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Afghanistan

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Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl could be prosecuted if he abandoned his post before his capture, a top-ranking military has said.

General Martin Dempsey wrote Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, “is innocent until proven guilty”.

But he said the Army would not dismiss “misconduct if it occurred”.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama defended his decision to free five senior Taliban leaders to secure Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release on Saturday after five years in Taliban captivity.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl could be prosecuted if he abandoned his post before his capture

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl could be prosecuted if he abandoned his post before his capture (photo Wikipedia)

In Warsaw, Barack Obama said the US had a “pretty sacred rule” not to leave soldiers behind, arguing that the most important consideration was to bring home a young American held captive for five years.

“We don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind and that dates back to the earliest days,” Barack Obama said at a news conference.

“Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that.”

Since Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release on Saturday, a growing chorus of opposition Republicans have criticized the president’s decision to order the prisoner swap.

They have attacked the president for undertaking what they describe as negotiations with terrorists, and say the transfer of five Taliban senior prisoners from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar, puts Americans at risk.

And some have accused the president of contravening a law requiring the White House to notify Congress 30 days in advance of any transfers of prisoners from Guantanamo.

In Poland, Barack Obama said his administration had consulted Congress “for some time” about the possibility of a prisoner exchange, though he acknowledged Congress was not briefed ahead of time on the operation.

“We saw an opportunity, we were concerned about Sgt Bergdahl’s health… and we seized that opportunity,” he said.

On his Facebook page, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, wrote the operation was “likely the last, best opportunity to free him”.

“As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts,” he wrote.

“Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty. Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred. In the meantime, we will continue to care for him and his family.”

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho is in stable condition in a military hospital in Germany.

He went missing from a remote base in Paktika Province, Afghanistan, in June 2009. After mounting an intensive effort to locate and rescue him, the Pentagon concluded Bowe Bergdahl had intentionally abandoned his post before his capture, US media have reported. Efforts to win his release moved from the field to the negotiating table.

Since Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s rescue, the reaction from Republicans has grown increasingly hostile.

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Republicans and Democrats have clashed over the deal to swap five Guantanamo Bay detainees for a Taliban-held soldier, with Republicans warning it could put American lives at risk.

Senator John McCain said the detainees, who were transferred to Qatar, were some of the “highest high-risk people”.

Afghanistan also attacked the deal, saying handing prisoners to a third country was against international law.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was handed to US forces in Afghanistan on Saturday.

In an emotional address on Sunday, his father, Robert Bergdahl, said he was proud how far his son was willing to go to help the Afghan people, but warned that his recovery would take a long time.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was the only US soldier being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was the only US soldier being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan

Robert Bergdahl said he and his wife had not yet spoken to their son, who is in a good condition and currently undergoing medical care at a US military hospital in Germany.

Several Republicans have spoken out against the deal, warning that it set a worrying precedent and amounted to negotiating with terrorists.

John McCain said the Taliban released were “possibly responsible for the deaths of thousands” and may have “the ability to re-enter the fight”, in comments to CBS TV.

Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, told CNN that Washington had “now set a price” for al-Qaeda ransom threats.

Chuck Hagel: “No shots were fired – it went as well as it could have.”

Republican representative Adam Kinzinger said he would celebrate Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s return but called the release of the Taliban men “shocking”.

Questions were raised over the legality of the deal, after the Obama administration did not give Congress sufficient notice about the transfer of the Taliban detainees.

However, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is currently in Afghanistan, dismissed allegations of wrongdoing, saying the military had to act quickly “to essentially save his life”.

“We didn’t negotiate with terrorists… As I said and explained before, Sergeant Bergdahl was a prisoner of war. That’s a normal process in getting your prisoners back,” he told NBC TV.

US National Security Adviser Susan Rice said that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s failing health had created an “acute urgency” to act and therefore made it “necessary and appropriate” not to adhere to the 30-day notification requirement.

The Afghan government, which was not informed of the deal until after the exchange had taken place, condemned it as a “breach of international law” and urged the US and Qatar to “let the men go free”.

The five detainees are thought to be the most senior Afghans held at the US detention facility in Cuba, having been captured during America’s military campaign in 2001.

In a rare public statement on Sunday, Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar described the exchange as a “big victory”.

President Barack Obama said that he had received security guarantees from Qatar – which mediated the deal – “that it will put in place measures to protect our national security”.

They have been banned from leaving Qatar for at least a year.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, was the only US soldier being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan. He was serving with an infantry regiment in Paktika province, near the Pakistani border, when he went missing on June 30 2009.

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President Barack Obama has announced that he received security guarantees from Qatar over five Guantanamo Bay prisoners who were transferred to secure the release of US soldier Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan.

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was handed to US forces after being held for nearly five years by the Taliban.

He has left Afghanistan and is en route to a US military hospital in Germany.

Five Afghan detainees were released from the US prison in Cuba and handed to Qatar, which mediated the deal.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who is said to be in good condition, was the only US soldier being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

His parents said they were “joyful and relieved” to hear of their son’s release.

Barack Obama was joined at the White House by Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's parents, Robert and Jani

Barack Obama was joined at the White House by Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s parents, Robert and Jani (photo AP)

Hours after the release, President Barack Obama told reporters the Qatari government had given the US assurances “that it will put in place measures to protect our national security”.

He also thanked the Qatari authorities for their role in acting as a go-between during indirect US-Taliban negotiations that led to the deal.

The exchanged prisoners are thought to be the most senior Afghans still held at Guantanamo. Under the deal, they will be banned from leaving Qatar for at least a year.

The Taliban said they welcomed their release with “great happiness”.

“While Sgt. Bergdahl was gone he was never forgotten,” Barack Obama said, adding that the US had an “ironclad commitment” to bringing home its prisoners of war.

He was joined by Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s parents, Robert and Jani, at the White House on Saturday. They offered thanks to those who took part in securing their son’s freedom.

In an emotional speech, Robert Bergdahl said his son was having trouble speaking English after his rescue.

Officials said the Taliban had handed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl over on Saturday evening, local time, in eastern Afghanistan, in an exchange that involved several dozen US special forces.

