Taliban Attack Afghan City as They Talk Peace With U.S.

Afghan soldiers in Kunduz in July. The city was under heavy attack from the Taliban on Saturday morning.
CreditCreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Times

By Najim Rahim and 


KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — The Taliban have launched an attack from several directions on the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, which they have occupied twice in recent years, even as the insurgents seemed close to a preliminary peace agreement with American diplomats.

Residents said on Saturday morning that heavy fighting had been underway in several corners of the city since before dawn, and that the streets were largely deserted.

Ehsanullah Fazli, the health director for Kunduz Province, said the militants took over his department’s headquarters in the city. They eventually left the building, but remained outside the headquarters and a nearby hospital.

He said three bodies and 40 wounded people had been brought to the hospital so far, but that the real toll in the city was probably much higher, because fighting was preventing ambulances from leaving the hospital to pick up the wounded.


Security officials acknowledged that Afghan forces were fighting off assaults in at least three parts of the city, with at least two police precinct offices taking fire from the Taliban.

“Hundreds of Taliban have attacked Kunduz city from three directions, and their assault has been fended off by our security and defense forces,” said Rohullah Ahmadzai, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

“The enemy, in a cowardly way, has taken up position in civilian areas. Our forces are moving with caution in their operations so they don’t cause civilian casualties.”

Afghan Air Force planes flew over the city and carried out several strikes on advancing Taliban positions. Officials in Kabul, the capital, said several units of special forces were on their way to Kunduz to fend off the assault. The operation was largely Afghan, with U.S. forces providing some support, one official said.

Officials in Kabul said more than 30 Taliban had been killed in the airstrikes and ground engagements, but that security forces were moving slowly, because the insurgents were using residential areas to stage their attacks.

The Taliban posted a video of a small group of Afghan police officials surrendering to them. In the video, whose authenticity could not be independently verified, the insurgents call out to the officers, holed up in an outpost across the street, as gunshots are heard in the background. The officers slowly emerge and hand over their weapons, as the Taliban tell them that nothing will happen to them.

In two previous instances in which the Taliban entered Kunduz city, Afghan forces relied heavily on airstrikes. During the first assault, on Kunduz city in October 2015, American planes struck a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, known by its French initials, M.S.F., killing at least 42 people.

Kunduz residents, surprised by the attacks, rushed to stock food and basic essentials on Saturday morning, to find only a small number of shops open. Then even those shops began to close their doors.

“It was around 2 a.m. when we started hearing heavy firing,” said Rahmatullah Rahimi, 52, a Kunduz resident who sells firewood. “With each rocket, our windows would shake. Neither I nor our neighbors have slept all night. How can you sleep with the sound of fighting? We are trying to see whether we should flee or stay.”

The attack comes as Taliban officials and American negotiatorscontinue marathon talks in the Qatari capital of Doha on finalizing a preliminary peace deal. Talks were expected to resume on Saturday morning.

The deal is expected to finalize a timeline for the withdrawal of the remaining American and NATO forces in the country, and to open the path for direct negotiations between the Taliban and the government over the political future of the country. But the violence in Afghanistan has intensified even as the talks have continued.

Najim Rahim reported from Kunduz and Mujib Mashal from Kabul, Afghanistan.


Colombia’s Duque seeks arrest of rearmed ex-FARC leaders

Colombia's Duque seeks arrest of rearmed ex-FARC leaders
A handout picture released by the Colombian presidency’s press office shows Colombian President Ivan Duque speaking in Bogota [Handout/Colombian Presidency/AFP]

Bogota, Colombia – Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Thursday he would send an army unit to find the former FARC rebels who said they were take up arms again.

“I have ordered the creation of a special unit for the persecution of these criminals with reinforced intelligence, investigation and mobility capabilities throughout Colombian territory,” Duque said.

The announcement came less than 24 hours after Ivan Marquez, a former commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), said in a video that he was taking up arms again in a “new phase of armed struggle” in the country.

“This is the continuation of the rebel fight in response to the state’s betrayal of the Havana peace accords,” Marquez said in the 32-minute video posted on YouTube on Wednesday night. Marquez was surrounded by rifle-bearing men and women dressed in green fatigues.

“We announce to the world that the second Marquetalia (birthplace of FARC’s guerrilla movement) has begun under the protection of the universal right that assists all of the peoples of the world to raise arms against oppression,” he said.

