Dozens of Civilians Reported Killed in Afghan Commando Strike

Dozens of Civilians Reported Killed in Afghan Commando Strike
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LONDON — The tour operator and airline Thomas Cook said on Monday that it had collapsed, forcing hundreds of thousands of travelers to scramble to find a way home, after last-minute negotiations to obtain necessary financing for the debt-ridden company fell apart.
“We are sorry to announce that Thomas Cook has ceased trading with immediate effect,” the company said in a post on Twitter, and the Civil Aviation Authority in Britain said that all Thomas Cook bookings, including flights and vacations, had been canceled, affecting an estimated 600,000 people around the world.
The liquidation of the world’s oldest travel company, which specialized in low-cost package vacations that included flights and accommodation in more than 60 destinations around the world, has set in motion what was being described as the biggest peacetime repatriation in British history, as the government announced plans to bring back 150,000 Britons.
The Civil Aviation Authority said that the first repatriation flight had left from Kennedy Airport in New York with more than 300 passengers on board and was expected to land at about 5 p.m. in London.
Thomas Cook was struggling with debts approaching £2 billion, forcing it to enter negotiations with shareholders and creditors that came at least £200 million short of what was needed to keep the company running. With no other choice, the company ceased operations.
Before the collapse, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the government would not intervene to save the airline, adding that doing so would create a “moral hazard” because the possibility of a government bailout could encourage other companies to take risks.
Condor, an airline that is a subsidiary of Thomas Cook, said it was seeking financial help from the German government to keep its planes in the air after the collapse of the company, which impacted around 140,000 German travelers.
Condor said that it had been “profitable for many years” and that a loan from the German government would help it fly back those German travelers who were scheduled to fly with Condor anyway. Those Germans who flew with other Thomas Cook affiliates will also be covered by the insurance mandatory for operators of package tours.
The Civil Aviation Authority said it was working with the government to support passengers scheduled to fly back to Britain with Thomas Cook between Monday and Oct. 6, the agency said in a statement on its website, though the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, cautioned that what is known as “Operation Matterhorn” would not “be entirely smooth sailing.”
The BBC reported that the government had chartered 45 jets to get people home. Airlines including easyJet, British Airways and Virgin were providing planes, the BBC said, with some being flown in from as far away as Malaysia.
The aviation authority told passengers who were booked on Thomas Cook Airlines flights not to go to British airports, “as your flight will not be operating,” and warned that the repatriation effort would not include any outbound flights from Britain.
It also noted that it had contacted the hotels hosting Thomas Cook customers, who booked their accommodation as part of a package, to tell them that the cost of their stay will also be covered by the government. The announcement alleviated fears that travelers would be unable to leave their hotels until payment was settled.
On Saturday, some British tourists described being stopped from checking out of their hotel in Tunisia over concerns the hotel might not be paid.
The effects of the collapse will ripple out far from Britain, the headquarters of Thomas Cook. In Greece, where 50,000 vacationers are expected to be repatriated to their home countries in the coming days, there are fears about the effect of the company’s collapse on the local economy.
Michalis Vlatakis, the head of Crete’s union of tour operators, described the developments as a “7-magnitude earthquake,” adding that the local tourism sector was now “waiting for the tsunami.”
About 70 percent of tour operators on Crete have contracts with Thomas Cook, he said, adding that so far this year the British company brought 400,000 visitors to the island, and other islands that are even more reliant on tourism.
Layton Roche and Natalie Wells booked flights more than a year ago from Manchester to Kos, a Greek island, for their Friday wedding, and they said they had been forced to improvise after the collapse turned their plans into chaos.
“I have been awake for 28 hours now,” Mr. Roche, a 30-year-old civil engineer, said in a message on Monday, while he and Ms. Wells, 31, were on their way to Birmingham to find an alternative flight.
The couple had already paid about 4,000 pounds, or about $5,000, for alternative flights for themselves and some family members, and they were expecting to spend another £2,000 for their accommodation.
“I’m absolutely gutted,” Mr. Roche said, adding that around 80 percent of the guests would not be able to make it because of the extra costs.
Mr. Roche said he expected a wait of at least three months before being able to claim money through the Air Travel Organizer’s License, a program that protects most package vacations sold by travel businesses based in Britain.
