Blast heard in Kabul as U.S. forces destroy munitions -Taliban

(Reuters) – A large explosion was heard in Kabul late on Thursday as the U.S. military destroyed ammunition, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Thursday.

Two witnesses in an area some 3-4 kilometers from the airport said earlier they had heard a huge explosion, hours after an Islamic State suicide attack killed dozens of people trying to board evacuation flights.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Leslie Adler)

U.S. to prioritize troop evacuation in last two days of Kabul operation

By Idrees Ali and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. military will continue evacuating people from Kabul airport until an Aug. 31 deadline if needed, but will prioritize the removal of U.S. troops and military equipment on the last couple of days, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.

There are about 5,400 troops at the airport, a number that President Joe Biden says is set to go down to zero by the end of the month, depending on cooperation from the Taliban.

Army Major General William Taylor, with the U.S. military’s Joint Staff, told a news briefing more than 10,000 people were at Kabul airport waiting to be evacuated from Afghanistan.

He said that in the previous 24 hours, 90 U.S. military and other international flights had evacuated 19,000 more people, bringing the total evacuation number so far to about 88,000. He said one plane had departed every 39 minutes.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that a total of 4,400 American nationals had so far been evacuated from Kabul, but that he did not know how many were still there. Over the weekend, the number stood at about 2,500.

“If you’re an evacuee that we can get out, we’re going to continue to get you out right up until the end… But in the last couple of days … we will begin to prioritize military capabilities and military resources to move out,” Kirby said.

In addition to American citizens, both at-risk Afghans and people from such other countries as Canada and Germany have been evacuated over the past 11 days.

Representatives Seth Moulton, a Democrat, and Peter Meijer, a Republican, both of whom served in the Iraq war before running for Congress, said in a statement on Tuesday that they went to Kabul to gather information as part of Congress’ oversight role.

Kirby said the two members of the U.S. House of Representatives who traveled to Afghanistan on Tuesday had taken up scarce resources.

“They certainly took time away from what we had been planning to do that day,” he added.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and David Brunnstrom; Edited by Howard Goller)

Kabul evacuations stall amid airport chaos, criticism of U.S. pullout

KABUL (Reuters) -Thousands of civilians desperate to flee Afghanistan thronged Kabul airport on Monday after the Taliban seized the capital, prompting the U.S. military to suspend evacuations as the United States came under mounting criticism at home over its pullout.

Crowds converged on the airport seeking to escape, including some clinging to a U.S. military transport plane as it taxied on the runway, according to footage posted by a media company.

U.S. troops fired in the air to deter people trying to force their way on to a military flight evacuating U.S diplomats and embassy staff, a U.S. official said.

Five people were reported killed in chaos at the airport on Monday. A witness said it was unclear if they had been shot or killed in a stampede. A U.S. official told Reuters two gunmen had been killed by U.S. forces there over the past 24 hours.

A Pentagon spokesperson said there were indications that one U.S. soldier was wounded.

The Taliban’s rapid conquest of Kabul follows U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces after 20 years of war that cost billions of dollars.

The speed at which Afghan cities fell in just days and fear of a Taliban crackdown on freedom of speech and women’s rights have sparked criticism.

Biden, who said Afghan forces had to fight back against the Islamist Taliban, was due to speak on Afghanistan at 1945 GMT.

He is facing a barrage of criticism from opponents and allies, including Democratic lawmakers, former government officials and even his own diplomats over his handling of the U.S. exit.

“If President Biden truly has no regrets about his decision to withdraw, then he is disconnected from reality when it comes to Afghanistan,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Twitter.

Republican Representative Jim Banks, a member of the House armed services committee, told Fox News: “We have never seen an American leader abdicate his responsibilities and leadership like Joe Biden has. He’s in hiding. The lights are on at the White House, but nobody’s home. Where is Joe Biden?”

Jim Messina, a White House deputy chief of staff under former President Barack Obama, defended Biden’s decision, saying there had been a bipartisan consensus that it was time to leave.

“We’ve been there 20 years. It’s America’s longest-running war, it is time to get out,” he said on Fox. “Why should American troops be fighting a civil war that Afghan troops this week refused to fight for themselves, it was time to get out.”

Ben Wallace, the defense secretary of usually staunch U.S. ally Britain, said the 2020 Doha withdrawal accord struck with the Taliban by Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, was a “rotten deal.” Wallace said Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan had enabled the Taliban to return to power.

