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2021-04-16 03:56:00 06:15:00

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Smoke is seen following a fire at Aramco facility in the eastern city of Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia, on September 14, 2019. — Reuters
Smoke is seen following a fire at Aramco facility in the eastern city of Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia, on September 14, 2019. — Reuters

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Sunday struck out at United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who directly accused Tehran for drone attacks targeting Saudi oil facility claimed by the Yemeni rebels — saying that "blaming Iran won't end the disaster".

"Having failed at 'max pressure', @SecPompeo's turning to 'max deceit'," Zarif tweeted. "US and its clients are stuck in Yemen because of illusion that weapon superiority will lead to military victory. Blaming Iran won't end disaster. Accepting our April '15 proposal to end war and begin talks may."

 

The attacks on Saturday, claimed by Yemen's Houthi rebels, resulted in “the temporary suspension of production operations” at the Abqaiq processing facility and the Khurais oil field, Riyadh said.

That led to the interruption of an estimated 5.7 million barrels in crude supplies, authorities said while pledging the kingdom's stockpiles would make up the difference.

While markets remain closed on Sunday, the attack could shock world energy prices. They also increased overall tensions in the region amid an escalating crisis between the United States and Iran over Tehran's unravelling nuclear deal with world powers.

Late on Saturday, Pompeo directly blamed Iran for the attack on Twitter, without offering evidence to support his claim. The US, Western nations, their Gulf Arab allies and United Nations experts allege Iran supplies the Houthis with weapons and drones — a charge that Tehran denies.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi had dismissed Pompeo's remarks as “blind and futile comments".

"The Americans adopted the 'maximum pressure' policy against Iran, which, due to its failure, is leaning towards 'maximum lies'," Mousavi said in a statement.

First word of Saturday's assault came in online videos of giant fires at the Abqaiq facility, some 330 kilometres northeast of the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Machine-gun fire could be heard in several clips alongside the day's first Muslim call to prayers, suggesting security forces tried to bring down the drones just before dawn. In daylight, Saudi state television aired a segment with its local correspondent near a police checkpoint, a thick plume of smoke visible behind him.

US President Donald Trump called Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to offer his support for the kingdom's defence, the White House said. The crown prince assured Trump that Saudi Arabia is "willing and able to confront and deal with this terrorist aggression", according to a news release from the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

Saudi Aramco describes its Abqaiq oil processing facility in Buqyaq as "the largest crude oil stabilisation plant in the world". The facility processes sour crude oil into sweet crude, then transports it onto transshipment points on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea or to refineries for local production. Estimates suggest it can process up to 7m barrels of crude oil a day. By comparison, Saudi Arabia produced 9.65m barrels of crude oil a day in July.

The Khurais oil field is believed to produce over 1m barrels of crude oil a day. It has estimated reserves of over 20 billion barrels of oil, according to Aramco.

There was no immediate impact on global oil prices as markets were closed for the weekend. Benchmark Brent crude had been trading at just above $60 a barrel.

Negotiations between the US and the Taliban had been ongoing for almost a year in Doha [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Negotiations between the US and the Taliban had been ongoing for almost a year in Doha [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Afghan group says US President Donald Trump's abrupt cancellation of peace talks will harm Washington more.

 

The Taliban has condemned US President Donald Trump's decision to suspend the ongoing talks with the group to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan as an "anti-peace" move. 

"Now that US President Trump has announced the suspension of negotiations... this would not harm anyone else but the Americans themselves," the group said in a statement on Sunday.

In a series of tweets on Saturday, Trump said he was calling off secret meetings scheduled for Sunday with Taliban representatives and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at Camp David in Maryland, US.

Citing a Taliban attack in Kabul last week in which 12 people, including a US soldier, were killed as the reason, Trump also cancelled the US-Taliban negotiations ongoing in Qatar for nearly a year. 