FARC Colombia
A screengrab taken from YouTube shows former senior commanders of the dissolved FARC rebel army group in Colombia [YouTube/AFP]

Marquez, who is wanted by the US in connection to alleged drug trafficking, went into hiding last year. Jesus Santrich, a former FARC commander, appeared next to Marquez. Santrich was arrested last year and was later released. His whereabouts have also been unknown.


Colombia: Ex-FARC commander Marquez says will take up arms again

‘Threatens to derail peace’

Analysts say Duque’s response to the ex-FARC leaders is key to how the country’s unstable peace process moves forward.

“Duque needs to understand his place in history right now because his response can determine, to a large extent, his government’s legacy,” Sergio Guzman, political analyst and director of Colombia Risk Analysis, told Al Jazeera.

Hugh Aprile, Mercy Corps Country Director in Colombia, agreed, saying “today, Colombia is less stable than it was yesterday. The latest call from former FARC leaders to reinitiate armed conflict threatens to derail Colombia’s hard-won peace.”


UNSC in Colombia to check on implementation of FARC peace deal

A peace agreement was signed between the FARC and the Colombian government in 2016, putting an end to five decades of bloody armed conflict that killed 260,000. Marquez was the leftist rebel group’s lead negotiator. Thousands of FARC rebels disarmed with promises of political, social and economic reintegration, as well as security guarantees. However, some opposed the agreement and the whereabouts of eight percent of disarmed FARC fighters in the reintegration process remain unknown.

Duque has been highly critical of the peace agreement, which was ushered in under former President Juan Manuel Santos.

“Colombia doesn’t accept threats of any nature, least of all from drug traffickers. We Colombians need to be clear that we are not facing a new guerrilla group but facing criminal threats from a group of drug traffickers that are being sheltered and supported by dictator Nicolas Maduro,” Duque said on Thursday, referring to the Venezuelan president.

Duque said there would be a three billion peso (about $882,000) reward for the arrest of those appearing in the video.

A screengrab taken from YouTube shows former senior commanders of the dissolved FARC rebel army group in Colombia [YouTube/AFP]

Santos, responding to the ex-FARC leaders’ announcement, tweeted that “90 percent of the FARC is still in the peace process. We must continue to comply. The defectors must be repressed with full force. The battle for peace won’t stop!.”


For many women in Colombia, peace never arrived

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) think-tank, told Al Jazeera that this is not the end of the peace process but the government needs to bolster efforts.

“The Colombian government must take bold steps to guarantee that FARC ex-combatants do not rearm. It should do so by bolstering the peace effort and implementing all the security measures found in the accord,” said Gimena Sanchez, Director of the Andes for WOLA.

“Colombians need the government to take leadership in advancing the accord. These are dissidents of the FARC and do not reflect the majority of whom have demobilised,” she said.



Hadi urges Saudi intervention to stop UAE support for separatists

The president of Yemen‘s internationally recognised government has urged Saudi Arabia to intervene to stop the United Arab Emirates‘ backing for southern separatists fighting for control of the key southern city of Aden and its surrounding areas.

The statement by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi on Thursday came after Yemeni officials accused the UAE of launching air raids on government forces in support of the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), killing dozens of people.

The intense battles in recent weeks between Hadi’s forces and the STC’s fighters have opened a new front in Yemen’s multilayered war. The two sides were until recently allies in a Saudi-UAE-led military coalition fighting the Houthi rebels who control the country’s north.

Yemeni Information Minister Moammar al-Eryani said on Thursday that the UAE’s air attacks in Aden and its vicinities, as well as in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, had killed 40 combatants and wounded 70 civilians.

Separately, Yemen’s defence ministry said on Twitter that more than 300 people were killed and wounded by the UAE’s air raids. The casualty tolls could not be independently verified.

In a statement on Thursday, Hadi, who is based in Saudi Arabia, said the government was facing “an armed rebellion” carried out by the UAE-backed STC’s militias aimed at hitting “the constitutional legitimacy of Yemen”.

“They have committed themselves to injustice, aggression and using armed forces against the Yemeni people in the southern governorates, using the UAE’s military arsenal in order to divide our country,” he added, calling on Riyadh “to intervene to stop this blatant intrusion by these militias and their aerial bombardment of our armed forces”.