Bowe Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, was captured on June 30 2009, about two months after arriving in eastern Afghanistan.

In January, the US military obtained a new video of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, giving his family renewed hope of his eventual return.

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US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly five years, has been freed in deal that includes the release of five Afghan detainees, US officials say.

The 28-year-old soldier was handed over to US forces in good health, the officials said.

The five Afghan detainees have been released from the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

They were handed over to Qatar, which mediated the transfer.

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has been held by the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly five years

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has been held by the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly five years

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was the only US soldier being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Officials said he was in good condition and able to walk. He is expected to be transferred to Bagram Air Field, the main US base in Afghanistan, and then on to the United States.

President Barack Obama said in a statement that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s recovery “is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield”.

Officials said the Taliban had handed him over on Saturday evening, local time, in eastern Afghanistan. Several dozen US special forces were involved in the exchange, they said, which took place near the Pakistani border.

Once aboard the US helicopter, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl wrote the letters SF – meaning special operations forces – followed by a question mark on a paper plate and showed them to the pilots, who replied: “Yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, had been held since June 30, 2009.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl would be given “all the support he needs to help him recover from this ordeal, and we are grateful that he will soon be reunited with his family”.

He thanked the emir of Qatar for his role in enabling the transfer to take place.

On the five Guantanamo detainees, Chuck Hagel said: “The United States has co-ordinated closely with Qatar to ensure that security measures are in place and the national security of the United States will not be compromised.”

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President Barack Obama has announced that the US will keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan after it concludes its combat mission at the end of this year.

Under the plan Barack Obama announced at the White House, the US will continue to withdraw troops until only a small residual force remains after 2016.

The remaining troops would guard the US embassy, train Afghan forces and support counter-terrorism operations.

But the plan depends on the Afghans signing a joint security agreement.

President Barack Obama has announced that the US will keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan after it concludes its combat mission at the end of this year

President Barack Obama has announced that the US will keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan after it concludes its combat mission at the end of this year (photo AP)

While current Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign such an agreement, the Obama administration appears to be confident either of the two candidates seeking to replace him would do so.

“This year, we will bring America’s longest war to its responsible end,” Barack Obama said.

The troop numbers Barack Obama announced are largely in line with what military commanders have been asking for. His announcement indicates the longest war in American history – launched by President George W. Bush following the 11 September 2001 terror attacks – will end by the time he leaves office.

He confirmed the US would seek to have 9,800 troops across Afghanistan at the beginning of 2015, but that number would be reduced by about half by the end of the year and would be concentrated in Kabul and at Bagram Air Force Base.

“We will no longer patrol Afghan cities and towns, mountains or valleys,” Barack Obama said.

“That is a task for the Afghan people.”

By 2016, Barack Obama said, the military will draw down to a “normal embassy presence” with an additional security detail, “just as we’ve done in Iraq”.

“We have to recognize Afghanistan will not be a perfect place – and it is not America’s responsibly to make it one,” Barack Obama said.

However, he added the US would help Afghans secure a “hard-earned peace”.

Afghanistan’s run-off election between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani to replace Hamid Karzai is set for 14 June.

Barack Obama noted on Tuesday that both have said they would sign a security agreement with the US.

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President Barack Obama was cheered by soldiers during a surprise visit to Bagram Airfield outside Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul.

Barack Obama has told US troops in Afghanistan that America’s longest war will come to “a responsible end” at the end of 2014.

It comes on the eve of Memorial Day, when Americans commemorate troops who have died in service.

Barack Obama was cheered by soldiers during a surprise visit to Bagram Airfield outside Kabul

Barack Obama was cheered by soldiers during a surprise visit to Bagram Airfield outside Kabul

Foreign combat troops are due to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

The US is seeking to keep a small number of troops there to train Afghan security forces. But that plan depends on the next Afghan president – due to be elected next month – signing a bilateral security agreement that incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to authorize.

Barack Obama had invited his Afghan counterpart to the base but Hamid Karzai refused, saying he would only meet the US president at his palace in Kabul, officials said.

Instead, Barack Obama called the Afghan leader from Air Force One on his way back to the US, officials said, saying he would be in touch before announcing any decision on the planned US troop presence after 2014.

To cheers from the assembled troops, Barack Obama thanked them for their service, and promised to improve treatment for wounded veterans.

“By the end of this year… Afghans will take full responsibility for their security and our combat mission will be over. America’s war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.”

Barack Obama said the US would remain committed to Afghanistan provided the incoming president signed the security agreement.

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Afghan rescuers have given up hope of finding any more survivors in a double landslide that is feared to have killed more than 2,500 people in Badakhshan.

They have stopped digging through the earth and mud that swamped a whole village in the remote north-east province of Badakhshan on Friday.

Officials now say the site has become a mass grave for the village of Ab Barik.

Aid, including tents, food and water, has begun to arrive for the survivors.

They spent Friday night camped out in near freezing conditions on the open hillside.

Afghan rescuers have given up hope of finding any more survivors in a double landslide that is feared to have killed more than 2,500 people in Badakhshan

Afghan rescuers have given up hope of finding any more survivors in a double landslide that is feared to have killed more than 2,500 people in Badakhshan

Heavy rain is believed to have triggered Friday’s two landslides, the first of which buried hundreds of homes and the second then killed rescuers who had arrived at the scene to help reach survivors.

Attempts to dig through the thick mud to find survivors continued into Saturday, with people using shovels and even their bare hands.

But the last of the diggers had given up by later on in the day, realizing their efforts are futile, our correspondent reports.

“We cannot continue the search and rescue operation anymore, as the houses are under metres of mud,” provincial governor Shah Waliullah Adeeb said.

“We will offer prayers for the victims and make the area a mass grave.”

The landslide buried around 370 homes, which officials say housed in total some 2,500 people.

The UN says only 350 bodies have so far been recovered.

The landslides hit on Friday morning, a day of rest in Afghanistan, meaning whole families would have been at home at the time.

After the first landslide struck, residents from a neighboring village came to the rescue only to be caught by a second landslide that brought down the entire side of one hill and thousands of tonnes of mud and earth.

Continuing rain has raised fears of further landslides.

