Sri Lanka leader trims Cabinet of relatives

Sri Lanka leader trims Cabinet of relatives
Protesters shout slogans during an ongoing anti-government demonstration near the president's office in Colombo on April 18, 2022, demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation over the country's crippling economic crisis. (AFP)
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Updated 19 April 2022

Sri Lanka leader trims Cabinet of relatives

Sri Lanka leader trims Cabinet of relatives
  • The new cabinet retains Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s older brother, while leaving out eldest sibling Chamal and younger brother Basil

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s leader dropped two of his brothers and a nephew from his Cabinet Monday, following public anger over the ruling family’s mismanagement of a crippling economic crisis and calls for his resignation.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has presided over the island nation’s most painful downturn in memory and his government is preparing for imminent bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.

Dozens of lawmakers have turned against the administration and opposition parties have rebuffed invitations to join a unity government from the president, who insists he will remain in office to guide Sri Lanka through the crisis.

Huge protests have nonetheless demanded Rajapaksa stand down, including tens of thousands of people camped outside his seafront office for more than a week.

The new Cabinet retains Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s older brother and the head of Sri Lanka’s ruling clan, while leaving out eldest sibling Chamal and younger brother Basil, the former finance minister.

Mahinda’s eldest son Namal, who ran the Sports Ministry and had been touted as a future leader before the crisis, was also dropped.

The 21-member Cabinet is seven people fewer than its predecessor, which resigned en masse two weeks ago in response to public outrage over nepotism and corruption.

Ministers are entitled to several SUVs, a large contingent of bodyguards and unlimited fuel, as well as state housing and entertainment allowances.

New Finance Minister Ali Sabry led a delegation to Washington over the weekend to open talks with the International Monetary Fund from Tuesday, officials said.

Sri Lanka is seeking three to four billion dollars from the IMF to overcome its balance-of-payments crisis and boost depleted reserves.

Apart from the acute shortages, the country is also facing record inflation and lengthy electricity blackouts, as the government has run out of foreign currency to import fuel.

The government last week announced a default on Sri Lanka’s $51 billion foreign debt and the Colombo Stock Exchange has suspended trading for the week to prevent an anticipated market collapse.

Rajapaksa’s parliamentary majority has been thrown into question after former allies deserted the ruling coalition.

The opposition has said it will attempt to topple the government through a no-confidence vote in the coming weeks.

Taliban detain Afghan educator who spoke out on women’s school ban

Taliban detain Afghan educator who spoke out on women’s school ban
Updated 9 sec ago

Taliban detain Afghan educator who spoke out on women’s school ban

Taliban detain Afghan educator who spoke out on women’s school ban

KABUL: Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities have “beaten and detained” an academic who voiced outrage on live television against their ban on women’s university education, his aide said Friday.
Veteran journalism lecturer Ismail Mashal caused a storm by tearing his degree certificates to shreds on TV in December, protesting the edict ending women’s higher education.
In recent days, domestic channels showed Mashal carting books around Kabul and offering them to passers-by.
“Mashal was mercilessly beaten and taken away in a very disrespectful manner by members of the Islamic Emirate,” Mashal’s aide Farid Ahmad Fazli told AFP, referring to the Taliban government.
A Taliban official confirmed the detention.
“Teacher Mashal had indulged in provocative actions against the system for some time,” tweeted Abdul Haq Hammad, director at the Ministry of Information and Culture.
“The security agencies took him for investigation.”
Mashal — a lecturer for more than a decade at three Kabul universities — was detained on Thursday despite having “committed no crime,” Fazli said.
“He was giving free books to sisters (women) and men,” he added. “He is still in detention and we don’t know where he is being held.”
Footage of Mashal destroying his certificates on private channel TOLOnews went viral on social media.
In deeply conservative and patriarchal Afghanistan it is rare to see a man protest in support of women but Mashal, who ran a co-educational institute, said he would stand up for women’s rights.
“As a man and as a teacher, I was unable to do anything else for them, and I felt that my certificates had become useless. So, I tore them,” he told AFP at the time.
“I’m raising my voice. I’m standing with my sisters... My protest will continue even if it costs my life.”
A small group of male students also held a brief walkout protesting the ban.
The Taliban promised a softer regime when they returned to power in August 2021 but they have instead imposed harsh restrictions on women — effectively squeezing them out of public life.
In December, the authorities ordered all aid groups to stop their women employees coming to work. They have since granted an exemption to the health sector, allowing females to return to employment there.
Secondary schools for girls have also been closed for over a year, while many women have lost jobs in government sectors.
They have also been barred from going to parks, gyms and public baths.

