Evacuation flights restart from Kabul after Afghans desperate to flee cleared from airfield

KABUL (Reuters) -U.S. military flights evacuating diplomats and civilians from Afghanistan restarted on Tuesday after the runway at Kabul airport was cleared of thousands desperate to flee following the Taliban’s sudden takeover of the capital.

The number of civilians had thinned out, a Western security official at the airport told Reuters, a day after chaotic scenes in which U.S. troops fired to disperse crowds and people clung to a U.S. military transport plane as it taxied for take-off.

“Runway in Kabul international airport is open. I see airplanes landing and taking off,” Stefano Pontecorvo, NATO’s civilian representative, said on Twitter.

At least 12 military flights had taken off, a diplomat at the airport said. Planes were due to arrive from countries including Australia and Poland to pick up their nationals and Afghan colleagues.

As they rush to evacuate civilians, foreign powers are also assessing how to respond to the new rulers in Kabul and also how to deal with refugees trying to flee the country.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush, who launched a “war on terror” in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said the United States must move quickly to help Afghan refugees.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the country was in talks with all parties in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, and was positive on their statements since they took control.

Under a U.S. troops withdrawal pact struck last year, the Taliban agreed not to attack foreign forces as they leave.

U.S. forces took charge of the airport – their only way to fly out of Afghanistan – on Sunday, as the militants wound up a week of rapid advances by taking over Kabul without a fight, 20 years after they were ousted by a U.S.-led invasion.

Flights were suspended for much of Monday, when at least five people were killed, witnesses said. Media reported two people fell to their deaths from the underside of a U.S. military aircraft after it took off.

U.S. troops killed two gunmen who appeared to have fired into the crowd at the airport, a U.S. official said.

U.S. President Joe Biden defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces after 20 years of war – the nation’s longest – which he described as costing more than $1 trillion.

But a video of hundreds of desperate Afghans trying to clamber on to a U.S. military plane as it was about to take off could haunt the United States, just as a photograph in 1975 of people trying to get on a helicopter on a roof in Saigon became emblematic of the humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam.

Biden said he had to decide between asking U.S. forces to fight endlessly or follow through on a withdrawal agreement negotiated by his predecessor, Republican Donald Trump.

“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said. “After 20 years I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That’s why we’re still there.”

Facing criticism from even his own diplomats, he blamed the Taliban’s takeover on Afghan political leaders who fled and its army’s unwillingness to fight.

The Taliban captured Afghanistan’s biggest cities in days rather than the months predicted by U.S. intelligence. In many cases, demoralised government forces surrendered despite years of training and equipping by the United States and others.

40,000 WOUNDED

The Taliban began their push in the spring with attacks on government positions in the countryside and targeted killings in cities. The International Committee of the Red Cross said more than 40,000 people with wounds caused by weapons had been treated at facilities it supports in June, July and August, 7,600 of them since Aug. 1.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the hasty pullout of U.S. troops had a “serious negative impact”, China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported, adding that Wang pledged to work with Washington to promote stability.

U.S. forces are due to complete their withdrawal by the end of this month under the deal with the Taliban that hinged on their promise not to let Afghanistan be used for international terrorism.

President Ashraf Ghani left Afghanistan on Sunday as the Islamist militants entered Kabul, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed.

That day, some 640 Afghans crammed into a U.S. C-17 transport aircraft to fly to Qatar, a photo taken inside the plane showed.

The U.N. Security Council called for talks to create a new government in Afghanistan after Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of “chilling curbs” on human rights and violations against women and girls.

During the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.

The Taliban have said there will be no retribution against opponents and promised to respect the rights of women, minorities and foreigners, but many Afghans are skeptical and fear old enemies and activists will be rounded up.

The top U.N. human rights official voiced concern about the safety of thousands of Afghans who have worked on human rights. The U.N. refugee agency called for a halt to forced returns of Afghans including asylum seekers whose requests had been rejected.

(Reporting by Kabul and other bureaus; Writing by Jane Wardell, Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Timothy Heritage and Nick Macfie)

In a first under Biden, detainee transferred out of Guantanamo Bay

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden’s administration said on Monday that it had transferred its first detainee from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, a Moroccan man imprisoned since 2002, lowering the population at the facility to 39.

Abdul Latif Nasir, 56, was repatriated to Morocco.

Set up to house foreign suspects following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the prison came to symbolize the excesses of the U.S. “war on terror” because of harsh interrogation methods critics said amounted to torture.

While former President Donald Trump kept the prison open during his four years in the White House, Biden has vowed to close it, a promise White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated on Monday.

Nasir had been cleared for release in 2016 during the Obama administration before Trump took office. Most of the prisoners left at Guantanamo Bay have been held for nearly two decades without being charged or tried.

“The (Biden) administration is dedicated to following a deliberate and thorough process focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population of the Guantanamo facility while also safeguarding the security of the United States and its allies,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

Morocco’s general prosecutor said in a statement that Nasir would be investigated for suspected involvement in terrorist acts, and a police source said he had been taken into custody in Casablanca.

More than a dozen Moroccans have been held at Guantanamo Bay and those repatriated have faced investigation and trial. One, Ibrahim Benchekroun, was jailed for six years after being repatriated in 2005 and died in 2014 in Syria where he had traveled to join a militant group.

A senior U.S. administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that of the remaining detainees at the prison, 10 are already eligible for transfer.

Advocacy groups welcomed the move but said more needed to be done.

“The Biden administration urgently needs to negotiate and implement similar decisions for other cleared prisoners,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project.

