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U.S. Senator Vows To Revive Lapsed Visa Program For Afghan Asylum-Seekers

U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (file photo)

A U.S. senator is vowing to revive a lapsed special-visa program for Afghan interpreters and others who served U.S. forces in the country, often risking their lives.

The U.S. State Department said on March 9 that it is running out of special-visa slots and stopped scheduling interviews on March 1.

Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen said allowing the program to lapse sends a message to allies in Afghanistan that they have been "abandoned." She pledged to immediately introduce legislation to provide more visas.

"It's both a moral and practical imperative that Congress right this wrong immediately," Shaheen said.

She estimated that more than 10,000 applicants are still waiting for visas.

Shaheen and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain led an unsuccessful effort last year to pass legislation extending the special visas to another 4,000 Afghans who assisted U.S. forces.

The National Defense Authorization Act passed late last year instead added 1,500 visas while making it more difficult to qualify.

The Afghan visa announcement came within days of President Donald Trump issuing a new executive order to temporarily ban refugees and some travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries. But Afghanistan was not one of the six.

With reporting by Reuters

Top U.S. General Says More U.S. Ground Troops Needed In Afghanistan

Afghan Army officers discuss lessons learned alongside Marines and Navy personnel while participating in combat-scenario training exercises.

The head of the U.S. military's Central Command says more U.S. troops will be needed on the ground in Afghanistan in the fight against the Taliban and other forces.

General Joseph Votel told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on March 9 that he thinks "it will involve additional forces to ensure that we can make the advise-and-assist mission more effective."

Votel told the Senate panel he was working on a new strategy aimed at breaking what he described as a "stalemate" in Afghanistan against the Taliban.

Votel's comments echo similar remarks he made on February 24 about the situation in Syria, when he indicated further U.S. troops would be needed in the battle to fight so-called Islamic State (IS) militants there.

On March 9, the Pentagon said it was deploying a “temporary force” of 400 additional U.S. ground troops to Syria in order to help defeat IS in Raqqa, the militants' self-proclaimed capital.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters

Pakistan Closes Border With Afghanistan After Temporary Opening

Afghan citizens wait to cross into their home country at the border post in Torkham on March 7.

Pakistan closed its two main border crossings with Afghanistan on March 9 after thousands of people rushed to cross the border during a two-day reopening.

Islamabad closed its Torkham and Chaman crossings on February 16 after a series of suicide attacks in Pakistan that killed dozens of children, soldiers, and police officers.

Pakistan’s government claims that the attacks were carried out by militants who were crossing into the country from Afghanistan.

The Associated Press news agency quoted border management officials Fayyaz Khan and Irfan Toor as saying that the two crossings, major trade and commerce points between the countries, would be shut indefinitely.

With reporting by AP, Dunya News, and Reuters

More Than 20,000 Cross Into Afghanistan During Two-Day Pakistan Border Reopening

People wait to cross the border into Afghanistan from Pakistan at the Torkham border post in Pakistan's Khyber Agency on March 7.

Pakistan's border police say more than 20,000 Afghans and Pakistanis have crossed into Afghanistan since March 7 since Pakistani authorities temporarily reopened two main crossings that were closed after a series of militant attacks.

The figures on the number of people making the crossing during the temporary reopening was announced on March 8 by Faiz Khan, a Pakistani official at the Torkham crossing into eastern Afghanistan.

Khan said thousands more people were waiting late on March 8 at Torkham and the Chaman crossing into Afghanistan’s southern province of Kandahar -- hoping to cross into Afghanistan before the two-day opening was set to end.

Islamabad closed its Torkham and Chaman crossings on February 16 after a series of suicide attacks in Pakistan that killed dozens of children, soldiers, and police officers.

Islamabad claimed that the attacks were carried out by militants who were crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters

Journalism Watchdog Opens Center For Women Journalists In Afghanistan

An Afghan female journalist works in the studio of Shahrzad, a women's radio station, in Herat.

Reporters Without Borders has launched a center to protect women journalists in Afghanistan, the second-most dangerous country for female reporters after Syria.

