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The UK government denied on Thursday that embattled Prime Minister Boris Johnson had prioritised pets over people in the chaotic evacuation out of Afghanistan as Kabul fell to the Taliban.

The issue involving a British animal charity fuelled questions about Johnson's truthfulness as he awaits an internal inquiry into lockdown-breaching parties that could determine his fate as leader.

After launching its own investigation, London's Metropolitan Police force was said to be poring over the “partygate” findings by a senior civil servant, holding up the report's release.

Foreign ministry emails from August, newly released by a parliamentary committee, showed diplomats referring to a decision taken by Johnson to evacuate the staff and animals of the Nowzad animal charity.

Johnson at the time denied insisting on preferential treatment for the charity, which sheltered dogs and cats in Afghanistan and was run by a media-savvy former soldier, Paul “Pen” Farthing.

“Equivalent charity Nowzad, run by an ex-Royal Marine, has received a lot of publicity and the PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated,” one email said, referring to other charities wanting the same treatment.

The rushed nature of the evacuation meant many Afghans, who had served the British in various capacities, were left behind.

The UK has been working since to repatriate those it can reach under Taliban control.

Downing Street on Wednesday reiterated Johnson's denials about Nowzad in light of the leaked emails, and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace insisted he had been given no order from the prime minister to prioritise pets.

“The PM didn't make any individual decisions about evacuations,” cabinet minister Therese Coffey told Sky News on Thursday.

“A lot of people will claim that the PM is involved in supporting their particular pet projects, but the PM said he wasn't involved in individual decisions,” she said.

Senior Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat agreed it was possible that some civil servants had exploited Johnson's name after his wife Carrie — an animal rights campaigner and friend of Farthing — reportedly intervened.

“You'll have to read the emails and see whether you think that there were others who were working around the system — that I can't answer,” the foreign affairs committee chairman told BBC radio.

“But it's certainly true that the defence secretary has been extremely clear on this and I definitely take him at his word.”

Nevertheless, the Nowzad affair raised anew questions about Johnson's track record on honesty, amid the “partygate” scandal and other allegations of sleaze in his government.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokeswoman Layla Moran called for the prime minister to “immediately make a public statement (about Nowzad) to correct the record and for once tell the truth”.

There was uncertainty about when civil servant Sue Gray's report into the Downing Street parties would come out.

Johnson's spokesman said the government had yet to receive it, and remained committed to publishing it in full.

But the government also wants reassurance from the Met police that it does “not cut across” their probe, he said, for fear of prejudging future legal proceedings.

Government lawyers and human resources officers, along with civil service trades unions, are also reportedly vetting the report.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has urged governments around the world to employ their two years of Covid-handling experience to do away with travel restrictions, which it said were "a mess".

Calling for the adoption of "unique solutions" to manage global travel, IATA Director General Willie Walsh, in a statement on Tuesday, urged governments to accelerate the relaxation of travel restrictions for fully vaccinated passengers with a WHO-approved vaccine as Covid-19 continued to evolve from the "pandemic to endemic stage".

Walsh said it was the need of the hour to remove all travel barriers, including quarantine and testing, for fully vaccinated individuals as "with the experience of the Omicron variant, there is no mounting scientific evidence and opinion opposing the targeting of travellers with restrictions and country bans to control the spread of Covid-19."

"These measures have not worked. Today Omicron is present in all parts of the world. That’s why travel, with very few exceptions, does not increase the risk to general populations," he said.

The IATA chief said an amount running into billions spent on testing travellers would be far more effective if it was allocated to vaccine distribution or strengthening health care systems.

"All indications point to Covid-19 becoming an endemic condition — one that humankind now has the tools (including vaccination and therapeutics) to live and travel with, bolstered by growing population immunity," the statement said.

Walsh said it was important that governments and the travel industry were well prepared for the transition and ready to remove the burden of measures that disrupted travel.

He said there seemed to be more unique solutions to managing travel and Covid-19 than there were countries to travel to.

"Indeed research from the Migration Policy Institute has counted more than 100,000 travel measures around the world that create complexity for passengers, airlines and governments to manage," he pointed out.

