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Blast at US embassy in Afghanistan on 9/11 anniversary

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Kabul, Sep 11 A powerful explosion occurred near the US embassy in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, shortly after midnight on Wednesday, the anniversary of the 9/11 attack in the US. No casualties have been reported so far.

Images on social media show a plume of smoke rising near the building of the US embassy in the exclusion zone of Kabul where several other embassies are also located, Xinhua news agency reported.

The blast was caused by a rocket attack, a local reporter said.

An alarm was sounded by the US embassy after the explosion and it could be heard in surrounding areas.

There is no official report of any casualty yet but some casualties are feared.

No government official could be reached for more details and no one has claimed responsibility for the blast.

This is the first major attack in the Afghan capital since US President Donald Trump abruptly called off US-Taliban peace talks to end America’s longest war lasting almost 20 years.

Last week, two car bombs killed several people, including two members of an international NATO mission.

Trump said those attacks, in which one American soldier also died, were the reason he calls the US-Taliban talks “dead”.

Following Trump’s comments, the Taliban pledged to continue fighting against US forces.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Washington would regret turning its back on talks spearheaded by high-level officials from both sides.

“We had two ways to end the occupation in Afghanistan. One was jihad and fighting, the other was talks and negotiations,” Mujahid said.

“If Trump wants to stop talks, we will take the first way and they will soon regret it,” he said.

September 11 marks the 18th anniversary of the attacks by al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. The US invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 in response to the attacks.

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Residential lockdowns cover half of China’s population: Reports

NHC spokesperson Mi Feng made the remarks at a press conference in Beijing, citing the epidemic data in the province over the past week.

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Beijing, Feb 19 : More than half of China’s population now faces some form of restrictions due to the country’s ongoing fight against the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), say reports based on analysis of government announcements.

According to a report in The New York Times over the weekend, about 760 million people are dealing with restrictions that may vary from one area to another. If at one place, residents may find checkpoints at building entrances, at another place, they may be dealing with hard limits on going outdoors.

As per a CNN analysis published on Monday, more than 780 million people in the country face various forms of travel restrictions including self-quarantines and limits on who can enter and leave a particular neighbourhood.

The death toll due to novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in China rose to over 2,000 on Wednesday as 136 new deaths from the disease were reported, while the confirmed cases stood at 74,185, the health authorities announced.

The restrictions are particularly strict in four cities of Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, according to the CNN analysis.

The use of non-essential vehicles on local roadways is also banned in these four cities — Wuhan, Huanggang, Shiyan and Xiaogan.

People in these cities are not allowed to leave their residential complexes and they get their daily necessities from neighbourhood and community communities.

These restrictions are often enforced by thousands of volunteers and Communist Party workers, according to The New York Times report.

While these restrictions have been imposed to reduce the spread of the virus, they have also prevented people from returning to their work, adversely affecting the country’s economy.

An official with China’s National Health Commission said the COVID-19 epidemic in Hubei province has been gradually brought under control, Xinhua reported on Wednesday.

NHC spokesperson Mi Feng made the remarks at a press conference in Beijing, citing the epidemic data in the province over the past week.

The daily count of newly cured and discharged cases in Hubei, excluding the capital city of Wuhan, has exceeded the number of newly confirmed cases for four consecutive days as of Wednesday, said Mi.

He also noted that the number of newly confirmed cases has decreased significantly since February 13 in areas besides Wuhan, and the increase in the cumulative number of confirmed cases has remained flat.

It shows that with the implementation of various prevention and control measures and the strengthening of incoming medical support, the epidemic situation in Hubei has been brought under control and the recovery rate has continuously improved, said Mi.

On Wednesday, 1,693 new confirmed cases were reported in Hubei, including 1,660 in Wuhan.

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Hardline Iran and aggressive nationalism

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

Iran’s parliamentary polls are likely to elect a hardline Parliament when the country goes to the polls to choose a new Majlis on February 21. With an economy battered by renewed American sanctions and US President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy, Iran will turn more conservative after the new Parliament is elected.

