Air strikes hit capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray: sources

Air strikes hit capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray: sources
Above, a damaged tank stands on a road north of Mekele, the capital of Tigray. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 18 October 2021

Air strikes hit capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray: sources

Air strikes hit capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray: sources
  • First reported air raids in Mekele since the conflict erupted in November last year

ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopian forces hit the Tigrayan capital of Mekele with air strikes on Monday, humanitarian officials and diplomats said, in a new phase of the nearly year-long war in the country’s north.
They are the first reported air raids in Mekele since the conflict erupted in November last year, although there have been others in the Tigray region.
“Air strike now in Mekele,” one humanitarian official in the city said via SMS to AFP on condition of anonymity, describing attacks also confirmed by a second humanitarian source, two diplomats and a rebel spokesman.
The first air raid occurred in the morning on the outskirts of Mekele near a cement factory, the sources said.
The second took place around midday in the city center near the Planet Hotel, often used by top officials from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the region’s former ruling party and the target of a government military operation since November 2020.
The TPLF said the aerial assaults were designed to inflict civilian casualties.
“Monday is market day in Mekelle & the intention is all too palpable,” TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said on Twitter.
The reports could not be independently verified and government officials could not be reached for comment.
Medical officials in Mekele could not immediately be reached to provide information on casualties.
The strikes come as the government appeared to be pursuing a new offensive in the war against the TPLF, which dominated national politics before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018.
There were reports last week of fresh clashes between government and rebel forces in Afar, a region bordering Tigray, where fighting has also spread.


With gas pumps all but dry, Sri Lankans pedal through crisis

With gas pumps all but dry, Sri Lankans pedal through crisis
Updated 12 August 2022

With gas pumps all but dry, Sri Lankans pedal through crisis

With gas pumps all but dry, Sri Lankans pedal through crisis
  • Deep in economic disaster, country struggles with acute fuel shortages
  • As demand for two-wheelers soars, so does the bicycle black market

COLOMBO: Working in Colombo, Hashan Gunasekera has not gone home to see his family in Kandy since mid-April, as he has already given up on searching for gasoline to fuel his car.

A video production manager, Gunasekera, 32, used to drive three hours every week to spend Saturdays and Sundays at home, but for the past few months, he has not been able to drive, as his country — in the middle of the worst economic turmoil in memory — has run out of petrol.

Like many other middle-class Sri Lankans in the capital, he was forced to switch to a bicycle for his daily commutes.

“I have given up going home now,” Gunasekera told Arab News. “There is no use in even trying.”

The most basic bicycle he bought to reach his Colombo office cost him over 37,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($100) in June, but it had no gears and soon Gunasekera had to buy a new, slightly better one, which sold for 88,000 rupees — some three times more than before the crisis.

“A bike like this would have cost about 25,000 to 30,000 rupees last year,” he said.

Despite the soaring prices, the number of bikes on Colombo’s streets has increased manifold.

“The current market demand has greatly increased,” Sangeeth Suriyage, who runs Suriyage Bike Shop in Colombo, told Arab News, estimating that it may be even five times higher than last year.

“The market is able to meet a fair percentage of that demand," he said, adding that the supply-demand imbalance has fueled informal sales, with bicycles sold for at least double the current market price. “There is a thriving black market operating through people that buy and resell at exorbitant costs.”

Desperate Colombo residents in need of an accessible mode of transport are still willing to fork out the extra expense.

Marini, an English teacher based in Colombo, said she spent 188,000 rupees for a bike for her nephew to be able to go to school. 

“This was really expensive,” she said. “But given the current situation I considered it an investment.”

But the price is not the only problem. Bicycles are now joining the list of items the country is running out of.

At a shop in Borella, the largest suburb in Colombo, bikes sold like hot cakes last month, but now demand has outstripped supply, with import restrictions slapped on almost all commodities as the country’s foreign exchange reserves have dried.

“We are running out of bicycles,” one of the Borella shop’s sellers told Arab News. “After fuel was completely stopped for the past month and a half or so, crowds are coming to (buy) bicycles for adults. Before this, people came to buy bicycles for children, mostly.”

While the island nation of 22 million is seeking a $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund to put its economy and public finances back on track, it is unlikely that the situation will get back to normal soon.

Some, like Hakiem Haniff, a 28-year-old marketeer who lives on the outskirts of Colombo, are trying to see positive aspects of having no choice but to take more exercise when transport options are limited.

But if it were to be long-term, he would like to see cycling infrastructure introduced in the city, which authorities promised earlier this year would be rolled out in Sri Lanka’s capital.

“If they want to take this thing seriously, they really need to invest in infrastructure so that more people will start cycling,” he said. “There’re no cycling lanes and it can be pretty crazy.”


