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LONDON: Former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani on Thursday described fleeing the Taliban's victory march on Kabul, saying the decision had been taken in "minutes" and that he did not know he was leaving the country until he was taking off.

Ghani told BBC's Radio 4 "Today" programme that on the morning of August 15, 2021, the day the Islamists took control of the capital and his own government fell apart, he had "no inkling" that it would be his last day in Afghanistan.

But by that afternoon security at the presidential palace had "collapsed," he said.

"If I take a stand they will all be killed, and they were not capable of defending me," Ghani said in the interview, conducted by former UK chief of defence staff, General Nick Carter.

His national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, was "literally terrified," Ghani said. "He did not give me more than two minutes."

He said his instructions had originally been to fly by helicopter to southeastern Khost city.

But Khost had fallen in the Islamists' lightning offensive which saw provincial capitals topple around the country in the days ahead of the withdrawal of international forces, set for the end of August.

The eastern city of Jalalabad, on the border with Pakistan, had also fallen, he said.

"I did not know where we will go," Ghani said.

"Only when we took off did it become clear that we were leaving."

Ghani has been in the United Arab Emirates ever since.

He has been highly criticised in Afghanistan for leaving, with Afghans now trapped under the Taliban's harsh rule accusing him of abandoning them -- and of taking millions of dollars in cash, a claim he "categorically" denied again on Thursday.

The former World Bank official has released several previous statements on his departure, admitting that he owed the Afghan people an explanation. Thursday was his first interview.

He said again that his first concern had been to prevent brutal street fighting in the capital, already packed with tens of thousands of refugees fleeing violence elsewhere in the country.

And he said his decision to leave was "the hardest thing".

"I had to sacrifice myself in order to save Kabul and to expose the situation for what it is: a violent coup, not a political agreement."

But even if he'd stayed, he said, he could not have changed the outcome, which has seen the Taliban establish their new regime as the country faces one of the worst humanitarian crises in history.

"Unfortunately I was painted in total black," he said. "It became an American issue. Not an Afghan issue."

"My life work has been destroyed, my values have been trampled on and I've been made a scapegoat," he said.

Afghans had "rightly" blamed him, he said. "I completely understand that anger, because I share that anger."

A Covid “tsunami” threatens to overwhelm healthcare systems, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Wednesday, as record surges fuelled by the Omicron variant dampened New Year celebrations around the world once again.

Governments are walking a tightrope between anti-virus restrictions and the need to keep societies and economies open, as the highly transmissible variant drove cases to levels never seen before in the United States, Britain, France and Denmark.

The blistering surge was illustrated by AFP's tally of 6.55 million new infections reported globally in the week ending on Tuesday, the highest the figure has been since the WHO declared a Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020.

“I am highly concerned that Omicron, being more transmissible, circulating at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“This is and will continue to put immense pressure on exhausted health workers, and health systems on the brink of collapse.”

The variant has already started to overwhelm some hospitals in the United States, the hardest-hit nation where the seven-day average of new cases hit 265,427, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.

Harvard epidemiologist and immunologist Michael Mina tweeted that the count was likely just the “tip of the iceberg”, with the true number likely far higher because of a shortage of tests.

But there was some hope as data indicated a decoupling of the number of cases and hospitalisations.

“We should not become complacent,” top US infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci said Wednesday, but “all indications point to a lesser severity of Omicron”.

At a drive-through virus testing site in Miami, Florida, on Wednesday, there were long lines of cars with people waiting to provide samples.

“Half of my family has it, you know this new variant is very, very spreadable, like way more spreadable than the first time around,” said resident Victoria Sierralta.

“It's like we're back in like the first stage of Covid. It's absolutely crazy.”

Millions around the world will again welcome a new year in the shadow of the pandemic, which is known to have killed more than 5.4m people so far, with festivities dampened or cancelled in many countries.

Greece on Wednesday banned music in bars and restaurants to try and limit New Year's Eve parties, with public events already cancelled.

The mayor of Mexico's capital has cancelled the city's massive New Year's Eve celebrations after a spike in cases.

Despite the outbreak concerns, the streets of Mexico City were busy on Wednesday.

“I don't think that such an event with such economic importance should be cancelled, however health comes before everything else,” said 59-year-old teacher Victor Arturo Madrid Contreras.

