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G20 tackles Afghan humanitarian crisis at special summit

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By Reuters
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By Crispian Balmer

ROME -Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi hosted a special summit of the Group of 20 major economies on Tuesday to discuss Afghanistan, as worries grow about a looming humanitarian disaster following the Taliban’s return to power.

Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan on Aug. 15, the country – already struggling with drought and severe poverty after decades of war – has seen its economy all but collapse, raising the spectre of an exodus of refugees.

“The summit’s focus points include urgent humanitarian support for the Afghan population, the fight against terrorism, freedom of movement inside the country and open borders,” Draghi’s office said in a brief statement.

The video conference kicked off at 1.00 p.m. (1100 GMT) and was due to last around 2-1/2 hours.

U.S. President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Europe’s G20 leaders were expected to take part. However, Chinese President Xi Jinping did not dial in and it was not clear if Russian President Vladimir Putin would participate, underscoring differing international positions on the emergency.

“The main problem is that Western countries want to put their finger on the way the Taliban run the country, how they treat women for example, while China and Russia on the other hand have a non-interference foreign policy,” said a diplomatic source close to the matter.

The U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres joined Tuesday’s summit, highlighting the central role being given to the United Nations in dealing with Afghanistan – in part because many countries don’t want direct relations with the Taliban.

Banks in the country are running out of money, civil servants have not been paid and food prices have soared.

“The crisis is affecting at least 18 million people – half the country’s population,” Guterres told reporters in New York on Monday, adding that a massive U.N. aid operation was underway in a “race against time” as winter approaches.

Italy, which holds the rotating presidency of the G20, has worked hard to set up the meeting in the face of highly divergent views within the group on how to deal with Afghanistan after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Kabul.

China has publicly demanded that economic sanctions on Afghanistan be lifted and that billions of dollars in Afghan international assets be unfrozen and handed back to Kabul.

The United States and Britain, where many of the assets are being held, are resisting this.

Guterres on Monday called for a major injection of liquidity into the Afghan economy, but said this should not be channelled through the Taliban. Answering his call, the European Union said on Tuesday it would give an additional 700 million euros ($810 million) in emergency aid to Afghanistan and its neighbours.

Two neighbouring states, Pakistan and Iran, were not invited to join Tuesday’s G20 call, but Qatar, which has played a key role as an interlocutor between the Taliban and the West, was taking part.

The virtual summit comes just days after senior U.S. and Taliban officials met in Qatar for their first face-to-face meeting since the hardline group retook power.