Badakhshan is in the most remote and mountainous part of the country, bordering Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.

It is one of the poorest regions in one of the poorest countries.

Another, smaller landslide was reported in Badakhshan on Thursday.

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According to the UN mission in Afghanistan, at least 350 people have been killed and more than 2,000 are missing after a landslide hit the north-east province of Badakhshan.

Hundreds of homes were buried under mud and rocks when a section of a mountain collapsed following torrential rain.

Rescuers have reached the area and are searching for survivors.

Much of north and east Afghanistan has been hit by heavy rain in recent days, and some 150 people have died in flooding.

At least 350 people have been killed and more than 2,000 are missing after a landslide hit the north-east province of Badakhshan

At least 350 people have been killed and more than 2,000 are missing after a landslide hit the north-east province of Badakhshan (photo Reuters)

“The number of deceased has increased to 350 and significant displacement is expected,” the UN mission in Afghanistan said in a statement.

“The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is helping… local authorities to rescue those still trapped.”

Local officials say that more than 2,000 people are missing.

About 1,000 houses were affected – 300 of them buried immediately after the side of a mountain gave way.

As it was Friday morning, a day of rest in Afghanistan, people were at home and whole families were lost under tonnes of mud.

Badakhshan is in the most remote and mountainous part of the country, bordering Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.

Searching for survivors is a huge task, our correspondent adds.

The governor of Badakhshan province, Shah Waliullah Adeeb, told AP news agency that rescue crews did not have enough equipment and appealed for shovels.

“It’s physically impossible right now,” Shah Waliullah Adeeb said.

“We don’t have enough shovels; we need more machinery.”

Shah Waliullah Adeeb said that residents of nearby villages had been evacuated amid concerns about further landslides.

Another, smaller landslide was reported in Badakhshan on Thursday.

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Five NATO soldiers have been killed in a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan, the NATO-led security mission ISAF has said.

Five NATO soldiers have been killed in a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan

Five NATO soldiers have been killed in a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan

ISAF gave no further details, saying in a statement that it was still reviewing the circumstances of the crash. The nationalities of the soldiers are unknown at this stage.

Afghan officials said the helicopter had come down in Kandahar province because of a mechanical failure.

Foreign forces are due to hand over responsibility for security to their Afghan counterparts at the end of 2014.

Fatal incidents involving foreign troops have declined as they prepare for the withdrawal.

However, such crashes have been relatively frequent over the years because coalition forces depend heavily on air transport.

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Fifty-eight people have been killed and hundreds of villagers left stranded in devastating flash floods in northern Afghanistan, officials say.

The governor of Jowzjan province warned that the number of victims was likely to rise.

Fifty-eight people have been killed and hundreds of villagers left stranded in devastating flash floods in northern Afghanistan

Fifty-eight people have been killed and hundreds of villagers left stranded in devastating flash floods in northern Afghanistan

People have been left trapped on the roofs of their homes and rescue helicopters have been deployed.

There are reports of flooding in other provinces in the north and west.

More than 80 people are missing and that 3,000 homes have been destroyed.

Heavy rain and storms on Thursday night created a perilous situation for villagers whose homes are largely built out of mud.

Three Americans have been shot dead by a rogue cop at a children hospital in the Afghan capital, Kabul, US officials say.

A spokesman for Afghanistan’s interior ministry described those killed as “medical staff”.

It was unclear whether the cop was dead or in custody.

Afghanistan suffered a spate of deadly attacks in the run-up to presidential elections held on April 5, including a restaurant bombing in January and an attack on a hotel in March.

Three Americans have been killed at a children hospital in Kabul run by US charity CURE

Three Americans have been killed at a children hospital in Kabul run by US charity CURE

Thursday’s attack took place at a hospital in western Kabul run by CURE, a small US Christian charity.

The US embassy in Kabul tweeted that it was “with great sadness we confirm that three Americans were killed in the attack on CURE Hospital”. No other information would be released for the moment, it added.

Police say that the attack happened when a policeman at a nearby checkpoint opened fire on a group of five or six foreigners who were entering the hospital in western Kabul.

A spokesman for the interior ministry said that three had died, including two women. Others were being treated for their injuries, officials said.

Some reports say that the policeman, who was named as Ayunullah, shot himself after the incident. But the Reuters news agency says that he is wounded and in police custody.

The charity CURE took over the hospital seven years ago and restored it to specialize in providing healthcare for women and children. The 100-bed hospital employs 27 doctors and 64 nurses, CURE says.

It is the second attack on a Christian target in the city this year.

In March, the Taliban attacked a guest house used by foreigners working for a faith-based agricultural charity.

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Afghanistan is voting for a new president in what will be the nation’s first ever transfer of power through the ballot box.

A massive security operation is under way to thwart the Taliban which has vowed to disrupt the election.

Eight candidates are vying to succeed Hamid Karzai, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term as president.

The poll has already been overshadowed by the shooting of two journalists.

Award-winning German photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed and veteran Canadian reporter Kathy Gannon was injured when a police commander opened fire on their car in the eastern town of Khost on Friday. They had both worked for Associated Press for many years.

It was the latest in a string of deadly attacks that marred the lead-up to the election.

The biggest military operation since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 has been rolled out for the vote. All 400,000 of Afghanistan’s police and soldiers were said to be on duty for the election.

Afghanistan is voting for a new president in what will be the nation's first ever transfer of power through the ballot box

Afghanistan is voting for a new president in what will be the nation’s first ever transfer of power through the ballot box

In parts of the capital voters could be seen queuing an hour before polls opened.

However, some polling stations in the provinces of Herat in the west and Kapisa, north-east of Kabul, were closed because of a combination of the bad weather and security risks. There were also reports elsewhere of several polling centers not receiving ballot materials in time.

Independent Election Commission chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani urged all Afghans to vote, as he cast his ballot live on television.

Traffic was prevented from entering the Afghan capital from midday on Friday, with police checkpoints erected at every junction.

International observers are increasingly optimistic that both the tight security and a number of new guarantees against fraud will make this a fairer election than Afghanistan has seen before.

Afghans have been barred from sending text messages until polls close at 16:00 on Saturday to prevent the service from being used for last-minute campaigning.

