COVID-19 can wipe out health care progress in short order: WHO

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 90% of countries have seen ordinary health services disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with major gains in medical care attained over decades vulnerable to being wiped out in a short period, a World Health Organization survey showed.

The Geneva-based body has frequently warned about other life-saving programs being impacted by the pandemic and has sent countries mitigation advice, but the survey yielded the first WHO data so far on the scale of disruptions.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on essential health services is a source of great concern,” said a report on the study released on Monday. “Major health gains achieved over the past two decades can be wiped out in a short period of time…”

The survey includes responses from between May and July from more than 100 countries. Among the most affected services were routine immunizations (70%), family planning (68%) and cancer diagnosis and treatment (55%), while emergency services were disturbed in almost a quarter of responding countries.

The Eastern Mediterranean Region, which includes Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, was most affected followed by the African and Southeast Asian regions, it showed. The Americas was not part of the survey.

Since COVID-19 cases were first identified in December last year, the virus is thought to have killed nearly 850,000 people, the latest Reuters tally showed.

Researchers think that non-COVID deaths have also increased in some places due partly to health service disruptions, although these may be harder to calculate.

The WHO survey said it was “reasonable to anticipate that even a modest disruption in essential health services could lead to an increase in morbidity and mortality from causes other than COVID-19 in the short to medium and long-term.” Further research was needed.

It also warned that the disruptions could be felt even after the pandemic ends. “The impact may be felt beyond the immediate pandemic as, in trying to catch up on services, countries may find that resources are overwhelmed.”

(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Blast kills at least 23 at cattle market in southern Afghanistan

Smoke rises from police headquarters while Afghan security forces keep watch after a suicide car bomber and gunmen attacked the provincial police headquarters in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, Afghanistan October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

KABUL (Reuters) – At least 23 civilians were killed in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province and dozens were wounded when rockets hit a cattle market on Monday, Afghan government and Taliban officials said.

The warring sides blamed each other for the attack on the open-air weekly cattle market in Sangin district, where hundreds of villagers from neighboring districts had gathered to trade sheep and goats.

A spokesman for Helmand’s governor said several rockets fired by Taliban insurgents landed close to the cattle market, killing 23 civilians, including children.

Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman said the Afghan army fired several rounds of mortar bombs on civilian houses and the cattle market, killing dozens of villagers.

Khushakyar, who goes by a single name, said he was trying to sell a calf when the rockets hit the market. He said his two nephews were killed and his son was wounded.

“I saw around 20 bodies on the ground,” he said, adding that dozens were wounded and “livestock lay dead next to men.”

Some residents of Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, said the shelling occurred during fierce clashes between Taliban militants and government security forces in residential areas surrounding the market.

There has been an uptick in violence by the Taliban against the Afghan government, even though the insurgents, fighting to reintroduce strict Islamic law after being ousted from power in 2001, signed a troop withdrawal agreement with the United States in February designed to lead to peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

More than 500 civilians were killed and 760 others wounded because of fighting in Afghanistan in the first three months of 2020, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in late April.

(Reporting by Zainullah Stanekzai in Helmand, Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul, Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Toby Chopra and Timothy Heritage)

West reluctant for ‘dangerous’ Taliban prisoners to be freed: sources

By Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – Western powers are backing the Afghan government’s refusal to free hundreds of prisoners accused of some of Afghanistan’s most violent attacks, a release demanded by the Taliban as a condition to start peace talks, five sources told Reuters.

The issue is a final major sticking point which, if resolved, is expected to lead quickly to intra-Afghan peace negotiations in Qatar aimed at ending more than 18 years of war in a U.S.-brokered peace process.

“The contentious part right now is the prisoners issue,” a senior government source told Reuters. Two European diplomats, an Asian diplomat and another Afghan official confirmed his account.

“There are some dangerous Taliban fighters named in the list, and releasing them is literally crossing a red line,” said a senior European diplomat.

“Some NATO members find it extremely uncomfortable to support the release of Taliban prisoners who were behind large-scale suicide attacks on minority groups and on expats.”

The Taliban struck a troop withdrawal agreement with the United States in February to pave the way for talks with the Afghan government. But the insurgent group insisted a list of 5,000 prisoners be released, leading to months of delay as the Afghan government initially refused to set free that many prisoners before talks.

One Afghan security source and one diplomatic source told Reuters the United States had also expressed reservations about releasing some of the group that NATO and the Afghan government were objecting to setting free.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said it wanted peace talks to be launched as soon as possible.

