KABUL: A bombing at a mosque in the Afghan capital of Kabul during evening prayers killed at least 21 people, including a prominent cleric, and wounded at least 33 others, eyewitnesses and police said Thursday.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack Wednesday night, the latest to strike the country in the year since the Taliban seized power. Several children were reported to be among the wounded.
The Daesh group’s local affiliate has stepped up attacks targeting the Taliban and civilians since the former insurgents’ takeover last August as US and NATO troops were in the final stages of their withdrawal from the country. Last week, the extremists claimed responsibility for killing a prominent Taliban cleric at his religious center in Kabul.
Khalid Zadran, the spokesman for Kabul’s Taliban police chief, gave the figures for the bombing at the Siddiquiya mosque in the city’s Kher Khanna neighborhood. An eyewitness said the explosion was carried out by a suicide bomber.
The slain cleric was Mullah Amir Mohammad Kabuli, the eyewitness said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid condemned the explosion and vowed that the “perpetrators of such crimes will soon be brought to justice and will be punished.”
There were fears the casualty numbers could rise further. On Thursday morning, one witness to the blast who gave his name as Qyaamuddin said he believed as many as 25 people may have been killed in the blast.
“It was evening prayer time, and I was attending the prayer with others, when the explosion happened,” Qyaamuddin said. Some Afghans go by a single name.
AP journalists could see the blue-roofed, Sunni mosque from a nearby hillside. The Taliban parked police trucks and other vehicles at the mosque, while several men carried out one casket for a victim of the attack.
A US-led invasion toppled the previous Taliban government, which had hosted Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Since regaining power, the former insurgents have faced a crippling economic crisis as the international community, which does not recognize the Taliban government, froze funding to the country. On Thursday, the Taliban hosted a gathering of 3,000 tribal elders, religious scholars and others in Kandahar, their state-run Bakhtar News Agency reported. It wasn’t immediately clear what topics they planned to discuss.
Separately, the Taliban confirmed on Wednesday that they had captured and killed Mehdi Mujahid in western Herat province as he was trying to cross the border into Iran.
Mujahid was a former Taliban commander in the district of Balkhab in northern Sar-e-Pul province, and the only member of the minority Shiite Hazara community among the Taliban ranks.
Mujahid had turned against the Taliban over the past year, after opposing decisions made by Taliban leaders in Kabul.
LONDON: UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s strategy for reducing illegal immigration by preventing Albanian migrants from crossing the English Channel in small boats is unlikely to succeed because there is “almost infinite” demand for the hazardous crossings among people of other nationalities, according to a Home Office source.
Sunak’s plans, announced last month, specifically target Albanian migrants, who accounted for more than a third of all cross-Channel arrivals in the UK last year. But a senior Home Office source told Sky News that they would not significantly reduce the number of migrants entering the UK.
“Even if you stopped any more Albanians coming across, the boats would still travel,” the source said.
“Their places on the boats would be filled by Somalis, Eritreans or Afghans, who can’t afford to pay as much as the Albanians are paying.
“There is an almost infinite number of people who want to come to the UK.”
About 33,000 people who came ashore in Kent during the first three quarters of 2022 were from Albania. They accounted for more than 30 percent of all arrivals, compared with only 3 percent in 2021.
A common route, identified by officials, starts with a budget flight from Albanian capital Tirana to Brussels, followed by a two-hour road trip to Calais, where migrants board small boats to cross the English Channel to the Kent coast.
In December, Sunak announced various measures for tackling illegal immigration, including a “new agreement and approach” with Albania’s leadership. This includes the deployment, for the first time, of UK Border Force officers at Tirana airport, new guidance for caseworkers that designates Albania as a “safe country” for the return of migrants, and the recruitment of 400 additional specialists to speed up asylum applications from Albanians.
Sunak said his plan would result in most asylum claims being rejected and thousands of Albanians would be returned on weekly flights until a backlog within the immigration system was cleared.
In response to the Sky News report, an official Home Office source said: “No one is saying illegal migrants from Albania is the only issue we face.
“That’s why the prime minister and the home secretary have a plan to tackle illegal migration across the Channel in small boats, irrespective of the nationality of those making the journey, and they will be bringing forward new legislation to target this as soon as possible.”
BEIJING: China called the mounting international restrictions on travelers from its territory “unacceptable” on Tuesday after more than a dozen countries placed fresh Covid curbs on visitors from the world’s most populous nation.
The United States, Canada, Japan and France are among the countries insisting all travelers from China provide negative Covid tests before arrival, as concerns grow over a surge in cases.
China’s steep rise in infections comes after Beijing abruptly lifted years of hard-line restrictions last month, with hospitals and crematoriums quickly overwhelmed.