“Bringing an end to two decades of unjust and abusive military detention of Muslim men at Guantanamo is a human rights obligation and a national security necessity,” Shamsi said.

Opened under Republican President George W. Bush, the prison’s population peaked at about 800 inmates before it started to shrink. President Barack Obama, a Democrat like Biden, whittled down the number, but his effort to close the prison was stymied largely by Republican opposition in Congress.

The federal government is barred by law from transferring any inmates to prisons on the U.S. mainland. Even with Democrats controlling Congress now, Biden has majorities so slim that he would struggle to secure legislative changes because some Democrats might also oppose them.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month that the administration was actively looking into recreating the position of a State Department envoy for the closure of the prison at the Guantanamo Bay naval base.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali, additional reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi in Rabat and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Howard Goller)

Exclusive: Biden administration launches review aimed at closing Guantanamo prison – White House

By Matt Spetalnick, Trevor Hunnicutt and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration has launched a formal review of the future of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay with the goal of closing the controversial facility in Cuba, a White House official said on Friday.

Aides involved in internal discussions are considering an executive action to be signed by President Joe Biden in coming weeks or months, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters, signaling a new effort to remove what human rights advocates have called a stain on America’s global image.

“We are undertaking an NSC process to assess the current state of play that the Biden administration has inherited from the previous administration, in line with our broader goal of closing Guantanamo,” National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne told Reuters.

“The NSC will work closely with the Departments of Defense, State, and Justice to make progress toward closing the GTMO facility, and also in close consultation with Congress,” she added.

Such an initiative, however, is unlikely to bring down the curtain anytime soon on the high-security facility located at the Guantanamo Naval Station. Set up to house foreign suspects following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, it came to symbolize the excesses of the U.S. “war on terror.”

The immediate impact, however, could be to reinstate, in some form, the Guantanamo closure policy of Biden’s old boss, former President Barack Obama, which was reversed by Donald Trump as soon as he took office in 2017.

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick, Trevor Hunnicutt and Phil Stewart; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Obama Vows U.S. ‘Will Destroy’ ISIS, Other Terrorist Groups

The United States “will destroy” the Islamic State “and any other terrorist organization that tries to harm us,” President Barack Obama said in a televised speech to the nation on Sunday night.

Speaking from the Oval Office, the president said the country faces new challenges in its 14-year war on terrorism but remains equipped to overcome the threat the ideology poses to America.

The speech came days after the husband-and-wife team of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people and wounded 21 others in a mass shooting at San Bernardino, California. The brazen attack occurred during a holiday party for Farook’s coworkers on Wednesday.

“This was an act of terrorism designed to kill innocent people,” Obama declared in the speech.

Obama went on to say that other shootings at military installations in Fort Hood, Texas, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, were also acts of terrorism. The president said the nature of these attacks represent a fundamental shift in the face of terrorism, and the challenge it presents.

He said the country has been at war with terrorists since 9/11, when terrorists hijacked four airplanes in an elaborate plot that ultimately killed nearly 3,000 people. America has beefed up its security and intelligence operations and disrupted a host of terrorist plots in the years since.

“Over the last few years, however, the terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase,” Obama said. “As we’ve become better at preventing complex, multi-faceted attacks like 9/11, terrorists turn to less-complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society.”

While noting there was no evidence that Farook and Malik were directed by a terrorist group or that they were part of a broader conspiracy in planning and executing Wednesday’s shootings, Obama said “it is clear that the two of them had gone down the dark path of radicalization, a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the West.”

The FBI echoed that statement on Monday, with an official saying at a news conference that the bureau had evidence that Farook and Malik had been radicalized “for quite some time.” The probe into the shootings and the circumstances around them continued Monday afternoon.

In his Sunday night speech, Obama reaffirmed the country’s commitment to fighting terrorism.

He said “our military will continue to hunt down terrorist plotters in any country where it is necessary,” and noted that 65 countries have joined an American-led coalition that is carrying out airstrikes against ISIS interests. The United States is also providing training to forces in Iraq and Syria that are fighting ISIS militants on the ground, and deploying special ops in both countries. Coalition forces are working to disrupt ISIS in other ways, like cutting off its money supply (largely obtained through oil smuggling) and preventing it from adding manpower.

Obama noted global efforts to combat ISIS have increased since Nov. 13, when gunmen and suicide bombers linked to the group killed 130 people in multiple terrorist attacks in Paris. In particular, he said the exchange of intelligence between allies has surged since those attacks.

The president said technology has made it easier for groups like the Islamic State to corrupt the minds of people around the world. The terrorists are frequently able to use social media and the Internet to share their radical messages. Obama called for technology companies and law enforcement officials to make it more difficult for terrorists to hide behind computer screens.

He also called for the departments of State and Homeland Security to review the ‘fiancee visa’ waiver program that Malik, a Pakistani native who was living in Saudi Arabia, used to enter the United States. It’s been widely reported that she met Farook, a U.S. citizen, on an online dating site.

Obama also called for stricter gun laws, like making it more difficult to purchase assault weapons like the ones used in San Bernardino. He noted authorities simply can’t identify every potential mass shooter, but “what we can do — and must do — is make it harder for them to kill.”

While Obama outlined the steps America is taking against ISIS and to prevent future terrorist attacks at home, he also laid out a list of things that America should not do. Those included entering a ground war in the Middle East, which could be lengthy and ultimately play into the Islamic State’s hand. He also said the country shouldn’t fear or discriminate against Muslims, noting that the Islamic State “doesn’t speak for Islam” and was “part of a cult of death.”

“The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it,” Obama said in his televised comments. “We will destroy (ISIS) and any other organization that tries to harm us.”