Russian anti-satellite weapons test ‘dangerous and irresponsible’ -U.S

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -An anti-satellite weapons test by Russia against one of its own targets has generated debris that is a risk to astronauts on the International Space Station and other activities in outer space, the U.S. State Department said on Monday.

Experts say weapons that shatter satellites pose a space hazard by creating clouds of fragments that can collide with other objects, setting off a chain reaction of projectiles through the Earth’s orbit.

“Russia’s dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of … outer space and clearly demonstrates that Russia’s (claims) to oppose the weaponization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

The Russian missile generated more than 1,500 pieces of “trackable orbital debris,” Price added.

At the Pentagon, spokesman John Kirby said the most immediate concern was the debris but the test showed the need for norms in space.

The Russian military and ministry of defense were not immediately available for comment.

The United States performed the first anti-satellite tests in 1959, when satellites were rare and new.

Last April Russia carried out another test of an anti-satellite missile as officials have said that space will increasingly become an important domain for warfare.

In 2019, India shot down one of its own satellites in low-Earth orbit with a ground-to-space missile.

The U.S. military is increasingly dependent on satellites to determine what it does on the ground, guiding munitions with space-based lasers and satellites, as well as using such assets to monitor for missile launches and track its forces.

These tests have also raised questions about the long-term sustainability of space operations essential to a huge range of commercial activities, including banking and GPS services.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Simon Lewis; Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by David Gregorio and Richard Chang)

U.S. taps private groups to help resettle Afghan refugees

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The State Department said on Monday it will partner with private groups to help Afghans who have resettled in the United States after Americans pulled out their troops from the country and the Taliban took over the government in Kabul.

Tens of thousands of Afghans have arrived in the United States as part of an American evacuation. Many of them would have been at risk had they remained because of their work over the previous 20 years with U.S. and allied troops or with other U.S. and foreign agencies.

The new program will allow a groups of adults to form “sponsor circles” to provide initial support to the refugees as they arrive and help them settle in communities across the country, the State Department said.

“Americans of all walks of life have expressed strong interest in helping to welcome these individuals,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

“The Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans harnesses this outpouring of support and enables individuals to become directly involved in the welcome and integration of our new neighbors.”

The program, launched in partnership with the private group Community Sponsorship Hub, will expand the government’s capacity to resettle the Afghans, complementing the work of the department’s nonprofit resettlement agency partners, he said.

President Joe Biden’s administration is working to accommodate as many as 50,000 refugees in the United States. Others evacuees are in U.S. installations or stuck in third countries abroad.

Sarah Krause, executive director of the Community Sponsorship Hub, said the sponsorship program will help create enduring bonds between the Afghans and the communities that sponsor them.

The group will certify sponsor circles by conducting background checks, ensuring participants complete mandatory training, and reviewing their pledges to provide financial support and initial resettlement services to Afghan newcomers for the first 90 days after they arrive in a local community.

Some refugee organizations have been pushing for the United States to adopt a program of private or community sponsorship for individual refugees, similar to a model used in Canada.

Last month, former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama helped launch a new group, Welcome.US, aimed at supporting the Afghan refugees.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S. working to make charter flights from Afghanistan more routine -State Dept.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States has no plans to resume military-led evacuation flights from Afghanistan, but is working to ensure that the existing charter flights become more frequent, the State Department said on Thursday.

“The idea that we’re restarting evacuation flights, à la what we had prior to Aug. 31, is not accurate,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a briefing. The Wall Street Journal earlier reported that Washington would restart evacuation flights before the end of the year, citing an unidentified State Department official.

“The charter flights have been routine,” Price said. “Our goal is to make them even more routine to lend a degree of automaticity to these operations so that we can facilitate the departure of Americans, of lawful permanent residents and others.”

The United States’ two decades-long occupation of Afghanistan culminated in a hastily organized airlift in August that saw more than 124,000 civilians including Americans, Afghans and others evacuated as the Taliban took over. But thousands of other U.S.-allied Afghans at risk of Taliban persecution were left behind.

President Joe Biden and others in his administration have vowed to continue efforts to get them out.

A few hundred people have been evacuated on charter flights, organized by groups of veterans, and some facilitated by the United States. Washington has also assisted some people to depart Afghanistan via overland routes.