The Guardian Council, appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rejected more than half the candidates, leaving an electoral arena dominated by hardliners. The large scale disqualification of reformist candidates has led to public disinterest in the polls and demands from dissident groups to boycott the elections.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has appealed to the people to cast their ballot in the February 21 election, but there is growing concern in Tehran that polling levels may drop sharply due to the voters ire at the high level of disqualifications. The present Majlis has about 100 reformists in the 290-member house, while the rest comprise hardline conservatives as well as a sizeable number of independents.

The Guardian Council has vetted the candidates in all parliamentary elections, and has usually rejected from 15 per cent to 40 per cent of the candidates in any election. But this time the rejection rate is much higher than before, leading to general disenchantment with the forthcoming elections. More than half the candidates for the parliamentary elections have not been approved and the rejections include many members of the existing Parliament.

The Majlis enacts legislation, approves the budget and ratifies international agreements. The election of a conservative legislature would affect the functioning of the government led by President Rouhani. The election result would also act as an indicator for the next presidential elections that are due in just over a year in mid-2021.

Iran has suffered under the additional sanctions imposed by the US after Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement in 2018. The additional sanctions severely impacted Iran’s economy, which has led to increasing unrest among the people. Public anger erupted in November last year when thousands of Iranians staged street protests in different parts of the country over hikes in fuel prices. The protests were put down through harsh action by the security forces. Tensions with the US escalated after Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani was killed in a targeted US air strike in January. Soleimani, a leader and General was deeply admired in Iran and the region, and his assassination had shocked most Iranians. But in the confrontation with the US, Iranian forces shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet plane killing all 176 passengers near Teheran. There was outrage in Iran and angry protests as officials first sought to deny and cover-up the incident before admitting that the passenger aircraft had been shot down by mistake.

Iran has gone through economic and political crisis; the reformists have been under pressure ever since the US quit the nuclear agreement. Though there was widespread support for the nuclear agreement in Iran, many hardliners had opposed the agreement. Trump’s rejection of the agreement seemed to validate the objections of the hardliners. Rouhani’s government has been criticised by the reformists for failing to fulfil election promises of providing greater freedoms and easing social restrictions, while the hardliners have attacked him for negotiating with western powers on the nuclear agreement which collapsed after Trump targeted Iran and reimposed sanctions.

The current Parliament was elected in 2016 when the moderates gained ground after a spell of conservative rule under President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. In 2016, a combination of reformists, centrists and moderate conservatives had won about 41 per cent of the seats, while the hardliners won 29 per cent and 28 per cent went to independent candidates. In 2004, large-scale disqualification of candidates before the polls had marginalised the reformist sections for several years and created the conditions for the election of hardliner, Ahmedinejad.

The 2016 elections brought back the reformists and moderates to power. The 2016 election was seen as Iran moving towards a more open society with greater social freedoms. A conservative or hardline Parliament will set the path to a more aggressively nationalist policy towards the US, and make it increasingly difficult for any government to make any moves towards engaging with the US.

(Shubha Singh is a foreign policy and strategic affairs commentator. The views expressed are personal. She can be reached at [email protected])

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Trump may land in Jaipur if Delhi weather is poor

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Jaipur, Air Force One carrying United States President Donald Trump may land in Jaipur in Rajasthan at the start of his scheduled visit to India this month in case weather conditions at the Delhi International Airport are poor, airport officials here confirmed on Wednesday.

US Embassy’s three-member team visited the Jaipur airport on Monday, followed by another visit by a four-member team on Tuesday to check on infrastructure and other facilities.

Official sources confirmed that the team had given its consent to use the city airport as an alternative landing spot for the plane carrying the visiting dignitary and his entourage.

Jaideep Singh Balhara, Director, Airports Authority of India, Jaipur, said: “The airport is well-equipped to handle the VVIP flight as we have a reserved bay for the purpose. We shall use all standard operating procedure necessary for the safe landing of such flights.”

Airport officials revealed that they have been asked to remain on alert mode from February 23 to 24. Trump is scheduled to visit India on February 24 and 25.

“An aircraft carrying the US President’s security detail is likely to land in Jaipur on February 23, which shall be on a standby mode in case the flight carrying Trump lands here,” said an official.

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