The Taliban said the cancellation of talks would "lead to more losses for the US", "harm [its] credibility" and "show their anti-peace stance in [a] more clear way".

"Our struggle for the past 18 years ... will continue until the foreign occupation is finished and the Afghans are given a chance to live by their own choice," said the statement. 

The Taliban said the US negotiating team was "happy with the progress made so far" in Doha and the talks were held "in a good atmosphere".

"We had fruitful discussions with the US negotiating team and the agreement was finalised," said the statement.

"The American delegation was happy from the outcome of the talks until yesterday [Saturday]. Both sides were preparing for the announcement and the signing of the agreement."

The Taliban said it had even set September 23 as the inaugural day of another round of inter-Afghan dialogue in the hope that a deal with the US would be reached before that date.

Donald J. Trump
 
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Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday. They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to..

 
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Following Trump's announcement, the Afghan president's office said that "real peace" would only be possible if the Taliban stopped launching attacks and held direct talks with the government.

 

The Taliban has long refused to engage with the Afghan government, calling it a "puppet regime" of the West with "no real power".

'Talks dead for now'

The US has also recalled its special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, to Washington to determine the path forward, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a US network on Sunday.

Asked on "Fox News Sunday" whether the Afghan talks were dead, Pompeo said, "For the time being they are."

Reporting from Washington, Al Jazeera's Rob Reynolds said the cancellation of talks with the Taliban was "certainly startling for policymakers and politicians and pundits" in the US capital.

Reynolds, however, said the decision did not necessarily signal that the talks were dead.

"Its is worth recalling that President Trump both as a businessman and president has used this tactic many times in the past, that of walking away from negotiations in hopes of getting a better or stronger negotiating position."

Reynolds said Trump was hoping that the Taliban would decide that it needed a peace deal more than the US.

 

"Trump's use of the word 'leverage' in his tweets indicated that he is approaching these talks like a "business transaction," he said.

Last week, US and Taliban negotiators struck a draft deal that could have led to a withdrawal of troops from America's longest war.

There are currently 14,000 US forces as well as thousands of other NATO troops in Afghanistan, 18 years after its invasion by a US-led coalition following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA NEWS

In this handout photo taken and released on September 7 by India's Press Information Bureau (PIB), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2nd L) speaks with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientists at the ISRO headquarters in Bangalore. — AFP

India's space programme suffered a huge setback on Saturday after it lost contact with an unmanned spacecraft moments before it was due to make a historic soft landing on the Moon.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to comfort glum scientists and a stunned nation from the lunar programme's command centre in Banglalore, saying India was “proud” and clasping the visibly emotional mission chief in a lengthy bear hug.

Blasting off in July, India had hoped to become just the fourth country after the United States, Russia and regional rival China to make a successful Moon landing, and the first on the lunar South Pole.

But in the early hours of Saturday India time, as Modi looked on and millions watched with bated breath nationwide, Vikram, the lander named after the father of India's space programme, went silent just 2.1 kilometres above the lunar surface.

The moon is seen behind a tracking antenna at Indian Space Research Organisation's Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network facility in Bangalore, late Friday, Sept 6. — AP
The moon is seen behind a tracking antenna at Indian Space Research Organisation's Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network facility in Bangalore, late Friday, Sept 6. — AP

 

“The Vikram lander descent was (going) as planned and normal performance was observed,” Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman Kailasavadivoo Sivan said.

“Subsequently the communication from the lander to the ground station was lost,” he said in a stunned operations room. “The data is being analysed.”

The Chandrayaan-2 ( “Moon Vehicle 2”) orbiter, which will circle and study the Moon remotely for a year, is however “healthy, intact, functioning normally and safely in the lunar orbit”, the ISRO said.

Consoler-in-chief

Freshly re-elected Modi had hoped to bask in the glory of a successful mission, but on Saturday he deftly turned consoler-in-chief in a speech at mission control broadcast live on television and to his 50 million Twitter followers.

