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Afghanistan's Taliban administration on Saturday called on international governments to roll back sanctions and lift a freeze on central bank assets following the earthquake that killed more than 1,000 people and left thousands homeless.

The 6.1-magnitude quake that struck the east of the country early on Wednesday destroyed or damaged 10,000 homes and injured about 2,000 people, straining the country's fragile health system and posing a major test for the ruling Taliban.

“The Islamic Emirate is asking the world to give the Afghans their most basic right, which is their right to life and that is through lifting the sanctions and unfreezing our assets and also giving assistance,” Abdul Qahar Balkhi, foreign affairs ministry spokesman, told Reuters in an interview.

While humanitarian aid continues to flow to Afghanistan, funds needed for longer-term development were halted when the Taliban seized control of the country in August 2021 as foreign forces withdrew.

The administration of the hard-line group is not formally recognised by international governments.
Billions of US dollars in Afghan central bank reserves remain frozen overseas and sanctions hamper the banking sector as the West pushes for concessions on human rights.
Western governments are particularly concerned about the rights of women and girls to work and study under Taliban rule. In March, the group stopped high schools for girls from opening.

Asked about the issue, Balkhi said Afghans' right to life-saving funds should be the priority, adding that the international community handled concerns over human rights differently depending on the country involved.

“Is this rule universal? Because the United States just passed an anti-abortion law,” Balkhi said, referring to the Supreme Court's overturning on Friday of the landmark Roe v Wade ruling that recognised a woman's right to an abortion.

“Sixteen countries in the world have taken away the rights of religious minorities, especially Muslims ... are they also facing sanctions because they are violating rights?” he asked.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said on Saturday the US government was working on “complicated questions about the use of these [frozen central bank] funds to ensure they benefit the people of Afghanistan and not the Taliban.”
She added that the US Agency for International Development was providing assistance with humanitarian organisations.

An earthquake of magnitude 6.1 that rocked Afghanistan has killed at least 130 people in the country's east, disaster management officials said on Wednesday.
The majority of confirmed deaths were in the province of Paktika, where 100 people were killed and 250 injured, said Mohammad Nassim Haqqani, the head of the Taliban administration's disaster management authority.
Deaths were also reported in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Khost, he added, as authorities check for further casualties.
According to US Geological Survey, the earthquake occurred at 1:54am (PST), about 44 km (27 miles) from the city of Khost, near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, at a depth of 51 km. The shaking was felt over some 500km by about 119 million people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.
In Pakistan, tremors were felt in Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore, Kohat, Mohmand, Swat, Buner and other parts of Punjab and KP.
People left their homes in panic for safer places. "It was strong," said a resident of Peshawar. There were, however, no immediate reports of damage or deaths.
The disaster comes as Afghanistan has been enduring a severe economic crisis since the Taliban took over August, as US-led international forces were withdrawing after two decades of war.
In response to the Taliban takeover, many governments have imposed sanctions on Afghanistan's banking sector and cut billions of dollars worth of development aid.

UNITED NATIONS: The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) urged the international community on Monday to outlaw all willful provocations and incitement to hate and violence.

In a statement read at a high-level UN meeting on countering hate speech, the OIC also expressed grave concern on the “denigration of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)” by officials of India’s ruling Bhartiya Janta Party. Pakistan’s UN Ambassador Munir Akram read the statement on OIC’s behalf. The OIC demanded that all “willful provocations and incitement to hate and violence must be universally outlawed.”

Ambassador Akram reminded the international community that the OIC “remains concerned about willful provocations and defamation of Islamic holy personalities and religious symbols.”

On Saturday, June 18, the OIC joined the international community in commemorating the first ever international day for countering hate speech in pursuance of a General Assembly resolution passed recently.

The resolution for observing this day was presented by the Kingdom of Morocco, and the OIC described it “as an important milestone in advancing global efforts to address and counter hate speech.”

The OIC argued that observing this day would promote inter-religious and intercultural dialogue and tolerance in countering hate speech and would underline the need to counter all kinds of discrimination and xenophobia.

In his message to the high-level meeting, UN Secretary General António Guterres said that “hate speech is in itself an attack on tolerance, inclusion, diversity and the very essence of our human rights norms and principles.”

“Hate speech,” he added, “undermines social cohesion, erodes shared values and can lay the foundation for violence, setting back the cause of peace, stability, sustainable development and the fulfillment of human rights for all”.

Ambassador Akram pointed out that “the scale and impact of hate speech is amplified today by new technologies of communication, so much so that hate speech has become one of the most frequent methods for spreading divisive rhetoric and ideologies on a global scale.”

