trees and knocking out power to thousands but no reported deaths. Hurricane Delta also made landfall in the U.S. Gulf coast state of Louisiana, where Hurricane Laura hit in late August, killing at least six people. 

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