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Thousands of Afghans who helped Canada trapped in Afghanistan, struggling to leave

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By Marie Woolf in Ottawa

MPs and veteran-led aid groups are urging ministers to do more to help thousands of Afghans who assisted Canadian Forces but remain trapped in Afghanistan a year after the Taliban seized Kabul.

They warn that 8,000 Afghans approved to come to Canada have not yet been able to escape. Many do not have a passport or visa and applying to the Taliban for documents could put them in danger.

Another 3,000 Afghans who helped Canada’s Armed Forces and government have not been approved to come to Canada, according to Aman Lara, a veteran-led non-governmental organization working to help interpreters and other Canadian government employees on the ground.

Brian Macdonald, Aman Lara’s executive director, urged Canada to extend the special immigration program, set up to settle 18,000 former local employees of the Canadian Armed Forces or government, which is being effectively wound down after reaching capacity.

“There are 8,000 people in Afghanistan who have been approved to come to Canada under the special immigration program who can’t get out,” he said.

“We are asking the government of Canada to keep the special immigration program open and unlimited in numbers until everybody who helped Canada gets out.”

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said in June the department has received over 15,000 applications for the program, as well as referrals for the remaining 3,000 spaces.

Official figures show Canada’s resettlement efforts have lagged behind federal targets and efforts to help those fleeing the war in Ukraine.

More than 17,300 Afghans have arrived in Canada since last August compared to 71,800 Ukrainians who have come to Canada in 2022 alone, according to government statistics. The federal government has promised to resettle 40,000 Afghans.

Fraser predicted in December that it could take two years to fulfil the government’s promise to bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada.

Canadian activists and opposition MPs accused the Liberals of not doing enough and say some families are in hiding from the Taliban as they await approval of their immigration applications.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan, who has been in contact with many Afghan refugees who worked with Canadian Forces, said there is a “stark difference” between the government’s treatment of those fleeing the Taliban and those fleeing the Russian invasion.

She said the situation for Afghans who helped Canada is “grave,” with many unable to escape the country and facing persecution by the Taliban.

Kwan said some received no reply to their applications from the Immigration Department other than an automated response. Others seeking visas from the Taliban authorities to escape their regime were put in peril if they identified themselves.

“Their lives are in danger. They told me what the Taliban are calling them: they are called ‘the Western dogs,'” Kwan said.

“We owe them a debt of gratitude. We cannot abandon them.”

Amanda Moddejonge, a military veteran and activist, said she has witnessed families being split up, with only some members making it to Canada. She also warned that Afghans who worked for Canadian Forces “are being hunted” by the Taliban.

“Nobody should face death for working for the Government of Canada, especially when this government can identify those who worked for them and is able to provide them life-saving assistance,” she said.

Macdonald said safe houses set up by Aman Lara for Afghan interpreters and their families, and others who helped Canada, have closed because the exodus to Canada has taken so long and it could not afford to keep them open.

He said the Pakistan government had agreed to a 60-day window in June to allow Afghans without full documentation to leave the country to fly to Canada, but not all Afghan and Pakistani officials at borders and airports were aware.

He called on the Canadian government to negotiate to keep that window open until all Afghans approved to come to Canada are able to get here.

His plea came as aid agencies working in Afghanistan raise alarms that the country is in a dire humanitarian crisis, with 18.9 million people facing acute hunger.

Asuntha Charles, national director of World Vision Afghanistan, said aid workers have encountered acute poverty and malnutrition, including among children.

“At least one million children are on the brink of starvation, and at least 36 per cent of Afghan children suffer from stunting — being small for their age — a common and largely irreversible effect of malnutrition,” she said.

“In the four areas we work, we’ve found that families live on less than a dollar a day. This has forced seven out of 10 boys and half of all girls to work to help their families instead of going to school.”

Vincent Hughes, a spokesman for Fraser, said the Afghan and Ukrainian immigration programs are very different.

He said Afghan refugees who arrive through programs set up to bring them to Canada have a right to stay permanently, whereas it’s believed many Ukrainians who have fled to Canada intend eventually to return to Ukraine.

Helping get people out of Afghanistan and to Canada was very challenging, he added, as Canada has no diplomatic presence there and does not recognize the Taliban government.

“Our commitment of bringing at least 40,000 vulnerable Afghans to Canada has not wavered, and it remains one of the largest programs around the world,” he said.

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada, who has no contact with the Taliban regime, said “the experience of the past one year in Afghanistan has been very painful and disturbing.”