But there are still concerns about ballot stuffing and ghost polling stations as well as the fact that the number of election cards in circulation appears to be vastly more than the number of registered voters.

On Saturday the interior ministry said two police were arrested in Wardak province for stuffing ballot boxes.

There are eight candidates for president, but three are considered frontrunners – former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul, and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah has fought a polished campaign, Dr. Ashraf Ghani has strong support among the new urban youth vote and Dr. Zalmai Rassoul is believed to favored by Hamid Karzai.

However, no candidate is expected to secure more than the 50% of the vote needed to be the outright winner, which means there is likely to be a second round run-off on May 28.

A poll conducted by the Free and Fair Election Foundation found that more than 75% respondents planned to vote, even though faith in the electoral process was said to be decreasing.

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Two foreign journalists have been shot by a police officer in Khost, eastern Afghanistan, officials say.

One of the women died, the other was critically wounded.

The incident took place in the remote town of Khost near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan.

It comes as Afghanistan intensifies security ahead of presidential elections on Saturday, in response to threats of violence by the Taliban.

Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus, 48, was killed instantly in the attack, the news agency confirmed.

Veteran reporter Kathy Gannon, 60, was said to be in a stable condition and receiving medical treatment.

Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed instantly in the attack

Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed instantly in the attack (photo CBC)

They came under attack whilst sitting in a car in a convoy protected by Afghan soldiers and police.

The new president will succeed Hamid Karzai, who has been in power since the 2001 fall of the Taliban but is constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term.

“Two female journalists were shot this morning inside a district police headquarters, one has been killed, while the other is seriously wounded,” Khost provincial spokesman Mobarez Mohammad Zadran told the AFP news agency.

The two journalists had been visiting Tanay district in Khost province with an official from the Independent Election Commission when the attack took place.

The police officer behind the attack is currently being questioned in custody.

The Taliban has stepped up its attacks in recent weeks, in a bid to disrupt preparations for the election.

Last month, a senior reporter for AFP, Sardar Ahmad, was killed alongside eight other people when Taliban gunmen attacked a hotel, which was popular with foreigners, in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

Nearly 200,000 troops have been deployed across the country to prevent attacks by the Taliban.

Rings of security have been set up around each polling centre, with the police at the centre and hundreds of troops on the outside.

The election is being protected by the biggest military operation since the fall of the Taliban.

Reporting restrictions are in place, limiting what can be broadcast about the candidates.

If nobody wins more than 50% of the vote in this round, a run-off election will be necessary.

There are eight candidates for president, including former Foreign Ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul, and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

The headquarters of the Afghan election commission in Kabul have been attacked by insurgents, a week before the presidential election, police say.

Gunmen have entered a nearby building and are firing at the election commission with automatic weapons.

The attack comes a week before presidential elections which the Taliban have vowed to disrupt.

Insurgents attacked the headquarters of the Afghan election commission in Kabul

Insurgents attacked the headquarters of the Afghan election commission in Kabul (photo AP)

It comes a day after a major attack on a building housing foreign aid workers in the Afghan capital.

A police officer quoted by Associated Press news agency says the assailants have not entered the heavily secured compound of the International Election Commission and are based in a house about 500 m away.

The insurgents are attacking the commission headquarters with assault rifles and some heavier weapons.

The commission is on a specially built site on a main road out of the centre of Kabul to the east, he adds. It is not yet clear if there are any casualties.

“We heard two explosions inside the IEC compound, the sound of firing is still ongoing, but people are safe and are in (reinforced) safe rooms,” IEC spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor tells AFP news agency.

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Barack Obama has warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the US may pull all of its troops out of his country by the year’s end.

President Obama conveyed the message in a phone call to Hamid Karzai, who has refused to sign a security agreement.

The US insists this agreement must be in place before it commits to leaving some troops behind for counter-insurgent operations and training.

The US has had troops in Afghanistan since 2001 when it toppled the Taliban.

Its forces went into the country following the 9/11 attacks on the US. With Afghan and Western allies, they quickly overthrew the Taliban authorities, but have faced insurgent attacks since then.

Correspondents say the disagreement over the bilateral security agreement (BSA) is the latest step in the long and deteriorating relationship between Washington and Hamid Karzai, who was once seen as a key US ally.

Barack Obama has warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the US may pull all of its troops out of his country by the year's end

Barack Obama has warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the US may pull all of its troops out of his country by the year’s end

The BSA, which offers legal protection for US troops and defines a post-2014 NATO training and anti-insurgent mission, was agreed by the two countries last year after months of negotiation.

It was endorsed at a national gathering (Loya Jirga) of Afghan elders in Kabul in November.

But Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the deal until a peace process is under way with the Taliban, adding that if he were to sign it, he would become responsible if Afghans were killed by US bombs.

“President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA [Bilateral Security Agreement], the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning,” the White House said in a statement.

“Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014.

“Furthermore, the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 US mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.”

While Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the BSA, some candidates in April’s Afghan presidential elections have indicated they would.

Hamid Karzai, who has served two terms as Afghanistan’s first and only president since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, is obliged by law to stand down after the next election.

Analysts say the US statement clearly implies that Hamid Karzai’s stance will harm Afghanistan’s security long after he leaves office.

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Afghan elders Loya Jirga has backed a security pact with the US allowing thousands of American troops to remain after combat operations end in 2014.

However, the assembly also called on President Hamid Karzai to sign the deal this year.

Hamid Karzai had told the opening session of the assembly that the deal would be signed after elections in 2014.

The US has said it is neither “practical nor possible” to delay the signing.

More than 2,000 elders have been meeting behind closed doors for the past few days.

They endorsed the security deal in a resolution.

The past few days have seen tense diplomatic telephone exchanges between Secretary of State John Kerry and President Hamid Karzai.

Afghan elders Loya Jirga has backed a security pact with the US allowing thousands of American troops to remain after combat operations end in 2014

Afghan elders Loya Jirga has backed a security pact with the US allowing thousands of American troops to remain after combat operations end in 2014

Washington insists the deal – which has taken months to negotiate – must be signed before the end of this year in order to secure plans for how many troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

Opening the four-day grand assembly of elders on Thursday, Hamid Karzai urged delegates to approve the deal.