“Sisters and brothers of India, resilience and tenacity are central to India's ethos. In our glorious history of thousands of years, we have faced moments that may have slowed us, but they have never crushed our spirit,” he said.

“We have bounced back again ... This is the reason our civilisation stands tall,” he said in Bangalore. “When it comes to our space programme, the best is yet to come.”

Chandrayaan-2 took off on July 22 carrying an orbiter, lander and rover almost entirely designed and made in India, a week after an initial launch was halted just before blast-off.

ISRO had acknowledged before the soft landing that it was a complex manoeuvre, which Sivan called “15 minutes of terror”.

It was carrying rover Pragyan — “wisdom” in Sanskrit — which was due to emerge several hours after touchdown.

The rover was expected to explore craters for clues on the origin and evolution of the Moon, and also for evidence on how much water the polar region contains.

According to Mathieu Weiss, a representative in India for France's space agency CNES, this is vital to determining whether humans could one day spend extended periods on the Moon.

It would mean the Moon could be used as a pitstop on the way to Mars, the next objective of governments and private spacefaring programmes such as Elon Musk's Space X.

Ambitious programme

Asia's third-largest economy also hopes to secure lucrative commercial satellite and orbiting deals in the competitive market.

China in January became the first to land a rover on the far side of the Moon. In April, Israel's attempt failed at the last minute when its craft suffered an engine failure and apparently crashed onto the lunar surface.

The Chandrayaan-2 space mission — India's most ambitious so far — stood out because of its low cost of about $140 million.

The US spent the equivalent of more than $100 billion on its Apollo missions.

India is preparing Gaganyaan, its first manned space mission, with the air force announcing on Friday that the first level of selection of potential astronauts was complete.

The South Asian nation also hopes to land a probe on Mars. In 2014, it became only the fourth nation to put a satellite into orbit around the Red Planet.

Police tape marks the scene outside a Twin Peaks restaurant after multiple people were shot on August 31 in Odessa, Texas. — Cengiz Yar/Getty Images/AFP

A gunman hijacked a US postal truck and opened fire at random in the US state of Texas on Saturday, shooting dead at least five people and wounding many others before dying in a shootout with officers.

Police identified the suspect as a white man in his mid-30s, but could not yet name him or say why he carried out the attack in the West Texas cities of Midland and Odessa.

Coming less than a month after a gunman killed 22 people in the Texas city of El Paso, the latest bloodshed immediately ignited fresh calls for gun control to stem the US scourge of mass shootings.

"We have at least 21 victims, 21 shooting victims and at least five deceased at this point in time," Odessa city Police Chief Michael Gerke told reporters.

Three police officers were injured, he said.

The Odessa Police Department had earlier reported that a suspect was "driving around Odessa shooting at random people" and "just hijacked a US mail carrier truck".

A rifle through the window

Troopers had initially tried to pull over a passenger vehicle on the Interstate 20 highway but before it stopped, "the male driver (and only occupant in the vehicle) pointed a rifle toward the rear window of his car and fired several shots toward the DPS patrol unit," the Texas Department of Public Safety said in a statement.

One trooper was wounded, the suspect fled the scene, "and continued shooting innocent people," the department said.

Some of the shots were fired on the highway linking the cities of Odessa and Midland, where cars were left with bullet holes.

"I just found out a friend of mine passed away," David Turner, the mayor of Odessa where the incident ended, told Fox News.

"This coward pulls up beside" and opens fire on the car where the man and his family were waiting at a stop light, Turner said.

During his rampage, the suspect had switched vehicles by hijacking the postal van, and Gerke said he "would assume" the postal worker was among the victims.

Police said the suspect died during an exchange of fire with law enforcement at a movie theater in Odessa.

Alex Woods, a witness, told CNN that near the movie theatre "I could see a bunch of gunfire going off. And I could see the officer walking up to the mail van and discharging his weapon into it.

"And I believe that was when the shooter was killed."