Hassan Soroosh said the Taliban had swiftly reintroduced “repressive policies” including restrictions “on almost every aspect of girls’ and women’s lives and rights.”

“The Taliban’s forced takeover has caused a huge disruption to constitutional order, socio-economic development, public services and civil society activities,” he said.

The ambassador called for the international community to take a unified approach toward the Taliban and put greater pressure on them “as they continue to insist on their uncompromising approach and repressive rule.”

“We remain grateful to Canada for maintaining a principled position on the current tragic situation in Afghanistan and for a sustained commitment in support of the people of Afghanistan including women, girls and those who need resettlement support,” he said.

In a joint statement on Sunday, Canada’s ministers of foreign affairs, immigration, international development and national defence said “we have witnessed the hardships endured by the Afghan people, with some having undergone harrowing journeys to flee the country and countless others living in fear of persecution and retribution.”

“Faced with a heart-wrenching situation in Afghanistan, Canadians opened their hearts to help people rebuild their lives and more than 17,300 Afghans have arrived in Canada over the past year.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 15, 2022.

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Vote in Ukraine’s Russia-held areas stokes tension with West

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Kremlin-orchestrated referendums that are expected to serve as a pretext for Moscow to annex Russian-held regions of Ukraine concluded Tuesday as the preordained outcome of the votes heightened tension between Russia and the West.

Moscow-backed officials in the four occupied regions in southern and eastern Ukraine said polls closed Tuesday afternoon after five days of voting and the counting of ballots had started.

The annexation of the regions which could happen as soon as Friday, sets the stage for a dangerous new phase in the seven-month war in Ukraine. Russia warned it could resort to deploying nuclear weapons to defend its own territory, including newly acquired lands.

After the five days of balloting, “the situation will radically change from the legal viewpoint, from the point of view of international law, with all the corresponding consequences for protection of those areas and ensuring their security,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has talked up Moscow’s nuclear option since last week following a Ukrainian counteroffensive that led to recent battlefield setbacks and has the Kremlin’s forces increasingly cornered.

The balloting that started Friday in the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk regions and a call-up of Russian military reservists ordered by Putin are other strategies aimed at buttressing Moscow’s exposed position.

Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of the Russian Security Council chaired by Putin, spelled out the threat in the bluntest terms yet Tuesday.

“Let’s imagine that Russia is forced to use the most powerful weapon against the Ukrainian regime that has committed a large-scale act of aggression, which is dangerous for the very existence of our state,” Medvedev wrote on his messaging app channel. “I believe that NATO will steer clear from direct meddling in the conflict in that case.”

The United States has dismissed the Kremlin’s nuclear talk as scare tactics.

Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, responded to Putin’s nuclear threats from last week. Sullivan told NBC on Sunday that Russia would pay a high, if unspecified, price if Moscow made good on threats to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.

The referendums ask residents whether they want the areas to become part of Russia. But the voting has been anything but free or fair.

Tens of thousands of residents had already fled the regions amid the war, and images shared by those who remained showed armed Russian troops going door-to-door to pressure Ukrainians into voting.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko, who left the port city after the Russians finally seized it following a months-long siege, said only about 20% of the 100,000 estimated remaining residents cast ballots in the Donetsk referendum. Mariupol had a pre-war population of 541,000.

“A man toting an assault rifle comes to your home and asks you to vote, so what can people do?” Boychenko said during a news conference, explaining how people were coerced into voting.

Western allies are standing firm with Ukraine, dismissing the referendum votes as a sham.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said while visiting Kyiv on Tuesday that France was determined “to support Ukraine and its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

She described the ballots as “mock referendums.” Ukrainian officials said Paris and Kyiv had moved closer to an agreement that would Ukrainian forces with French Caesar artillery systems.

Meanwhile, the mass call-up of Russians to active military duty has to some degree backfired on Putin.

It has triggered a massive exodus of men from the country, fueled protests in many regions across Russia and sparked occasional acts of violence. On Monday, a gunman opened fire in an enlistment office in a Siberian city and gravely wounded the local chief military recruitment officer. The shooting came after scattered arson attacks on enlistment offices.

With Putin’s back against the wall amid Ukraine’s recent battlefield successes, Russian media speculated he might follow up on last week’s partial mobilization order by declaring martial law and shutting the nation’s borders for all men of fighting age.

Russian officials announced plans to set up a military recruitment office right on the border with Georgia, one of the main routes of the exodus.

As Moscow works to build up its troops in Ukraine, Russian shelling continued to claim lives. At least 11 civilians were killed and 18 others wounded by Russian barrages in 24 hours, Ukraine’s presidential office said Tuesday.

