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Veterans group winding down work helping Afghan interpreters get to Canada

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OTTAWA — What began as a 30-day fundraising campaign to help Afghan interpreters flee the Taliban turned into a harrowing, chaotic and deeply frustrating eight-month effort for the Veterans Transition Network, and its executive director says it’s time for that to end.

The group started raising money last summer when the Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan, but executive director Oliver Thorne says no one anticipated how long it would be involved.

“This has sort of transformed from a crisis evacuation effort into a long-term migration effort,” said Thorne.

The network is ending its public fundraising on May 2, winding down operations over the next six months and returning its focus to mental health programming for Canadian veterans.

Non-governmental organizations led by veterans have been helping people who worked with the Canadian Armed Forces get out of Afghanistan and head to neighbouring countries, then on to Canada.

Thorne says “bureaucratic hoops” are making it difficult to help people get the proper paperwork and causing a bottleneck, and he’s calling on the federal government to resume consular services in Afghanistan.

“The ability to provide consular support in Afghanistan would alleviate a lot of these tensions,” he said. “That’s where we’re really seeing the bottleneck.”

Retired major general Denis Thompson is part of that grassroots network of veterans, refugee advocates and volunteers working to help people navigate the complex system of visas and other paperwork. He’s on the Veterans Transition Network’s board of directors and is an adviser to the board of Aman Lara, a Canadian NGO that’s been running safe houses in Afghanistan.

He said about 700 people in Pakistan can’t get to Canada because they don’t have an exit visa from that country. Another 500 are ready to leave Afghanistan but there’s nowhere for them to go.

“They have the right documentation,” Thompson said. “The pipe is stuck, essentially.”

Around 450 of those who are in Pakistan have expired visas and would need to return to Afghanistan to renew them, putting them at further risk of reprisals from the Taliban.

Political upheaval in Pakistan after its recent elections may make it more difficult for Canada to negotiate changes to exit visa requirements, Thompson said, something he feels should have already happened.

“These are people that have already been employed by Canada that already put themselves in harm’s way,” Thompson said. “I just find it a little bit odd that we don’t put more emphasis on those that have helped us.”

Thorne said he’s also frustrated Afghans don’t have “this extraordinary pathway” that’s been made available to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.

Both advocates feel the government needs to do a better job facilitating and funding the work of NGOs and humanitarian groups, but praised the efforts of the “hardworking people” at Global Affairs Canada and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

“A lot of this could have been delegated to officials who are willing to get the job done, but don’t appear to have the legal tools to do it,” Thompson said. “So that’s the part that frustrates me. And that’s a ministerial responsibility.”

Sanctions prohibit Canadians from spending money in Afghanistan that will end up in the hands of the Taliban, either directly or indirectly, meaning requests for federal funding are stalled and operations within the country are limited.

In an open letter sent April 4 to the ministers of justice, public safety, foreign affairs and international development, nine humanitarian organizations including the Red Cross pleaded with the government to change this, noting that other countries have found a way to exempt humanitarian groups from sanctions.

“Examples of ‘indirect’ contributions could include paying taxes on staff salaries, something that is required of any organization that wants to continue operating in Afghanistan,” the letter read.

Added Thompson: “To be frank, a lot of the solutions to these problems are coming from the NGO sector, and the problems are coming from the government.”

The federal government has pledged to resettle 40,000 Afghan refugees and so far more than 10,600 people have arrived in Canada. The departments of Foreign Affairs and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada did not respond to questions Monday.

The Veterans Transition Network says it has raised $4.6 million and helped 2,061 people get out of Afghanistan.

Thorne said the group will try to determine if another organization can step in and take over its efforts. “I’m really proud of the incredible work that my team has done.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 18, 2022.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press

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N Korea fires 23 missiles, prompting air raid alert in South

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By Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Air raid sirens sounded on a South Korean island and residents evacuated to underground shelters after North Korea fired more than 20 missiles Wednesday, at least one of them in its direction and landing near the rivals’ tense sea border. South Korea quickly responded by launching its own missiles in the same border area.