Price added that since Aug. 31, the United States has facilitated the departure of 129 U.S. citizens and 115 lawful permanent residents.

“Our goal is to see to it that working with our partners that these flights become even more of a regular occurrence,” he said.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis, Susan Heavey and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Peter Graff and Leslie Adler)

Blinken denies Taliban blocking Americans from leaving Mazar-i-Sharif

By Humeyra Pamuk

DOHA (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken denied on Tuesday reports that the Taliban had blocked Americans attempting to fly out of of a northern Afghan city, but said the group had not allowed charter flights to depart because some people lacked valid travel documents.

Reports have emerged over the past few days that 1,000 people, including Americans, had been stuck at Mazar-i-Sharif airport for days awaiting clearance for their charter flights to leave.

One organizer blamed the delay on the State Department, a criticism echoed by some Republicans who have called on the Department to do more to facilitate the charter flights.

Blinken was speaking at a news conference in Qatar, a U.S. ally that has emerged as a key interlocutor to the Taliban, which seized power in Kabul on Aug. 15 after the Western-backed government collapsed.

Blinken said Washington had identified a “relatively” small number of Americans seeking to depart from Mazar-i-Sharif.

But one of the main challenges around the charter flights attempting to depart was that some people lacked the valid travel documents which effectively blocked the departure of the entire group, he said.

“And it’s my understanding is that the Taliban has not denied exit to anyone holding a valid document, but they have said those without valid documents, at this point, can’t leave,” Blinken said.

“Because all of these people are grouped together, that’s meant that flights have not been allowed to go,” he said.

The confusion was the latest flashpoint following a chaotic U.S. military withdrawal completed after Taliban Islamist insurgents seized power. The United States completed its withdrawal a week ago after a huge airlift.

Blinken added that the Taliban were upholding their commitment to allow Americans with valid travel documents to leave.

“We are not aware of anyone being held on an aircraft or any hostage like situation at Mazar-i-Sharif. So we have to work through the different requirements and that’s exactly what we are doing,” he said.

“A LOT OF ISSUES TO WORK THROUGH”

On Sunday, the senior Republican on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Mike McCaul, told “Fox News Sunday” that six airplanes were stuck at Mazar-i-Sharif airport with Americans and Afghan interpreters aboard, unable to take off as they had not received Taliban clearance.

He said the Taliban were holding passengers “hostage for demands.”

Noting that there were no longer any U.S. personnel on the ground in Afghanistan, whether in Kabul or Mazar-i-Sharif, Blinken said the United States had no means to verify the accuracy of passenger manifests, among other issues.

“These raise real concerns. But we are working through each and every one in close coordination with the various initiatives and charter flights that are seeking to evacuate people,” he said. “But I just want to emphasize that there are a lot of issues to work through.”

Speaking alongside Blinken, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said his country hoped Kabul airport would be up and running for passengers in the next few days, but no agreement on how to run it had yet been reached.

Turkey is working with Qatar to restore passenger flights at Kabul airport. Both countries have technical teams at the airport and Qatar is chartering near daily humanitarian flights following the U.S. withdrawal, Sheikh Mohammed said.

(Reporting By Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk, Lisa Barrington, Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Tom Perry, William Maclean)

U.S. to reduce Kabul embassy to core staff, add 3,000 troops to help

By Idrees Ali and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States will reduce staff at the embassy in Kabul to a “core diplomatic presence” and send about 3,000 troops temporarily to the airport to assist as the Taliban made rapid gains in Afghanistan, officials said on Thursday.

The news of the embassy drawdown, first reported by Reuters, is one of the most significant signs of concern in President Joe Biden’s administration about the security situation and the failure of the Afghan government to protect key cities.

“We’ve been evaluating the security situation every day to determine how best to keep those serving at the embassy safe,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

“Accordingly we are further reducing our civilian footprints in Kabul in light of the evolving security situation,” Price said.

“We expect to draw down to a core diplomatic presence in Afghanistan in the coming weeks,” he said, adding that the embassy was not closed.

The Pentagon said that it would send about 3,000 additional U.S. troops temporarily to Afghanistan to help secure the drawdown of personnel.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the first deployment would occur in the next 24 and 48 hours to the airport in Kabul.

About 3,500 additional U.S. troops would be sent to the region to be on standby if the situation worsened, as well as 1,000 personnel to help process Afghans going through a special immigration process.

