Skype call reconnects Taliban and Afghan officials

Skype call reconnects Taliban and Afghan officials
The Taliban had previously refused to speak to the government until all prisoners were released. (AFP)
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Updated 24 March 2020

Skype call reconnects Taliban and Afghan officials

Skype call reconnects Taliban and Afghan officials
  • Washington, Qatar organized two-hour video meeting between the groups

KABUL: With the cancellation of many international flights due to the global coronavirus outbreak, Afghan government officials and Taliban delegates resorted to holding talks on Skype to move ahead with the technical details for a prisoner exchange program.

The meeting, which took place on Sunday and was facilitated by the US and Qatar, breaks a deadlock which had threatened to derail the talks.The prisoner swap deal was part of a major condition set by both groups prior to signing a historic peace deal on Feb. 29, a move aimed at ending Washington’s war in Afghanistan — the most protracted conflict in American history.
US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who signed the deal following over a year of secret talks with the Taliban, described Sunday’s discussions as “important, serious and detailed.”
He tweeted on Sunday that: “Prisoner releases by both sides is an important step in the peace process, as stated in the US-Taliban agreement,” adding that the prisoner exchange program was the need of the hour to limit the spread of the virus.
As per the deal, which the Taliban signed with Khalilzad, 5,000 Taliban inmates were expected to be freed by Kabul on March 10, in exchange for 1,000 government forces held by the militants.
However, President Ashraf Ghani, whose government was excluded from the talks, refused to release all 5,000 prisoners, pushing instead for a phased-out and conditional release.
On Sunday night, due to the coronavirus outbreak, Ghani’s government said it would free several prisoners from jails, but did not specify whether Taliban inmates would be among them.
The Taliban had previously refused to speak to the government until all prisoners were released.
The group has stepped up deadly attacks against government forces since but avoided targeting foreign forces, as promised in the deal signed with Washington.
Javid Faisal, a spokesman for Ghani’s national security adviser, said that government officials also discussed other vital issues, which the Taliban have so far refused to consider.
“It was important to seize this opportunity for peace, and we have direct negotiations with the Taliban. What lies ahead is a reduction in violence, a permanent and comprehensive cease fire and the exchange of prisoners,” he told Arab News.
The Taliban’s Doha office spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, also confirmed the meeting on Twitter but stressed that the discussion was only about the release of prisoners.
Some analysts regard Sunday’s discussions as a partial breakthrough in ending an impasse over prisoner releases, which blocked the start of talks between Ghani’s government and the Taliban.
Speaking to Arab News, lawmaker Waliullah Shaheen called it a “positive development.”
Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan journalist who knows several Taliban leaders based in Qatar, said the talks were part of “efforts to end the deadlock.”
Intra-Afghan talks will follow the prisoner exchange, Shaheen said, without divulging more details.
Ghani has yet to name a delegation for the talks with the Taliban due to differences with non-state leaders and because his election rival, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, has declared his government, throwing the country into unprecedented political chaos.Two Afghan officials in Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Arab News that US Secretary Mike Pompeo was in Kabul on Monday to hold talks with Ghani and Abdullah to discuss the current crisis and the prospect of future peace talks.


Pakistan mountain region observes Ramadan in darkness after power cuts

Pakistan mountain region observes Ramadan in darkness after power cuts
Updated 07 May 2021

Pakistan mountain region observes Ramadan in darkness after power cuts

Pakistan mountain region observes Ramadan in darkness after power cuts
  • Prime Minister Imran Khan promised to set up hydroelectric power plants
  • Several other hydropower projects are also being built in the area

KHAPLU, GHANCHE: In the mountainous region of Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan, daily power cuts of up to 20 hours or more in some districts have pushed locals to protest over having to observe Ramadan in darkness.

Gilgit-Baltistan, an impoverished part of the larger Kashmir region, is the gateway of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with high potential to generate energy from hydropower, but its residents have so far reaped few rewards of the $65 billion infrastructure project.

When the province went to local assembly polls in November last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan promised to set up hydroelectric power plants.

Last month, the region’s chief minister, Khalid Khurshid, gave the provincial secretary powers to ensure no power cuts during suhoor and iftar meals in Ramadan.