He warned that “if left unchecked, it can erode peace and development, since it creates the conditions for conflicts, religious tensions and wide scale human right violations, and can be a precursor for crimes of atrocity.”

The statement noted that while hate speech had proliferated across the globe, “the OIC is particularly alarmed at the sharp rise in Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred in many parts of the world.”

Such Islamophobic acts, the OIC added, “hurt the sensitivities of over 1.5 billion Muslims and constitute a gross abuse of the right of freedom of expression. They also reinforce extremist narratives.”

The OIC group condemned “the practice of insulting Islam, Christianity, Judaism and any other religion alike,” adding that it “stands against all acts of hate and violence on the basis of religion or belief.”

In this file photo taken on February 10, 2022 Elon Musk gestures as he speaks during a press conference at SpaceX's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas. — AFP

Private rocket company SpaceX fired at least five employees after it found they had drafted and circulated a letter criticising founder Elon Musk and urging executives to make the firm's culture more inclusive, two people familiar with the matter said. SpaceX did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment. The New York Times reported on Thursday that SpaceX had fired employees associated with the letter, citing three employees with knowledge of the situation. It had not detailed the number of employees who had been dismissed. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell sent an email saying the company had investigated and “terminated a number of employees involved” with the letter, the New York Times said.

The newspaper said Shotwell's email said employees involved with circulating the letter had been fired for making other staff feel “uncomfortable, intimidated and bullied, and/or angry because the letter pressured them to sign onto something that did not reflect their views”. Reuters could not independently confirm that report. Billionaire Musk is pursuing a $44-billion bid for Twitter and has made clear his support of freer controls on speech on the site. On Thursday, he told Twitter employees the platform should allow “pretty outrageous things” as long as the content is not illegal. The SpaceX letter, headed “an open letter to the Executives of SpaceX,” seen by Reuters, called Musk a “distraction and embarrassment” to the company he founded.

In a list of three demands, it said “SpaceX must swiftly and explicitly separate itself from Elon's personal brand,” “hold all leadership equally accountable to making SpaceX a great place to work for everyone” and “define and uniformly respond to all forms of unacceptable behaviour”. Musk, also head of electric automaker Tesla Inc, has been in the headlines and featured in late-night comedy monologues in recent months, including over his quest to take over Twitter, his criticism of Democrats and a reported allegation of sexual harassment, which Musk has denied in a Twitter post. The open letter at SpaceX, first reported by The Verge, was drafted by SpaceX employees in recent weeks and shared as an attachment in an internal Morale Boosters group chat that brings together thousands of employees, a person familiar with the matter said, asking not to be named.

Musk, also the company's chief engineer, has been viewed as a central figure in many of SpaceX's high-profile successes, such as pioneering the re-use of orbital rocket boosters and bringing back routine human spaceflight from US soil after a nine-year hiatus. Shotwell, who leads much of the company's day-to-day business, has said she will enforce SpaceX zero tolerance standards against employee harassment. Founded by Musk in 2002, SpaceX has played a central role in the US space programme, becoming the only company capable of launching Nasa astronauts into space from US soil and planning to send humans to the moon for the space agency within the next decade. SpaceX is also one of two companies on which the Pentagon depends to launch into space the bulk of US military and spy satellites.

The company tasked with collecting and facilitating applications from prospective Haj pilgrims living in western countries has at least one investor with close ties to India’s government, Middle East Eye reports.

Saudi Arabia’s authorities had last week announced that Haj pilgrims from Australia, Europe and the United States would need to apply for visas via the government portal Motawif, a move intended to crack down on what it called “fake” travel agencies.

The Saudi authorities have issued few statements about why the decision was being implemented so close to this year’s Haj, but an MEE investigation reveals that an individual involved in helping facilitate millions of dollars’ worth of investments into Traveazy — a Dubai-based company that has been exclusively contracted to process the western applications through Motawif — has ties to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Prashant Prakash, the vice president and partner at venture capital firm Accel India, has served on India’s National Startup Advisory Council since 2020, and in 2021 became a policy and strategy adviser to Basavaraj Bommai, the chief minister of the BJP-run government in Karnataka and a key Modi ally.

According to Accel, it was Prakash who led the venture capital firm into partnering with two other operations when they collectively invested $7 million in Traveazy in 2016, as the Indian-owned company began to build its Holidayme subsidiary, and, later in 2018, Umrahme, a company run by Mohammed bin Mahfouz.