He said all countries now had at least two years of experience to be guided on a simplified and coordinated path to normalise travel "when Covid-19 is endemic".

"That normality must recognise that travellers, with very few exceptions, will present no greater risk than exists in the general population. And that’s why travellers should not be subject to any greater restrictions than are applied to the general community,” said Walsh.

The IATA emphasised that mutually recognised policies on vaccination would be critical as the world approached the "endemic phase".

"Barrier-free travel is a potent incentive for vaccination. The sustainability of this incentive must not be compromised by vaccine policies that complicate travel or divert vaccine resources from where they can do the most good."

OSLO: On their first visit to Europe since returning to power, the Taliban held landmark talks with Western diplomats in Oslo on Monday over the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, a meeting the Islamist regime’s delegation called an “achievement in itself”.

The international community has however insisted the Taliban must respect human rights before aid can be resumed to Afghanistan, where hunger threatens more than half population.

Having accepted a controversial invitation from Norway, the Taliban were holding talks on Monday with representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, the European Union and Norway.

The closed-door discussions were taking place at the Soria Moria Hotel, on a snowy hilltop outside Oslo, with the Taliban delegation led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, who hailed the fact that the meeting took place as a success in its own right.

“Norway providing us this opportunity is an achievement in itself because we shared the stage with the world,” Muttaqi told reporters.

“From these meetings we are sure of getting support for Afghanistan’s humanitarian, health and education sectors,” he added.

Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation has deteriorated drastically since last August when the fundamentalists stormed back to power 20 years after being toppled.

International aid came to a sudden halt, worsening the plight of millions of people already suffering from hunger after several severe droughts.

Thomas West, the US special representative for Afghanistan, tweeted on Sunday: “As we seek to address humanitarian crisis together with allies, partners, and relief orgs, we will continue clear-eyed diplomacy with the Taliban regarding our concerns and our abiding interest in a stable, rights-respecting and inclusive Afghanistan.”

No country has yet recognised the Taliban regime which hopes that meetings of this kind will help legitimise their government.

Norway’s Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt has stressed the talks would “not represent a legitimisation or recognition of the Taliban”, but because of the humanitarian emergency “we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country”.

Experts and members of the Afghan diaspora have criticised the Norwegian invitation to the Taliban, and protests have been held outside the foreign ministry in the capital.

In Kabul, Wahida Amiri, an activist who has protested regularly in Kabul since the Taliban’s return, said she was “sorry for such a country as Norway for organising this summit, sitting with terrorists, and making deals”.

Since August, international aid, which financed around 80 percent of the Afghan budget, has been suspended and the United States has frozen $9.5 billion in assets in the Afghan central bank.

Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants’ salaries have not been paid for months in the country.

Hunger now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55 percent of the population, according to the United Nations, which says it needs $4.4 billion from donor countries this year to address the crisis.

But the international community is waiting to see how the Taliban intend to govern after being accused of trampling on human rights during their first stint in power between 1996 and 2001.

While the Islamists claim to have modernised, women are still largely excluded from public-sector employment and most secondary schools for girls remain closed.

Two women activists disappeared last week in Kabul. The Taliban have denied responsibility.

Before meeting with the Taliban, the Western diplomats held talks early Monday with members of Afghanistan’s civil society, including women activists and journalists, who had themselves held talks the day before with the hardline Islamists on human rights.

One of those in attendance, women’s rights activist Jamila Afghani, said “it was a positive icebreaking meeting” where the Taliban “displayed goodwill”, but it remained to be seen “what their actions will be”.

On Monday, another woman activist who took part in Oslo, Mahbouba Seraj, said the Taliban “acknowledged us and they heard us”. “I’m hopeful. I’m hoping for some kind of an understanding of each other”, she told reporters.

The United Arab Emirates intercepted and destroyed two Houthi ballistic missiles targeting the Gulf country on Monday with no casualties, its defence ministry said, following a deadly attack a week earlier.

For more than six years, the Houthis have been battling a Saudi-led coalition that includes the UAE, repeatedly carrying out cross-border missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, and launching an unprecedented assault on the UAE on Jan 17.