President Donald Trump tweeted that he had been briefed by Attorney General Bill Barr.

The latest incident came after the early August mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart, where many victims were Hispanic.

In that case, officers arrested Patrick Crusius, 21, a white Texan, who told police that he was targeting “Mexicans,” according to an arrest warrant published by US media.

The tragedy in El Paso was committed on the basis of "racist" anti-Mexican rhetoric, Jesus Seade, Mexico's foreign ministry undersecretary for North America, said during a memorial after that shooting.

Critics of Trump have accused him of stoking such hatred.

The shooting in El Paso came hours before a gunman in Dayton, Ohio killed nine people, reigniting calls for gun control in the United States where firearms were linked to nearly 40,000 deaths in 2017.

"We need to end this epidemic," former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke reacted on Twitter after the latest killings.

O'Rourke, a Democratic presidential hopeful, expressed sympathy with "everyone in West Texas who has to endure this again".

Another Democratic contender, former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, appealed on Twitter to the Republican-controlled Senate "who refuse to move on gun reform".

"What is the number? How many Americans are you willing to sacrifice to the NRA?"

After a series of mass shootings since late July Trump had expressed provisional support for implementing universal background checks.

The president's position is crucial, because congressional Republicans, who count on gun rights supporters for votes, cannot move on tougher firearms legislation without his support.

However, US media including The Washington Post and The Atlantic in late August quoted White House sources as saying Trump promised National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre he would not pressure Congress for a stringent, universal, pre-sale review of all gun buyers.

The Google logo is pictured at the entrance to the Google offices in London, Britain, January 18. — Reuters/File

Google on Friday told employees to focus on work instead of heated debates about politics with colleagues at the internet company, which has long been known for encouraging people to speak their minds.

Updated workplace guidelines for “Googlers” called on them to be responsible, helpful, and thoughtful during exchanges on internal message boards or other conversation forums.

“While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not,” the updated guidelines stated.

“Our primary responsibility is to do the work we've each been hired to do, not to spend working time on debates about non-work topics.”

“We're all free to raise concerns and respectfully question and debate the company's activities — that's part of our culture,” the guidelines read.

“Take care not to make false or misleading statements about Google's products or business that could undermine trust in our products and the work that we do.”

Managers or those moderating forums were directed to intervene if the policy is violated, revoking comments, ending discussions, or even taking disciplinary action.

US President Donald Trump revived his criticism of Google this month, referencing a fired engineer who claimed the internet giant was working against his re-election.

The comments were the latest from the US leader alleging, without evidence, that Silicon Valley giants distort searches and social feeds to suppress conservatives.

Trump has assailed Google on several occasions, claiming bias against him and his supporters. Google repeated its response that these claims are baseless.

“The statements made by this disgruntled former employee are absolutely false,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement, referring to the fired engineer.

“We go to great lengths to build our products and enforce our policies in ways that don't take political leanings into account.”

In recent years, Google employees have challenged the company on issues including sexual harassment in the workplace, bidding on contracts with US defence or immigration agencies, and the potential for tailoring its online search engine for use on China's heavily censored internet.

Anti-government demonstrators apologise for yesterday's clashes with police at the airport in Hong Kong China on August 14. — Reuters

Flights resumed at Hong Kong's airport on Wednesday after two days of disruptions marked by outbursts of violence that highlight the hardening positions of pro-democracy protesters and the authorities in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

About three dozen protesters remained camped in the airport's arrivals area a day after a mass demonstration and frenzied mob violence forced more than 100 flight cancellations. Additional identification checks were in place, but check-in counters were open and flights appeared to be operating normally.

Protesters spread pamphlets and posters across the floor in a section of the terminal but were not impeding travellers. Online, they also circulated letters and promotional materials apologising to travellers and the general public for inconveniences during the past five days of airport occupations.

"It is not our intention to cause delays to your travels and we do not want to cause inconvenience to you," said an emailed statement from a group of protesters.