The launches came hours after North Korea threatened to use nuclear weapons to get the U.S. and South Korea to “pay the most horrible price in history” in protest of ongoing South Korean-U.S. military drills that it views as an invasion rehearsal. The White House maintained that the United States has no hostile intent toward North Korea and vowed to work with allies to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

The North’s barrage of missile tests also came as world attention was focused on South Korea following a weekend Halloween tragedy that saw more than 150 people killed in a crowd surge in Seoul in what was the country’s largest disaster in years.

South Korea’s military said North Korea launched at least 23 missiles — 17 in the morning and six in the afternoon — off its its eastern and western coasts on Wednesday. It said the weapons were all short-range ballistic missiles or suspected surface-to-air missiles. Also Wednesday, North Korea fired about 100 artillery shells into an eastern maritime buffer zone the Koreas created in 2018 to reduce tensions, according to South Korea’s military.

The 23 missiles launched is a record number of daily missile tests by North Korea, some experts say.

One of the ballistic missiles was flying toward South Korea’s Ulleung island before it eventually landed 167 kilometers (104 miles) northwest of the island. South Korea’s military issued an air raid alert on the island, according to the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. South Korean media published photos of island residents moving to underground shelters.

Hours later, South Korea’s military said it lifted the air raid alert on the island. South Korea’s transport ministry said it has closed some air routes above the country’s eastern waters until Thursday morning in the wake of the North Korean launches.

That missile landed 26 kilometers (16 miles) away from the rivals’ sea border. It landed in international waters off the east coast of South Korea. South Korea’s military said it was the first time a North Korean missile has landed so close to the sea border since the countries’ division in 1948.

“This is very unprecedented and we will never tolerate it,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

In 2010, North Korea shelled a front-line South Korean island off the peninsula’s western coast, killing four people. But the weapons used were artillery rockets, not ballistic missiles whose launches or tests are banned by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Later Wednesday, South Korean fighter jets launched three air-to-surface, precision-guided missiles near the eastern sea border to show its determination to get tough on North Korean provocations. South Korea’s military said the missiles landed in international waters at the same distance of 26 kilometers (16 miles) north of the sea border as the North Korean missile fell earlier Wednesday.

It said it maintains a readiness to win “an overwhelming victory” against North Korea in potential clashes.

“North Korea firing missiles in a way that sets off air raid sirens appears intended to threaten South Koreans to pressure their government to change policy,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “North Korea’s expanding military capabilities and tests are worrisome, but offering concessions about alliance cooperation or nuclear recognition would make matters worse.”

The Joint Chiefs of Staff earlier identified three of the North Korean weapons launched as “short-range ballistic missiles” fired from the North’s eastern coastal town of Wonsan, including the one that landed near the sea border.

North Korean short-range weapons are designed to strike key facilities in South Korea, including U.S. military bases there.

In an emergency meeting with top security officials, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered officials to take swift unspecified steps to make North Korea face consequences for its provocation. He said he would consider the North Korean missile’s landing near the border “a virtual violation of (our) territorial waters.”

During the meeting, officials also lamented that the North Korean missile launches came as South Korea is in a mourning period over the crowd crush. They noted this “clearly showed the nature of the North Korean government,” according to South Korea’s presidential office.

Earlier Wednesday, Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said at least two ballistic missiles fired by North Korea showed a possibly “irregular” trajectory. This suggests the missiles were the North’s highly maneuverable, nuclear-capable KN-23 missile, which was modeled on Russia’s Iskander missile.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called North Korea’s continuing missile tests “absolutely impermissible.”

Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said the danger of armed clashes between the Koreas off their western or eastern coasts is increasing. He said South Korea needs to make “proportional responses” to North Korean provocations, not “overwhelming responses,” to prevent tensions from spiraling out of control and possibly leading the North to use its tactical nuclear weapons.

Animosities on the Korean Peninsula have been running high in recent months, with North Korea testing a string of nuclear-capable missiles and adopting a law authorizing the preemptive use of its nuclear weapons in a broad range of situations. Some experts still doubt North Korea would use nuclear weapons first in the face of U.S. and South Korean forces.