The center will lobby for better working conditions and rights for women reporters, including combating discrimination in the workplace. It will also work to change perceptions that journalism is no job for a woman.

"We want to support women journalists both in war zones and within the news organizations for which they work, to defend both their rights and their physical safety," the center's president, Farideh Nikzad, said.

The biggest challenges are security and sexual abuse in the workplace, Nikzad said.

"By protecting women journalists, we are defending media freedom in Afghanistan," the group's secretary-general, Christophe Deloire, said.

The country currently has some 300 to 400 women journalists, mainly in the big cities.

They find themselves caught between Taliban militants on the one hand and their own families on the other, who often do not consider the job to be a suitable profession for a woman.

Four women journalists have been killed by relatives since 2002 for this reason, while 13 women media workers have been killed by outside forces since 2001, the center said.

With reporting by AFP

At Least Two Dead In Attack On Kabul Military Hospital

Afghan policeman arrive at the site of a blast and gunfire in Kabul on March 8.

At least two people have been killed after gunmen attacked a military hospital close to the U.S. Embassy in the Afghan capital and engaged security forces inside the building, officials and witnesses say.

General Dawlat Waziri, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said an unknown number of gunmen entered the Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan Hospital on March 8 after an explosion and gunfire.

The 400-bed military hospital is located near two civilian hospitals in the Wazir Akbar Khan area of Kabul.

It is also located across the road from the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy.

"The attackers are in the second and third floors of the hospital, and right now a gunbattle is under way," Waziri said.

"So far two dead bodies and nine wounded people have been transported at the neighboring Wazir Mohammad Akbar Khan hospital," Qamaruddin Sediqi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Public Health, said.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani condemned the attack during a speech on the occasion of the International Women's Day, calling it "an attack on all Afghan people and all Afghan women."

No insurgent group immediately claimed responsibility for the ongoing assault, which comes as the Taliban ramp up attacks even before the start of their annual spring offensive.

The area around the hospital, near a busy traffic intersection, was blocked off by security forces. Afghan helicopters circled over the area.

The NATO-led Resolute Support mission said it was ready to assist Afghan security services.

The attack comes just a week after dozens were killed and wounded in a series of Taliban attacks on a police building and an intelligence service compound in Kabul.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

Afghan 'Special Immigrant' Family Released After 5-Day Detention In U.S.

Demonstrators against the immigration rules implemented by U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, rally at Los Angeles international airport in Los Angeles on February 4.

An Afghan family of five detained in Los Angeles last week after traveling to the United States on "special immigrant" visas was released on March 6, government officials said.

Lawyers for the family said that it was still not clear why the father, mother, and their three sons were taken into custody at Los Angeles International Airport on March 2, interrogated, and held for some 40 hours.

But attorney Robert Blume portrayed the detention as a mistake by U.S. immigration authorities, saying: "The government swung and missed on this one. They just got it wrong."

The family on arriving in Los Angeles was scheduled to board a connecting flight to the state of Washington where they planned to resettle. Instead, they were detained by agents of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The International Refugee Assistance Project said in its court filing to seek the family's release that the couple and their children were granted "special immigrant visas" in return for work the father had performed for the U.S. government in Afghanistan that put the family's lives at risk.

In order to qualify for that program, applicants go through a difficult and lengthy vetting process that often takes more than five years and requires letters of recommendation from senior U.S. military officers or U.S. government officials in Afghanistan.

During the weekend, a federal judge had issued a temporary order blocking federal authorities from deporting the family back to Afghanistan or removing them from California.

The federal judge's order also had called for a March 6 hearing on their case.

U.S. immigration officials have tightened their border security checks for incoming foreign travelers since President Donald Trump on January 27 issued an executive order that temporarily barred entry into the United States of citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

But that original order -- which called for "extreme vetting" of arriving migrants -- was later blocked by U.S. federal judges.

The detention on March 2 of the Afghan family, whose name was not released, came despite the block on Trump's executive order, and despite the fact that Afghanistan was not one of the seven countries listed under the executive order.

