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U.N. report says U.S. air strikes on Afghan drug labs unlawful, hit civilians

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KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. air strikes on alleged Taliban drug labs in Afghanistan in May killed or wounded at least 39 civilians, including 14 children, and violated international humanitarian law as the victims were non-combatants, a United Nations report said on Wednesday.

The U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) issued a statement rejecting the UN report and maintained that there were no casualties in the strikes.

Air strikes on May 5 hit more than 60 sites in the western provinces of Farah and Nimroz, bordering Iran, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and UN Human Rights Office said in the joint report.

Aside from the 39 confirmed casualties, it said U.N. investigators were working to verify credible reports of at least 37 additional civilian casualties, mostly women and children.

“UNAMA has assessed that the personnel working inside the drug production facilities were not performing combat functions,” the report said. “They were therefore entitled to protection from attack, and could only have lost this protection if, and for such time, as they had been directly participating in hostilities.”

The casualties include at least 30 deaths, the UN said. Seventeen men among the 39 casualties worked in the methamphetamine labs, it said.

Since late 2017, U.S. forces have attacked sites believed to be used for processing drugs as part of efforts to cut off funds to the Taliban militant group.

Facilities that help fund parties who are involved in war are considered civilian objectives under international humanitarian law, and thus drug labs and their workers are unlawful targets, the U.N. report concluded.

The findings, and the legal analysis and methodology used by the UN, were disputed in the statement from U.S. forces.

Assessments conducted by U.S. forces and Afghans conducted after the strikes on the labs determined there were no deaths or injuries to civilians, the U.S. military said.

“USFOR–A is fighting in a complex environment against those who intentionally kill and hide behind civilians, as well as use dishonest claims of non-combatant casualties as propaganda weapons,” the statement said. “USFOR–A took extraordinary measures to avoid the deaths or injuries of non-combatants.”

Air strikes on reported drug labs have happened before, but this is the first time UNAMA received reports of a high number of civilian casualties, it said. In response to the incident, the UN urged USFOR-A to cease air strikes targeting Afghan drug labs and to conduct an independent investigation.

In a statement, the Taliban said the air strikes proved that the U.S. has committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

UNAMA said it spent four months investigating the incident, including in-person interviews with people affected.

The prevention of civilian casualties is a priority, but when they happen, they are due to the Taliban sheltering among civilians, said Rohullah Ahmadzai, a spokesman for the Afghan defense ministry, adding he was not speaking about this specific situation.

Reporting by Rod Nickel and Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Alex Richardson

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Google launches new wireless Pixel Buds

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Google has launched its new Pixel Buds wireless earphones.

The Pixel Buds come in a simple, round form factor with a stabilizer arc that tucks into the ear – ensuring that it fits comfortably and does not fall out when you are exercising.

They use a hybrid design that allows you to listen to high-quality sound without losing track of what is happening around you.

The Pixel Buds achieve this by “gently sealing” the ear to isolate louder outside sounds, ensuring that you remain safe while on the go.

These earbuds also use Adaptive Sound technology which dynamically adjusts the volume of your audio as you move into louder or softer environments – ensuring you won’t need to adjust the volume depending on where you are.

Each Pixel Bud has two microphones embedded within it which will focus on your voice while minimising environmental sounds – a feature which Google said “extends to the most challenging environments.”

Google also said that the Pixel Buds use long-range Bluetooth connectivity to allow users to stay connected to their device as far as three rooms away when indoors, or the distance of a football field if you are outside.

They can pair with devices that use Bluetooth 4.0 or later, including laptops, tablets, and devices that use either iOS or Android 6.0 or later.

Google’s Pixel Buds will be available in 2020 in the US in four colours – Clearly White, Oh So Orange, Quite Mint, and Almost Black – and will cost $179.

No South African pricing or availability information was available at the time of publishing.

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Now read: Google launches new Pixelbook Go laptop

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South Africa: Looking Beyond the Grade 9 Certificate Debate – the Three Streams

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The proposed Grade 9 certificate, with the associated three – academic, technical vocational and technical – streams, will not solve problems of young people dropping out and not being able to access the labour market. But it will create additional resource pressures on the system, first to produce an exam and certificate, and second by duplicating what the TVET colleges are already struggling to do.

Many critics assume a Grade 9 Certificate will push the most marginal learners out of the system even earlier than they are exiting at the moment. As Janet Jobson and Kristal Duncan point out, the official government position is that the General Education Certificate will help learners to identify education and training options that would best suit their inclinations. They also argue that a national Grade 9 assessment will provide valuable information about how much young people have actually learnt. National assessment at the end of Grade 9 could offer an earlier opportunity to hold learners, teachers, schools, and the system accountable.

What has been less well covered in the public debate is the critical relationship between the proposed new certificate and the roll-out of what the National Department of Basic Education now refers to…

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Tour de France: Froome’s bid for fifth title may conclude on La Planche des Belles Filles time trial

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Chris Froome sat next to Ineos team-mate and defending champion Egan Bernal as the 2020 Tour de France route was unveiled

Briton Chris Froome’s bid for a fifth Tour de France title will conclude with a mountain time trial at La Planche des Belles Filles before the traditional final sprint stage in Paris on 19 July.

Riders will tackle 29 mountains on the brutal 3,470km (2,156-mile) 21-stage route, which starts in Nice on 27 June.

“It will be physically challenging throughout,” said race director Christian Prudhomme.

The tour starts a week early with the Tokyo Olympics starting on 24 July.

The route, which features five summit finishes – one of them being the time trial at La Planche des Belles Filles – is likely to favour the climbers.

“Even the so called flat stages will be very tough for the pure sprinters,” Prudhomme added.

“There are traps everywhere along the route.”

A route for the climbers

The 2020 Tour boasts one of the most challenging opening weeks in recent editions of the race.

Two stages start and finish in Nice, the second of which involves almost 3,700 metres of climbing over the Col de la Colmiane, Col de Turini and Col d’Eze.

The race then heads south west through the Massif Central, with summit finishes on Orcieres-Merlette on stage five and Mont Aigoual.

Colombian champion Egan Bernal and his Ineos team-mates Chris Froome will expect to challenge, as will France’s Thibaut Pinot.

A thigh injury saw Pinot, 29, withdraw on a dramatic stage 19 to Tignes on the 2019 Tour while in fifth place.

The Groupama-FDJ team leader had hoped to become the first French winner of the Yellow Jersey for 34 years.

Froome was unable to compete after a high-speed crash before stage four of the Criterium du Dauphine in June.

The 34-year-old is only just about to return to cycling after suffering a catalogue of injuries which included a fractured right femur, a fractured elbow and fractured ribs.

Julian Alaphilippe, who led the 2019 edition of the Tour for 14 stages before finishing fifth overall will also be buoyed by the omission of both Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux next summer and by a route containing only two stages in the Pyrenees.

Stage 20, a 36km individual time-trial to La Planche des Belles Filles ends with a five-mile uphill finish

The race against the clock on the 36km (22-mile) stage 20 to La Planche des Belles Filles, with the final 8km (five miles) all uphill, could prove decisive though.

Stage six of the 2019 Tour finished on the mountain with Dylan Teuns taking the stage victory as Alaphilippe lost the yellow jersey, temporarily, to Italy’s Giulio Ciccone, while 2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas put in an impressive late attack.

Froome won stage seven on the mountain 2012, while playing the role of a super-domestique as Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win the Tour.

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