Last week, Khan announced a 370 billion rupee ($2.4 billion) development package for the region, part of which is intended to address the electricity crisis. In a meeting this week, between the finance minister of Pakistan and Khurshid, the federal government promised to “undertake several projects for hydropower generation.”

The construction of “the biggest dam in Pakistan’s history,” the Diamer-Bhasha Dam, meanwhile, was inaugurated by the prime minister in July last year.

Several other hydropower projects are also being built in the area, including the Kohala and Neelum Jhelum projects, with the former still under construction and the latter completed in 2019.

But despite this flurry of activity and promises, for now, local businesses, not to mention and Ramadan and upcoming Eid Al-Fitr celebrations, have been upended by power outages.

“There is no electricity in our village,” Ghulam Nabi Sanai, from Ghanche district, told Arab News on Wednesday. “We registered complaints about the absence of electricity, but no power department officials heard us. That’s why we had to stage a sit-in.”

For the past few days, Sanai said, residents of his hometown had been preparing and eating their iftar and suhoor meals in darkness.

Large-scale construction of new power plants — mainly coal-fired ones funded by China — has dramatically boosted Pakistan’s energy capacity in the last couple of years. But even as supply surges, electric power is still not reaching up to 50 million people in Pakistan who need it, according to a 2018 World Bank report, though expansion of transmission lines is planned.

Power outages also remain common.

Sher Ali Rana, a tailor in Ghanche, said he normally sewed some 400 outfits for Eid. This year, however, he would hardly be able to make 150 dresses due to electricity shortages.

“Our tailor community has to face power outages every year, but this year we are facing the worst kind of load shedding ... there is no electricity for 24 hours,” Rana said.

Locals in many other districts, including Skardu and Gilgit, also complain worsening power cuts have paralyzed their daily lives.

Riaz Ali, an executive engineer at Gilgit-Baltistan’s power department, said a major problem of power supply in the region was that its electricity system was not fully connected to the national grid. Low production capacity of existing power stations was another problem, he said.

Generation capacity in winter was 92 megawatts, while the demand was 452 megawatts, Ali said. In summer, generation capacity was 122 megawatts against a demand of 132.

But the engineer said he was hopeful new projects promised under CPEC would solve the region’s power crisis for good.

“If big projects are launched,” he said, “Gilgit-Baltistan has the potential to generate more than thousands of megawatts of electricity.”

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MI5 failed to share London terrorist’s heightened threat level: Probation officer

MI5 failed to share London terrorist’s heightened threat level: Probation officer
Updated 06 May 2021

MI5 failed to share London terrorist’s heightened threat level: Probation officer

MI5 failed to share London terrorist’s heightened threat level: Probation officer
  • Kenneth Skelton decided Usman Khan presented a low threat level, but was not privy to intelligence to the contrary
  • Khan killed 2 people in a knife attack in central London in 2019

LONDON: British intelligence upgraded a terrorist’s threat level due to evidence that he was planning an attack, but failed to inform the probation officer charged with monitoring his activity, an inquest has heard.

Usman Khan killed two people in a knife attack in central London in 2019, less than a year after he was released early from jail where he was serving time for terror offenses.

Now an inquest into the murder of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones at a prisoner rehabilitation event near London Bridge has heard that British intelligence services had evidence that Khan was planning an attack, but did not inform his probation officer.

While in jail for planning to bomb the London Stock Exchange, the court heard, Khan had associated with other terrorists and engaged in violence.

In the month of his release, MI5 upgraded his priority level after obtaining evidence that he was planning a post-release attack, but his probation officer said he was not informed about the heightened threat.

Kenneth Skelton said if he had known, “the whole management process would have been altered.”

Changes made could have included a re-evaluation of Khan’s permission to attend the event at which he carried out the attack — and was subsequently killed by police.

The inquest heard that Skelton was “disappointed” that information on the heightened threat level was not shared with him, particularly as he had attended nearly 30 meetings in which police and probation officers discussed the kind of permissions Khan should be entitled to.

Shortly before the attack, Skelton wrote an official assessment that concluded: “Khan’s likelihood of reoffending and risk of extremist offending is low.”

He added: “Since his release on 24 December 2018 … there has been no demonstration of attitudes supporting or justifying offending of any nature.”

Skelton said he was not made aware of a psychological report from May that year that suggested Khan’s engagement with prisoner rehabilitation programs was “superficial,” and he could not remember being shown a police document that described Khan as “calculating in his behaviour.”