“The remnants of the intercepted ballistic missiles fell in separate areas around Abu Dhabi,” the ministry said, adding it was taking necessary protective measures against all attacks.

UAE newspaper The National cited residents reporting flashes in the sky over the capital around 4:30am.

Monday's attack was the second on UAE soil since last week's strike that hit a fuel depot in Abu Dhabi, killing three people, and causing a fire near its international airport.

Houthi-run Al Masirah television said the group would announce within hours the details of a “wide military operation” against Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Saudi state media early on Monday said the coalition intercepted a ballistic missile, with remnants damaging workshops and vehicles in the south of the kingdom. It said late on Sunday that a ballistic missile fell in the south, injuring two foreigners and causing damage in an industrial area.

Meanwhile, Yemen rebels threatened to ramp up their attacks on the UAE after two ballistic missiles were shot down over Abu Dhabi.

The Houthis said they targeted Abu Dhabi's Al Dhafra air base as well as “vital and important” locations in the Dubai area.

The attack “achieved its objectives with high accuracy”, rebel military spokesperson Yahya Saree said in a televised statement.

“We are ready to expand the operation during the next phase and confront escalation with escalation,” he added.

The Yemen conflict is largely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The United Nations, which along with the United States has struggled to engineer a ceasefire for Yemen, voiced concern over escalations and called for maximum restraint by both sides.

The Saudi-led coalition has ramped up air strikes on what it describes as Houthi targets in Yemen. At least 60 people were killed in a strike on a temporary detention centre in northern Saada province on Friday, and about 20 were killed in the Houthi-held capital of Sanaa in an operation on Tuesday.

The coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 months after the Houthis ousted the internationally recognised government from Sanaa. The group says it is fighting a corrupt system and foreign aggression.

The UAE had largely reduced its presence in Yemen in 2019 amid a military stalemate, but Emirati-backed Yemeni forces had recently joined battles against the Houthis in key energy producing provinces in Yemen.

An earthquake with a magnitude of 6.6 jolted southwestern Japan early on Saturday morning, injuring 13 people, the authorities and local media said.

No tsunami warning was issued after the quake struck with an epicentre 45 kilometres deep at 1:08am off the coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands, the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) said.

The quake caused shaking in Oita and Miyazaki prefectures that measured five+ on Japan's seismic intensity scale, which has a maximum of seven, the agency said.

Thirteen people were injured in nearby regions, including two people in their 80s who were seriously hurt, the Yomiuri newspaper reported, citing local authorities.

Multiple reports of damage to buildings, water pipes and roads were confirmed, said public broadcaster NHK.

No abnormalities were reported at the Ikata nuclear power plant, operated by Shikoku Electric Power, or the Sendai plant operated by Kyushu Electric Power in southern Japan, the Nuclear Regulation Authority said.

"In the past, 10 per cent to 20pc of strong earthquakes were followed by a quake of the same level, so be aware of another quake of up to five+ intensity scale in regions that experienced large jolts, for around a week," the JMA said in a statement.

UNITED NATIONS: Pakistan has urged the United Nations to brace itself for the revival of major-powers rivalry, new and old conflicts and a new arms race.

Pakistan underlined these issues at the UN General Ass­e­mbly’s (UNGA) first meeting of the new year where the assembly’s president Abdulla Shahid briefed delegates on his priorities for the resumed part of the 76th session.

Mr Shahid urged the glo­bal community to recommit to vaccine equity to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic, calling for faster production and distribution of these medicines, and the removal of barriers to roll them out.

The UNGA president’s campaign for vaccine equity has the support of about 120 member States and he plans to hold a high-level event on Feb. 25 to press for universal Covid vaccination.

Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Munir Akram assured the UNGA president that Islamabad fully supports his campaign and will collaborate with him to promote its realisation.

But he also reminded him that deliberations in the General Assembly “cannot be divorced” from the real world. “We are witnessing a world today where global tensions including between major powers have revived. New and old conflicts abound; a new arms race is underway,” he added.