It is common for the U.S. military to send in large number of troops to evacuate personnel in combat zones.

There are thought to be about 1,400 staff remaining at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the reduction in staff was “significant.”

The military mission in Afghanistan is set to end on Aug. 31, and roughly 650 troops remain in the country to protect the airport and embassy.

A source familiar with the situation said that the United Kingdom was expected to make a similar announcement about relocating staff.

Afghanistan’s third-largest city, Herat, was on the verge of falling to the Taliban on Thursday amid heavy fighting, as the militant group also established a bridgehead within 150 km (95 miles) of Kabul.

The spiraling violence and the militants’ swift advances prompted the United States and Germany to urge their citizens to leave the country immediately.

A U.S intelligence assessment this week said the Taliban could isolate Kabul within 30 days and take it over in 90.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Jonathan Landay. Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Humeyra Pamuk, Arshad Mohammed, Simon Lewis; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. adds Turkey to list of countries implicated in use of child soldiers

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday added Turkey to a list of countries that are implicated in the use of child soldiers over the past year, placing a NATO ally for the first time in such a list, in a move that is likely to further complicate the already fraught ties between Ankara and Washington.

The U.S. State Department determined in its 2021 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) that Turkey was providing “tangible support” to the Sultan Murad division in Syria, a faction of Syrian opposition that Ankara has long supported and a group that Washington said recruited and used child soldiers.

In a briefing call with reporters, a senior State Department official also made a reference to the use of child soldiers in Libya, saying Washington was hoping to work with Ankara on the issue to address it.

“With respect to Turkey in particular…this is the first time a NATO member has been listed in the child soldier prevention act list,” the State Department official said. “As a respected regional leader and member of NATO, Turkey has the opportunity to address this issue, the recruitment and use of child soldiers in Syria and Libya,” he said.

Turkey has carried out three cross-border operations in Syria against the so-called Islamic State, as well as U.S.-backed Kurdish militia and has frequently used factions of armed Syrian fighters on top of its own forces.

Some of these groups have been accused by human rights groups and the United Nations of indiscriminately attacking civilians and carrying out kidnappings and lootings. The United Nations had asked Ankara to rein in these Syrian rebels while Turkey rejected the allegations, calling them ‘baseless.’

Turkey has also been involved in the Libyan conflict. Ankara’s support has helped the Tripoli-based government reverse a 14-month assault from eastern forces backed by Egypt and Russia.

Governments placed on this list are subject to restrictions, according to the State Department report, on certain security assistance and commercial licensing of military equipment, absent a presidential waiver.

It was not immediately clear whether any restrictions would automatically apply to Turkey.

It was also not immediately clear if the placing of Turkey on this list would have an impact on its ongoing negotiations with the United States to run Afghanistan’s Kabul airport once Washington withdraws its troops.

Turkey has offered to guard and run Hamid Karzai airport after NATO’s withdrawal and has been holding talks with the United States on logistic and financial support for the mission.

The mission could be a potential area of cooperation between Ankara and its allies amid strained ties, as the security of the airport is crucial for the operation of diplomatic missions out of Afghanistan after the withdrawal.

To carry out this task, Ankara has sought various financial and operational support, and President Joe Biden, in a meeting last month with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had said that U.S. support would be forthcoming, Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan had said.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

U.S. State Department to create diversity officer role

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday will announce the creation of a chief diversity and inclusion officer position at the State Department, according to a statement seen by Reuters.

The officer will report directly to Blinken, who is asking the department’s bureaus and teams to designate an existing deputy assistant secretary to support the diversity and inclusion efforts.

The statement did not say who would be named to the position.

“The State Department has the honor of representing the American people to the world. To do that well, we must recruit and retain a workforce that truly reflects America. Diversity and inclusion make us stronger, smarter, more creative, and more innovative,” Blinken is set to say according to the statement.

The move reflects a sea change from the administration of former President Donald Trump, who had directed federal agencies last year to end programs deemed divisive by the White House. This prompted the State Department to suspend all training programs for employees related to diversity and inclusion.

Under the first days of administration of President Joe Biden, the State Department resumed that training.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. lawmakers ask Blinken for briefing on Nord Stream 2 natgas pipeline

By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Several U.S. Representatives on Wednesday raised pressure on the State Department to share plans on potential sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline Russia is racing to finish to take fuel to Europe.