The failure of Thomas Cook touched off a debate in Britain over whether the government should have intervened to prevent the collapse. Speaking to the British television network ITV, Mr. Shapps, the transport secretary, said that beyond the fact that “governments don’t usually go around investing in travel companies,” a bailout of Thomas Cook would most likely have only put off the inevitable by “stretching things out for a couple of weeks.”
“The company were asking for up to £250 million,” he said on “Good Morning Britain.” “They needed about £900 million on top of that, and they’ve got debts of £1.7 billion, so the idea of just spending taxpayers’ money on that just wasn’t really a goer.”
The company’s struggles have been building, and Thomas Cook warned that it had endured an especially difficult time in the six-month period ending in March.
Peter Fankhauser, the chief executive of Thomas Cook, cited a prolonged heat wave in the summer of 2018 that brought high prices in the Canary Islands, a popular destination for the tour operator.
But he also noted that, “there is now little doubt that the Brexit process has led many U.K. customers to delay their holiday plans for this summer.”
The travel operator got its start in 1841, when a cabinet maker — and the man for whom the company is named — suggested a special route to carry temperance supporters from Leicester to a meeting in Loughborough, 12 miles away.
The company later expanded with trips to continental Europe and North America, and, according to its website, had sales of £7.8 billion and 19 million customers each year.
Visitors to the company’s website on Monday were greeted with a sparse gray screen with the company’s logo informing them of the collapse. “Thomas Cook UK Plc and associated UK entities have entered Compulsory Liquidation and are now under the control of the Official Receiver,” the website read, instructing customers to visit a special Civil Aviation Authority website that had been established.
Most British travelers on package vacations should be able to get home without suffering any financial loss. British law requires that those trips be insured under the Air Travel Organizer’s License, which is intended to reimburse travelers if their tour operator stops doing business. But those who only bought flights from Thomas Cook do not have the same protections and will be more reliant on personal travel insurance.
Andrea Leadsom, the business secretary, said in a statement that the government intended to convene a task force to support the thousands of Thomas Cook employees who will lose their jobs.
“This will be a hugely worrying time for employees of Thomas Cook, as well as their customers,” Ms. Leadsom said. “Government will do all it can to support them.”
The government also said that it would push to expedite an investigation into the circumstances around the company’s going into liquidation.
Two years ago, Monarch, another British carrier and tour operator, collapsed, leaving more than 100,000 passengers stranded abroad and forcing the government to step in to bring them home.
A British-flagged tanker that Iran seized in July is now free to leave, Tehran said on Monday, more than a month after the British authorities released an Iranian tanker that had been detained off Gibraltar.
The news offered a rare sign of comity at a time when Iran has been in an escalating cycle of confrontation with its Persian Gulf neighbors and with the United States, including the shooting down of drones, the seizure of tankers and, most recently, an attack on major oil installations in Saudi Arabia.
Officials of the United States and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief rival in the region, have blamed Tehran for the Sept. 14 attack on oil facilities in the kingdom, raising the prospect of retaliatory strikes and even war. But so far, the only apparent action they have taken against Tehran is a tightening of economic sanctions.
Iran had accused the British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, of violating maritime regulations in the Strait of Hormuz, but the seizure on July 19 was widely seen as retaliation for the detention of the Iranian vessel.
The legal proceedings against the Stena Impero have concluded, and Iran has decided to waive the allegations of violations, an Iranian government spokesman, Ali Rabiyee, said at a news conference, according to Iranian and Western news agencies that were present.
The ship had not left Bandar Abbas, a port in southern Iran, as of midday, and it was not clear how quickly it would set sail. Erik Hanell, chief executive of the tanker’s owner, the shipping company Stena Bulk, told SVT, a Swedish television station, that he hoped it would be a matter of hours.
Iran detained the 23-member crew along with the ship. It released seven of them this month, but the others have remained with the vessel.
The decision to release the ship comes a little more than a week after the attack on the Saudi oil installations. Iran has denied any responsibility for the attack, a sophisticated operation involving some two dozen drones and cruise missiles. The aerial strikes damaged infrastructure and temporarily cut Saudi oil production in half, sending tremors through world markets, but they caused no reported casualties.