The UNGA president also mentioned these issues in his remarks, urging “the global community to recommit to the principles of peace outlined in the UN Charter, to work together in the spirit of amity to address the challenges ahead.” But he focused on vaccine distribution and climate change.

The Pakistani envoy, however, underlined the issues that he said the UNGA would confront in the near future.

“The consensus on disarmament has eroded. New military alliances are being formed in various parts of the world. And sadly, the United Nations is largely absent from the rope,” he said.

“We need to consider how the United Nations can contribute to not an agenda for peace but the reconstruction of peace in this world.”

This reconstruction, he said, “must be built on the foundations that we have, the principles of the UN Charter, international law and the resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly and particularly the Security Council.”

Emphasising the need to focus on these issues, Amba­ssador Akram said: “We cannot ignore the global and multi-dimensional threats to international peace and secu­rity today and live only in hope.”

The UNGA president had stressed the importance of solidarity and fostering hope, while outlining his priorities. “We must cherish our common humanity and guard against the drivers of conflict,” he said as he identified the pandemic, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and international strife as some of the key issues the world faced.

The Pakistani envoy, however, reminded the General Assembly’s president that a stronger United Nations was necessary not only to debate and discuss the issues but also “to translate the conscience of humanity, the words which are spoken in these halls into concrete decisions and actions.” That’s what “would be meaningful reform of the United Nations,” he added.

Ambassador Akram pointed out that the Covid 19 pandemic had reversed progress towards UN sustainable development goals by a decade or more and the existential threat of climate change further exacerbated the situation.

US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday his administration is considering re-designating Yemen's Houthi movement as an "international terrorist organisation" following drone and missile attacks on the United Arab Emirates claimed by the group.

His comment at a news conference came shortly after the Emirati Embassy said on Twitter that UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba urged the Biden administration to restore the designation in response to Monday's strikes on Abu Dhabi airport and a fuel depot.

Asked if he supported returning the Iran-aligned Houthis to the US list of foreign terrorist organisations, from which they were removed nearly a year ago, Biden replied, "The answer is, it's under consideration."

But he conceded that "it's going to be very difficult" to end the conflict pitting the Houthis against Yemen's internationally recognised government and a Saudi-led military coalition, to which the UAE belongs.

Biden's comment reflected the lack of progress toward ending the war since he launched an initiative shortly after taking office a year ago to bolster UN efforts to restart peace talks and end what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

The UAE welcomed Biden’s comment, the Emirati Embassy said on Twitter. The “case is clear — launching ballistic and cruise missiles against civilian targets, sustaining aggression, diverting aid to Yemeni people,” it said.

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed Al-Jaber, said on Twitter on Thursday that the United Nations and global community must not show leniency and hold the Houthi movement accountable because "it encourages other terrorist organisations to act similarly".

As part of the initiative he launched last year, Biden appointed veteran US diplomat Timothy Lenderking a special envoy. The State Department also reversed a last-minute Trump administration decision placing the Houthis on the US list of foreign terrorist groups, subjecting them to financial sanctions.

Three people were killed in Monday's drone and missile attack claimed by the Houthis.

In response, the Saudi-led coalition on Tuesday staged airstrikes on the Houthi-held capital, Sanaa, killing at least 20 people including civilians, according to Houthi media and residents — one of its deadliest attacks since 2019.

Otaiba held "broad" consultations with Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, on the situation that included discussions of the Houthi attack, a National Security Council spokesperson said.

The Emirati Embassy said that Otaiba was accompanied by the top UAE intelligence official, Ali al Shamsi.

The embassy, in a second Twitter post responding to Biden's consideration of the terrorist designation, said Otaiba pressed the case for re-designating the Houthis in his meeting with Sullivan.

Lenderking began a new mission to the Gulf on Wednesday in a bid to reinvigorate the peace process and tamp down the surge in violence, the State Department said in a statement.

The envoy "will press the parties to de-escalate militarily and seize the new year to participate fully in an inclusive UN-led peace process", it said.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday spoke with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Pentagon said.

"Austin conveyed his condolences for the loss of life, and underscored his unwavering support for the security and defence of UAE territory against all threats," the Pentagon said.

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