Bolton, Democrats urge Russia sanctions if bounty reports are true

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats and a leading Republican hawk on Tuesday called for U.S. President Donald Trump to consider imposing new economic sanctions on Russia if a reported Russian effort to pay the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan was confirmed.

Trump has been under pressure over a New York Times report on Friday that a Russian military intelligence unit had offered bounties for U.S. and allied soldiers and later reported that he received a written briefing on the matter in February.

After Trump initially said he was not briefed on the matter, the White House said Trump was not “personally” briefed but did not address whether he had received a written report, read it, and why he had not responded more aggressively if so.

The shifting statements have generated controversy among his fellow Republicans as well as Democrats and the suggestion that Trump may have ignored or not known about a threat to U.S. troops could damage him as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3.

House of Representatives Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat, said Trump should be looking to impose costs on Moscow.

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  • Trump must have been aware of Russia bounty allegation, Democratic lawmaker says
  • Russia bounty reports, if true, should lead to U.S. sanctions, John Bolton says

“We should be considering what sanctions are appropriate to further deter Russia’s malign activities,” he told reporters after a briefing for House Democrats at the White House.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden called Trump’s handling of the matter a “dereliction of duty.”

And John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, told Reuters if the allegations were true it was “tantamount to an attack on Americans directly.”

“That requires a very serious response,” he said. “It could well be asymmetric economic sanctions.

The White House has sought to play down reports in the Times and the Washington Post that it knew of accusations that Russia paid the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. and coalition troops but had not briefed Trump or acted on the information.

Four U.S. government sources have confirmed to Reuters that credible U.S. intelligence suggested Russia offered such bounties.

A fifth person familiar with the matter said such intelligence was first brought to the White House’s attention around March 2019 but it was then uncorroborated and “could have been disinformation.”

The White House has said there was no consensus on the intelligence and it would not be elevated to the president until verified.

However, the New York Times cited two unnamed officials as saying officials gave Trump a written briefing in late February laying out their conclusion that Russia had offered and paid bounties.

The newspaper said it was in the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) document – the premier product of U.S. intelligence agencies that is prepared for him to read.

A U.S. government source declined to confirm or deny the threat information was in a PDB in February but told Reuters material is sometimes included in PDBs so that other senior officials can evaluate it and follow up.

In this case, the source said that the matter was raised at a high level earlier this year, the intelligence is regarded as credible, and steps were taken to formulate a response.

The source suggested a response was still under discussion and Trump arguably did not have to be involved while the information was checked out.

However, a Congressional source voiced skepticism that such information would be included in a PDB with an expectation the president would not read it and that others would deal with it.

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that U.S. officials had intercepted data showing big financial transfers from an account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account. It said this eased disagreements in the U.S. intelligence community and undercut White House officials’ claim that the intelligence was too uncertain to brief Trump.

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World News

Civilians killed in rocket attack on Afghanistan cattle market

At least 23 killed, dozens wounded after four rockets hit the market in Sangin district in Helmand province.

At least 23 civilians were killed and dozens injured after rockets hit a cattle market in Afghanistan‘s southern Helmand province, the Afghan government and Taliban officials said.

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

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

TOLOnews, quoting a statement from the provincial governor’s office, said the incident took place in the Zol Bazar area and was followed by a car bomb explosion.

Taliban officials blamed the government officials for killing the civilians.

On Sunday, a roadside bomb in the Washer district of the same province left six civilians dead.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said the Taliban were responsible for 208 civilian casualties in April and government forces for 172.

The UN has called for a halt to the fighting and the start of intra-Afghan peace talks as part of a deal signed between the United States and the Taliban in February.

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World News

Blast kills at least 23 at cattle market in southern Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Biden criticizes Trump for inaction over reported Russian bounties

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House on Saturday denied that President Donald Trump was briefed on reported U.S. intelligence that Russia’s military offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with Democratic rival Joe Biden criticizing Trump for failing to take action against Moscow.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement that “neither the president nor the vice president (Mike Pence) were briefed on the alleged Russian bounty intelligence.” The statement, McEnany said, did not address the “merit of the alleged intelligence” reported on Friday by the New York Times.

A Russian military intelligence unit linked to assassination attempts in Europe offered rewards for successful attacks last year on American and coalition troops, the Times reported. The newspaper reported that Islamist militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them, were believed to have collected some bounty money.

Trump was told about the intelligence but had not authorized steps to retaliate, the Times reported.

Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate set to challenge Trump in the Nov. 3 election, said during a virtual town hall on Saturday that the Times report, if true, represents a “truly shocking revelation,” noting in particular Trump’s reported failure to retaliate.

“Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin,” Biden said, referring to the Russian president.

Biden pledged retaliation if he becomes president.

“If I’m elected president, make no mistake about it, Vladimir Putin will be confronted and we’ll impose serious costs on Russia,” Biden said.

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World News

US watchdog: Afghanistan gov't weakened ahead of Taliban talks

The upcoming intra-Afghan dialogue is the first high-level meeting between the two after years of fighting.

A watchdog in the United States has warned that “systemic” corruption within the Afghan government is weakening its bargaining position in upcoming peace negotiations with the Taliban, even as the armed group said it was ready and had compiled its agenda for the long-awaited talks.

John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said the Taliban and other fighters underscored the government’s corruption, using it to “undermine public support for the government, garner recruits to their cause and weaken the government’s bargaining position during future peace negotiations”.

“It is the most insidious threat the Afghan government faces because it saps the support of citizens who are trying to go about their daily work, feed their families, and live free of fear and intimidation,” Sopko told a monitoring group known as Integrity Watch Afghanistan on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, about 50 civil society activists in Kabul rallied on Thursday against corruption, urging the International Monetary Fund to rescind a $220m loan given last month to the Afghan government to help mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Afghanistan has reported more than 30,000 cases, including 675 deaths, but testing is severely limited, and experts say the number of infections is likely much higher.

The protesters said the government has already wasted billions of international money. Najibullah Azad, who led a group of lawyers, doctors and economists in the protest, said government corruption is devouring international money and that he feared the IMF’s $220m would disappear.

Sopko criticised Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government, saying it only paid lip service to fighting corruption, “ticking off the boxes” rather than implementing changes and arresting some of the worst offenders.

“The private sector and particularly international investors – who care far more about their own bottom line – will not overlook Afghanistan’s failure to tackle the corruption challenge,” he said.

“Afghanistan’s leaders must come to realise that in the end, private sector investment will matter far more to their country’s future than international donors, because after 19 years of war, foreign governments, including the United States, are growing weary of paying Afghanistan’s bills.”

International donors cover 75 percent of Afghanistan’s operating budget and the US alone pays $4bn annually to finance the war-torn country’s military and security forces.

Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi objected to Sopko’s criticism, insisting that “the government has done a lot to tackle corruption and that has to be seen”.

No date has yet been set for negotiations but Deborah Lyons, the UN special representative to Afghanistan, told the UN Security Council on Thursday that she was “cautiously optimistic” the talks could start in July in Qatar, where the Taliban maintains a political office.

One of the obstacles to the start of the negotiations has been the exchange of prisoners, envisaged under a deal the Taliban signed with the US at the end of February.

That accord – and the Afghan-Taliban talks that were meant to follow – are seen as Afghanistan’s best chance for peace and an opportunity for US and NATO troops to leave the country after nearly two decades of fighting.

The Taliban’s political spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, told The Associated Press that the Afghan government has so far released 3,500 Taliban prisoners.

The US-Taliban deal calls for 5,000 Taliban prisoners to be freed by Kabul. It also said the Taliban should free 1,000 government personnel, including military men, they hold captive.

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