Pentagon: Chinese spy balloon spotted over Western US

Pentagon: Chinese spy balloon spotted over Western US
Updated 27 min 25 sec ago

Pentagon: Chinese spy balloon spotted over Western US

Pentagon: Chinese spy balloon spotted over Western US
  • Discovery of balloon puts further strain on US-China relations
  • Official said US has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon flying over sensitive sites to collect information

WASHINGTON: The US is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted over US airspace for a couple days, but the Pentagon decided not to shoot it down over concerns of hurting people on the ground, officials said Thursday. The discovery of the balloon puts a further strain on US-China relations at a time of heightened tensions.
A senior defense official told Pentagon reporters that the US has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and it was flying over sensitive sites to collect information. One of the places the balloon was spotted was Montana, which is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, provided a brief statement on the issue, saying the government continues to track the balloon. He said it is “currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”
He said similar balloon activity has been seen in the past several years. He added that the US took steps to ensure it did not collect sensitive information.
A senior administration official, who was also not authorized to publicly discuss sensitive information, said President Joe Biden was briefed and asked the military to present options. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised against taking “kinetic action” because of risks to the safety of people on the ground. Biden accepted that recommendation.
The defense official said the US has “engaged” Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the seriousness of the matter.
The incident comes as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was supposed to make his first trip to Beijing, expected this weekend, to try to find some common ground. Although the trip has not been formally announced, both Beijing and Washington have been talking about his imminent arrival.
It was not immediately clear if the discovery of the balloon would impact Blinken’s travel plans.
The senior defense official said the US did get fighter jets, including F-22s, ready to shoot down the balloon if ordered to by the White House. The Pentagon ultimately recommended against it, noting that even as the balloon was over a sparsely populated area of Montana, its size would create a debris field large enough that it could have put people at risk.
It was not clear what the military was doing to prevent it from collecting sensitive information or what will happen with the balloon if it isn’t shot down.
In a letter sent Thursday to Austin, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, wrote: “The fact that this balloon was occupying Montana airspace creates significant concern that Malmstrom Air Force Base and the United States’ intercontinental ballistic missile fields are the target of this intelligence gathering mission. ... It is vital to establish the flight path of this balloon, any compromised US national security assets, and all telecom or IT infrastructure on the ground within the US that this spy balloon was utilizing.”
The defense official said the spy balloon was trying to fly over the Montana missile fields, but the US has assessed that it has “limited” value in terms of providing China intelligence it couldn’t already collect by other means, such through spy satellites.
The official would not specify the size of the balloon, but said it was large enough that despite its high altitude, commercial pilots could see it. All air traffic was halted at Montana’s Billings Logan International Airport from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, as the military provided options to the White House.
A photograph of a large white balloon lingering over the area was captured by The Billings Gazette, but the Pentagon would not confirm if that was the surveillance balloon. The balloon could be seen drifting in and out of clouds and had what appeared to be a solar array hanging from the bottom, said Gazette photographer Larry Mayer.
The defense official said what concerned them about this launch was the altitude the balloon was flying at and the length of time it lingered over a location, without providing specifics.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said he was briefed Wednesday about the situation after the Montana National Guard was notified of an ongoing military operation taking place in Montana airspace, according to a statement from the Republican governor and spokesperson Brooke Stroyke.
“From the spy balloon to the Chinese Communist Party spying on Americans through TikTok to CCP-linked companies buying American farmland, I’m deeply troubled by the constant stream of alarming developments for our national security,” Gianforte said in a statement.
The administration official said congressional leaders’ staffs were briefed on the matter Thursday afternoon. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., tweeted, “China’s brazen disregard for US sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed.”
Tensions with China are particularly high on numerous issues, ranging from Taiwan and the South China Sea to human rights in China’s western Xinjiang region and the clampdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong. Not least on that list of irritants are China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its refusal to rein in North Korea’s expanding ballistic missile program and ongoing disputes over trade and technology.
On Tuesday, Taiwan scrambled fighter jets, put its navy on alert and activated missile systems in response to nearby operations by 34 Chinese military aircraft and nine warships that are part Beijing’s strategy to unsettle and intimidate the self-governing island democracy.
Twenty of those aircraft crossed the central line in the Taiwan Strait that has long been an unofficial buffer zone between the two sides, which separated during a civil war in 1949.
Beijing has also increased preparations for a potential blockade or military action against Taiwan, which has stirred increasing concern among military leaders, diplomats and elected officials in the US, Taiwan’s key ally.
The surveillance balloon was first reported by NBC News.
Some Montana residents reported seeing an unusual object in the sky around the time of the airport shutdown Wednesday, but it’s not clear that what they were seeing was the balloon.
From an office window in Billings, Chase Doak said he saw a “big white circle in the sky” that he said was too small to be the moon.
He took some photos, then ran home to get a camera with a stronger lens and took more photos and video. He could see it for about 45 minutes and it appeared stationary, but Doak said the video suggested it was slowly moving.
“I thought maybe it was a legitimate UFO,” he said. “So I wanted to make sure I documented it and took as many photos as I could.”