But Beijing has pushed ahead with a long-awaited reopening, last week announcing an end to mandatory quarantines on arrival in a move that prompted Chinese people to plan trips abroad.
“Some countries have taken entry restrictions targeting China,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular briefing.
“This lacks scientific basis and some practices are unacceptable,” she added, warning China could “take countermeasures based on the principle of reciprocity.”
The United States replied that it had taken action in response to the “lack of adequate and transparent” data from China and concerns that the heavy caseload could give birth to new variants.
“This is an approach that is based solely and exclusively on science,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.
Asked about China’s reaction, France’s Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne defended the new rules.
“I think we’re performing our duty in asking for tests,” Borne told franceinfo radio.
“We will continue to do it.”
The rules imposed affect all travelers coming from China — not just Chinese nationals — while Beijing continues to restrict inbound visitors and not issue visas for tourists or international students.
China has only recorded 22 Covid deaths since December and has dramatically narrowed the criteria for classifying such deaths — meaning that Beijing’s own statistics about the unprecedented wave are now widely seen as not reflecting reality.
As health workers nationwide battle a surge in cases, a senior doctor at one of Shanghai’s top hospitals said 70 percent of the megacity’s population may now have been infected with Covid-19, state media reported Tuesday.
Chen Erzhen, vice president at Ruijin Hospital and a member of Shanghai’s Covid expert advisory panel, estimated that the majority of the city’s 25 million people may have been infected.
“Now the spread of the epidemic in Shanghai is very wide, and it may have reached 70 percent of the population, which is 20 to 30 times more than (in April and May),” he told Dajiangdong Studio, owned by the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily.
Shanghai suffered a grueling two-month lockdown from April, during which more than 600,000 residents were infected and many were hauled to mass quarantine centers.
But now the omicron variant is spreading rapidly across the city.
In other major cities, including Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing and Guangzhou, Chinese health officials have suggested that the wave has already peaked.
In neighboring Zhejiang province, disease control authorities said Tuesday that there had been one million new Covid infections in recent days and that the province was entering a peak plateau.
Chen added that his Shanghai hospital was seeing 1,600 emergency admissions daily — double the number prior to restrictions being lifted — with 80 percent of them Covid patients.
“More than 100 ambulances arrive at the hospital every day,” he was quoted as saying, adding that around half of emergency admissions were vulnerable people aged over 65.
At Tongren Hospital in downtown Shanghai, AFP reporters saw patients receiving emergency medical attention outside the entrance of the overcrowded emergency ward on Tuesday.
The corridors overflowed with dozens of elderly patients lying on beds crammed together, hooked up to IV drips.
At another hospital, AFP witnessed an exchange between a woman and an older man, both jostling for a drip.
“I was here first,” she said. “I’m here to get a needle too.”
Chinese officials are now readying for a virus wave to hit the country’s under-resourced rural interior, as millions of people prepare to travel to their hometowns for the weeklong Lunar New Year public holiday beginning January 21.
National Health Commission official Jiao Yahui admitted that dealing with the expected surge in rural areas would be an “enormous challenge.”
“What we are most worried about is in the past three years nobody has returned home for Lunar New Year but they finally can this year,” Jiao told state broadcaster CCTV on Monday.
“As a result, there may be a retaliatory surge of urban residents into the countryside to visit their relatives, so we are even more worried about the rural epidemic.”
PARIS: French authorities last month opened a preliminary inquiry into allegations that the former archbishop of Paris had committed “sexual assault on a vulnerable person,” prosecutors said on Tuesday.
The probe was opened based on a report filed by the diocese of Paris, they said.
Michel Aupetit offered to resign in late 2021 following media reports of an intimate relationship with a woman in 2012 before he took on the post, allegations he has categorically denied. Pope Francis accepted the resignation.
French broadcaster BFMTV reported that the relationship was with a vulnerable person under judicial protection.
A source close to the case told AFP the probe was looking into “email exchanges” between Aupetit and the woman, whose consent would have to be confirmed in view of her mental health.
In a statement on Tuesday evening the diocese confirmed it had filed the report, and said it was “not in a position to verify whether the facts in question are proven or whether they constitute an offense.”
The clergyman’s lawyer Jean Reinhart refused to comment.
“We have absolutely no knowledge of a complaint, so we cannot comment on the subject,” he said.
A diocese spokeswoman in 2021 said Aupetit “had ambiguous behavior with a person he was very close to,” adding that it was “not a loving relationship,” nor sexual.
But she said the offer to step down was “not a confession of guilt.”
Aupetit was archbishop during the April 2019 fire that ravaged the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, regularly appearing on television to express anguish over the disaster and rally funds for the rebuilding effort.
Catholic priests are bound to celibacy under church doctrine and are meant to practice sexual abstinence.