Skelton told the inquest that he was “astounded” when he was told of Khan’s attack, adding: “From nowhere did I get any information that would suggest him returning to any of his (terrorist) behaviors.”

Representatives from MI5 will be called to give evidence at a later stage in the inquiry.


Philippine president lauds Saudi efforts on welfare, labor rights of Filipino workers

During a phone conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Duterte expressed thanks for the Kingdom’s inclusion of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in its COVID-19 vaccination drive. (Reuters/File Photo)
During a phone conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Duterte expressed thanks for the Kingdom’s inclusion of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in its COVID-19 vaccination drive. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 06 May 2021

Philippine president lauds Saudi efforts on welfare, labor rights of Filipino workers

During a phone conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Duterte expressed thanks for the Kingdom’s inclusion of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in its COVID-19 vaccination drive. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • The Philippines and Saudi Arabia recently organized a virtual forum on labor mobility and human rights

MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has thanked Saudi Arabia for looking after the welfare and labor rights of Filipinos living in the Kingdom.

During a phone conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Duterte also expressed his appreciation for the Kingdom’s inclusion of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in its coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination drive, the Philippine leader’s office said on Thursday.

In a statement, the presidential palace, Malacanang, added: “President Duterte recognized Saudi Arabia’s efforts to ensure that the rights, welfare, and well-being of Filipinos in the Kingdom are protected and upheld, including recent efforts aimed at labor reform.”

It said that during Wednesday’s phone call, the crown prince assured Duterte that all Filipinos in the Kingdom would be inoculated, and they also agreed to ramp up joint efforts to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak.

“President Duterte has, in several public pronouncements, underscored the need for universal access to vaccines to effectively combat the COVID-19 pandemic, emphasizing that nations must work together toward equitable access to life-saving vaccines, particularly for developing and least-developed nations,” the presidential office added.

“King Salman also called on the leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies (the G20) to work toward affordable and equitable access to vaccines,” the Malacanang statement said.

During a virtual press conference, Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, said the president and Crown Prince Mohammed also used their phone chat to discuss ways “to further improve the protection of Filipino workers in the Kingdom.”

He added that Saudi Arabia was among a number of countries supporting calls for changes to the kafala sponsorship system (for the monitoring of migrant laborers).

New measures under the Kingdom’s labor law reforms, effective since March, ensure that migrant workers in Saudi Arabia’s private sector have improved job mobility and can switch jobs or leave the country without employer consent. The rules also allow foreign workers to apply directly for government services, with all employment contracts documented online.

Duterte had previously described the old kafala system as “unjust” and “exploitative,” claiming it made OFWs in the Middle East, particularly household workers, vulnerable to abuse.

The Philippines and Saudi Arabia recently organized a virtual forum on labor mobility and human rights to discuss the sponsorship system and what Middle Eastern countries were doing to reform it. During the meeting, Duterte called for the abolition of the kafala system.


At a Toronto hospital staff exhausted, angry

At a Toronto hospital staff exhausted, angry
Updated 06 May 2021

At a Toronto hospital staff exhausted, angry

At a Toronto hospital staff exhausted, angry
  • Ontario is now the epicenter of the outbreak in Canada, led by more virulent variants
  • At the week's end more than 2,200 people were hospitalized with Covid-19 in the province of 14 million