“The United States continues to be encouraged by the great progress on prisoners release by both sides. We support additional releases by both sides to get the issue off the table,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

The sources said that if all prisoners walked free, including those accused of killing many civilians in some of Afghanistan’s bloodiest attacks, it would give the impression the insurgent group had the upper hand over the government while negotiations got underway.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the matter.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Thursday the group still insisted that all 5,000 be released so talks could begin.

The Afghan government in recent weeks released around 3,000 of the prisoners and is prepared to set free all but a few hundred, government sources said. The Taliban has also released hundreds of prisoners.

Included in the contentious group were prisoners involved in large-scale attacks, such as the 2017 truck bombing near Germany’s embassy in Kabul, which killed more than 150, according to two sources.

The Taliban denied high-profile attackers were on their list.

“There are no such people … these are just excuses to create barriers against the peace process,” Mujahid said.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Rupam Jain and Charlotte Greenfield; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield and Tom Brown; Editing by Alison Williams)

Exclusive: U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan down to close to 8,600 ahead of schedule – sources

Exclusive: U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan down to close to 8,600 ahead of schedule – sources
By Idrees Ali and Rupam Jain

WASHINGTON/MUMBAI (Reuters) – U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan is down to nearly 8,600, well ahead of a schedule agreed with Taliban militants in late February, in part because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, U.S. and NATO officials said.

A key provision of the Feb. 29 agreement between the Taliban and the United States, to which the Afghan government was not a party, involved a U.S. commitment to reduce its military footprint in Afghanistan from about 13,000 to 8,600 by mid-July and, conditions permitting, to zero by May 2021.

Two senior sources in Kabul said the 8,600 target was likely to be achieved by early June.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the United States was close to 8,600 troops and could reach that number in coming days.

“Due to COVID-19 concerns, we are moving towards that planned drawdown faster than anticipated,” one of the officials said.

The other U.S. official said the United States had focused on quickly removing non-essential personnel and those considered to be at high risk from the virus.

All four sources asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Last month CNN reported that the United States had less than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, putting the Trump administration ahead of schedule.

U.S. forces are in Afghanistan to conduct counter-insurgency operations. A few thousand U.S. soldiers work with troops from 37 NATO partner countries to train, advise and assist Afghan forces.

NATO’s mission in the country totaled 16,551 troops in February, according to official data available on its website.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump there were “7,000-some-odd” U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan but officials clarified that number was slightly over 8,600 troops.

Trump renewed his desire for a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan but added that he had not set a target date, amid speculation he might make ending America’s longest war part of his re-election campaign.

NATO DILEMMA

The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist from 1996 before being ousted by U.S.-led troops in 2001, have sought to topple the Western-backed government in Kabul and reimpose Islamic rule. They dismiss the Kabul government as a puppet of the United States.

The faster-than-expected withdrawal has put NATO in a dilemma as to whether it should consider swiftly sending back some non-U.S. troops from Afghanistan as well, two NATO sources said.

“The drawdown by the U.S. was expected to be done in 135 days but it’s clear that they have almost completed the process in just about 90 days,” said a senior Western official in Kabul on condition of anonymity.

The official said that some other NATO soldiers would be withdrawn before schedule.

The Taliban have recently increased attacks in a number of provinces, despite the Afghan government releasing prisoners as per the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in Doha.

In a statement, the Pentagon said it expected to be at 8,600 troops within 135 days of signing the agreement, but declined to say how many troops were currently in Afghanistan.

“We are not providing updates on current troop levels primarily due to operational security concerns associated with the drawdown,” Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Campbell said.

Officials are now looking at the pace of the drawdown beyond 8,600.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Euan Rocha and Nick Macfie)

U.S. says Islamic State conducted attack on Kabul hospital

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday blamed Islamic State militants — not the Taliban — for a gruesome hospital attack in Afghanistan this week that killed two newborn babies, and it renewed calls for Afghans to embrace a troubled peace push with the Taliban insurgency.

But it was unclear if the U.S. declaration would be enough to bolster the peace effort and reverse a decision by the Kabul government to resume offensive operations against the Taliban.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ordered the military on Tuesday to switch to “offensive mode” against the Taliban following the hospital attack in Kabul and a suicide bombing in Nangarhar province that killed scores of people.