UN chief urges demilitarized zone around Ukraine nuclear power plant

UN chief urges demilitarized zone around Ukraine nuclear power plant
Updated 11 August 2022

UN chief urges demilitarized zone around Ukraine nuclear power plant

UN chief urges demilitarized zone around Ukraine nuclear power plant
  • IAEA chief Rafael Grossi was due to brief the 15-member UN Security Council on the situation
  • Ukraine’s nuclear agency said Russian shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has damaged “several radiation sensors“

LONDON: UN chief Antonio Guterres on Thursday called for military activity around Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power complex to end as Moscow and Kyiv blamed each other for a renewed shelling ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on the situation.
Russia seized Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in March after invading Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The plant is still run by its Ukrainian technicians and Ukraine’s Energoatom said the area was struck five times on Thursday, including near the site where radioactive materials are stored.
Guterres urged the withdrawal of military personnel and equipment and for no more forces or equipment to be deployed. He called for Russia and Ukraine not to target the facilities or surrounding area.
“The facility must not be used as part of any military operation. Instead, urgent agreement is needed at a technical level on a safe perimeter of demilitarization to ensure the safety of the area,” Guterres said in a statement.
The United States supports calls for a demilitarized zone around Zaporizhzhia, a State Department spokesperson said on Thursday.
Meanwhile, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi was due to brief the 15-member UN Security Council on the situation later Thursday, at the request of Russia.
Russia’s Ambassador to International Organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, on Tuesday said that the IAEA was ready to visit Zaporizhzhia in June with Russia’s support.
“Unfortunately, at the very last moment the Department of Security of the UN Secretariat blocked the mission. We hope that the UN Secretary General will not allow this to happen again,” Ulyanov posted on Twitter.
UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said in response that the United Nations was committed to doing everything possible to get the IAEA technicians to Zaporizhzhia.
On Thursday, Ukraine’s nuclear agency said Russian shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has damaged “several radiation sensors.”
Energoatom said the new strikes were close to one of the Russian-controlled Ukrainian plant’s six reactors and there was “extensive smoke,” adding that “several radiation sensors are damaged.”
Moreover, Ukraine aims to evacuate two thirds of residents from areas it controls in the eastern battleground region of Donetsk before winter, partly out of concern people won’t be able to stay warm amid war-damaged infrastructure, the deputy prime minister said on Thursday.
The government plans to evacuate some 220,000 people out of around 350,000, including 52,000 children, Iryna Vereshchuk told a news conference.
Late last month Ukraine announced the mandatory evacuation of people from Donetsk region, which has been the scene of fierce fighting with Russia, to save civilian lives.
Although the authorities describe the evacuation as “mandatory,” residents can opt out by filling in a form declaring their intention to stay.
Since Aug. 1, 3,904 people had been evacuated, Vereshchuk said.
She said thousands should leave before winter comes because the fighting has destroyed power and heating infrastructure.
She added that evacuation might have to expand to other war-hit areas, such as Kherson, Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia regions.
Donetsk is part of the eastern region of Donbas, which Russia has said it aims to control completely.
In Copenhagen, a Ukraine donors’ conference of 26 countries pledged 1.5 billion euros (over $1.5 billion) more aid for training and equipment for Kyiv’s forces, the Danish defense minister said Thursday.
“All the participating nations here pledged for support, for training activities, demining activities, some with concrete donations,” Morten Bodskov said.
The exact amount promised by each of the 26 countries including France, Germany and the United States, was not published but Denmark announced a supplementary donation of $114 million for Ukraine, bringing its total support to Kyiv to $417 million.
Britain, which organized the conference with Denmark and Ukraine, promised nearly $300 million.
“Our partners know that we need funding and they articulated readiness to support us financially,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said as he welcomed the money.
The donors will meet again next month.
On the other hand, Estonia from next week will prevent most Russians from entering the country with visas issued by Estonian authorities, cutting off a popular route into Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone.
While exceptions apply, the Foreign Ministry for Estonia, a European Union member, said it will also cease to issue visas to Russians for work, study and business in the country.
The EU last month agreed a seventh round of sanctions against Russia since its invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday called on the West to impose a blanket travel ban on Russians in reaction to the ongoing war, an idea that angered Moscow.
The European Commission has questioned the feasibility of a blanket ban, saying certain categories such as family members, journalists and dissidents should always be granted visas.
(With AFP, AP and Reuters)


Pakistani artisans seek to preserve ancient art of stonecraft

Pakistani artisans seek to preserve ancient art of stonecraft
Updated 11 August 2022

Pakistani artisans seek to preserve ancient art of stonecraft

Pakistani artisans seek to preserve ancient art of stonecraft
  • History of stone carving goes back thousands of years in area that makes up modern-day Pakistan
  • Craftsmen struggle without government patronage after decades of militant attacks scare off tourists

KARACHI: The practice of stonecraft in the area that makes up modern-day Pakistan is as old as Buddhism itself, but without government support and after decades of militant attacks that scared off foreign buyers and halted exports, the ancient art is all but lost.