On March 6, Trump signed a revised executive order that freezes the issuance of new visas for citizens from six predominantly Muslim countries – Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

The revised order, due to come into effect on March 16, says valid pre-existing visas would still be honored for individuals from those six countries.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Five Afghan Policemen Killed In Taliban Attack

At least five members of the Afghan security forces were killed early on March 5 when their checkpoint was attacked in northeastern Kunduz Province, an Afghan official said.

A large group of Taliban fighters attacked the post near the city of Kunduz, provincial police chief General Abdul Hamid Hamid said.

Meanwhile, 18 insurgents were killed and three injured in the Imam Sahib district of Kunduz Province, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

"The key terrorists killed in the operation were involved in planning and implementing several terror attacks in Kunduz Province," said the statement.

A district police chief was also killed when his vehicle was blow up by a bomb in northern Faryab Province. Another policeman was injured in the explosion in the evening on March 4. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

In another incident in Faryab Province, a local security forces commander was also killed when insurgents attacked a police checkpoint.

Afghan forces now face mounting pressure from a resurgent Taliban amid record casualties and mass desertions as the militants escalate attacks across the country.

Based on reporting by AP

At Least Eight Civilians, Including Children, Killed In Afghanistan

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri says an investigation is under way.

At least eight Afghan civilians, including four children, have been killed in an attack in the western Farah Province, Afghan officials says, although it was immediately unclear whether they died in a military air strike or a roadside bomb blast.

Muhammad Naser Mehri, spokesman for the provincial governor, said on March 4 the incident late on March 3 was a roadside bomb explosion that took place in the Bala Buluk district.

But family members of the victims say they were hit by an air strike.

One resident, a 30-year-old mother of four named Salima, said two of her children were killed and a third wounded in an air strike.

Dawlat Waziri, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said an investigation of the incident was under way.

"We are aware of the allegations made by the local people, right now an investigation is going on into the incident in Farah," Waziri said.

At least 22 other people were wounded in the attack, according to local hospital officials.

Farah's Bala Buluk district has been the scene of several recent clashes between Afghan security forces and armed insurgents.

Based on reporting by AP and dpa

Explosion, Gunfire In Afghan Capital; Taliban Claims Responsibility

Afghan policemen arrive at the site of a blast in Kabul on March 1.

A gunbattle broke out between security forces and an unknown number of attackers in Kabul, shortly after a loud blast was heard in the western part of the Afghan capital, a police official has said.

Fighting was under way near a district police headquarters located close to a military training school, said the official, who declined to give his name because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

At least two gunmen were firing on the military school and the police headquarters in Kabul's sixth district.

A spokesman for the Taliban claimed responsibility for the ongoing violence, saying militants had attacked three targets in Kabul and caused heavy casualties. He provided no further details.

No official word on casualties was available.

The explosion was large enough to be heard on the other side of the city.

Last month, a suicide bomber killed at least 20 people outside the Supreme Court in Kabul. The extremist group Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack.

With reporting by Reuters and dpa

Afghan Officer Shoots 11 Fellow Police In 'Insider' Attack, Officials Say

Lashkar Gah is one of the few areas in Helmand Province currently held by the government.

An Afghan police officer fatally shot 11 of his colleagues as they slept at a checkpoint in the southern province of Helmand, officials have said.

Omer Zwak, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said the officer turned his rifle on fellow police in the attack late on February 27 in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.

Zwak said the attacker seized his victims' guns and ammunition and fled the scene in a police vehicle -- presumably to join the Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the attack.

"Insider" attacks in which Afghan soldiers and police turn their guns on their colleagues or on international troops have been a major problem during the 15-year-old war in Afghanistan.

Afghan security forces battling a resurgent Taliban are struggling to tackle such incidents as they also face record-high casualties and mass desertions.

Lashkar Gah is one of the few areas in Helmand currently held by the government.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Putin And Rahmon Agree To Bolster Tajik-Afghan Border Security

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon attend a signing ceremony following their talks in Dushanbe on February 27.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said in the midst of a three-nation tour of Central Asia that he has agreed with Tajikistan's president to jointly bolster security along the Tajik-Afghan border.