North Korea has argued its recent weapons tests were meant to issue a warning to Washington and Seoul over their joint military drills that it views as an invasion rehearsal, including this week’s exercises.

In a statement released early Wednesday, Pak Jong Chon, a secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party who is considered a close confidant of leader Kim Jong Un, called the Vigilant Storm air force drills “aggressive and provocative.”

“If the U.S. and South Korea attempt to use armed forces against (North Korea) without any fear, the special means of the (North’s) armed forces will carry out their strategic mission without delay,” Pak said, in an apparent reference to his country’s nuclear weapons.

“The U.S. and South Korea will have to face a terrible case and pay the most horrible price in history,” he said.

U.S. and South Korean officials have steadfastly said their drills are defensive in nature and that they have no intentions of attacking North Korea.

“We reject the notion that they serve as any sort of provocation. We have made clear that we have no hostile intent towards (North Korea) and call on them to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said late Tuesday.

North Korea “continues to not respond. At the same time, we will continue to work closely with our allies and partners to limit the North’s ability to advance its unlawful weapons programs and threaten regional stability,” Watson said.

This year’s Vigilant Storm military exercises are the largest-ever for the annual fall maneuvers, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said. About 1,600 flights are planned involving 240 U.S. and South Korean fighter jets. The round-the-clock drills, which began Oct. 31, are to continue through Nov. 4 and include warfighting tactics both in the air and on the ground, it said.

___

Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Aamer Madhani in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.

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Freeland says comments about Africa aid were not meant to offend

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By Dylan Robertson in Ottawa

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says she did not mean to offend anyone after saying last week that Africans must be “prepared to die for their democracy,” and hinted that Canada might boost aid for the continent.

“If anyone did find my comments to be insensitive, then I’m very sorry,” Freeland said Monday.

“If … a white western person has offended someone, the first answer is to say, ‘I really didn’t mean to offend you.’”

In a speech last week in Washington, Freeland urged democracies to grow closer through trade and energy ties, in the face of a perilous new world order where autocracies are trying to usurp democracy.

In a question session afterwards, a man who said he works for African Development Bank asked Freeland about western countries hinting at a drop in aid for the continent, in order to fund Ukraine’s needs.

The unnamed man, whom The Canadian Press could not identify, asked Freeland to respond to concerns that this will only increase Russia’s sway in that continent.

Freeland responded that western countries do need to step up and “prove we’re real partners.”

But she also said it is up to African countries to choose their own paths, and rejected the idea that they can simply fall into Russia’s orbit by accident.

“A democracy can only be defended by people themselves if they’re actually prepared to die for their democracy,” she said last week.

The comment led to pushback on social media, and raised eyebrows among Africa experts.

University of Ottawa professor Rita Abrahamsen said Freeland was correct in saying that it’s up to Africans to determine their destiny, but cautioned that the conflict in Ukraine has become a sensitive issue.

“This a strong sense among many African countries that they are being bullied or patronized, or that one is holding aid hostage to support in the UN (forums), for the war in Ukraine,” she said.

“Canada has to be very, very careful here.”

Abrahamsen, the director of the Centre for International Policy Studies, says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put economic pressure on the continent.

“Emotions are running high around this on the African continent, and it means that words have to be judged very carefully,” she said.

“We’re looking at a continent where a large part of it … (is) close to famine conditions, acute starvation. We’re looking at immense flooding in large parts of West Africa; we’re looking at a return of military coups.”

Freeland said Monday that the western world needs to recognize that current problems stem from colonization.

“These are challenges that have been imposed from the outside. And I think that means we have a high level of responsibility.”

She hinted that upcoming budgets could include more humanitarian aid for Africa, and noted Canada’s push to reform global financial organizations to better fit the needs of poorer nations.

“We need today, if anything, to step up our engagement with the global south,” she said, referring to developing nations.

“What is important is to take the lead from our African partners, and to listen to them about what it is specifically that is on their agenda, and what specifically they need.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 17, 2022.

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