‘NO ONE SHALL BE HARMED’

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled on Sunday as the Islamist militants entered Kabul virtually unopposed, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed.

The United States and other foreign powers have rushed to fly out diplomatic and other staff, but the United States temporarily halted all evacuation flights to clear people from the airfield, a U.S. defense official told Reuters.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said U.S. forces were working with Turkish and other international troops to clear Kabul airport to allow international evacuation flights to resume. He said several hundred people had been flown out so far.

Kirby, speaking at a news briefing in Washington, said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had authorized the deployment of another battalion to Kabul that would bring the number of troops guarding the evacuation to about 6,000.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesperson for the Taliban, said in a message on Twitter that its fighters were under strict orders not to harm anyone.

“Life, property and honor of no one shall be harmed but must be protected by the mujahideen,” he said.

It took the Taliban just over a week to seize control of the whole country after a lightning sweep that ended in Kabul as government forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others at a cost of billions of dollars, melted away.

U.S. officers had long worried that corruption would undermine the resolve of badly paid, ill-fed and erratically supplied frontline soldiers.

Mohammad Naeem, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, told Al Jazeera TV the form of Afghanistan’s new government would be made clear soon. He said the Taliban did not want to live in isolation and called for peaceful international relations.

The militants sought to project a more moderate face, promising to respect women’s rights and protect both foreigners and Afghans.

But many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.

“Everyone is worried,” a former government employee now in hiding in Kabul said. “They’re not targeting people yet but they will, that’s the reality. Maybe in two or three weeks, that’s why people are fighting to get out now.”

(Reporting by Kabul and Washington bureaus; Writing by Jane Wardell, Robert Birsel and Jane Merriman; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)

Biden backs taking sexual assault prosecutions away from military commanders -officials

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden is backing a recommendation that military prosecutions of sexual assaults be taken away from the chain of command and given to independent prosecutors to better serve the victims, administration officials say.

The change recommended by an independent review commission would represent a major shift in how the military has handled sexual assaults and related crimes for decades. It comes several years after the advent of the #MeToo response to sexual assault, harassment and discrimination against women by men in various walks of life.

But implementation of Biden’s decision could take until 2023 to implement, and his Democratic administration stopped short of endorsing legislation by the leading advocate of the change in the Senate, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, whose bill would also make broader military justice reforms.

Advocates and lawmakers like Gillibrand have been calling for years for military commanders to be taken out of the decision-making process when it comes to prosecuting sexual assault cases, arguing they are inclined to overlook them.

Sexual assault and harassment in the U.S. military is largely underreported, according to the military itself, and the Pentagon’s handling of it has come under renewed scrutiny.

The independent commission’s report was critical of the military’s handling of sexual assault cases, from a lack of trust in military commanders to issues with the military justice system. The commission last month recommended taking prosecution of those and related cases away from the commanders of victims’ units and giving them to independent prosecutors.

“We have heard for many years that there is no tolerance for sexual harassment and sexual assault, but we learned that in practice there is quite a lot of tolerance,” an administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“We found that the military justice system is not well equipped to handle sensitive cases like sexual assault, sexual harassment and domestic violence.”

Biden’s decision was widely expected after his defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, on June 22 publicly backed the findings of the independent review commission recommending the move.

The 13-member commission was formed in February and included a number of retired military officials and experts on the issue.

Gillibrand’s bill would remove military commanders from decisions on pursuing sexual assault cases, but also do the same for other major crimes, turning such decisions over to trained prosecutors. It has majority support in the Senate.

A second Biden administration official praised Gillibrand’s efforts on the issue but declined to address her legislation, saying the independent review commission only focused on sexual assault and related crimes, officials said.

“(Biden) is really pleased to see that there is a growing consensus that these crimes should be taken out of the chain of command. And we’re going to now look to Congress to work out the details for legislating that change,” the second official said. Gillibrand’s bill, which has 64 co-sponsors, has been blocked from consideration on the floor of the Senate by the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Democrat Jack Reed, who chairs the committee, favors removing the military’s chain of command from prosecuting cases of sexual assault but sees the legislation as too broad.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart. Additional reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Heart inflammation after COVID-19 shots higher-than-expected in study of U.S. military

By Carl O’Donnell

(Reuters) – Members of the U.S. military who were vaccinated against COVID-19 showed higher-than-expected rates of heart inflammation, although the condition was still extremely rare, according to a study released on Tuesday.