Putin told reporters in Dushanbe on February 27 after his talks with President Emomali Rahmon that "Tajikistan is a key country" for regional security in Central Asia.

Putin said he and Rahmon agreed to "step up joint efforts to defend the Tajik-Afghan border, using capacities of the Russian military base located in Tajikistan."

He also said Russian forces are based in Tajikistan "to provide security for both Tajikistan and the southern frontiers of the Russian Federation."

About 7,000 troops from Russia’s 201st Motor Rifle Division are stationed at three facilities in Tajikistan that are considered part of a single Russian base.

One facility is near Dushanbe, and the other facilities are in the southern cities of Kulob and Qurghon-Teppa.

Earlier on February 27, Putin met in Almaty with Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, where he praised Kazakhstan's role at recent talks in Astana aimed at finding a resolution of Syria's six-year war.

'Exemplary Ties'

Putin said Kazakhstan "has played a positive role, not only as a host and organizer of the event, but had, in fact, influenced the positive results of the Astana gathering."

Nazarbaev said that a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is now Kazakhstan's "No. 1 economic and political partner."

Nazarbaev said Moscow and Astana have "established exemplary ties that should be between friendly neighboring countries."

The 76-year-old Nazarbaev has been in power since before the Soviet collapse in 1991.

In late January, Nazarbaev said he would delegate some of his sweeping powers to parliament and the cabinet.

Those moves have raised questions about an eventual transition of power in the oil-rich, tightly controlled country.

Russia is vying for influence in Central Asia with China, which also borders Kazakhstan and has been increasing its regional influence in recent years.

Putin is scheduled to complete his two-day visit to Central Asia with a visit to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on February 28.

With reporting by TASS, Interfax and RIA

Senior Taliban Commander Killed In Northern Afghanistan

Kunduz in October 2016

Afghan officials and the Taliban say a senior commander of the militant group has been killed in northern Afghanistan.

Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said on February 27 that Mullah Abdul Salam Akhund was killed in a "special operation." He gave no details.

Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said Akhund was killed along with nine other Taliban militants.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed Akhund's death in a statement, saying he was killed by a U.S. air strike in the Dashti-e-Archi district in the northern province of Kunduz.

Akhund, the commander of Taliban forces in the northern province of Kunduz, had been declared dead several times in the past only to reappear.

A U.S. military spokesman told Reuters that an American warplane had conducted an air strike in Kunduz on February 26 but said there was "no confirmation of the results."

Taliban militants have briefly seized control of the provincial capital, Kunduz City, for two consecutive years, in a major embarrassment to the Kabul government.

Akhund's death is a blow to the Taliban as the militants prepare their annual spring offensive against government forces.

With reporting by Reuters

Ten Afghan Police Officers Killed In Ambush, Officials Say

Afghan officials say 10 police officers and the wife of a police commander have been killed in an attack in the northern province of Zawzjan.

Mohammad Reza Ghafori, spokesman for the provincial governor, said the officers were ambushed on February 24 as they were coming out of a mosque in the Darzab district.

A local police commander was among the dead and his wife was also killed when she rushed to the scene, Ghafori added.

Brigadier General Rahmatullah Turkistani, the provincial police chief, said four militants were killed and six others wounded in retaliatory firing.

Ghafori blamed the attack on Islamic State (IS) militants, but the Taliban claimed responsibility.

IS-linked militants have been active in eastern Afghanistan, but have recently begun operating in the north of the country as well. The Taliban frequently target officials and security forces across Afghanistan.

Based on reporting by AP, dpa, and Pajhwok

Thousands Protest In Kabul Against Pakistan's Cross-Border Shelling

Afghans shout slogans protesting Pakistan's last week cross-border rocket shelling, in Kabul, on February 23.

KABUL -- Thousands of activists rallied in downtown Kabul on February 23, protesting Pakistan's cross-border rocket shelling last week.

The protesters gathered around the Eidgah Mosque in the Afghan capital, chanting slogans condemning Pakistan as "an enemy of Afghanistan."