The Houthi rebel faction in Yemen’s civil war, a group that is known to use weapons supplied by Iran, has said it carried out the attack against Saudi Arabia, which has been bombing in Yemen for more than four years, killing thousands of people.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain said early on Monday that there was “a very high degree of probability” that Iran was responsible for the strikes in Saudi Arabia, and he did not rule out British participation in military retaliation. The topic is sure to be aired this week at the United Nations General Assembly’s annual gathering of heads of government, which will be attended by Mr. Johnson, President Trump and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, among many others.
In May and June, several tankers operating near the Strait of Hormuz were damaged in what the United States said was sabotage by Iranian forces — which Iran also denied. Iran also detained several ships for varying periods of time, notably the Stena Impero, and shot down an American surveillance drone.
Analysts have characterized the attacks — whether carried out by Iran or by one of the armed factions it supports in the Middle East — and ship seizures as Tehran’s demonstration that it has the power to cut off a large part of the world’s energy supplies.
Iran wants relief from punishing sanctions imposed by President Trump since he withdrew the United States from a 2015 deal that restricted the Middle Eastern country’s nuclear program. Relations have grown worse since then, as the United States has steadily added more economic penalties, seeking to choke off Iran’s oil sales, the life blood of its economy. In recent months, Iran has taken a series of steps to go beyond the limits imposed by the nuclear accord.
While many other nations, including key American allies, have sided with Iran on the nuclear deal and the sanctions, there is less sympathy for Iran internationally than there was before the recent provocations.
The direct confrontation with Britain began on July 4, when British marines and Gibraltar port officials seized an Iranian tanker, Grace 1, which has since been renamed the Adrian Darya 1. They said the ship was carrying oil to Syria, in violation of a European Union embargo.
Iran denied the allegation and accused the British of concocting the story to act against Tehran at the behest of Washington, though Britain formally opposes the American sanctions.
The government of Gibraltar, a semiautonomous British territory, released the ship six weeks later, and said that it had assurances that the Iranian tanker would not go to Syria. American officials asked that the ship be turned over to them, but the Gibraltar government rejected the request.
It was the end of another day of violent demonstrations in Hong Kong. The tear gas had dispersed and the crowds that had filled the streets were gone. The few demonstrators who remained were scattered around a popular shopping mall and getting ready to leave. Then, a group of men dressed in black rushed in, tackling people and beating them with batons.
Protesters have accused the Hong Kong police of using excessive force throughout the demonstrations that have gripped the city for the past four months. But on the night of Aug. 11, a major shift occurred. For the first time, officers disguised as demonstrators were seen beating protesters and conducting arrests.
Videos of the night went viral. They showed undercover officers hitting protesters with batons and pinning them to the ground, leaving some bleeding profusely. We analyzed footage of the night and spoke to more than a dozen witnesses and protesters who were detained. Lawyers and human rights advocates who watched the images say the police used excessive force to conduct arbitrary arrests.
The Hong Kong police said they had conducted a “decoy operation” targeting a “core group of violent rioters.” But three of the men arrested said they did not know one another, and protests in the area had ended hours before the clash.
One man says he suffered a brain hemorrhage; others had serious bone fractures. Doctors described one injury, a broken arm, as caused by assault. The episode became one more example of police tactics that have infuriated citizens, driving calls for an independent investigation into police misconduct.
When asked about the footage of one of the bloody arrests made that night, Steve Li, senior superintendent of the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau, said that “officers used appropriate force to subdue the man and conduct an arrest.”
Demonstrators said that undercover officers didn’t identify themselves as police, adding to fears that the men had been part of gangs that had attacked demonstrators in recent weeks. According to the Hong Kong police’s guidelines, officers are required to identify themselves before exercising their duties.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Government officials in the southern Afghan province of Helmand said on Monday that as many as 40 civilians, including children, may have been killed during a government commando raid on an insurgent stronghold the night before.
Accounts from the scene were fragmentary and contradictory, typical of violent clashes in which civilians are reported killed in remote areas late at night. Scores of civilians have died in recent weeks in Taliban suicide attacks in civilian areas and in American and Afghan airstrikes targeting insurgents.
The fighting on Sunday took place in an area controlled by the Taliban, making it difficult to reach witnesses.
Violence has surged in Afghanistan since months of peace negotiations between the United States and the Taliban were aborted on Sept. 7, just after the American envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, said an agreement “in principle” had been reached.