The study found that 23 previously healthy males with an average age of 25 complained of chest pain within four days of receiving a COVID-19 shot. The incident rate was higher than some previous estimates would have anticipated, it said.

All the patients, who at the time of the study’s publication had recovered or were recovering from myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart muscle – had received shots made by either Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE or Moderna Inc.

U.S. health regulators last week added a warning to the literature that accompanies those mRNA vaccines to flag the rare risk of heart inflammation seen primarily in young males. But they said the benefit of the shots in preventing COVID-19 clearly continues to outweigh the risk.

The study, which was published in the JAMA Cardiology medical journal, said 19 of the patients were current military members who had received their second vaccine dose. The others had either received one dose or were retired from the military.

General population estimates would have predicted eight or fewer cases of myocarditis from the 436,000 male military members who received two COVID-19 shots, the study said.

An outside panel of experts advising the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said last week that reports of myocarditis were higher in males and in the week after the second vaccine dose than would be anticipated in the general population. A presentation at that meeting found the heart condition turned up at a rate of about 12.6 cases per million people vaccinated.

Eight of the military patients in the study were given diagnostic scans and showed signs of heart inflammation that could not be explained by other causes, the study said. The patients in the study ranged from ages 20 to 51.

The CDC began investigating the potential link between the mRNA vaccines and myocarditis in April after Israel flagged that it was studying such cases in people who received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine there, and after a report that the U.S. military had also found cases.

Health regulators in several countries are conducting their own investigations.

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Biden says U.S. commitment to NATO is ‘unshakeable’

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden on Friday said the U.S. commitment to the NATO alliance was “unshakeable” and promised to observe the principle that an attack on one member was an attack on all.

His statement was at odds with his predecessor, Donald Trump, who called the 30-member alliance outdated and at one point suggested Washington could withdraw.

“The United States is fully committed to our NATO alliance, and I welcome your growing investment in the military capabilities that enable our shared defenses,” Biden told an online session of the Munich Security Conference.

“An attack on one is an attack on all. That is our unshakeable vow.”

Trump administration officials had publicly hammered, and sought to shame, Germany and other NATO members for not meeting a target of spending 2% of their gross domestic output on defense.

Biden’s comments signaled a different approach – and one sure to be welcomed by European leaders and NATO officials.

“America’s back,” Biden told the security conference after his first virtual meeting with Group of Seven world leaders.

“I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship, but the United States is determined – determined – to re-engage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership,” he said. Biden said the U.S. military was conducting a comprehensive review of its military posture around the world, but he had lifted orders to withdraw U.S. troops from Germany – another decision by the Trump administration that had shocked allies.

In addition, Biden said he had lifted a cap imposed by the previous administration on the number of U.S. forces that could be based in Germany.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)

Biden decides to stick with Space Force as branch of U.S. military

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden is looking at all policies put in place by Republican predecessor Donald Trump, with a view toward possibly rolling them back, but not so the U.S. Space Force.

“They absolutely have the full support of the Biden administration,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday about the Space Force, a day after her dismissal of a question about the service suggested Biden was less than enthusiastic about it.

The Space Force was created as a separate branch of the U.S. military by Trump, who spoke enthusiastically about the need for a force to protect American interests in orbit and celebrated its new flag in an Oval Office ceremony.

Since it was carved out of the Air Force, there had been speculation that Biden might seek to send the Space Force back to where it was before and deny Trump a signature achievement.

But Biden has decided to keep what has been called the world’s only independent space force, officially established in December 2019.

“We are not revisiting the decision to establish the Space Force,” Psaki said.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose and Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Cooney)

China says U.S. military in South China Sea not good for peace

By Cate Cadell

BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States often sends ships and aircraft into the South China Sea to “flex its muscles” and this is not good for peace, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday, after a U.S. aircraft carrier group sailed into the disputed waterway.

The strategic South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade flows each year, has long been a focus of contention between Beijing and Washington, with China particularly angered by U.S. military activity there.

The U.S. carrier group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt and accompanied by three warships, entered the waterway on Saturday to promote “freedom of the seas,” the U.S. military said, just days after Joe Biden became U.S. president..

“The United States frequently sends aircraft and vessels into the South China Sea to flex its muscles,” the foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, told reporters, responding to the U.S. mission.

“This is not conducive to peace and stability in the region.”