During antiterrorist operations on February 17, Pakistan's military and law enforcement agencies fired missiles, some of which landed on Afghan territory.

On February 18, Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry summoned Pakistani Ambassador Abrar Hussain to protest the shelling.

The ministry also expressed concerns over the recent arrests of more than 100 Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Islamabad's decision to shut down the border between the two nations "to prevent terrorists' cross-border activities."

Afghanistan's government also demanded that Pakistan hand over terrorists operating on its soil and close tens of training camps for suspected terrorists.

Germany Deports Third Planeload Of Rejected Afghan Asylum-Seekers

An Afghan refugee who was deported from Germany arrives with his belongings at the international airport in Kabul on January 24.

A plane carrying a third group of at least 18 Afghan asylum-seekers rejected by Germany left for Kabul late on February 22.

Police said around 250 people gathered at the airport to protest the deportations, which German opposition parties and rights groups have criticized, arguing that most of Afghanistan is not safe for return.

"There are no secure areas in Afghanistan," said Nadine Kriebel of the Bavarian Refugees' Council, which organized the rally. "We want to lodge a protest against these indiscriminate deportations."

In the past, the majority of Afghans whose asylum bids were declined were allowed to remain in Germany due to the security threat in their country. But Berlin, which participates in NATO forces in Afghanistan, decided last year to designate parts of the country safe for return.

The government said the group deportations are supposed to send a signal to Afghans that Germany only accepts a small number of asylum bids from their country.

Peter Altmaier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, defended the deportations on Deutschlandfunk radio.

"Those who have no claim to asylum from any conceivable point of view - where the courts have determined that they do not face the threat of persecution - must expect to be repatriated," he said.

Based on reporting by AFP and dpa

Afghan Vice President's Bodyguards Questioned In Abuse Case

Afghan Vice President Abdul Rahid Dostum

Bodyguards of Afghan Vice President Rashid Dostum who are wanted over allegations of torture and abuse have been questioned by the authorities after weeks of refusing to cooperate, officials say.

Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said on February 22 that seven bodyguards were being questioned by officials of the Attorney General's Office. It wasn't immediately clear if the seven bodyguards were willingly cooperating with the authorities.

Dostum, a powerful ethnic Uzbek warlord with decades of experience in Afghanistan's turbulent politics, faces accusations that he ordered members of his personal militia to seize and detain Ahmad Ishchi, a former ally. Dostum has denied the accusations.

Ishchi says he was severely beaten and sexually abused for days, prompting demands from Western allies of the government for an investigation and trial.

The case has caused embarrassment to President Ashraf Ghani, who has faced heavy pressure from Western allies to act against his unruly vice president.

Dostum's powerful position within Afghanistan's Uzbek community has made it difficult to replace him.

The bodyguards' questioning comes after days of rising tensions within Ghani's fragile national-unity government. Armed troops blocked the streets around Dostum's Kabul residence, apparently to try to force him to hand the men over.

However, Dostum's chief of staff Babur Farhamand said it was not clear why security forces had been stationed around the vice president's heavily fortified residence.

Based on reporting by Reuters and Tolonews.com

Grenade Attack On Afghan Home Kills 11 Members Family

FILE: A member of the Afghan security force fires a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher during an ongoing an operation against Islamic State (IS) militants in eastern Afghanistan.

Provincial officials in eastern Afghanistan say 11 members of an Afghan family have been killed by a grenade attack on their home.

Authorities say the dead were all civilians and the victims included women and children.

Sarhadi Zwak, the spokesman for the governor of Laghman Province, told RFE/RL that unknown gunman late at night on February 19 threw two hand grenades into the family's home in the province's Baad Pakh district.

Zwak said 10 of the family members were killed inside their home.

Health official Abdul Latif Qayyomi said the 11th family member died while being rushed to a hospital in neighboring Nangarhar province.

Three other relatives were wounded by the blasts.