U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad blamed Islamic State for both attacks in a statement issued on Twitter, saying the group opposed any Taliban peace agreement and sought to trigger an Iraq-style sectarian war in Afghanistan.

“Rather than falling into the ISIS trap and delay peace or create obstacles, Afghans must come together to crush this menace and pursue a historic peace opportunity,” Khalilzad said.

“No more excuses. Afghans, and the world, deserve better.”

An affiliate of the Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility for the Nangarhar bombing, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. No one has claimed the hospital attack.

The Taliban denied involvement in either attack, but the government accused the group of fostering an environment in which terrorism thrives or of working with other militant groups who could have been involved, straining U.S. efforts to bring the insurgents and Afghan government together.

The attacks were another setback to U.S. President Donald Trump’s stalled plans to bring peace to Afghanistan and end America’s longest war.

A Feb. 29 U.S.-Taliban deal called for a phased U.S. troop withdrawal and for the Afghan government and Taliban to release some prisoners by March 10, when peace talks were to start.

Intra-Afghan peace talks have yet to occur and there is some bitterness within the Afghan government, which was not a party to the Feb. 29 deal, that the United States undercut their leverage by negotiating directly with the Taliban.

Ghani’s decision to revive offensive operations is supported by many opposition figures, who believe Washington’s sole focus is to keep the U.S. troop withdrawal plan on track to help Trump win a second term in the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.

(Reporting by Eric Beech and Phil Stewart; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Daniel Wallis)

Maternity ward massacre shakes Afghanistan and its peace process

By Orooj Hakimi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) – After struggling to get pregnant for years, Zainab, 27, gave birth to a baby boy on Tuesday morning at a small hospital in the southwestern corner of Kabul. She was overjoyed and named the boy Omid, meaning ‘hope’ in Dari.

At around 10 a.m. (0530 GMT), an hour before she and her family were set to return home to neighboring Bamiyan province a three-hour drive away, three gunmen disguised as police burst into the hospital’s maternity ward and started shooting.

Zainab, who rushed back from the washroom after hearing the commotion, collapsed as she took in the scene. She spent seven years trying to have a child, waited nine months to meet her son and had just four hours with him before he was killed.

“I brought my daughter-in-law to Kabul so that she would not lose her baby,” said Zahra Muhammadi, Zainab’s mother-in-law, unable to contain her grief. “Today we’ll take his dead body to Bamiyan.”

No group has claimed responsibility for the massacre of 24 people, including 16 women and two newborns. At least six babies lost their mothers in an attack that has shaken even the war-torn nation numbed by years of militant violence.

“In my more than 20-year career I have not witnessed such a horrific, brutal act,” said Dr. Hassan Kamel, director of Ataturk Children’s Hospital in Kabul.

The raid, on the same day that at least 32 people died in a suicide bomb attack on a funeral in the eastern province of Nangarhar, threatens to derail progress towards U.S.-brokered peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

President Ashraf Ghani condemned the attacks and ordered the military to switch to offensive mode rather than the defensive tactics it adopted while U.S. troops withdraw from the country after a long, inconclusive war.

The Taliban, the main militant group, has denied involvement in both attacks, although trust among officials and the broader public has worn thin. An offshoot of Islamic State is also among the suspects: it admitted it was behind the Nangarhar bloodshed.

WE NAMED HIM ‘HOPE’

Muhammadi, the mother-in-law, said she saw one of the attackers firing at pregnant women and new mothers, even as they cowered under hospital beds.

“We gave him the name Omid. Hope for a better future, hope for a better Afghanistan and hope for a mother who has been struggling to have a child for years,” she told Reuters by telephone in Kabul.

The gunmen then turned to target the cradle where Omid had been asleep. As the sound of bullets reverberated through the ward, Muhammadi said she fainted in fear.

“When I opened my eyes, I saw that my grandson’s body had fallen to the ground, covered in blood,” she recalled, as she wailed with grief.

The Kabul attack began in the morning when gunmen entered the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital, throwing grenades and shooting, government officials said. Security forces had killed the attackers by the afternoon.

The 100-bed, government-run hospital hosted a maternity clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Just hours before the attack, MSF had tweeted a photo of a newborn in his mother’s arms at the clinic after being delivered safely by emergency caesarean section.

On Wednesday, the group condemned the attack, calling it “sickening” and “cowardly”.

“Whilst fighting was ongoing, one woman gave birth to her baby and both are doing well,” MSF said in a statement. “More than ever, MSF stands in solidarity with the Afghan people.”