According to Forbes, Umrahme is now “one of only three companies authorised by the Ministry of Haj and Umrah to sell Umrah products to global travel agents”.
Accel is a long-time investor in Israeli start-ups, reportedly investing more than $350m in the country between 2002 and 2016.
Several Indian activists said the revelations were concerning. Nabiya Khan, based in New Delhi, told MEE that Saudi Arabia’s decision to outsource the application process to a company with investor linked to the BJP was “outrageous and dangerous”.
“The personal data of those Muslims who applied through the portal could easily end up in wrong hands,” Khan said.
“It is unfortunate that Muslim nations are entrusting such sensitive information and money to people whose money will ultimately abet persecution of Muslims in India,” added Khan.

Syed Abdahu Kashaf, a social and civil rights activist from Hyderabad, told MEE that the allegations meant Saudi Arabia had effectively “invited people who have no right to be involved in a very sacred space for Muslims”.
Neither Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Haj and Umrah nor the Saudi consulate in New York City replied to requests for comment, according to MEE.

BAGHDAD (AP): U.S.-led coalition forces captured a senior leader of the extremist Islamic State group in a military operation in northern Syria on Thursday, the coalition said. A statement from the coalition said the captured IS leader was an experienced bomb maker and operational facilitator, describing him as one of the top leaders of the militant group’s branch in Syria. It said the operation was “successful,” with no civilians harmed and no injuries to the coalition forces.

The coalition did not respond to queries from The Associated Press. An updated statement later in the day identified the captured militant as Hani Ahmed al-Kurdi, known as Salim, and said that he was taken in Syria’s Aleppo province. According to a defense official, al-Kurdi is currently in U.S. custody and was being questioned. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to provide information not yet made public. “The mission to capture al-Kurdi was meticulously planned to minimize the risk of civilian harm or collateral damage,” the updated statement said.

“He was instructing others on making explosive devices, supporting the construction of improvised explosive device facilities, and facilitating attacks on U.S. and partner forces.” Earlier, three Iraqi intelligence officials said al- Kurdi is a Syrian national who rose through militant ranks to become one of the most senior and dangerous IS leaders and an expert on manufacturing booby-traps and explosives. For a while, he was the IS leader in charge of the Syrian city of Raqqa, when it was the de facto capital of the group’s so-called Islamic “caliphate” that stretched across much of Iraq and Syria.

The Iraqi intel officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give out the information. The U.S.-backed forces declared victory over the Islamic State group in March 2019 after retaking the last piece of territory held by IS in Syria. But the militants continue to operate and carry out deadly attacks in both Iraq and Syria through sleeper cells; the group also maintains several affiliates in various countries. A Syria war monitor, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the operation began with two helicopters landing near the targeted area in the village of al-Humaira, about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the Turkish border. It reported clashes with gunmen hiding in houses in the village in the northern Aleppo countryside as they were chased by members of the coalition. The Observatory has a network of activists on the ground in Syria. Meanwhile, French drone strikes killed nearly 40 Islamic extremists earlier this week who were traveling on motorcycles near Niger’s border with Burkina Faso, France’s military announced Thursday. In a statement, the French military called the strikes a “new tactical success” for France’s counterterrorism efforts in Africa’s Sahel region, named Operation Barkhane.

John Hinckley, who wounded then US President Ronald Reagan and three others in a 1981 assassination attempt, was released without conditions on Wednesday in compliance with a federal judge's order.
He had received full-time conditional release in 2016 after 30 years in a psychiatric hospital in Washington and had lived with his mother in Virginia until her death last year.
A jury had found him not guilty by reason of insanity in his 1982 trial, prompting Congress and some states to pass laws restricting the use of insanity as a defense.
"After 41 years 2 months and 15 days, FREEDOM AT LAST!!!" Hinckley, 67, wrote on his Twitter account on Wednesday afternoon.

Last September, US District Judge Paul Friedman ruled that Hinckley was "mentally stable," had complied with the terms of his conditional release, which had limited his travel and internet use, and that he should be granted unconditional release.

Doctors who examined Hinckley told the court the risk of him committing violence were remote, and federal prosecutors agreed. Reagan's daughter Patti Davis opposed Hinckley's release, saying Hinckley was a narcissist who she did not believe felt remorse.

Reagan quickly recovered after surgery for a punctured lung following Hinckley's attack outside a Washington hotel, but his press secretary Jim Brady was left with permanent disabilities. The first of the six bullets Hinckley fired hit Brady's head, shattering the brain cavity.
The attack helped spur modern efforts to tighten gun laws, with Brady and his wife, Sarah Brady, forming the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Following the shooting, it was widely reported that Hinckley had become obsessed with Jodie Foster and was trying to impress the "Taxi Driver" actor.
Shortly after Jim Brady's death in 2014, a medical examiner ruled his death a homicide from the shooting more than two decades earlier.
Hinckley has been writing songs and releasing recordings online, but his debut concert at the Market Hotel in New York City this month was canceled on Wednesday after the venue said it had received a volley of violent threats.

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