The attack took place in an area known as Marwat Kace, which is to the north of the main highway between Kabul and Jalalabad.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

With reporting by AFP

U.S. Defense Chief Nears Recommendation On Afghan Troop Levels

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks at the opening of the 53rd Munich Security Conference in Munich on February 17.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says he will make recommendations soon to President Donald Trump on whether to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Mattis said on February 19 the president had been "rightfully reticent" on the matter, as he was waiting for input from his generals on the situation in Afghanistan, where the war is entering its 16th year.

"We are putting our thoughts together now," Mattis told reporters during a visit to Abu Dhabi. "It shouldn't take too long.”

He added that Trump "is open to my advice on it, but first of all I've got to formulate where I stand, so this is the normal collection of ... information."

Mattis said he spoke for several hours by video conference on February 19 with General John Nicholson, the top American commander in Afghanistan.

Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month he needs a few thousand more troops to train and advise Afghan forces.

Nicholson didn't provide an exact number, but he called for greater flexibility in setting U.S. troop levels. He did say that America's longest-ever war was stuck in a "stalemate."

Mattis met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Munich on February 18.

He was scheduled to fly to Kabul on February 19, but bad weather forced him to postpone the trip.

U.S. troop levels in the country are limited to 8,400 after former President Barack Obama insisted on reducing the presence and handing security responsibility to Afghan forces.

Meanwhile, Mattis did not directly address the role of Russia in Afghanistan, which as the Soviet Union fought a war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

General Nicholson had told U.S. senators that Moscow was giving the Taliban encouragement and diplomatic cover in order to undermine U.S. influence and to defeat NATO.

Mattis said he needs to "assess what the other countries in the region are doing in Afghanistan to help or hinder us in our efforts. We are still sorting that out."

With reporting by AP and AFP

ICRC Calls For Immediate Release Of Abducted Workers In Afghanistan

Afghan mourners carry the coffin of one of the six Afghan employees of the Red Cross in Mazar-e Sharif on February 9.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has called for the immediate release of two staff members abducted during an ambush in northern Afghanistan last week that killed six workers.

The aid workers were in a convoy carrying supplies to areas hit by avalanches when they were attacked in the northern province of Jowzjan on February 8.

"We call on the abductors' sense of humanity and request the immediate, safe and unconditional release of our colleagues and to avoid taking any action that could endanger their lives," Monica Zanarelli, ICRC chief in Afghanistan, said in a statement released on February 18.

"We do not want the agony and heartache of this tragedy to deepen," she added.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but provincial Governor Mawlawi Lutfullah Azizi said he suspected Islamic State (IS) gunmen were behind it.

IS militants have made limited inroads in Afghanistan, but have carried out increasingly deadly attacks.

The killings come after a Spanish worker of the ICRC was abducted in northern Afghanistan in December and released less than a month later.

Neither the ICRC or Afghan officials said how he was freed or who was behind the abduction.

After the attack, the ICRC, which has been working in Afghanistan for three decades, said it was putting its nationwide operations on hold, although it added there were no plans to withdraw staff.

With reporting by AFP

Pakistan Shuts Another Border Crossing After Shrine Massacre

The friendship gate in Chaman border crossing.

Pakistani authorities have shut down a second key border crossing into Afghanistan in the aftermath of a deadly suicide bombing that killed dozens of Sufis worshiping at a popular shrine.

The closing late on February 17 of the Chaman border crossing in Pakistan's southwest Balochistan Province is seen as an effort to pressure Kabul to act against militants who Pakistan says have safe haven in Afghanistan.

A February 16 attack at the Lal Shahbaz Qalander shrine in the city of Sehwan killed 88 people and wounded more than 100. The bombing was claimed by the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.

Pakistan closed the border at the Torkham crossing hours after the bombing, a senior army official said.

Torkham connects Pakistan to Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province and Chaman is located near Spin Boldak in Kandahar.

Pakistani security forces have launched nationwide operations against alleged terrorists since the shrine bombing and claim to have killed more than 100 in that effort.

Media reports say Pakistani troops have targeted camps belonging to Jamaat-ul Ahrar, a breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban, near the Afghan border.

In Kabul, the Afghan government on February 18 summoned Pakistani Ambassador Abrar Hussain to protest recent shelling by Pakistani forces in Afghanistan's eastern provinces.