"We ask for your understanding and forgiveness as young people in Hong Kong continue to fight for freedom and democracy."

The airport's management said it had obtained "an interim injunction to restrain persons from unlawfully and willfully obstructing or interfering" with airport operations. It said an area of the airport had been set aside for demonstrations, but no protests would be allowed outside the designated area.

The airport had closed check-in for remaining flights late on Tuesday afternoon as protesters swarmed the terminal and blocked access to immigration for departing passengers. Those cancellations were in addition to 200 flights cancelled on Monday.

Hong Kong police said they arrested five people during clashes with pro-democracy protesters at the airport on Tuesday night.

Assistant Commissioner of Police Operations Mak Chin-ho said the men, aged between 17 and 28, were arrested for illegal assembly. Two were also charged with assaulting a police officer and possessing offensive weapons as riot police sought to clear the terminal.

More than 700 protesters have been arrested in total since early June, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, but also including women, teenagers and septuagenarians.

Mak gave no further details, but said additional suspects were expected to be arrested, including those who assaulted an officer after stripping him of his baton and pepper spray, prompting him to draw his gun to fend them off.

Hong Kong law permits life imprisonment for those who commit violent acts or acts that might interfere with flight safety at an airport.

More than 7 million travellers pass through Hong Kong's airport each year, making it "not an appropriate place of protest," Mak said.

"Hong Kong police have always facilitated peaceful and orderly protests over the years, but the extremely radical and violent acts have certainly crossed the line and are to be most severely condemned," he said.

"The police pledge to all citizens of Hong Kong that we will take steps to bring all culprits to justice."

Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific said in a statement it had cancelled 272 flights over the past two days, affecting more than 55,000 passengers, while 622 departures and arrivals went ahead.

The airport disruptions have escalated a summer of demonstrations aimed at what many Hong Kong residents see as an increasing erosion of the freedoms they were promised in 1997 when Communist Party-ruled mainland China took over what had been a British colony.

While Hong Kong's crucial travel industry suffers major losses, the city's reputation as a well-regulated centre for finance is also taking a hit. Some 21 countries and regions have issued travel safety alerts for their citizens travelling to Hong Kong, saying protests have become more violent and unpredictable.

The demonstrators are demanding Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam step down and scrap proposed legislation under which some suspects could be sent to mainland China, where critics say they could face torture and unfair or politically charged trials.

Lam has rejected calls for dialogue, saying on Tuesday the protesters were threatening to push their home into an "abyss".

In a statement on Wednesday, the Chinese Cabinet's liaison office in Hong Kong said the protesters had "entirely ruptured legal and moral bottom lines" and would face swift and severe repercussions under Hong Kong's legal system.

"Their behaviour shows extreme contempt for the law, seriously damages Hong Kong's international image and deeply hurts the feelings of the broad masses of their mainland compatriots," the statement said.

Most of the protesters left the airport on Tuesday after officers armed with pepper spray and swinging batons tried to enter the terminal, fighting with demonstrators who barricaded entrances with luggage carts. Riot police clashed briefly with the demonstrators, leading to several injuries and prompting at least one officer to draw a handgun on his assailants.

The burst of violence included protesters beating up at least two men they suspected of being undercover Chinese agents. Airport security appeared unable to control the crowd, and paramedics later took both men away. Police have acknowledged using "decoy" officers, and some protesters over the weekend were seen being arrested by men dressed like demonstrators in black and wearing face masks.

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, identified one of the men as a journalist at the nationalistic Chinese tabloid.

"Fu Guohao, reporter of GT website is being seized by demonstrators at HK airport," Hu wrote on his Twitter account. "I affirm this man being tied in this video is the reporter himself. He has no other task except for reporting."

Protesters on Wednesday apologised that some of them had become "easily agitated and over-reacted".

On posters, the demonstrators said they have been "riddled with paranoia and rage" after discovering undercover police officers in their ranks.