Deborah Lyons, head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, condemned the hospital assault in a tweet. “Who attacks newborn babies and new mothers? Who does this? The most innocent of innocents, a baby! Why?”

‘LITTLE POINT’ IN PEACE TALKS

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday condemned the two attacks, noted the Taliban had denied responsibility and said the lack of a peace deal left the country vulnerable to such violence.

Pompeo also described the stalled peace effort, which planned for intra-Afghan peace talks to begin on March 10, as “a critical opportunity for Afghans to … build a united front against the menace of terrorism.” Talks have yet to start.

The Pentagon declined to comment on Ghani’s stated intent to restart offensive operations, saying only that the U.S. military continued to reserve the right to defend Afghan security forces if they are attacked by the Taliban.

Relations between the government in Kabul and the Taliban movement, which was ousted from power in 2001 by a U.S.-backed assault in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, are already frayed, and Tuesday’s events will make any rapprochement harder.

“There seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in ‘peace talks’,” Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib said in a tweet.

For Afghanistan, the hospital attack also risks further disrupting a healthcare network that is creaking amid the challenges of dealing with the new coronavirus pandemic.

More than a third of the coronavirus cases in Kabul have been among doctors and healthcare staff, Reuters reported in early May.

The high rate of infection among healthcare workers has already sparked alarm among medics and some doctors have closed their clinics. At least 5,226 people have been infected by the coronavirus and 132 have died, according to the health ministry.

KABUL MEDICAL COMMUNITY SHAKEN

The attack has shaken the small medical community in Kabul to its core.

Nurses and doctors who survived the hospital attack said they were in shock, and resuming duties would be an emotional challenge on top of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

“Last night I could not sleep, as scary scenes of the attack kept crossing my mind,” said Masouma Qurbanzada, a midwife who saw the killings.

“Since yesterday my family has been telling me to stop working in the hospital, nothing is worth my life. But I told them ‘No, I will not stop working as a health worker’.”

Officials at MSF said they were working to try to normalise operations and had received support from other hospitals to treat dozens of infants and adults wounded in the attack.

Some medics at the hospital, however, said it would be hard to move on.

“The gunmen blew up a water tank and then started shooting women. I saw a pool of water and blood from the small gap of a safe room where some of us managed to lock ourselves,” said a nurse with MSF, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“I saw patients being killed even as they begged and pleaded for their life in the holy month of Ramadan. It is very hard for me to work now.”

(Additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad, Ahmad Sultan in Jalalabad; Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Euan Rocha and Mike Collett-White)

U.S. carries out air strike on Taliban, calls for halt to ‘needless attacks’

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield

KABUL (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday carried out its first air strike on Taliban fighters in Afghanistan since the two sides signed a troop withdrawal agreement on Saturday.

A U.S. forces spokesman confirmed the incident in southern Helmand province, hours after President Donald Trump spoke by phone with chief Taliban negotiator Mullah Baradar Akhund on Tuesday, the first known conversation between a U.S. leader and a top Taliban official.

The Taliban fighters “were actively attacking an (Afghan National Security Forces) checkpoint. This was a defensive strike to disrupt the attack,” said Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan in a tweet.

He said Washington was committed to peace but would defend Afghan forces if needed.

“Taliban leadership promised the (international) community they would reduce violence and not increase attacks. We call on the Taliban to stop needless attacks and uphold their commitments,” he said.

The air strike was the first by the United States against the Taliban in 11 days, when a reduction in violence agreement had begun between the sides in the lead up to Saturday’s pact.

Since the signing, the Taliban had decided on Monday to resume normal operations against Afghan forces, though sources have said they will continue to hold back on attacks on foreign forces.

The Taliban has declined to confirm or deny responsibility for any of the attacks.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in a Tweet that “according to the plan (the Taliban) is implementing all parts of the agreement one after another in order to keep the fighting reduced.”

A Taliban senior commander in Helmand who declined to be named said that a drone had targeted their position.

“As far as I know we didn’t suffer any human losses but we are working on it and sent our team to the area,” he told Reuters, adding that the group’s senior leadership in Afghanistan had called an emergency meeting to discuss what he described as a “major violation” of the agreement.

“THINGS COULD SPIRAL”

Experts said the public agreement was vague on details around ongoing violence in the country, but that the air strike and comments from U.S. officials suggested the United States had a plan to ensure reduced violence against Afghan forces and civilians.