The president said a number of world leaders – including from Russia, China, and India – were backing the accord, and that it would provide the security Afghanistan needed, as well as the foundation for forces from other NATO countries who were assisting Afghan troops.

But he appeared to set a new condition, saying any pact would not be signed until after presidential elections.

That vote will be held in April. Hamid Karzai has served two terms so cannot stand again.

State department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “We believe that signing sooner rather than later is essential to give Afghans certainty about their future before the upcoming elections, and enable the United States and other partners to plan for US presence after 2014.

“It is neither practical nor possible for us to further delay because of the uncertainty it would create.”

The deal under discussion may see 15,000 foreign troops remain after 2014, although the US says it has not yet taken a decision on any presence.

While the Loya Jirga can amend or reject clauses in the pact, its decisions are not binding. The deal will also have to be approved by parliament.

Security is tight for the meeting after a suicide bombing last weekend near the huge tent where it is being held.

The Taliban has branded the meeting a US-designed plot, and has vowed to pursue and punish its delegates as traitors if they approve the deal.

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At least 10 Afghans have been killed and more than 20 injured in a suicide bomb attack in Kabul.

The bomb went off near a compound where tribal elders are expected to gather next week to discuss a security pact with the US.

No group has said it carried out the attack.

The security pact governs the status of US military personnel staying in Afghanistan beyond the withdrawal of most international forces in 2014.

It will be discussed next week by Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga, the traditional council of elders.

Those killed in Saturday’s attack include a police officer. Many of the other casualties appear to have been civilians.

Police say the attacker crashed a vehicle filled with explosives into an Afghan army vehicle when soldiers identified it as a threat and opened fire.

At least 10 Afghans have been killed and more than 20 injured in a suicide bomb attack in Kabul

At least 10 Afghans have been killed and more than 20 injured in a suicide bomb attack in Kabul

Although no group has said it was behind the blast, correspondents say suspicion is likely to fall on the Taliban, which opposes the foreign military presence in Afghanistan and has carried out previous attacks in Kabul.

The blast occurred less than 100m from a large tent where more than 2,000 prominent Afghans will gather on Thursday to debate the security pact with the US.

The security agreement must be approved by the Loya Jirga and parliament before it can come into force.

Among other issues, the pact covers the key issue of whether US military personnel will enjoy immunity from prosecution in Afghanistan.

Hours before the blast, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said negotiators had completed a draft of the accord, the Associated Press news agency reports. But he added that there were “still some differences”.

The president also called on the Taliban to attend the Loya Jirga.

“We invite them, please come to this national Jirga of Afghanistan, raise your voice, raise your objection.”

Between 5,000 and 10,000 US military personnel are due to remain in the country beyond the end of 2014, when most of the Nato-led international force is due to have left Afghanistan.

The US is expected to focus on training and mentoring Afghan security forces as well as combating al-Qaeda.

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At least 27 Afghan miners have been killed in a collapse after being trapped underground in the northern province of Samangan, officials have confirmed.

Provincial governor’s spokesman Mohammad Seddiq Azizi said that the men had been working at the Abkhorak coal mine when part of it collapsed.

Four members of the rescue teams were badly injured.

An official said the rescue teams did not have the appropriate equipment. Mining is a state-controlled industry.

At least 27 Afghan miners have been killed in a collapse after being trapped underground in the northern province of Samangan

At least 27 Afghan miners have been killed in a collapse after being trapped underground in the northern province of Samangan

It is feared that at least 13 other miners could still be trapped in the mine 135 miles north of the capital, Kabul.

The collapse is the latest accident to hit Afghanistan’s mining industry.

In December, 11 miners were reported to have been killed in a similar incident in the northern province of Baghlan.

The country is known to have vast reserves of oil, gas, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium.

Afghanistan is also known to have a wider array of mineral resources; in 2010, the ministry of mines claimed its reserves were worth nearly $1 trillion.

Afghan Taliban insurgents attacked the US consulate in the western city of Herat.

Two Afghan police and one security guard were killed in the dawn assault, along with seven attackers. The US consulate said its staff was safe.

The Taliban said they carried out the attack, which began with a huge blast at the compound gates, sparking a gun battle near consulate buildings.

Attacks continue despite the planned withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014.

Seventeen civilians, including women and children, were injured in the Herat attack.

Herat sits close to the Iranian border on a vital trade route across southern Afghanistan and it has been relatively peaceful in recent years.

The US consulate in Herat was opened just four years ago in a former five-star hotel.

Afghan Taliban insurgents attacked the US consulate in the western city of Herat

Afghan Taliban insurgents attacked the US consulate in the western city of Herat

The attack – carried out in the shadow of the anniversary of 9/11 – is a demonstration of the ability of insurgents to disrupt Afghanistan, 12 years after US-led forces toppled the Taliban.

In violence elsewhere, a truck bomb exploded near government offices in the volatile south-eastern province of Paktika, injuring several Afghan security personnel.

The force of the explosions in Herat left the road badly damaged and pieces of twisted metal and rubble could be seen in the vicinity of the consulate, reports say.

An Afghan army spokesman said a huge truck bomb damaged the outer defenses of the US consulate, allowing the attackers to breach the perimeter and shoot at the consulate buildings.

“A truck carrying attackers drove to the front gate, and attackers, possibly firing rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, commenced attacking Afghan Protective forces on the exterior of the gates,” US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

“Shortly after, the entire truck exploded, extensively damaging the front gate [to the consulate],” she added.

The gunfire continued for some time, reporters at the scene said.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) tweeted at 04:00 GMT that the consulate was secure “with all enemy forces being killed”. ISAF and Afghan National Security Forces were at the scene, it added.

Earlier this month Taliban targeted the Torkham US base in eastern Afghanistan, sparking a lengthy gun battle in which three insurgents were killed.

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Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the US soldier who murdered 16 Afghan villagers last year, has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Robert Bales, 39, opened fire on men, children and women during the attack in Kandahar province last March.

He pleaded guilty to the massacre in June to avoid the death penalty.