Kabul reportedly expressed concern over the closure of the Torkham and Chaman border crossings and requested that they be reopened.

Based on reporting by AP and DunyaNews

Trump Said To Favor Afghanistan Veteran Harward As Security Adviser

U.S. Vice Admiral Robert S. Harward has combat experience on Navy SEAL teams and served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. President Donald Trump favors giving the job of White House national security adviser to Vice Admiral Robert Harward, White House officials have said.

Reuters reported that Harward, a former deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, has been offered the job.

Harward would replace Michael Flynn, who was ousted from the post on February 13 after revelations that he had discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador to the United States before Trump took office.

Losing his national security adviser so soon after taking office is an embarrassment for the new Republican president, who has made national security a top priority.

Harward, who went to school in Tehran before the shah was toppled in 1979, did a tour on the National Security Council under former Republican President George W. Bush, working on counterterrorism.

He also has combat experience on Navy SEAL teams and served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Harward now works as an executive for defense contractor Lockheed Martin, with responsibility for its business in the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters

Official: Suicide Attack Kills Four In Northwestern Pakistan

Pakistani paramilitary soldiers assist an injured colleague as he is being treated at a hospital in Peshawar.

A suicide bomber has killed four people, including two police officers, and injured four in an attack targeting the administrative headquarters of a tribal region in the country's northwest.

Local officials told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that two suicide bombers tried to enter a compound of the local political administration in Ghalani Tehsil in the Mohmand tribal district on February 15.

When they were stopped at the main entrance, one of the attackers blew himself up while the other was killed in an exchange of fire with the security forces.

No one immediately claimed responsibility of the attack.

Earlier this week, a suicide bombing killed 13 in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore.

A breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban — the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar or Freedom Movement -- claimed responsibility for that attack.

The breakaway faction is based in the Mohmand area -- part of rugged, lawless regions along the Afghan border that have long served as safe havens for local and Al-Qaeda-linked foreign militants.

Pakistan has waged several offensives against Islamic militants in recent years.

With additional reporting by AP

Rights Group Says Pakistan Forcing Afghan Refugees To Return Home

Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan requiring emergency assistance on January 11.

Pakistan is forcing hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees back to their homeland, which is still wracked by violence and poverty, a human rights group said.

"The exodus amounts to the world's largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times," a Human Rights Watch report said on February 13.

Pakistan cited security concerns for seeking Afghan refugees' return to their homeland, particularly after several brutal attacks by militants in Pakistan's northwest, which the government linked to insurgents hiding in neighboring Afghanistan.

At its peak in the 1980s, Pakistan sheltered an estimated 5 million Afghan refugees as Afghan guerrilla fighters battled invading Russian troops. Today there are still 1.3 million registered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, making Pakistan host of the world's largest protracted refugee population.

Last year, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told refugees in Pakistan to come home, promising them shelter and opportunities. About 380,000 registered Afghan refugees returned to their homeland along with an estimated 250,000 unregistered refugees.

Pakistan said refugees who returned did so voluntarily, and it extended the deadline for refugees to return to the end of this year. But Human Rights Watch said it should be extended through 2019.

Based on reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Protesters In Germany Rally In Support Of Afghan Refugees

FILE: Afghan refugees protest in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 2012.

Several thousand people took part in demonstrations across Germany to protest the forced return of Afghan refugees whose bids for asylum have been rejected.

"The people who are forced to return cannot live their lives in safety there," organizers in Hamburg said of the situation in Afghanistan.

“A life in dignity is inconceivable under these conditions," they added.

The largest demonstrations were reportedly in Berlin and the western city of Dusseldorf, where an estimated 2,000 people took to the streets in each city. A Hamburg demonstration drew about 1,500.

The Refugee Council of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) said the demonstrations aimed to encourage the NRW interior minister to push for a nationwide halt to deportations to Afghanistan.

Organizers said about 12,000 refugees have been ordered to leave Germany for Afghanistan.

Based on reporting by dpa and Deutsche Welle

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