Earlier this week, the central government in Beijing issued an ominous characterisation of the protest movement as something approaching "terrorism" a label it routinely applies to nonviolent protests of government policies on the environment or in minority regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet.

President Donald Trump tweeted that US intelligence believes that the Chinese government is moving troops to its border with Hong Kong and that, "Everyone should be calm and safe!"

While China has yet to threaten using the army as it did against pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989 recent police exercises across Hong Kong's border with mainland China were a sign of its ability to crush the demonstrations, even at a cost to Hong Kong's reputation as a safe haven for business and international exchange.

Images on the internet showed armoured personnel carriers belonging to the People's Armed Police driving in a convoy Monday toward the site of the exercises.

The US and the Taliban will seek to thrash out elements of a deal to bring a close to Afghanistan's 18-year conflict in the second day of renewed talks in Doha on Sunday. — AP/File

The US and the Taliban will seek to thrash out elements of a deal to bring a close to Afghanistan's 18-year conflict in the second day of renewed talks in Doha on Sunday.

The US, which invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban in 2001, wants to withdraw thousands of troops and turn the page on its longest-ever war.

But it would first seek assurances from the insurgents that they would renounce Al-Qaeda and stop other militants like the Islamic State group using the country as a haven.

The talks, now in their eighth round, began on Saturday and were due to resume Sunday morning after pausing overnight, US and Taliban sources told AFP.

A Taliban source also said efforts were underway to organise a direct meeting between US envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar, who heads the movement's political wing.

A coalition led by Washington ousted the Taliban in late 2001 accusing it of harbouring Al-Qaeda jihadists who claimed the September 11 attacks against the US that killed almost 3,000 people.

But despite a rapid conclusion to the conventional phase of the war, the Taliban have proved formidable insurgents, bogging down US troops for years.

Washington is hoping to strike a peace deal with the Taliban by September 1 — ahead of Afghan polls due the same month, and US presidential elections due in 2020.

US President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday that "we've made a lot of progress. We're talking".

"We are pursuing a peace agreement not a withdrawal agreement, a peace agreement that enables withdrawal," Khalilzad tweeted on Friday as he arrived in Doha after talks with Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad.

"Our presence in Afghanistan is conditions-based, and any withdrawal will be conditions-based."

In another sign of progress, the Afghan government has formed a negotiating team for separate peace talks with the Taliban that diplomats hope could be held as early as later this month.

'Negotiations will be tough'

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that an initial deal to end the war would see the US force in Afghanistan reduced to as low as 8,000 from the current level of around 14,000.

In exchange, the Taliban would abide by a ceasefire, renounce Al-Qaeda, and talk to the Kabul administration. An Afghan official hinted last week that the government of President Ashraf Ghani was preparing for direct talks with the Taliban, the details of which have yet to be announced.

"We have no preconditions to begin talks, but the peace agreement is not without conditions," Ghani wrote in Pashto on his Facebook page on Friday ahead of the talks.

"We want a republic government not an emirate," he said, a challenge to the Taliban which has insisted on reverting to the "Islamic Emirate" name Afghanistan bore under its rule.

"The negotiations will be tough, and the Taliban should know that no Afghan is inferior in religion or courage to them."

The thorny issues of power-sharing with the Taliban, the role of regional powers including Pakistan and India, and the fate of Ghani's administration also remain unresolved.

The latest US-Taliban encounter follows last month's talks between influential Afghans and the Taliban which agreed a "roadmap for peace" — but stopped short of calling for a ceasefire.

Kabul resident Somaya Mustafa, 20, said her country desperately needed a peace deal, but only one in which the Taliban "accept women and their achievements".

"It is a total mess in our country right now. And if it continues, women will suffer more than anyone else."

The United Nations has said that civilian casualty rates across Afghanistan matched record levels last month, following a dip earlier in the year.

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