Robert Bales apologized for the massacre during his sentencing hearing at a Washington state military base on Thursday, calling it an “act of cowardice”.

He had been making a case for why he should one day be eligible for parole, which would have meant he could potentially have been released in 20 years.

But on Friday the military jury of six at Joint Base Lewis-McChord ruled against him.

Robert Bales showed no emotion as the sentence was announced. His mother bowed her head, rocked in her seat and wept.

Afterwards Afghan villagers who were flown out by the US Army to attend the trial spoke to reporters.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole

“We wanted this murderer to be executed,” one man said through an interpreter, according to local media.

“We came all the way to the US to get justice. We didn’t get that.”

Sgt. Robert Bales was serving his fourth combat deployment when he attacked two villages in the middle of the night, spraying bullets into mostly women and children.

His lawyers argued that post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury were factors in the killings.

Nine Afghan villagers testified at the court martial.

Among them was Haji Mohammad Wazir, who lost 11 family members, including his mother, wife and six children.

The jury returned the sentence just hours after the prosecution and defense made closing arguments.

Prosecutor Lt Colonel Jay Morse showed jurors photos of a young girl who was killed as she screamed and cried.

In his closing arguments, he showed surveillance video of Sgt. Robert Bales returning to his base with what he said was “the methodical, confident gait of a man who’s accomplished his mission”.

“In just a few short hours, Sgt Bales wiped out generations,” Jay Morse said.

“Sgt. Bales dares to ask you for mercy when he has shown none.”

Defense lawyer Emma Scanlan read a letter the soldier sent to his children 10 weeks before the killing: “The children here are a lot like you. They like to eat candy and play soccer. They all know me because I juggle rocks for them.”

She told the court: “These aren’t the words of a cold-blooded murderer.”

While Emma Scanlan said she would not try to minimize what Sgt. Robert Bales did, she asked jurors to consider his earlier military service and give him a “sliver of light” – the possibility of parole.

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NATO has handed over security for the whole of Afghanistan for the first time since the Taliban were ousted in 2001.

At a ceremony in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that from Wednesday “our own security and military forces will lead all the security activities”.

Observers say the best soldiers in the Afghan army are up to the task but there are lingering doubts about some.

International troops will remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, providing military back-up when needed.

The ceremony came shortly after a suicide bomb attack in western Kabul killed three employees of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and wounded more than 20.

The attacker was believed to be targeting the convoy of prominent politician and Hazara leader Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, who escaped with light injuries.

Meanwhile, sources close to Taliban representatives have confirmed to the BBC that they are opening an office in the Qatari capital Doha, possibly as early as Tuesday. It is seen as an important stage in establishing a political face for the movement.

The Taliban has in the past refused talks with Hamid Karzai’s government, calling it a puppet of the US. But the Afghan president said on Tuesday he is sending representatives to Qatar to discuss peace talks with the movement.

Hamid Karzai has been outspoken about his upset at previous US and Qatari efforts to kick-start the peace process without properly consulting his government.

There is also concern within the presidential palace that the Taliban will use the political office in Qatar to raise funds.

NATO has handed over security for the whole of Afghanistan for the first time since the Taliban were ousted in 2001

NATO has handed over security for the whole of Afghanistan for the first time since the Taliban were ousted in 2001

Tuesday’s ceremony saw the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) hand over control of the last 95 districts in a transition process that began in 2011.

The last remaining districts included 13 in Kandahar province – the birthplace of the Taliban – and 12 each in Nangarhar, Khost and Paktika, all bastions of insurgent activity along the border with Pakistan.

Hamid Karzai called it an historic day and a moment of personal pride.

“This has been one of my greatest desires and pursuits, and I am glad that I, as an Afghan citizen and an Afghan president, have reached this objective today,” he said.

He reiterated a shift in military strategy, ruling out the future use of air strikes on what he called Afghan homes and villages; the issue of NATO air strikes and civilian casualties has long been a sensitive one.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Afghan forces were taking up the role with “remarkable resolve” but said there was still 18 months of hard work ahead for ISAF troops.

“We will continue to help Afghan troops in operations if needed, but we will no longer plan, execute or lead those operations, and by the end of 2014 our combat mission will be completed,” he said.

The number of Afghan security forces has been gradually increasing from fewer than 40,000 six years ago to nearly 350,000 today.

However, as it has taken over more responsibility for security, the Afghan army has suffered a sharp rise in casualties.

By comparison, international coalition casualties have been steadily falling since 2010.

A high desertion rate among Afghan forces has also meant that thousands of new recruits are needed each month to fill its ranks.

In recent Taliban attacks on the capital Kabul, Afghan rapid reaction police tackled the insurgents without having to call in ISAF forces.

The number of ISAF forces in Afghanistan peaked in 2011 at about 140,000, which included about 101,000 US troops.

ISAF currently has about 97,000 troops in the country from 50 contributing nations, the bulk of whom – some 68,000 – are from the US.

By the end of 2014 all combat troops should have left to be replaced – if approved by the Afghan government – by a smaller force that will only train and advise.

The pressure on contributing nations to withdraw their troops has been exacerbated by a series of “green-on-blue” attacks in which members of the Afghan security forces have killed coalition troops.

At least 60 NATO personnel died in such attacks in 2012. Many more Afghan security force members have died at the hands of their colleagues, in so-called “green-on-green” attacks.

US President Barack Obama has not yet said how many troops he will leave in Afghanistan along with other NATO forces at the end of 2014.

Washington has said that the Afghan government will get the weapons it needs to fight the insurgency including a fleet of MI-17 transport helicopters, cargo planes and ground support airplanes.

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Aesha Mohammadzai has made international headlines in 2010 when she appeared on the now-iconic cover of Time magazine with a gaping wound in the center of her face where a nose should be.

Aesha Mohammadzai’s tragic tale of mutilation and abuse is well known by now: her Taliban husband and his family chopped off her nose and ears to punish her for trying to escape the family compound in Afghanistan.

The girl, known also as Bibi Aisha, was left for dead in the mountains, but survived and was brought for treatment to an American military base. A charity organization eventually helped bring Aesha Mohammadzai to the US, where she was taken in by an Afghan family from Maryland, CNN reported.