With the “cancellation, they are sending a message ... 'You know what? This is serious'.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meanwhile defended his decision not to clamp down on festivities over the holidays, saying around 90 per cent of Covid patients in intensive care had not received a vaccine booster.

The number of people in hospital with the coronavirus topped 10,000 in England, the highest total since March, as Britain on Wednesday reported a new record of 183,037 daily cases.

The high take-up of boosters in England “is allowing us to go ahead with New Year in the cautious way that we are”, Johnson said, despite new closures in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Across the Channel, France too hit a new daily record of more than 200,000 cases — more than double the number on Christmas Day — as it extended its closure of nightclubs into January.

Wearing masks outdoors will become compulsory in Paris on Friday for everyone over the age of 11 except those inside vehicles, cyclists, users of other two-wheelers such as scooters and those participating in sports.

Denmark, which currently has the world's highest rate of infection per person, recorded a fresh record of 23,228 new cases, which authorities attributed in part to the large numbers of tests carried out after Christmas celebrations.

Portugal also saw a record with nearly 27,000 cases reported in 24 hours.

The bodies of 16 Iraqi Kurdish migrants who drowned last month as they attempted to cross the English Channel were repatriated to northern Iraq on Sunday.

The Nov 24 disaster, in which 27 migrants died, has been described as the worst on record involving migrants trying to cross the perilous passage to Britain from France. The boat capsized off the coast of northern France, sparking a political crisis.

Britain and France accused each other of not doing enough to deter people from crossing the English Channel.

Dozens of mourners waited at the semi-autonomous Kurdish regions international airport in Irbil Sunday, where the plane carrying the bodies arrived. Relatives grieved as the caskets were transported by ambulance to their hometowns for burial.

The repatriations came amid a new tragedy involving migrants from the Middle East searching for new lives in Europe. Libya's Red Crescent said on Sunday that at least 27 bodies of Europe-bound migrants, including a baby and two women, have washed ashore in the country's west.

A disproportionate number of migrants from the Middle East attempting to reach Europe lately have been people from Iraq's Kurdish region. Although northern Iraq is more prosperous than the rest of the conflict-scarred country, growing unemployment and frustration over corruption is forcing many to consider the risky journey.

Among the bodies returned on Sunday was that of 24-year-old Maryam Nouri, called Baran by her friends and family. She perished during the ill-fated, illicit voyage across the English Channel with hopes of reuniting with her fiance in Britain. The flimsy boat sank a few miles (kilometres) from the French coast.

At least 27 migrants bound for Britain drowned. France's interior minister called it the biggest migration tragedy involving the crossing to date.

“The last time I heard my son's voice was when he got on board the boat. He said 'Don't worry Mum, I will reach England shortly.' Now he's back to me in a coffin,” said Shukriya Bakir, whose son was one of those who drowned.

Other bodies included those of Shakar Ali, Sarkawt Pirot and Avrasiya Ahmad, who came from the Ranya district of the Sulaymaniyah governorate in the Kurdish-run region of Iraq.

Hundreds of family members and friends attended a ceremony in the town to pay their last respects.

Relatives said the three had tried to make it to a better life in Europe as they had been unable to find employment in Iraq.

Shakar Ali graduated from the oil department in geology college, which is a much needed department for this country. "But unfortunately, after many attempts — and we even paid money to people to get him a job, but he couldn't get one,” said his brother, Haval Ali.

“Many of his colleagues, those with connections, got jobs, except my brother ... so he decided to migrate abroad."

The Saudi-led coalition on Saturday launched a “large-scale” assault on Yemen after a projectile killed two people in the kingdom, in the first such deaths in three years blamed on Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

A retaliatory coalition airstrike on Yemen killed three people and wounded six others in Ajama, a town northwest of the Houthi-held capital Sanaa, Yemeni medics said.

Yemen has been wracked by civil war since 2014 pitting the internationally recognised government supported by the Saudi-led military coalition against the Houthis who control much of the north.

Tens of thousands of people have since been killed, in what the UN has described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Saudi's civil defence said that two people, one Saudi and the other Yemeni, were killed and seven others wounded in the projectile attack on Jazan, a southern region of the kingdom bordering Yemen.

“A military projectile fell on a commercial store on the main street, resulting in two deaths,” it said in a statement, adding six Saudis and a Bangladeshi national were wounded.

The Saudi-led military coalition said shortly afterwards that it was “preparing for a large-scale military operation”.

It responded later with an airstrike in which “three civilians including a child and a woman were killed, and six others were wounded”, the Yemeni medics told AFP.