Now, a handful of artists and entrepreneurs are trying to preserve and restore the dying craft.

Ancient cities in Pakistan, including Taxila in the country’s eastern Punjab province and Thatta in the country’s south, were home to artisans skilled in the art of stonecraft, a technique in which stone is used as the primary material to build statues, buildings and structures, as well as day-to-day items, such as pots and utensils.

In Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Gandhara art focused on creating statues of Gautama Buddha, while Sindh’s Thatta city became famous for large stone structures that combined impressively carved decorative and floral motifs and arabesque patterns.

“From Karachi to Badin, you will see stone-carved graves of multiple tribes, their symbols engraved to differentiate them from one another,” anthropologist Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro, told Arab News. “Particularly, Ghazi Tehsil in Haripur (city) has had remarkable stone carving until the 1970s. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa still has the tradition.”

However, the craft has declined over time due to lack of patronage, Kalhoro said.

“No one was willing to buy pieces from the artists which were made otherwise for clients living outside Taxila. With conversion, motifs also changed and this declined the craft. People bought those which depicted non-figural elements. Taxila was home to the stonecraft tradition. Many artists migrated to other regions and continued to produce as per demand by clients.”

Ilyas Muhammad Khan, a sculptor from Taxila, said that the 3,000-year-old center had long been referred to as the “City of Artisans” due to craftspeople who produced rich Gandhara art.

“Over the years, Taxila attracted tourists and foreigners, being an ancient city, and local sculptors began selling replicas of Gandhara’s famous artwork abroad as ‘antiques’ to make money,” Khan, a sculptor for over three decades, said.

“Back then, there were hardly three or four artists, but they taught the skill to their fellows and the number increased over time.”

A decline in the tourist industry, devastated by militant violence in Pakistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Pakistan joining the war on terror, also threatened the ancient art.

Pakistan was last a prominent tourist destination in the 1970s when the “hippie trail” brought Western travelers through the apricot and walnut orchards of the Swat Valley and Kashmir on their way to India and Nepal.

But after 2011, deteriorating security chipped away at the number of foreign visitors. There were fewer buyers for stone artisans, who lost their livelihoods and left the trade.

Many are now making efforts to revive the lost art, including Shakoor Ali, a craftsman from the Shigar Valley in the mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan region, who is turning serpentine stone into handicrafts and decorative pieces.

Ali inherited the craft from his forefathers.

“They used to do all the work with (their) hands and I started the same, but now I have set up a machine and a small workforce which helps me create these pieces,” he told Arab News.

The award-winning stonemason recently displayed his work at the Gemstone and Mineral Exhibition 2022 in Islamabad.

Islamabad-based design label Noon and Co., spearheaded by Taimur Noon, is also working on the preservation and revival of stonecraft in Pakistan.

Before opening his Islamabad store last month, Noon traveled across the country, identified and acknowledged the skill of stonemasons in various areas, and felt he could elevate the design sensibility.

“The craftsmanship of our artisans is unparalleled,” he told Arab News. “I wanted to give them a design direction, designs that are in demand today.”

Noon said that stonemasons in Pakistan produce stonecraft by hand, while the workforce in developed countries employs machines. Innovation and diversification in stonecraft are key, he said, adding that the process of selecting and fashioning the stones was “quite challenging.”

But Noon hopes his work can keep the conversation around stonecraft alive “so that the revival and preservation of the ancient craft stays in motion.”

“I want to show people in Pakistan and beyond what we are capable of, make this skill commercially viable and turn it into a career for artisans,” he said.


France gets help from EU neighbors as wildfires rage

France gets help from EU neighbors as wildfires rage
Updated 11 August 2022

France gets help from EU neighbors as wildfires rage

France gets help from EU neighbors as wildfires rage
  • Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought
  • Four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania

HOSTENS, France: Firefighting teams and equipment from six EU nations started to arrive in France on Thursday to help battle a spate of wildfires, including a fierce blaze in the parched southwest that has forced thousands to evacuate.
Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought — conditions most experts say will occur more often as a result of rapid climate change.
“We must continue, more than ever, our fight against climate disruption and... adapt to this climate disruption,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said after arriving at a fire command post in the village of Hostens, south of Bordeaux.
The European Commission said four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania.
“Our partners are coming to France’s aid against the fires. Thank you to them. European solidarity is at work!” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.
“Across the country over 10,000 firefighters and security forces are mobilized against the flames... These soldiers of fire are our heroes,” he said.
In total, 361 foreign firefighters were dispatched to assist their 1,100 French colleagues deployed in the worst-hit part of the French southwest.
A first contingent of 65 German firefighters, followed by their 24 vehicles, arrived Thursday afternoon and were to go into action at dawn Friday, officials said.
Among eight major fires currently raging, the biggest is the Landiras fire in the southwest Gironde department, whose forests and beaches draw huge tourist crowds each summer.
It had already burned 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) in July — the driest month seen in France since 1961 — before being contained, but it continued to smolder in the region’s tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.
Since flaring up again Tuesday, which officials suspect may have been caused by arson, it has burned 7,400 hectares, destroyed or damaged 17 homes, and forced 10,000 people to quit their homes, said Lt. Col. Arnaud Mendousse of the Gironde fire and rescue service.
Borne said nine firefighting planes are already dumping water on the blaze, with two more to be in service by the weekend.
“We battled all night to stop the fire from spreading, notably to defend the village of Belin-Beliet,” Mendousse told journalists in Hostens.
On several houses nearby, people hung out white sheets saying: “Thank you for saving our homes” and other messages of support for the weary fire battalions.
“You’d think we’re in California, it’s gigantic... And they’re used to forest fires here but we’re being overwhelmed on all sides — nobody could have expected this,” Remy Lahlay, a firefighter deployed near Hostens in the Landes de Gascogne natural park, told AFP.
With temperatures in the region hitting nearly 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) Thursday and forecast to stay high until at least Sunday, “there is a very serious risk of new outbreaks” for the Landiras fire, the prefecture of the Gironde department said.
Acrid smoke has spread across much of the southwestern Atlantic coast and its beaches that draw huge crowds of tourists each summer, with the regional ARS health agency “strongly” urging people to wear protective face masks.
The smoke also forced the closing of the A63 motorway, a major artery toward Spain, between Bordeaux and Bayonne.
The government has urged employers to allow leaves of absence for volunteer firefighters to help fight the fires.
In Portugal Thursday, more than 1,500 firefighters were also battling a fire that has raged for days in the mountainous Serra da Estrela natural park in the center of the country.
It has already burned 10,000 hectares, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).


UK records surge in human-trafficking referrals, data shows

UK records surge in human-trafficking referrals, data shows
Updated 11 August 2022

UK records surge in human-trafficking referrals, data shows

UK records surge in human-trafficking referrals, data shows
  • More than 4,000 potential cases brought before Home Office in three months, The Guardian reports
  • Albanians and Eritreans are the biggest targets for smugglers, the figures reveal

LONDON: The UK has recorded its highest-ever number of human-trafficking referrals, with figures surging by a third over the past year, The Guardian reported.

About 90 percent of the referrals — which allow civil servants to report suspected trafficking crimes through the National Referral Mechanism — are believed to focus on the alleged victims of people smugglers.

From April to June this year, 4,171 cases were reported to the NRM, which was established in 2009. About half of the cases involved people being exploited in the UK. Of that figure, more than 1,000 cases involved people who refused to take any further action, including many who are alleged victims of labor and sexual exploitation.

The three biggest groups by nationality represented in the figures were Albanians, Britons and Eritreans, respectively.

The UK Home Office has set its sights on Albanian people smugglers as a key target. Offenders as well as asylum seekers were recently sent back to Albania on a deportation flight.

But campaigners and charities have warned that the NRM fails to offer adequate support for the victims of trafficking.

“We are worried to see a rise in recorded modern slavery cases at a time when the circumstances of so many survivors seems uncertain,” said Maya Esslemont of After Exploitation, which examines government data to monitor trafficking trends.

“Since the Nationality and Borders Act was brought into force, survivors no longer have a guarantee of support even if they are recognized as trafficking survivors by the Home Office’s own decision-makers.

“Today’s figures show just how urgently this government needs to step up and address the long-term challenges facing each of the victims recognized as an NRM statistic.”

Iryna Pona, policy and impact manager at The Children’s Society, said: “The record numbers of referrals show what huge problems modern slavery and exploitation are for all children, whether they are British or migrant children trafficked to the UK.

“More than a third are suspected to have been groomed and coerced — usually with terrifying threats — to commit crime, which can include carrying drugs … while scores more are believed to be victims of sexual exploitation.

“Children who are forcibly trafficked here from abroad — or offered an escape from war or persecution by being sold a dream of a new life of hope — are also often made to work in places like cannabis farms, car washes and nail bars, or forced to beg.”