Over the past year, the raven-haired, vivacious young woman has undergone a serious of painful surgeries and treatments that have set the stage for Aesha Mohammadzai getting a new nose.

“It was very difficult in the beginning, but then I got used to it,” Aesha Mohammadzai told CNN.

Now, 22-year-old Aesha Mohammadzai is only a few minor procedures away from her dream becoming a reality. This summer, she will have a new face, but she will still have many challenges ahead of her.

Back in Afghanistan, Aesha Mohammadazi was not allowed to attend school and as a teenager was forced into marriage by her father, serving as a peace offering to the family of her new husband to make up for her uncle’s transgressions.

In 2011, Aesha Mohammadzai arrived in the US unable to read or write in any language. While her adoptive family, the Arsalas, say that she is a bright girl, they admit that she can be impulsive and easily distracted, preferring to work on her line of jewelery or watch movies on her laptop rather than study her ABCs.

Aesha Mohammadzai has been living with Mati Arsala, his wife Jamila Rasouli-Arsala and their daughter since November 2012, nearly two years after she arrived in the US.

She told CNN that people in Maryland often laugh at her because of her nose, but she responds to questions about what happened to her with: “It’s none of your business.”

Her first few months in the US Aesha Mohammadzai had spent in California preparing for reconstructive surgery, which ended up being scrapped because she was deemed too emotionally volatile.

She then spent several months in New York at a group home for Afghan women, where she was offered therapy and English classes, before finally moving to Frederick, Maryland, to live with the Arsalas.

Aesha Mohammadzai has made international headlines in 2010 when she appeared on the now-iconic cover of Time magazine with a gaping wound in the center of her face where a nose should be

Aesha Mohammadzai has made international headlines in 2010 when she appeared on the now-iconic cover of Time magazine with a gaping wound in the center of her face where a nose should be

Her first surgery took place last June, making it her first step towards getting a new nose. Over the past 11 months, Aesha Mohammadzai had the skin on her forehead expanded to provide doctors with additional tissue for her new nose.

Surgeons at Walter Reed Medical Center, where she has been treated free of charge, also had to take skin, bone and cartilage grafts from various parts of her body in preparation for her reconstructive surgery.

To avoid the risk of contracting an infection, Aesha Mohammadzai has been staying indoors, which led her to stop going to her weekly English classes. These days, she stays up late at night watching Bollywood films and sleeps during the day.

In the coming months, Aesha Mohammadzai’s nose will be complete, at which point doctors will be able to move on to her mutilated ears.

Aesha Mohammadzai ‘s surrogate parents say that they want to give her more time to heal both physically and emotionally, but once her face is whole again, Aesha will have to move forward and forge her own path in her adoptive country.

As part of Aesha Mohammadzai ‘s life-changing treatment, her forehead has ballooned and dark, drooping flesh covered the space where her nose once was – before her husband sliced it off.

Doctors placed an inflatable silicone shell under the skin of her forehead and gradually filled it with fluid in order to expand her skin and provide them with extra tissue for her new nose.

They have also taken tissue from her forearm and transplanted it to her face to form the inner lining and lower part of the nose.

Aesha Mohammadzai ‘s wounds are healing, but she lives with the scars of an ordeal few could imagine. Speaking for the first time on television to ITV’s Daybreak in February, she told the story behind that Time photograph.

She said: “Every day I was abused by my husband and his family. Mentally and physically. Then one day it became unbearable so I ran away.

“They caught me and put me in jail for five months. When I came out the judge sent me back to my husband. That night they took me to the mountains.

“They tied my hands and my feet. They said my punishment was to cut my nose and ears. And then they started to do it.”

Aesha Mohammadzai, who has never attended school or celebrated her birthday, now lives in America. Helped out of Afghanistan by a charity, she now has a new family who care for her as one of their own.

She said she is “happy” with her new nose and wants her experience to tell a new story, this time one of hope.

She said: “I want to tell all women who are suffering abuse to be strong. Never give up and don’t lose hope.”

Aesha Mohammadzai’s story was first told in August 2010 by Time magazine, who published a harrowing cover photo of her – horrifying people around the world and symbolizing the oppression of Afghan women.

When she was 12, her father promised her in marriage to a Taliban fighter to pay a debt.

Aesha Mohammadzai was handed over to his family who abused her and forced her to sleep in the stable with the animals.

The UN estimates that nearly 90% of Afghanistan’s women suffer from some sort of domestic abuse.

But when Aesha Mohammadzai attempted to flee, she was caught and her nose and ears were hacked off by her husband as punishment.

“When they cut off my nose and ears, I passed out. In the middle of the night it felt like there was cold water in my nose.

“I opened my eyes and I couldn’t even see because of all the blood,” she told CNN reporter Atia Abawi.

Left for dead in the mountains, she crawled to her grandfather’s house and her father managed to get her to an American medical facility, where medics cared for her for ten weeks.

They then transported Aesha Mohammadzai to a secret shelter in Kabul and in August 2010, she was flown to the U.S. by the Grossman Burn Foundation to stay with a host family.

She was taken in by a charity in New York called Women for Afghan Women who supported her and helped pay for her education.

But Aesha Mohammadzai soon became unhappy and her behavior gave rise to concern. During one outburst during, she threw herself to the floor and slammed her head against the ground, grabbing at her hair and biting her fingers.

Her primary guardian figure at the center Esther Hyneman, who witnessed the tantrum said no one was able to prevent her from inflicting the injuries and they had to call 911 for help.

Nowadays, Aesha Mohammadzai still prefers watching Bollywood films rather than American TV.

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Up to 12 Afghan civilians, 10 children and two women, have been killed in a NATO air strike in Shigal district.

A further six women are believed to have been injured in the incident in Shigal district from Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan.

NATO confirmed that “fire support” was used in Shigal after a US civilian adviser died in a militant attack, but said it had no reports of deaths.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the killings.

Up to 12 Afghan civilians, 10 children and two women, have been killed in a NATO air strike in Shigal district

Up to 12 Afghan civilians, 10 children and two women, have been killed in a NATO air strike in Shigal district

A statement issued by Hamid Karzai’s office said the president had already issued a decree banning aerial attacks on civilian areas.