The coalition said it would hold a news conference later on Saturday to address the latest developments.

Yemen's Houthis regularly launch missiles and drones into neighbouring Saudi Arabia, targeting its airports and oil infrastructure.

But the latest was the first in more than three years that has resulted in fatalities in the kingdom, which recorded its first death from a Houthi missile attack when a missile struck Riyadh in 2018.

It also comes as fighting between the two sides intensifies, with the coalition ramping air strikes on Sanaa.

Saudi Arabia and its ally the United States have long accused Iran of supplying the Houthis with sophisticated weapons, a charge the Islamic republic denies.

The US Navy said this week that it seized 1,400 AK-47 rifles and ammunition from a fishing boat it claimed was smuggling weapons from Iran to the Houthis, who are from Yemen's Zaidi Shia minority.

“The stateless vessel was assessed to have originated in Iran and transited international waters along a route historically used to traffic weapons unlawfully to the Houthis in Yemen,” it said.

On Thursday — a day after the coalition targeted a Houthi military camp in Sanaa — the military alliance said it shot down a bomb-laden drone near Abha airport in the south of the kingdom, causing debris to fall nearby but leaving no casualties.

And earlier this week, it targeted Sanaa airport, whose operations have largely ceased because of a Saudi-led blockade since August 2016, with exemptions for aid flights.

The World Food Programme said it has been “forced” to cut aid to Yemen due to lack of funds and warned of a surge in hunger in the country.

“From January, eight million will receive a reduced food ration, while 5m at immediate risk of slipping into famine conditions will remain on a full ration,” the UN agency said in a statement, adding that it was “running out of funds”.

The UN estimates Yemen's war will have claimed 377,000 lives by the end of the year through both direct and indirect impacts.

More than 80 per cent of Yemen's population of about 30m requires humanitarian assistance in what the UN says is the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that insulting Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) does not count as an expression of artistic freedom but is a "violation of religious freedom", according to state news agency TASS.

Putin made these remarks during his annual press conference in Moscow on Thursday, adding that insults to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) were a violation of "the sacred feelings of people who profess Islam".

TASS reported that the Russian president also criticised the publication of blasphemous sketches of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Such acts, the report quoted Putin as saying, gave rise to extremist reprisals.

Artistic freedom had its limits and it shouldn't infringe on other's freedoms, he added.

The president further stated that Russia had evolved as a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional state and so Russians were used to respecting each other’s traditions, according to the report.

In some other countries, this respect came in short supply, he said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Imran Khan welcomed Putin's statement, saying it "reaffirms my message that insulting Holy Prophet (PBUH) is not 'freedom of expression'."

"We Muslims, especially Muslim leaders, must spread this message to leaders of the non-Muslim world to counter Islamophobia," the premier said.

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also appreciated the Russian president's statement.

"Insulting our Holy Prophet (PBUH) is indeed a violation of religious freedom and is a far cry from freedom of expression," he said.

Charlie Hebdo had published the blasphemous sketches in 2015, prompting condemnation from Muslims across the world.

The publication had also led to an attack on the magazine's office on January 7, 2015, in which 12 persons had been killed.

The issue had resurfaced in 2020 when the magazine republished the sketches on September 2 to coincide with the trial of 14 people accused of helping the attackers carry out their gun rampage against the magazine staffers.

A month later, a history teacher in France was beheaded after he had shown the caricatures in his class. In a ceremony dedicated to the teacher, French President Emmanuel Macron had vowed not to "give up [the] cartoons" and also made contentious remarks against "Islamists", who he said "want our future".

The caricatures were then also projected onto the facade of a building in one city and at protests around the country.

The move and the French president's remarks had drawn criticism from the Muslim World.

PM Imran had denounced them and said: "“This is a time when President Macron could have put [a] healing touch and denied space to extremists rather than creating further polarisation and marginalisation that inevitably leads to radicalisation."

Meanwhile, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan demanded that the government expel the French envoy and close the embassy, leading to protests with police and clashes across the country.

The US on Thursday authorised Merck & Co's antiviral pill for Covid-19 for certain high-risk adult patients, a day after giving a broader go-ahead to a similar but more effective treatment from Pfizer Inc.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said Merck's drug, which is designed to introduce errors into the genetic code of the virus, could be used when other authorised treatments are not accessible or clinically appropriate.