Among the casualties were eight people, including a 15-year-old boy, who were killed by a Russian strike on the town of Pervomaiskyi in the northeastern Kharkiv region.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the eastern Donetsk region where shells killed three people, said that “every day of the referendum we count more dead in the Donbas, and those sad numbers show Russia’s real goals.”

Donetsk and Luhansk, which Moscow-backed separatists have partly controlled for eight years, together make up Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region.

The Ukraine war is still gripping world attention, as it causes widespread shortages and rising prices not only for food but for energy, inflation hitting the cost of living everywhere, and growing global inequality. The talk of nuclear war has only deepened the concern.

Misery and hardship are often the legacy of Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian areas now recaptured by Kyiv’s forces. Some people have had no gas, electricity, running water or internet since March.

The war has brought an energy crunch for much of Western Europe, with German officials seeing the disruption of Russian supplies as a power play by the Kremlin to pressure Europe over its support for Ukraine.

The German economy ministry said Tuesday that the Nord Stream 1 pipeline leading from Russia to Europe has reported a drop in pressure, only hours after a leak was reported in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea off Denmark. Both pipelines were built to carry natural gas from Russia to Europe.

The extent of the damage means that the pipelines are unlikely to be able to carry any gas to Europe this winter even if there was the political will to bring them online, analysts at the Eurasia Group said.

Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said the problems were “very alarming” and would be investigated.

Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, revealed another prong of Russia’s offensive: a sprawling disinformation network.

The network originating in Russia aimed to use hundreds of fake social media accounts and dozens of sham news websites to spread biased Kremlin talking points about the invasion of Ukraine, Meta said Tuesday.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Adam Schreck And Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press

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Russians rush for flights out amid partial reservist call-up

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By Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Large numbers of Russians rushed to book one-way tickets out of the country while they still could Wednesday after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of military reservists for the war in Ukraine.

Flights filled up quickly and the prices of tickets for remaining connections sky-rocketed, apparently driven by fears that Russia’s borders could soon close or of a broader call-up that might send many Russian men of fighting age to the war’s front lines.

Tickets for the Moscow-Belgrade flights operated by Air Serbia, the only European carrier besides Turkish Airlines to maintain flights to Russia despite a European Union flight embargo, sold out for the next several days. The price for flights from Moscow to Istanbul or Dubai increased within minutes before jumping again, reaching as high as 9,200 euros ($9,119) for a one-way economy class fare.

Putin’s decree stipulates that the amount of people called to active duty will be determined by the Defense Ministry. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a televised interview that 300,000 reservists with relevant combat and service experience initially would be mobilized.

Russia has seen a marked exodus of citizens since Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine almost seven months ago. During the early morning address to the nation in which the president announced the partial mobilization of reservists, he also issued a veiled nuclear threat to Russia’s enemies in the West.

Reports of panic spreading among Russians soon flooded social networks. Anti-war groups said the limited airplane tickets out of Russia reached enormous prices due to high demand and swiftly became unavailable.

Some postings alleged people already had been turned back from Russia’s land border with Georgia and that the website of the state Russian railway company collapsed because too many people were checking for ways out of the country.

Social networks in Russian also surged with advice on how to avoid the mobilization or leave the country.

Russian officials sought to calm the public, stressing that the call-up would affect a limited number of people fitting certain criteria. However, conflicting statements and a lack of details helped fuel the panic.

The head of the Duma defense committee, Andrei Kartapolov, said there would be no additional restrictions on reservists leaving Russia based on this mobilization. But he also advised individuals who could be eligible for the call-up against “traveling to resorts in Turkey.”

“Spend your vacation at the resorts of Crimea or (Russia’s southern) Krasnodar region,” Russian media quoted Kartapolov as saying.

Avtozak, a Russian group that monitors political demonstrations and detentions, reported that some participants were detained at anti-mobilization demonstrations in several cities.

A group based in Serbia, called Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians and Serbs Together Against War, tweeted that there were no available flights to Belgrade from Russia until mid-October. Flights to Turkey, Georgia or Armenia also sold out, according to the Belgrade-based group.

“All the Russians who wanted to go to war already went,” the group said. “No one else wants to go there!”

Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, has become a popular destination for Russians during the war. Up to 50,000 Russians have fled to Serbia since Russia invaded Ukraine and many opened businesses, especially in the IT sector.

Russians don’t need visas to enter Serbia, which is the only European country which has not joined Western sanctions against Russia for its aggression in Ukraine.

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AP Writers Jovana Gec and Daria Litvinova contributed to this story.

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