Hadi said that following the air raids, the government forces withdrew “to the vicinity of Aden governorate in order to spare Aden” and its residents “the mad destruction” by the STC militias.

The UAE’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday that the air raids were aimed at “armed groups led by members of terrorist organisations” following “attacks on coalition forces at Aden airport”.

Aden has been the temporary seat of Hadi’s government since the Houthis seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in 2015.

Aden map

‘Complete control’

The government said on Wednesday it had taken Aden back from the STC’s forces who seized it on August 10 after four days of fierce fighting killed at least 40 people, according to the United Nations.

But on Thursday, the STC said its forces had regained control of the coastal city, after bringing in reinforcements from the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah.

“To whoever said the Southern Resistance has fled, I say: We are here,” Hani Ben Brik, STC’s vice president, said in social media posts showing himself and other southern leaders touring the streets of the city, including the airport. He warned fleeing government loyalists of punishment after their brief takeover the previous day.

Separatist forces “completely [took] control the city of Aden along with its entrances”, Haitham Nezar, a spokesman for the STC, told AFP, adding they were now setting their sights on Abyan and Shabwa provinces, which were retaken by government troops earlier this week.

There were sporadic clashes across Aden on Thursday with gunmen on both sides patrolling deserted streets, residents told Reuters news agency. Shops, restaurants and businesses were closed.

Meanwhile, sources on both sides said that clashes had flared in Zinjibar, about 100km from Aden after government troops withdrew to the area.

Families trapped

The aid charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it had taken in 51 casualties during heavy fighting in Aden on Wednesday, 10 of them already dead when they reached its hospital.

“It’s total chaos here. There was fighting in the city all day yesterday. Things appear to have calmed down a bit this morning, but we expect the hostilities to resume at any point,” MSF programme manager Caroline Seguin said in a statement.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Yemen said 13 people were killed and at least 70 wounded over the past two days in Aden and Abyan.

“We mourn for the dead and wounded and plead with everyone who is fighting to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law,” said Lise Grande, humanitarian coordinator in Yemen.

“The situation is very fragile. Families are again trapped in their homes by fighting, unable to secure food and reach medical care,” Grande said, adding that “the timing couldn’t be worse”.

Alliance rift?

The fighting has raised further concerns the famine-threatened country could break apart entirely, exacerbating a dire situation in a long-running conflict the   United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

It also reflects a rift within the pro-government coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE fighting the Houthi rebels.

The UAE has trained and supported the secessionists who seek an independent southern Yemen.

South Yemen was a separate state until it merged with North Yemen in 1990. Four years later, an armed secession bid failed to reverse the reunification.

The UAE seems to have been “planning this for quite some time” pursuing its own foreign policy in the war-ravaged country, Sami Hamdi, of the UK-based media group International Interest, told Al Jazeera.

Doha-based Yemeni political analyst Saeed Thabit also told Al Jazeera fighting between government forces and the southern separatists was not over.

“No party at this point has a decisive victory over the other,” he said.

Thabit said both sides were mobilising forces and bringing in heavy weapons for the fight to control the key port city.

“The battle for Aden is complicated as the battle lines are shifting back and forth by the hour,” he said.

‘Secessionist stronghold’

Catherine Shakdam, head of the Yemen department at London-based think-tank Next Century Foundation, told Al Jazeera the separatists will remain in control of Aden because of Hadi’s weak government.

“I think, realistically, that it is very likely that the secessionists will remain in control of the seaport of Aden. It is, after all, a stronghold of the secessionist movement, and has been for many decades now.”

Shakdam said the feeble government and the advancement of Houthi rebels emboldened the separatists who realise it “is an opportunity they cannot miss”.

She said the situation was complicated for the Saudis and the UAE but also for the Houthis, who previously supported a partition of the country but “no longer believe there should be two Yemens”.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – meeting in Washington with Saudi Arabia’s deputy defence minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman – called for a negotiated resolution.

Pompeo and the prince “agreed that dialogue represents the only way to achieve a stable, unified and prosperous Yemen,” the State Department said in a statement.

The meeting came after The Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources, said US President Donald Trump‘s administration was pursuing secret talks with the Houthis in hopes of winding down the devastating five-year war.

Is the war in Yemen changing?


Is the war in Yemen changing?