The drug, molnupiravir, was developed with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and shown to reduce hospitalisations and deaths by around 30 per cent in a clinical trial of high-risk individuals early in the course of the illness.

The authorisation allows the use of the drug for mild-to-moderate Covid-19 and along with the Pfizer pill, it could be an important tool against the fast-spreading Omicron variant, which is now dominant in the US.

Pfizer's drug, Paxlovid, was authorised on Wednesday for people aged 12 and older and has shown to be nearly 90pc effective in preventing hospitalisations and deaths in patients at high risk of severe illness, according to trial data.

The FDA says some patients should avoid Pfizer two-drug regimen because it includes an older antiviral called ritonavir that is known to have interactions with some other prescription medicines. It is also not recommended for people with severe kidney issues.

Merck plans to ship hundreds of thousands of treatment courses in coming days and one million over the next few weeks. Pfizer plans to ship about 250,000 courses in the next month.

Availability of other treatments is the first consideration for doctors thinking of prescribing Merck's treatment, according to Patrizia Cavazzoni, the director of FDA's Centre for Drug Evaluation and Research.

The FDA has authorised intravenous treatments, mostly for hospital use, called monoclonal antibodies but availability is limited and efficacy against the Omicron variant is lower.

FDA official John Farley said during a press briefing that GlaxoSmithKline's and Vir Biotech's antibody drug — which has been shown to work against Omicron — is expected to be in short supply this winter.

Merck said that its treatment had advantages over the Pfizer pill.

“It doesn't require any second drug to boost its efficacy, and you can give it in a variety of special patient populations, including people who have significant issues with liver function or kidney function,” Nick Kartsonis, Merck's senior vice president of clinical research for vaccines and infectious diseases, told Reuters.

Merck's drug is not authorised for use in patients younger than 18 because molnupiravir may affect bone and cartilage growth, the FDA said. The pill is not recommended for use during pregnancy, the agency added.

The agency advised that men of reproductive potential use a reliable method of birth control during treatment with molnupiravir, and for at least three months after the final dose.

The drug is meant to be taken twice a day — four pills each time — for five days, making a full treatment course of 40 pills.

The treatment was priced at about $700 per course in a deal with the US government for up to 5m courses.

The US government has ordered 10m courses of the Pfizer drug at a price of $530 per course compares to the deal with Merck for as many as 5m courses of molnupiravir at a price of $700 per course.

Paul Schaper, Merck's head of global public policy, said the company will ship hundreds of thousands of treatment within several days and million courses of treatment within several weeks in the US.

Merck has said molnupiravir, which helps prevent the virus from replicating, should be effective against any variant, including the new Omicron variant.

US State Secretary Antony Blinken on Wednesday thanked Pakistan for hosting the extraordinary session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation's (OIC) Council of Foreign Ministers to discuss the situation in neighbouring Afghanistan.

"The OIC extraordinary session on Afghanistan is a prime example of our collective determination and action to help those most in need. We thank Pakistan for hosting this vital meeting and inviting the global community to continue cooperating to support the Afghan people," Blinken said.

The OIC session was held in Islamabad on Sunday. Envoys from 57 Islamic nations as well as observer delegations participated in the session during which it was decided to set up a Humanitarian Trust Fund and Food Security Programme to deal with the rapidly aggravating crisis.

The OIC, which is also the world’s second-largest multilateral forum, in a communiqué adopted at the end of the extraordinary session said it “will play a leading role in the delivery of humanitarian and development aid to the people of Afghanistan”.

Addressing the summit, Prime Minister Imran Khan had issued a clear warning to the global community, stating that Afghanistan could potentially become the biggest "man-made crisis in the world" if action was not take immediately.

He said instability in Afghanistan would not be in anyone’s interest as it could lead to refugee exodus from the war-ravaged country and a heightened terrorism threat particularly from the militant Islamic State group.

A day later, the premier voiced veiled criticism at the US for creating a humanitarian crisis n Afghanistan and allowing it to worsen.

“A man-made crisis is being created despite knowing that it can be averted if (Afghanistan’s) accounts (in the US) are unfrozen and liquidity is put into their banking system,” PM Imran said while speaking at a ceremony held at Foreign Office to celebrate the success of the OIC meeting.

More than half the population in Afghanistan, nearly 22 million people, is facing an acute food shortage. Unicef estimates that some 3.2 million Afghan children under the age of five will suffer from malnutrition this winter.

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