The French church is still reeling from the publication in October 2021 of a devastating report by an independent commission, which estimated that Catholic clergy had abused 216,000 children since 1950.
The pope has had to deal with an avalanche of allegations of sexual abuse by priests since being elected in 2013.
French prosecutors are also investigating Jean-Pierre Ricard, a retired bishop made a cardinal by pope Benedict XVI in 2006, after he confessed publicly to “reprehensible” acts with a 14-year-old girl in the 1980s.
He was one of 11 former or serving French bishops accused of sexual violence in a shock announcement by the French Catholic Church in November.
NEW YORK: The man who set off smoke bombs on a crowded New York subway train before shooting 10 people last April in one of the most violent attacks ever seen on the city’s transit system pleaded guilty on Tuesday to terrorism and weapons charges.
Frank James, 63, appeared in US District Court in Brooklyn and read aloud from a short statement confessing to the attack on a Manhattan-bound N train on April 12, for which he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
“I got on the subway train that was carrying people,” said James, dressed in wrinkled khaki jail overalls and sitting at a table alongside his public defenders. “While I was on the train, I started shooting a firearm.”
James shot 10 passengers during the morning rush hour as the train headed to an underground station in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, while another 13 people were injured in the ensuing panic, according to the police account. No one was killed.
In May, he had initially pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of committing a terrorist attack and other violence against a mass transportation system and using a firearm during a crime of violence.
In Tuesday’s statement to the court, James said he did not plan to kill anyone, intending only “serious bodily harm,” and said he would make “a complete statement expressing my remorse” at his later sentencing hearing.
Prosecutors from the US Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn rejected James’ account of his intent, telling the court that if he had gone to trial, the government could prove his intention was deadly.
Prosecutor Sara Winik told the court that the trajectory of the bullets showed James’s gunfire was aimed at his victims’ torsos because he was trying to kill them. She also said they would be able to prove that James had been planning the attack since 2017.
In a letter to the court last week, prosecutors said that if James demonstrated that he accepted responsibility for the crime, a prison sentence of 32 to 37 years would be appropriate under federal guidelines. If not, he could face 40 years to life.
Defense lawyers said the sentencing guidelines pointed to between 16-1/2 years and just over 18 years in prison.
Judge William Kuntz accepted James’ 11 guilty pleas, spoken in a voice that at times cracked.
The judge ordered the government’s probation department to complete a pre-sentencing report by July 4, but he did not set a date for sentencing.
James smiled with his two public defenders and shook their hands before US marshals escorted him out of the courtroom to return him to the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.
Police apprehended James in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood 30 hours after the attack and following a massive manhunt. Bystanders spotted the man and posted pictures of him to social media.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) said they initially linked James to the assault after finding keys to a rented U-Haul van left at the crime scene.
James, a native of the city’s Bronx borough with recent addresses in Philadelphia and Milwaukee, had nine prior arrests in New York and three in New Jersey, according to the NYPD.
Less than two months after James’ attack, a man was arrested in the fatal, unprovoked shooting of a man on a subway car crossing the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn into Manhattan. In June, another man was arrested on suspicion of pushing a woman onto the tracks of a subway station in the Bronx.
KYIV, Ukraine: Emergency crews on Tuesday sifted through the rubble of a building struck by Ukrainian rockets, killing at least 63 Russian soldiers barracked there, in the latest blow to the Kremlin’s war strategy as Ukraine says Moscow’s tactics could be shifting.
An Associated Press video of the scene in Makiivka, a town in the partially Russian-occupied eastern Donetsk region, showed five cranes and emergency workers removing big chunks of concrete under a clear blue sky.
In the attack, which apparently happened last weekend, Ukrainian forces fired rockets from a US-provided HIMARS multiple launch system, according to a Russian Defense Ministry statement.
It was one of the deadliest attacks on the Kremlin’s forces since the war began more than 10 months ago and an embarrassment that stirred renewed criticism inside Russia of the way the war is being conducted.
The Russian statement Monday about the attack provided few other details. Other, unconfirmed reports put the death toll much higher.
The Strategic Communications Directorate of Ukraine’s armed forces claimed Sunday that around 400 mobilized Russian soldiers were killed in a vocational school building in Makiivka and about 300 more were wounded. That claim couldn’t be independently verified. The Russian statement said the strike occurred “in the area of Makiivka” and didn’t mention the vocational school.
Satellite photos analyzed by The AP show the apparent aftermath of the strike. An image from Dec. 20 showed the building standing. One from Jan. 2 showed it in ruins. Other days had intense cloud cover, making it impossible to see the site by standard satellite imagery.
Vigils for soldiers killed in the strike took place in two Russian cities Tuesday, the state RIA Novosti agency reported.