China has repeatedly complained about U.S. Navy ships getting close to islands it occupies in the South China Sea, where Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan all have competing claims.

The carrier group entered the South China Sea at the same time as Chinese-claimed Taiwan reported incursions by Chinese air force jets into the southwestern part of its air defense identification zone, prompting concern from Washington.

China has not commented on what its air force was doing, and Zhao referred questions to the defense ministry.

He reiterated China’s position that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China and that the United States should abide by the “one China” principle.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen visited a radar base in the north of the island on Monday, and praised its ability to track Chinese forces, her office said.

“From last year until now, our radar station has detected nearly 2,000 communist aircraft and more than 400 communist ships, allowing us to quickly monitor and drive them away, and fully guard the sea and airspace,” she told officers.

Taiwan’s defense ministry added that just a single Chinese aircraft flew into its defense zone on Monday, an anti-submarine Y-8 aircraft.

Biden’s new administration says the U.S. commitment to Taiwan is “rock-solid”.

The United States, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan but is the democratic island’s most important international backer and main arms supplier, to China’s anger.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell; Writing and additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

No intensive care beds for most Californians as COVID-19 surges

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) -There are no intensive care beds available in densely populated Southern California or the state’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley, together home to nearly 30 million people, amid a deadly surge of COVID-19, Governor Gavin Newsom said on Monday.

The pandemic is crushing hospitals in the most-populous U.S. state, even as the U.S. government and two of the nation’s largest pharmacy chains began a nationwide campaign on Monday to vaccinate nursing home residents against the highly contagious respiratory disease.

The U.S. death toll from the virus has accelerated in recent weeks to 2,627 per day on a seven-day average, according to a Reuters tally.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has said U.S. COVID-19 deaths will peak in January, when its widely cited model projects that more than 100,000 people will die as the toll marches to nearly 562,000 by April 1.

Nationwide, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients on Monday stood at nearly 113,400, near a record high of over 114,200 set on Friday, according to a Reuters tally.

In California, Newsom told a remote news conference he had requested help from nurses, doctors and medical technicians in the U.S. military, and is hoping that 200 people can be deployed. The state has also sent nearly 700 additional medical staff to beleaguered hospitals, and opened up clinics in unused state buildings, a closed sports arena and other locations.

California Secretary of Health and Human Services Mark Ghaly said many hospitals in the state may also soon run out of room for patients who need to be admitted but do not require intensive care.

Ghaly told the news conference the current surge was related to gatherings that took place over the Thanksgiving holiday and that a similar surge is expected after Christmas and New Year’s, he said.

Newsom pleaded with Californians to comply with stay-at-home orders that restrict activity in most but not all of the state. “We are not victims of fate,” he said.

The governor added that the strain of the virus ravaging California was not the new, highly contagious version emerging in the UK, Newsom said.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Peter Cooney)

U.S. military commander says China pushing territorial claims under cover of coronavirus

By Tim Kelly

TOKYO (Reuters) – China is using the coronavirus as a cover to push territorial claims in the South China Sea through a surge in naval activity meant to intimidate other countries that claim the waters, the commander of U.S. Forces in Japan said on Friday.

There has been a surge of activity by China in the South China Sea with navy ships, coast guard vessels and a naval militia of fishing boats in harassing vessels in waters claimed by Beijing, said Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider.

“Through the course of the COVID crisis we saw a surge of maritime activity,” he told Reuters in a phone interview. He said Beijing had also increased its activity in the East China Sea, where it has a territorial dispute with Japan.

Beijing’s increased level of activity would likely continue, predicted Schneider: “I don’t see troughs, I see plateaus,” he said.

China says its maritime activities in the area are peaceful. The press office at the Chinese embassy in Tokyo was not immediately available to comment outside of normal business hours.

Japan hosts the biggest concentration of U.S. forces in Asia, including an aircraft carrier strike group, an amphibious expeditionary force and fighter squadrons. In addition to defending Japan, they are deployed to deter China from expanding its influence in the region, including in the South China Sea.

The latest U.S. criticism of China comes as relations have frayed amid accusations by Washington that Beijing failed to warn it quickly enough about the coronavirus. China has dismissed that criticism as an attempt by President Donald Trump’s administration to cover up its own mistakes.

Beijing has built military island bases on reefs in the energy-rich South China Sea, in or near waters claimed by other countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. It imposed a unilateral fishing ban until Aug 16.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Peter Graff)