Omar Zwak, a spokesman for the Helmand governor, said an undetermined number of civilians were killed after an explosion at an insurgent weapons depot that was targeted by government forces late Sunday. But Haji Attaullah Afghan, head of the provincial council in Helmand, said a two-vehicle wedding convoy was fired upon by military helicopters, and that civilians were killed in both vehicles.
The Afghan Defense Ministry confirmed a commando operation Sunday night that officials said killed 22 Taliban fighters from Pakistan and Bangladesh and captured 14 others in Musa Qala district, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand. Such operations are typically supported by American commandos and intelligence specialists.
In a statement, the Defense Ministry said officials would investigate reports of civilian casualties and “share the findings with media and the people.”
The Afghan National Army’s 215th Maiwand Corps in Helmand said that Afghan forces had attacked a joint Taliban-Al Qaeda compound and captured five Al Qaeda members. In a statement, the corps said that an insurgent suicide bomber had killed two women, and that a third woman had died when the weapons depot exploded.
The statement said government forces ordered the militants to surrender, but they responded by opening fire. It accused the Taliban and Al Qaeda of using civilians as shields.
The Helmand governor’s office said that four top Taliban commanders and the Taliban shadow governor of Musa Qala were killed. Intelligence reports led the commandos to a compound that held weapons and suicide vests, the governor said in a statement.
The United States military issued a statement on Monday confirming its role in the operation and the presence of foreign fighters.
“U.S. forces partnered with Afghan security forces in an operation against Al Qaeda terrorists in Musa Qala in Helmand last night,” the military said, adding that “several foreigners associated with Al Qaeda were detained, including multiple persons from Pakistan and one from Bangladesh.”
It said that American forces conducted “precision strikes against barricaded terrorists firing on Afghan and U.S. forces,” and that most of those killed were believed to have “died from Al Qaeda weapons” or insurgents’ suicide vests and other explosives.
“The incident is under investigation with our Afghan partners,” the military said.
Abdul Motalib, a villager in Helmand, said on Monday that he was traveling in a two-vehicle wedding party convoy in Musa Qala the night before when military helicopters opened fire. He said the party was on its way to the bride’s home.
The attack killed 15 women and children in one vehicle and five men in another just after the vehicles had stopped and turned on their flashers as the helicopters dropped flares, Mr. Motalib said.
“First they targeted the vehicle carrying women and children, then the vehicle with the men,” he said. He survived because he had exited one of the stopped vehicles to seek cover in a corn field, he said.
Mr. Afghan, the provincial council leader, said up to 40 civilians died in the vehicle attacks and in a separate incident nearby. He said 12 civilians were wounded.
“This is inhumane, whoever carried out this airstrike,” Mr. Afghan said. He said the wedding party vehicles were fired upon even though they had shown security forces that they were civilians.
On Sept. 19, as many as 30 civilians were reported killed in an American drone strike in eastern Afghanistan that an American military spokesman said had targeted Islamic State insurgents. The spokesman said the military was working with local officials to determine what had happened during the strike, in which local officials said civilian victims had been gathering pine nuts.
The same day, a Taliban suicide bombing leveled a hospital in Zabul Province in southern Afghanistan, killing at least 39 civilians, most of them patients and relatives crushed or burned to death inside the hospital.
A United Nations report released on June 30 said that 717 civilian deaths were attributed to American and Afghan government forces during the first six months of the year. That total exceeded the 531 civilian deaths attributed to the Taliban and other antigovernment extremists — though the total number of deaths and injuries attributed to extremists exceeded those attributed to pro-government forces.
The report noted that many extremist attacks deliberately targeted civilians.
American and Afghan airstrikes killed 363 civilians and wounded 156 between January and the end of June, the report said. Through Aug. 31, American warplanes launched 4,483 bombs and other munitions in Afghanistan this year, just over 100 more than during the same period a year earlier.
Also Monday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in Beijing that officials had met a delegation of Taliban envoys to discuss the peace talks. A spokesman, Geng Shuang, called on the United States and the Taliban to continue negotiations and said that China was prepared to play a constructive role in peace talks.
Mr. Geng provided few details about the talks, and it was not clear what role Chinese officials could play, given the tensions already complicating relations with the United States. The Taliban delegation, which met with officials on Sunday, was led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the movement’s founding leaders, who has taken a leading role in the peace talks.
“China has consistently supported the process of broad and inclusive peace and reconciliation,” Mr. Geng said.