Villagers and local officials said the casualties were inside their homes when they died.

Photographs apparently sent from the scene to international news agencies appeared to show the bodies of several dead young children, surrounded by Afghan villagers.

A local official said eight Taliban insurgents had also died in the air strike on Saturday, which is reported to have caused the roofs of several houses in three villages to collapse.

He said the strikes were called in to support a major operation by US and Afghan government forces targeting senior Taliban commanders and a local weapons cache.

Tribal elder Haji Malika Jan said: “The fighting started yesterday morning [Saturday] and continued for at least seven hours. There were heavy exchanges between both sides.

“The area is very close to the Pakistani border and there are hundreds of local and foreign fighters, mostly Pakistanis, in the area.”

In a statement, the NATO-led International Security Assistant Force (Isaf) said: “We are aware of an incident yesterday in Kunar province in which insurgents engaged an Afghan and coalition force.

“No Isaf personnel were involved on the ground, but Isaf provided fire support from the air, killing several insurgents. We are also aware of reports of several civilians injured from the engagement, but no reports of civilian deaths. Isaf takes all reports of civilian casualties seriously, and we are currently assessing the incident.

“The air support was called in by coalition forces – not Afghans – and was used to engage insurgent forces in areas away from structures, according to our reporting.”

A statement issued on behalf of President Hamid Karzai strongly condemned the NATO attack, and “military operations in residential areas that cause civilian deaths”.

“The president also strongly condemns the Taliban’s tactic of using civilians and their homes as their shields,” it said.

International forces are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Civilian deaths in Western military operations have been a source of tension between the Afghan government led President Hamid Karzai and the US and its NATO allies.

In February 2012, at least 10 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in a NATO air strike in the same area.

In February this year, President Hamid Karzai ordered a complete ban on Afghan security forces calling in air strikes in residential areas.

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At least 37 people have been killed in a suicide bomb attack at a mosque in Maymana, northern Afghanistan, officials say.

More than 40 people were wounded in the attack at the front of the mosque in Maymana, capital of Faryab province.

The provincial governor and police chief were said to be among those attending the prayers to mark the Eid al-Adha holidays, but they reportedly escaped without serious injury.

Civilians and police officers were among the dead, officials said.

Eye witnesses and officials said the suicide attacker approached the mosque and detonated his suicide vest after the Eid prayers had finished.

It is not clear now the attacker managed to get past at least four security checkpoints to target the mosque.

Deputy provincial governor Abdul Satar Barez told the AFP news agency that the attacker himself was wearing a police uniform.

Attacks in northern Afghanistan are far less common than in the south and east, and Faryab province has been considered to be relatively peaceful.

However at least 10 people were killed in an incident in April 2012 when a suicide bomber on a motorbike targeted a meeting of officials near the main vegetable market in Maymana.

 

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Prince Harry has been deployed to Afghanistan for four months, UK’s Ministry of Defence says.

Prince Harry, 27, an Apache helicopter pilot, arrived on Thursday night at the main British base, Camp Bastion in Helmand.

The third in line to the throne will take part in combat missions against the Taliban.

It is his second Afghanistan deployment – Prince Harry spent 10 weeks in Helmand province in 2007-08 but was pulled out after media reported his secret deployment.

Captain Wales, as Prince Harry is known in the military, arrived as part of the 100-strong 662 Squadron, 3 Regiment, Army Air Corps.

Royal Navy Captain Jock Gordon, Commander of the Joint Aviation Group, said: “Captain Wales, with his previous experience as a Forward Air Controller on operations, will be a useful asset.

“He will be in a difficult and demanding job. And I ask that he be left to get on with his duties and allowed to focus on delivering support to the coalition troops on the ground.”

Captain Wales, as Prince Harry is known in the military, has been deployed to Afghanistan for four months

Captain Wales, as Prince Harry is known in the military, has been deployed to Afghanistan for four months

Prince Harry is the first member of the Royal Family to see active combat since his uncle Prince Andrew fought in the Falklands war.

The prince, who turns 28 next week, qualified as an Apache helicopter pilot in February this year after 18 months of rigorous training in the UK and the US.

The Ministry of Defence regards the threat to Apache aircraft and crew in Afghanistan as “low”.

The Taliban claim to have brought down an Apache in Afghanistan, but the British have never lost an Apache anywhere, from a total of 67, despite two minor crashes.

The Apache attack helicopter is designed to hunt and destroy tanks and is equipped with rockets, missiles and automatic cannon.

During his previous deployment, Prince Harry was a forward air controller, directing planes dropping bombs on Taliban positions in Helmand province.

The Ministry of Defence, which had agreed a news blackout with British media believed that the risk to the prince was too great after Australian and US media revealed details of his deployment.

Then he was part of ground forces, calling in air strikes against enemy positions. He was disappointed to be withdrawn, and determined to return to front-line combat.

In April, the prince suggested it would be pointless to train as a helicopter pilot if he never served.

“I’d just be taking up a spare place for somebody else if they didn’t have me going out on the job,” he said at the time.

Camp Bastion is a sprawling base in Helmand and one of the largest in Afghanistan.

Prince Harry’s living quarters will be a shipping container, shared with another member of his squadron. Although basic, it is far better accommodation than the tented barracks that others, who are not Apache crew, have to sleep in.

Bastion has a bar which does not serve alcohol as it is forbidden on base. It has table football, a pool table, and games. Elsewhere on Bastion there is a cigar bar and a steak restaurant, called Blues.

Those working on the base are regularly awakened by the distant sound of heavy ordnance being disposed of, and a 5:00 a.m. call to prayer from a loudspeaker on top of the local mosque.

Recently Prince Harry has had a high-profile presence at the London 2012 Olympic Games. He then went to Las Vegas on a private holiday, where he was photographed at a party.

The photos, published by the Sun newspaper in UK and international websites, prompted about 3,800 complaints to the Press Complaints Commission.

However, the watchdog said it would be “inappropriate” to open an inquiry because the prince’s representatives had not yet made a formal complaint.