TORONTO: Intensive care nurse Farial says the health care system in Canada’s Ontario province is nearing the breaking point as it fights a fast-moving new wave of Covid-19 infections.
The caregiver at Toronto’s Humber River Hospital is looking after two patients in their 60s who are on ventilators.
“We’re overwhelmed,” she told AFP, conveying the feelings of her peers who often say they feel powerless against a tidal wave of new cases, and angry at times — especially with the Ontario government’s arguably slow response and with Ontarians who are not following public health orders to contain the coronavirus.
“We’re stretched thin. We’re tired and exhausted. Just exhausted.”
Ontario is now the epicenter of the outbreak in Canada, led by more virulent variants. The latest surge in the number of cases was so big that authorities this week dispatched the military and the Red Cross to help care for critical patients.
“It’s the worst wave I’ve ever seen,” says head nurse Kimisha Marshall. “We have younger patients coming in, sicker and lots more patients coming in.”
“We’re short of nurses. We had some nurses that left, but also we have nurses that are getting sick, too,” she adds.
At the week’s end, there were more than 2,200 people hospitalized with Covid-19 in the province of 14 million. Nearly 900 patients were listed in critical condition.
Medical staff have been redeployed from other wards to the ICU to lend a hand, and transferring patients to facilities in less affected areas has alleviated some of the pressure on this Toronto hospital.
But more than a year after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, “the team is tired,” comments Raman Rai, head of the intensive care unit where a few children’s drawings thanking caregivers hang on the walls, bringing a glimmer of cheer.
At times overcome by a deep sadness, Rai says: “You see people who have not only lost a loved one, but who have lost several members of their family. It is very hard.”
More than 60 percent of patients in Humber River Hospital’s intensive care unit on Wednesday were being treated for Covid-19. In one of the rooms, relatives and a priest gathered around a patient’s bed, praying.
Every day, several more patients must be placed on ventilators. On Wednesday, a 52-year-old man with low blood oxygen levels was intubated by a team of four caregivers fully dressed in protective gowns, gloves, masks and visors.
“He was so scared, he could barely breathe,” recounts Melody Baril, who performed the intubation.
“You try and give them a little bit of hope,” she says, “but the death rate is so high, once you get to this point.”
More than 8,000 people in Ontario have died from Covid-19, representing one-third of the nationwide pandemic death toll. The number of cases in the province has risen to over 450,000, or almost 40 percent of the total in Canada.
After peaking in mid-April, the number of new daily infections has fallen slightly over the past 10 days and a vaccine rollout is accelerating. But the number of patients in intensive care continues to rise.
Fearing the crisis will persist, some caregivers say they are angry with Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government — which has faced a storm of criticisms over its pandemic response of late — but also against a segment of the population that has stubbornly resisted following public health restrictions.
“I feel frustrated,” says nurse Sarah Banani. “I think perhaps things could have been shut down harder and faster as we saw the variants take hold within the population.”
“I think we all feel we have been let down a little bit by society,” comments physician Jamie Spiegelman, adding that many health care providers “feel powerless to change things.”
“When I go outside and see traffic, people in a shopping center not taking the necessary precautions, that’s a letdown,” he says.
“We’re sick of patients with Covid-19 dying.”


Sweden passes one million cases as virus spread tops EU

Sweden passes one million cases as virus spread tops EU
Updated 06 May 2021

Sweden passes one million cases as virus spread tops EU

Sweden passes one million cases as virus spread tops EU
  • Sweden now has among the highest number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants in Europe, said health official
  • With 1,002,121 covid19 cases recorded since the pandemic, 9.85 percent of the population has contracted the virus, according to official data

STOCKHOLM: Sweden on Thursday announced it had recorded over one million cases of Covid-19, nearly a tenth of the population, as the Nordic nation struggles to rein in a third wave of the virus.
“In Sweden we now have among the highest number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants in Europe,” Karin Tegmark Wisell, head of microbiology at Sweden’s Public Health Agency, told a press conference.
Tegmark Wisell noted however that there had been a downward trend in recent weeks.
With 1,002,121 cases of the novel coronavirus recorded since the start of the pandemic, 9.85 percent of the population has contracted the virus, according to official data compiled by AFP.
The Public Health Agency published a series of projections, with the most likely scenario showing the virus spread starting to subside in mid-May before reaching “very low levels” in July and August.
The Scandinavian country has famously never imposed the type of lockdown seen elsewhere in Europe, controversially relying on mostly non-coercive measures.
It has however gradually tightened restrictions since November, including a ban on alcohol sales after 8:00 p.m. and on public gatherings of more than eight people.
Since March, cafes, bars and restaurants have also been required to shut their doors by 8:30 pm.
Despite being in the midst of a third wave of cases, the rise in deaths has been much slower in recent weeks, with 156 deaths in the last seven days, which authorities say is the result of the rollout of vaccines among vulnerable groups.
The total number of deaths associated with Covid-19 since the start of pandemic reached 14,158 on Thursday, putting Sweden in the middle of the pack in Europe, although well ahead of its Nordic neighbors Finland, Norway and Denmark,
European mortality statistics however also show that Sweden had a lower than average excess mortality in 2020, compared to the rest of Europe.