“If completed, Nord Stream 2 would enable the Putin regime to further weaponize Russia’s energy resources to exert political pressure throughout Europe,” two Republicans including Michael McCaul, and two Democrats including Marcy Kaptur, wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

U.S. representatives and senators have said that the Biden administration has missed a deadline of Feb. 16 to issue Congress a report required by recently passed law on companies helping Russia’s state energy company Gazprom lay pipeline, insure vessels, and certify construction work.

Several companies, including Zurich Insurance Group have already left fearing sanctions and companies listed in report could drop out of the project, making completion difficult.

Nord Stream 2 is more than 90% complete but requires additional tricky work in deep waters of the Baltic Sea off Denmark. The pipeline would bypass Ukraine, through which Russia has sent gas to Europe for decades, depriving it of lucrative transit fees and potentially undermining its struggle against Russian aggression.

The representatives asked Blinken for a briefing with State Department officials to inform them of the status of the report and their assessment of possible sanctionable activity of vessels believed to be helping to finish the project.

President Joe Biden believes the $11 billion pipeline, which would double the existing capacity of the Nord Stream system to take gas undersea to Germany, is a “bad deal for Europe” according to his press secretary Jen Psaki.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters last week that “sanctions are only one” of many tools and that the department will work closely with allies and partners to reinforce European energy security and to safeguard against “predatory behavior”. The department did not immediately respond to a request about the requested briefing.

The representatives said the briefing should include details on “any proposals offered to the Biden administration on the future of the pipeline that aim to persuade the administration to forego or weaken the mandatory sanctions,” apparently referring to any talks between Washington and Germany for a deal on the project.

Gazprom insists the project will be completed in 2021.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

No decisions made about U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – No decisions have been made on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, the State Department said on Wednesday after a bipartisan report to Congress called on Washington to delay a Trump administration plan to pull all U.S. forces out by May 1.

“At this time, no decisions about our force posture have been made,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, saying the Biden administration was reviewing the U.S.-Taliban troop withdrawal pact negotiated by the Trump administration.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Leslie Adler)

U.S. approves $23.37 billion advanced arms sale to UAE, Pompeo says

By Matt Spetalnick and Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration told Congress on Tuesday it had approved the U.S. sale of more than $23 billion in advanced weapons systems, including F-35 fighter jets and armed drones, to the United Arab Emirates, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

The formal notification followed a U.S.-brokered agreement in September in which the UAE agreed to normalize relations with Israel, becoming the first of three Arab states to make such a move in recent months.

“This is in recognition of our deepening relationship and the UAE’s need for advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend itself against heightened threats from Iran,” Pompeo said in a statement.

The $23.37 billion package includes up to 50 F-35 Lighting II aircraft, up to 18 MQ-9B Unmanned Aerial Systems and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions, the State Department said.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committees – whose members have criticized UAE’s role in civilian deaths in Yemen’s civil war – review major weapons sales before the State Department sends its formal notification to the legislative branch.

Any deal the United States makes to sell weapons in the Middle East must satisfy decades of agreement with Israel that it must not impair Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over its neighbors.

The announcement came just days after Democratic challenger Joe Biden won enough states needed to take the presidency from Trump, a Republican who made pro-Israel policies part of his re-election campaign.

Israel initially balked at the prospective sale of F-35 warplanes, valued at $10.4 billion, but dropped its opposition after what it described as U.S. guarantees that Israel’s regional military superiority would be preserved.

The UAE, one of Washington’s closest Middle East allies, has long wanted the stealthy jets and was promised a chance to buy them in a side deal when it agreed to normalize relations with Israel, part of a strategic regional realignment against Iran.

In the past, the F-35 has been denied to Arab states while Israel has about 24 of the jets. Israel is currently slated to purchase 50 of the fighters.

“The proposed sale will make the UAE even more capable and interoperable with U.S. partners in a manner fully consistent with America’s longstanding commitment to ensuring Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge,” Pompeo said.

The $2.97 billon sale of armed drones would mark the first such export since the Trump administration reinterpreted a Cold War-era arms agreement between 34 nations to allow U.S. defense contractors to sell more drones to allies.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Pete Schroeder; additional reporting by Mike Stone; Editing by David Gregorio and Paul Simao)