Taliban to purge ‘people of bad character’ from ranks

By Jibran Ahmad

KABUL/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – The Taliban have formed a commission to purge “people of bad character” from their ranks to protect Afghanistan’s reputation, the group said on Tuesday, in the latest sign it is trying to change from an insurgency into a regular government.

The Taliban operated as insurgent fighters for two decades before toppling a Western-backed government in August. Their membership has grown over the last two years, particularly after it became apparent that they would return to power in some form.

In an audio recording, Taliban deputy chief and Afghan interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani said: “We are learning that people of bad character had entered (Taliban) ranks and had been causing a bad name to the Islamic Emirate (Afghanistan) and serving their vested interests.”

“It is our humble wish that there should be a small number of people but they should be pure and sincere so that this movement should not get damaged,” he said in the audio, whose authenticity was confirmed to Reuters by Taliban officials.

Reports on social media have alleged that people identifying themselves as Taliban members have carried out a number of attacks on civilians and former members of the security forces of the ousted government since August, despite the Taliban leadership announcing a general amnesty. Taliban officials have repeatedly denied sanctioning these acts.

Haqqani, a shadowy figure who has never been pictured in public, is also the head of the Haqqani Network that carried out some of the most brutal attacks of the 20-year insurgency.

The commission – called the commission for the purification of the ranks – has been formed under the Ministry of Defense, which is headed by Mullah Yaqoob, the son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar.

Haqqani said the commission’s formation was urgently needed.

“I would like to ask our brothers to cooperate with the commission and don’t protect or support any individual of bad character on the basis of personal friendship,” Haqqani said.

The message was the latest indication of efforts the Taliban have been forced to make to adapt the movement from a guerrilla insurgency to a full civilian administration since August.

Taliban forces held a military parade in Kabul on Nov. 14 using captured U.S.-made armored vehicles and Russian helicopters in a display that showed their continuing transformation from an insurgent force to a regular standing army.

(Reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar and Gibran Peshimam in Kabul, Editing by William Maclean)

First big suicide attack in Baghdad for three years kills at least 32

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Two men blew themselves up in a crowded Baghdad market on Thursday, killing at least 32 people in Iraq’s first big suicide bombing for three years, authorities said, describing it as a possible sign of the reactivation of Islamic State.

Reuters journalists arriving after the blasts saw pools of blood and discarded shoes at the site, a clothing market in Tayaran Square in the center of the city. Health authorities said at least 110 people had been wounded.

“One (bomber) came, fell to the ground and started complaining ‘my stomach is hurting’ and he pressed the detonator in his hand. It exploded immediately. People were torn to pieces,” said a street vendor who did not give his name.

Suicide attacks, once an almost daily occurrence in the Iraqi capital, have halted in recent years since Islamic State fighters were defeated in 2017, part of an overall improvement in security that has brought normal life back to Baghdad.

“Daesh terrorist groups might be standing behind the attacks,” Civil Defense chief Major General Kadhim Salman told reporters, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

A video taken from a rooftop and circulated on social media purported to show the second blast scattering people gathered in the area. Images shared online, which Reuters could not independently verify, showed several dead and wounded.

Thursday’s attack took place in the same market that was struck in the last big attack, in January, 2018, when at least 27 people were killed.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi held an urgent meeting with top security commanders to discuss Thursday’s suicide attacks, the premier’s office said in a brief statement. Iraqi security forces were deployed and key roads blocked to prevent possible further attacks.

Suicide attacks against civilian targets were a near-daily tactic of mainly Sunni Muslim insurgents during the U.S. occupation of Iraq after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, and were later employed by Islamic State, whose fighters swept across a third of the country in 2014.

By 2017 the fighters had been driven from all territory they held, although they have continued to wage a low-level insurgency against Iraqi forces and attack officials mainly in northern areas.

(Reporting by Baghdad newsroom; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed and John Davison; Editing by Catherine Evans and Peter Graff)

Ukraine, allies fear escalation after Russia exits ceasefire group

A member of the Ukrainian armed forces patrols area in the government-held village of Travneve, Ukraine, November 23, 2017. Picture taken November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Oleksandr Klymenko

By Alessandra Prentice

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian officials, security monitors and Kiev’s foreign backers warned on Wednesday that Moscow’s decision to withdraw from a Ukrainian-Russian ceasefire control group could worsen the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

On Monday, the Russian foreign ministry said it was recalling officers serving at the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination (JCCC) in Ukraine, accusing the Ukrainian side of obstructing their work and limiting access to the front line.

Ukrainian Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak and security chief Olekshandr Turchynov said the decision, coupled with a recent surge in fighting in the eastern Donbass region, suggested Russia had switched to a more offensive strategy.

“We cannot rule out that they withdrew their officers in order to start stepping up not only military provocations but also military operations,” Turchynov said. “We will strengthen our positions at the front.”

“The Ukrainian armed forces are currently prepared for a change in the situation,” Poltorak told journalists.

A Russia-backed separatist insurgency erupted in 2014 and the bloodshed has continued despite a ceasefire that was meant to end the conflict. More than 10,000 people have been killed, with casualties reported on a near-daily basis.

A spokesman for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which works with the JCCC to monitor the much-violated Minsk peace agreement, said:

“We are concerned about any step that might lead to a further deterioration of the security situation in the region, affecting both the SMM (OSCE special monitoring mission) and the civilian population.”

Fighting between Ukrainian troops and separatists has climbed to the worst level in months, the OSCE said this week, after the shelling of a frontline village wounded civilians and destroyed or damaged dozens of homes.

Russia denies accusations from Ukraine and NATO it supports the rebels with troops and weapons, but the U.S. envoy to peace talks, Kurt Volker, said Moscow was answerable for the violence.

“Russia withdrew its officers from JCCC – a ceasefire implementation tool – right before a massive escalation in ceasefire violations. Ukraine just suffered some of the worst fighting since February, 2017. Decision for peace lies with Russia,” Volker tweeted on Tuesday.

Germany and France, which have spearheaded international efforts to resolve the conflict, expressed concern. A Germany foreign ministry spokesman said “it could have severe consequences for civilians in the conflict zones.”

“We call on the Russian authorities to reconsider this decision and hope that the Ukrainian authorities will guarantee access to Ukrainian territory to Russian representatives of the joint center (JCCC),” said Alexandre Giorgini, deputy spokesman for the French foreign ministry.

Created in 2014, the JCCC is made up of Ukrainian and Russian officers, who are meant to work together to ensure the safety of OSCE monitors and help implement the Minsk ceasefire.

(Reporting by Alessandra Prentice, Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets in Kiev, additional reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna, Michael Nienaber in Berlin and John Irish in Paris, editing by Matthias Williams, Larry King)