Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, who was detained for almost 15 months in Iran, landed in Belgium late Friday, according to images broadcast on television, after being freed in a prisoner exchange.
The 42-year-old Belgian was greeted by his parents, sister and other family members on the tarmac of the Melsbroek military base near Brussels following his release on Friday, AFP reported.
Earlier Friday, Iran freed Vandecasteele in a prisoner exchange for an Iranian diplomat convicted of terrorism.
Iran announced that the freed Iranian is diplomat Assadollah Assadi, who was jailed in Belgium over a 2018 plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally outside Paris.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian tweeted that Assadi, “the innocent diplomat of our country… is now on his way back to his homeland and will soon enter our beloved Iran.”
Both Belgium and Iran thanked Oman for its role in securing the release.
Belgium has always insisted that Vandecasteele was innocent and his trial was rigged.
He was sentenced in January to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes for “espionage”, Tehran’s judiciary said at the time.
“Olivier spent 455 days in prison in Tehran in unbearable conditions. Innocent,” Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said, following news of his release.
“For me, the choice has always been clear. Olivier’s life has always come first. It’s a responsibility that I take upon myself, that I accept. In Belgium, we do not abandon anyone,” he added, without mentioning the prisoner swap.
Suicide blast in southwest Pakistan kills at least 52 people
A suicide bombing in Pakistan killed at least 52 people and injured more than 50 on Friday at a religious gathering to mark the birthday of Prophet Mohammed in a restive province bordering Afghanistan, health officials and police said.
No group has claimed responsibility for the blasts which come amid a surge in attacks by militant groups in Pakistan, raising the stakes for security forces ahead of national elections scheduled for January next year.
Hours after the suicide blast in Balochistan province, another blast ripped through a mosque in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province which also borders Afghanistan, officials said, killing at least two people.
The mosque’s roof collapsed in the blast, local broadcaster Geo News reported, adding that about 30 to 40 people were trapped under the rubble.
Pakistan has seen a resurgence of attacks by Islamist militants since last year when a ceasefire broke down between the government and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella organisation of various hardline Sunni Islamist groups.
The TTP, which has carried out some of the bloodiest attacks inside Pakistan since its formation in 2007, denied that it had carried out Friday’s attack in Balochistan.
At least 58 people were wounded in the Balochistan blast, said Abdul Rasheed, a district health official, adding that the toll could rise as many people were in a serious condition.
Television footage of the attack’s aftermath showed hundreds of people helping the injured into ambulances.
“The bomber detonated himself near the vehicle of the Deputy Superintendent of Police,” Munir Ahmed, the deputy inspector general of police, told Reuters.
In July, more than 40 people were killed in a suicide bombing in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province at a religious political party’s gathering.
Karabakh Armenians dissolve breakaway govt in capitulation to Azerbaijan
Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh said on Thursday they were dissolving the breakaway statelet they had defended for three decades, where more than half the population has fled since Azerbaijan launched a lightning offensive last week.
In a statement, they said their self-declared Republic of Artsakh would “cease to exist” by Jan. 1, in what amounted to a formal capitulation to Azerbaijan.
For Azerbaijan and its president, Ilham Aliyev, the outcome is a triumphant restoration of sovereignty over an area that is internationally recognised as part of its territory but whose ethnic Armenian majority won de facto independence in a war in the 1990s, Reuters reported.
For Armenians, it is a defeat and a national tragedy.
Some 70,500 people had crossed into Armenia by early Thursday afternoon, Russia’s RIA news agency reported, out of an estimated population of 120,000.
“Analysis of the situation shows that in the coming days there will be no Armenians left in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Interfax news agency quoted Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan as saying. “This is an act of ethnic cleansing.”
Azerbaijan denies that accusation, saying it is not forcing people to leave and that it will peacefully reintegrate the Karabakh region and guarantee the civic rights of the ethnic Armenians.
Karabakh Armenians say they do not trust that promise, mindful of a long history of bloodshed between the two sides including two wars since the break-up of the Soviet Union. For days they have fled en masse down the snaking mountain road through Azerbaijan that connects Karabakh to Armenia.
Azerbaijan’s ambassador to London, Elin Suleymanov, told Reuters in an interview that Baku did not want a mass exodus from Karabakh and was not encouraging people to leave.
He said Azerbaijan had not yet had a chance to prove what he said was its sincere commitment to provide secure and better living conditions for those ethnic Armenians who choose to stay.
The Kremlin said on Thursday it was closely monitoring the humanitarian situation in Karabakh and said Russian peacekeepers in the region were providing assistance to residents. It said Russian President Vladimir Putin had no plans to visit Armenia.
Western governments have also expressed alarm over the humanitarian crisis and demanded access for international observers to monitor Azerbaijan’s treatment of the local population.
Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said this week she had heard “very troubling reports of violence against civilians”.
Azerbaijan said Aliyev had told her at a meeting on Wednesday that the rights of ethnic Armenians would be protected by law, like those of other minorities.
“The Azerbaijani president noted that the civilian population had not been harmed during the anti-terrorist measures, and only illegal Armenian armed formations and military facilities had been targeted,” a statement said.
Aliyev’s office said on Thursday he was visiting Jabrayil, a city on the southern edge of Karabakh that was destroyed by Armenian forces in the 1990s, which Azerbaijan recaptured in 2020 and is now rebuilding.
While saying he had no quarrel with ordinary Karabakh Armenians, Aliyev last week described their leaders as a “criminal junta” that would be brought to justice.
A former head of Karabakh’s government, Ruben Vardanyan, was arrested on Wednesday as he tried to cross into Armenia. Azerbaijan’s state security service said on Thursday he was being charged with financing terrorism and with illegally crossing the Azerbaijani border last year.
David Babayan, an adviser to the Karabakh leadership, said in a statement he was voluntarily giving himself up to the Azerbaijani authorities.
Mass displacements have been a feature of the Karabakh conflict since it broke out in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union headed towards collapse.
Between 1988 and 1994 about 500,000 Azerbaijanis from Karabakh and the areas around it were expelled from their homes, while the conflict prompted 350,000 Armenians to leave Azerbaijan and 186,000 Azerbaijanis to leave Armenia, according to “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War”, a 2003 book by Caucasus scholar and analyst Thomas de Waal.
Many of the Armenians escaping this week in heavily laden cars, trucks, buses and even tractors said they were hungry and fearful.
“This is one of the darkest pages of Armenian history,” said Father David, a 33-year-old Armenian priest who came to the border to provide spiritual support for those arriving. “The whole of Armenian history is full of hardships.”
Powerful blast in Uzbek capital kills one, injures 162
One person was killed and 162 injured by a powerful explosion on Thursday at a warehouse near Tashkent’s airport that sparked a fire and shattered windows in apartment blocks nearby, authorities in Uzbekistan said.
A teenage boy died after a window frame fell on him, the health ministry said in a statement, adding that 24 people had been hospitalised, but faced no threat to their lives, while 138 were treated for injuries, Reuters reported.
Flights were operating as normal at the international airport in the capital, its administration said.
In video and photographs on social media, flames soared into the night sky, with a huge cloud of smoke hanging above the warehouse, but the cause of the explosion was not immediately clear.
A special laboratory had been set up at the scene to investigate the blast, the emergencies ministry said.
“As a result of the quick actions of emergencies ministry employees, the area of the fire is being reduced,” it added on the Telegram messaging app.
“The situation is completely under control.”
A social media post from Uzbek outlet Daryo said 16 fire and rescue crews were sent to fight the fire at one of the warehouses in the city’s Sergeli district near the airport.
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