In Samara, in southwestern Russia, locals gathered for an Orthodox service in memory of the dead. The service was followed by a minute’s silence, and flowers were laid at a Soviet-era war memorial, RIA reported.
Unconfirmed reports in Russian-language media said the victims were mobilized reservists from the region.
With the fighting raging much longer than anticipated by the Kremlin, and becoming bogged down in a war of attrition amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive backed by Western-supplied weapons, Russian President Vladimir Putin is mulling ways of regaining momentum.
In a video address late Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country needs to strengthen its defenses in the face of what he described as Russian plans for a new offensive.
“There is no doubt, that todays bosses of Russia will gather all they can to try to reverse the battlefield situation or at least delay their defeat,” he said. “We must derail that Russian scenario and are getting ready for it.”
In comments a day earlier, Zelensky had claimed the Kremlin plans to step up the use of Iranian-made exploding drones.
“We have information that Russia is planning a prolonged attack by Shaheds (exploding drones),” he said Monday night.
Zelensky said the goal is to break Ukraine’s resistance by “exhausting our people, (our) air defense, our energy.”
For the Russian military, the exploding drones are a cheap weapon which also spreads fear among the enemy. The United States and its allies have sparred with Iran over Tehran’s role in allegedly supplying Moscow with the drones.
The Institute for the Study of War said Putin is striving to strengthen support for his strategy among key voices in Russia.
“Russia’s air and missile campaign against Ukraine is likely not generating the Kremlin’s desired information effects among Russia’s nationalists,” the think tank said late Monday.
“Such profound military failures will continue to complicate Putin’s efforts to appease the Russian pro-war community and retain the dominant narrative in the domestic information space,” it added.
Meanwhile, drone advances in Ukraine have accelerated a trend that could soon bring the world’s first fully autonomous fighting robots to the battlefield. Experts say it may be a matter of time before Russia or Ukraine deploy them.
Putin’s additional reliance on currently available drones might not help him achieve his goals, however, as Ukraine claims a high success rate against the weapons. Even so, part of the intention of using drones is to exhaust Ukrainian air defenses.
During the first two days of the new year, which were marked by relentless nighttime drone attacks on Ukrainian cities and energy infrastructure, the country’s forces shot down more than 80 Iranian-made drones, Zelensky said.
Since September, Ukraine’s armed forces have shot down almost 500 drones, Ukrainian air force spokesman Yurii Ihnat claimed in a television interview Tuesday.
As well as seeking to wear down resistance to Russia’s invasion, the long-range bombardments have targeted the power grid to leave civilians at the mercy of biting winter weather.
In the latest fighting, a Russian missile strike overnight on the city of Druzhkivka in the Donetsk region wounded two people, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, reported Tuesday.
The Russian military on Tuesday acknowledged strikes on Druzhkivka and Kramatorsk, also in Donetsk. The Defense Ministry claimed it destroyed four HIMARS launchers in the area. This claim could not be independently verified.
A reporter with French broadcaster TF1 was live on television screens when a blast from one of the strikes erupted behind him in Druzhkivka. A German reporter with Bild newspaper suffered a minor injury from shrapnel in the same bombardment.
Officials said the attack ruined an ice hockey arena described as the largest hockey and figure skating school in Ukraine.
In recently retaken areas of the southern Kherson region, Russian shelling on Monday killed two people and wounded nine, Kherson’s Ukrainian governor, Yaroslav Yanushevych, said Tuesday. He also said two people were killed in the Kherson region Tuesday after driving over a mine.
In other developments Tuesday:
— Ukraine’s main security service said it was bringing criminal charges against two high-ranking Russian commanders accused of overseeing strikes against civilians.
The Security Service of Ukraine said on its website that it had collected a “high-quality body of evidence” against Sergei Kobylash, commander of Russia’s long-range aviation force, and Igor Osipov, the former head of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The two are charged under Ukrainian law with violating the country’s territorial integrity and with “planning, preparing, initiating and conducting a war of aggression,” which carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Although it is unlikely that Kyiv will be able to bring Kobylash and Osipov to trial in the near future, the announcement marks the first time Ukrainian authorities brought charges linked directly to attacks on residential areas and civilian infrastructure.
— Ukraine’s chief military officer, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said he had his first phone call this year with US Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Zaluzhnyi said on Facebook that he told Milley about heavy battles around Svatove-Kreminna and in the direction of Lysychansk. “The most difficult situation remains in the Soledar-Bakhmut-Mayorsk area,” he said, adding that the Russians are trying to advance by “effectively marching on corpses of their own.” He said Ukrainian forces securely keep their defenses in the Zaporizhzhia region and make efforts to protect Kherson from Russian shelling, while the situation along the border with Belarus is fully controlled.