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NATO hands model anti-Taliban province to Afghans

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NATO troops on Sunday handed control of the Panjshir valley, a fiercely anti-Taliban province, to Afghan forces in the last of a series of security transitions.

Panjshir, around 130 kilometres (80 miles) northeast of the capital Kabul, is one of Afghanistan’s most peaceful regions and the seventh area to be put under local forces’ control over the past week.

Ceremonies attended by ministers and representatives of foreign forces have been held in six of the seven areas, but there will be no official event in Kabul province, most of which will now be under Afghan control, officials said.

Although the transition timetable has been roundly criticised as politically motivated amid scepticism over the ability of Afghan forces to ward off the Taliban rebels, Panjshir is cited as ripe for the handover.

Panjshiris, mainly ethnic Tajiks, pride themselves on having kept out the Taliban and repelled the Soviet Union after its 1979 invasion, and the beautiful valley is now a favoured picnicking spot for visitors from Kabul.

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“Panjshir is special,” said Ashraf Ghani, head of the transition authority, at a ceremony that began with the playing of the Afghan national anthem in the presence of officials from Kabul and the US.

“The people of Panjshir show that security belongs to the people,” he said.
Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak hailed Panjshir as “an example for other provinces.”

“Defending one’s own land is the role and responsibility of every Afghan,” he said. “The enemy cannot harm anyone in this province. We all have to learn from the people of Panjshir.”

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Panjshir was the home of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the country’s much loved anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban commander who was assassinated by Al-Qaeda suicide bombers two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks.

“Massoud is not present with us today, but his soul is everywhere with us in this ceremony,” Wardak said, as MPs watched from a raised platform draped with pictures of Massoud as well as President Hamid Karzai.

Dominated by the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush and a fast-flowing river in steep valleys, the province still has rusting hulks of Soviet tanks lining its roads — symbols of the Russians’ failure to win the area despite 10 attempts.

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US and Afghan officials hope its history and natural beauty will in future bring tourists to Panjshir and boost the nation’s economy as foreign forces pull out and as aid money falls in the years ahead.

Senior US embassy official Richard Olson said American support would not disappear overnight.

“The support of the US will continue towards Panjshir. Transition is just the next step in the strong relations between the US and Afghanistan,” Olson said.

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Massoud’s tomb in the province is being developed into a $10 million tourist attraction complete with mosque, library and conference centre.

Officials hope Massoud’s legacy to act as a focal point for visitors, along with adventure activities such as mountain trekking and kayaking.

But such plans are ambitious, with much of Afghanistan in the grip of an increasingly violent insurgency led by the Taliban extremists who were ousted from government in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks on the US.

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The first stage of transition is part of a process focused on the withdrawal of 150,000 NATO-led troops by the end of 2014.


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‘Free Digga D’: Scotland Yard Twitter and emails hacked

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London's Metropolitan Police apologized Saturday after its Twitter, emails and news pages were targeted by hackers and began pumping out a series of bizarre messages.

After a series of messages late Friday that read simply "test" or seemingly random letters, the police sites began using foul language with anti-police sentiment and calling for a jailed rapper to be released.

"Free Digga D," said one such message.

The Met Police's Twitter account has 1.22 million followers.

Scotland Yard police headquarters said its internal IT infrastructure had not been hacked, explaining the issue was limited to its press office's online provider, MyNewsDesk, which put news releases online to the public.

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What is at stake in the Strait of Hormuz?

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Tensions between the United States, Iran and other countries are flaring again in the Strait of Hormuz.

There are competing explanations for what’s going on in the narrow seaway through which 21% of the world’s crude oil currently passes.

Most of the reports of attacked tankers, smuggled oil and downed drones involve Iran and the United States. But the oil and the tankers involved also belong to other countries, including Japan, Norway and the U.K.

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Vatican opens two burial chambers discovered under a trapdoor in hunt for princesses and missing teen

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The Vatican on Saturday opened two burial chambers discovered under a trapdoor as it attempts to get to the bottom of a riddle involving two 19th century princesses and a teenager who went missing 36 years ago.

The ossuaries were found last week under the floor of the Pontifical Teutonic College after the shock discovery earlier this month that the bones of the princesses had disappeared from two tombs in the Teutonic Cemetery.

The graves of Princess Sophie von Hohenlohe and Princess Charlotte Federica of Mecklenburg, who died in 1836 and 1840, had been exhumed after an anonymous tip-off that they may hold the remains of an Italian youngster.

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