“It is significant. I don’t think it signals the collapse of the whole U.S.-Taliban agreement…(but) you can easily see how things could spiral,” said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst covering Afghanistan at International Crisis Group.

A spokesman for Helmand’s provincial governor said the Taliban had attacked a security checkpoint in Washer district – a different district to the one in which the U.S. carried out its air strike – on Tuesday evening, killing two police officers.

An interior ministry spokesman, Nasrat Rahimi, said on Wednesday the Taliban had conducted 30 attacks in 15 provinces in the previous 24 hours, killing four civilians and 11 security and defense force members. Seventeen Taliban members had been killed, he said.

The weekend agreement envisages a full withdrawal of all U.S. and coalition forces within 14 months, dependent on security guarantees by the Taliban, but faces a number of hurdles as the United States tries to shepherd the Taliban and Afghan government toward talks.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield in Kabul; additional reporting by Zainullah Stanekzai in Helmand, Sardar Razmal in Kunduz, Orooj Hakimi in Kabul and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; editing by John Stonestreet, William Maclean and Timothy Heritage)

Assange tried to call White House, Hillary Clinton over data dump, his lawyer says

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Julian Assange tried to contact Hillary Clinton and the White House when he realized that unredacted U.S. diplomatic cables given to WikiLeaks were about to be dumped on the internet, his lawyer told his London extradition hearing on Tuesday.

Assange is being sought by the United States on 18 counts of hacking U.S. government computers and an espionage offense, having allegedly conspired with Chelsea Manning, then a U.S. soldier known as Bradley Manning, to leak hundreds of thousands of secret documents by WikiLeaks almost a decade ago.

On Monday, the lawyer representing the United States told the hearing that Assange, 48, was wanted for crimes that had endangered people in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan who had helped the West, some of whom later disappeared.

U.S. authorities say his actions in recklessly publishing unredacted classified diplomatic cables put informants, dissidents, journalists and human rights activists at risk of torture, abuse or death.

Outlining part of his defense, Assange’s lawyer Mark Summers said allegations that he had helped Manning to break a government password, had encouraged the theft of secret data and knowingly put lives in danger were “lies, lies and more lies”.

He told London’s Woolwich Crown Court that WikiLeaks had received documents from Manning in April 2010. He then made a deal with a number of newspapers, including the New York Times, Britain’s Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel, to begin releasing redacted parts of the 250,000 cables in November that year.

A witness from Der Spiegel said the U.S. State Department had been involved in suggesting redactions in conference calls, Summers said.

However, a password that allowed access to the full unredacted material was published in a book by a Guardian reporter about WikiLeaks in February 2011. In August, another German newspaper reported it had discovered the password and it had access to the archive.

PEOPLE’S LIVES “AT RISK”

Summers said Assange attempted to warn the U.S. government, calling the White House and attempting to speak to then- Secretary of State Clinton, saying “unless we do something, people’s lives are put at risk”.

Summers said the State Department had responded by suggesting that Assange call back “in a couple of hours”.

The United States asked Britain to extradite Assange last year after he was pulled from the Ecuador embassy in London, where he had spent seven years holed up avoiding extradition to Sweden over sex crime allegations which have since been dropped.

Assange has served a prison sentence in Britain for skipping bail and remains jailed pending the U.S. extradition request

Supporters hail Assange as an anti-establishment hero who revealed governments’ abuses of power, and argue the action against him is a dangerous infringement of journalists’ rights. Critics cast him as a dangerous enemy of the state who has undermined Western security.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Julian Assange put lives at risk, lawyer for United States says

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Julian Assange is wanted for crimes that put at risk the lives of people in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan who had helped the West, some of whom later disappeared, said a lawyer acting for the United States in its bid to extradite him.

Almost a decade since his WikiLeaks website enraged Washington by leaking hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents, Assange, 48, is fighting extradition from Britain to the United States where he is accused of espionage and hacking.

He was wanted, said James Lewis, lawyer for the U.S. authorities, not because he embarrassed the authorities but because he put informants, dissidents, and rights activists at risk of torture, abuse or death.

“What Mr Assange seems to defend by freedom of speech is not the publication of the classified materials but the publication of the names of the sources, the names of people who had put themselves at risk to assist the United States and its allies,” Lewis said at London’s Woolwich Crown Court.

Supporters hail Assange as an anti-establishment hero who revealed governments’ abuses of power, and argue the action against him is a dangerous infringement of journalists’ rights.

Chants from 100 of his backers outside could be clearly heard inside. Assange himself complained about the din.

“I’m finding it difficult concentrating,” said a clean-shaven Assagne, dressed in a blue-grey suit. “This noise is not helping either. I understand and am very appreciative of the public support. They must be disgusted…”

Judge Vanessa Baraitser warned those in the public gallery not to disturb the proceedings.

The United States asked Britain to extradite Assange last year after he was pulled from the Ecuador embassy in London, where he had spent seven years holed up avoiding extradition to Sweden over sex crime allegations which have since been dropped.

Assange has served a prison sentence in Britain for skipping bail and remains jailed pending the U.S. extradition request.

Jennifer Robinson, one of Assange’s lawyers, has said his case could lead to criminalising activities crucial to investigative journalists, and his work had shed light on how the United States conducted its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We are talking about collateral murder, evidence of war crimes,” she said last week. “They are a remarkable resource for those of us seeking to hold governments to account for abuses.”

Lewis, speaking on behalf of the U.S. authorities, said hundreds of people across the world had to be warned after the WikiLeaks disclosures. Some had to be relocated. Others later disappeared, he said, although he said the United States would not try to prove that was directly a result of the disclosures.

Some WikiLeaks information was found at Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, he added.

HERO OR ENEMY?

The United States has charged Assange with 18 criminal counts of conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law. Lewis said Assange had conspired with Chelsea Manning, then a U.S. soldier known as Bradley Manning, to hack Department of Defense computers.

He said Assange’s defense team was guilty of hyperbole by suggesting Assange might receive a U.S. jail term of 175 years. Similar cases had led to terms of about 40-60 months, he said.

Assange attracted a host of well-known backers, with those criticizing the case against him ranging from leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn to Roger Waters, co-founder of rock group Pink Floyd. Designer Vivienne Westwood was among protesters outside court.

In addition to releasing military records, WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing secret U.S. diplomatic cables that laid bare critical U.S. appraisals of world leaders. Assange made headlines in 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified U.S. military video showing a 2007 U.S. helicopter strike in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.

The hearing will not decide if Assange is guilty of any wrongdoing, but whether the extradition request meets the requirements set out under a 2003 UK-U.S. treaty, which critics say is stacked in Washington’s favor.

The case will get under way before being postponed until May 18, when it will resume again for a further three weeks to allow both sides more time to gather evidence.

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Peter Graff)

‘Historic’ U.S.-Taliban pact to be signed soon, says Taliban leader

KABUL (Reuters) – The Taliban’s deputy leader said the group would soon sign a agreement with the United States to reduce violence for seven days, adding that militant commanders were “fully committed” to observing the “historic” accord.

“That we today stand at the threshold of a peace agreement with the United States is no small milestone,” Sirajuddin Haqqani wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times, in the first significant public statement by a Taliban leader on the accord for a week-long reduction in violence (RIV).

The agreement in principle, which was struck during negotiations between U.S. and Taliban representatives in Qatar, could lead to a withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

“Achieving the potential of the agreement, ensuring its success and earning lasting peace will depend on an equally scrupulous observance by the United States of each of its commitments,” wrote Haqqani, who is also head of the Pakistan-linked Haqqani Network.

Clashes between Afghan forces and Taliban fighters have continued, but Afghanistan’s acting interior minister said on Tuesday an agreement to cut violence would be enforced within five days.

Haqqani also addressed fears about Afghanistan becoming once again a springboard for Islamist militants, calling such concerns “inflated.”

Writing about how women’s rights in Afghanistan would look if foreign forces left, Haqqani envisioned an “Islamic system” in which “the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected.”

The Taliban banned women from education and work and only let them leave their homes in the company of a male relative. Overnight, women disappeared behind the all-enveloping burqa, their activities restricted to their homes.

Haqqani stressed in the piece the need for a complete withdrawal of foreign forces. Officials in Afghanistan and the United States have said a certain number of troops would remain in the country to ensure stability.

The Afghan presidential palace reacted strongly to the article.

“It is sad that the (New York Times) has given their platform to an individual who is on a designated terrorist list. He and his network are behind ruthless attacks against Afghans and foreigners,” Sediq Sediqqi, a palace spokesman, told Reuters.

Meanwhile, recently reelected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad for the second time in 24 hours on Thursday to discuss issues related to peace talks and the details of the RIV, Sediqqi said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Helen Popper)