17 killed in truck-passenger bus collision in northwest Pakistan

17 killed in truck-passenger bus collision in northwest Pakistan
Updated 03 February 2023

17 killed in truck-passenger bus collision in northwest Pakistan

17 killed in truck-passenger bus collision in northwest Pakistan
  • Passenger coach collided head-on with trawler near Kohat tunnel, says rescue official
  • Rescue operation underway, women and children among dead, says official

PESHAWAR: At least 17 people were killed on Thursday, women and children included, in Pakistan's northwestern city of Kohat when a passenger coach collided with a trawler, a rescue official confirmed. 

According to a statement by Rescue 1122 Kohat, the accident took place near Kohat Tunnel on the Indus Highway in Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. 

"Seventeen persons, including children and women, died when a passenger coach collided head-on with a trawler near Kohat tunnel," Bilal Faizi, a spokesperson for Rescue 1122 Kohat, told Arab News. 

Pictures released by Rescue 1122 showed a huge trawler overturned on the highway as several rescue officials provided help to the injured. 

Last week, another unfortunate accident was reported in Kohat when a boat capsized in the Tanda Dam lake in the city, resulting in 51 casualties.

The boat capsized on Sunday as a group of over 50 students from Mir Bash Khel seminary, in the 8-14 age group, had gone for a picnic with the seminary’s caretaker.

Deadly accidents are common in Pakistan due to poor road infrastructure and a disregard for traffic laws.

On Sunday, a passenger bus crashed into a pillar and fell off a bridge in Baluchistan province, catching fire and killing 40 people.

(With AFP)

US to send Ukraine longer-range bombs in latest turnaround

US to send Ukraine longer-range bombs in latest turnaround
Updated 03 February 2023

US to send Ukraine longer-range bombs in latest turnaround

US to send Ukraine longer-range bombs in latest turnaround
  • The longer-range bombs are the latest advanced system, such as Abrams tanks and the Patriot missile defense system, that the US has eventually agreed to provide Ukraine
  • Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said Kyiv is prepared to offer guarantees to its Western partners that their weapons won’t be used to strike inside Russian territory

WASHINGTON: After months of agonizing, the US has agreed to send longer-range bombs to Ukraine as it prepares to launch a spring offensive to retake territory Russia captured last year, US officials said Thursday, confirming that the new weapons will have roughly double the range of any other offensive weapon provided by America.
The US will provide ground-launched small diameter bombs as part of a $2.17 billion aid package it is expected to announce Friday, several US officials said. The package also for the first time includes equipment to connect all the different air defense systems Western allies have rushed to the battlefield and integrate them into Ukraine’s own air defenses, to help it better defend against Russia’s missile attacks.
For months, US officials have hesitated to send longer-range systems to Ukraine out of concern that they would be used to target inside Russia, escalating the conflict and drawing the US deeper in. The longer-range bombs are the latest advanced system, such as Abrams tanks and the Patriot missile defense system, that the US has eventually agreed to provide Ukraine after initially saying no. US officials, though, have continued to reject Ukraine’s requests for fighter jets.
Ukrainian leaders have urgently pressed for longer-range munitions, and on Thursday officials said the US will send an undisclosed number of the ground-launched, small diameter bombs, which have a range of about 95 miles (150 kilometers). The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the aid package not yet made public.

To date, the longest-range missile provided by the US is about 50 miles (80 kilometers). The funding in the aid package is for longer-term purchases, so it wasn’t clear Thursday how long it will take to get the bomb to the battlefield in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said Thursday the country is prepared to offer guarantees to its Western partners that their weapons won’t be used to strike inside Russian territory, adding that Kyiv needs weapons with a range of up to 300 kilometers ( about 185 miles) to expel the Russian forces.
“If we could strike at a distance of up to 300 kilometers, the Russian army wouldn’t be able to mount a defense and will have to withdraw,” Reznikov said at a meeting with EU officials. “Ukraine is ready to provide any guarantees that your weapons will not be involved in attacks on the Russian territory. We have enough targets in the occupied areas of Ukraine, and we’re prepared to coordinate on (these) targets with our partners.”
The US aid package includes $425 million in ammunition and support equipment that will be pulled from existing Pentagon stockpiles and $1.75 billion in new funding through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which is used to purchase new weapons from industry.
The assistance initiative, which will pay for the longer-range bombs and the air defense system integration, also funds two HAWK air defense systems, anti-aircraft guns and ammunition, and counter-drone systems.
Since Russia’s invasion last February, Western allies have pledged a myriad of air defense systems to Ukraine to bolster its own Soviet-made S-300 surface-to-air missile defense systems, and the latest aid package aims to provide the capability to integrate them all, which could improve Ukraine’s ability to protect itself against incoming Russian attacks.
The US has pledged medium- to long-range National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, or NASAMS, and truck-launched short-range Avenger air defense systems; the Netherlands, Germany and the US are sending Patriot missile defense systems; Germany is sending medium-range IRIS-T air defense systems; and Spain is sending Aspide anti-aircraft air defense systems.
The addition of longer-range bombs to the latest aid package was first reported by Reuters.
Ukraine is still seeking F-16 fighter jets, which US President Joe Biden has opposed sending since the beginning of the war. Asked Monday if his administration was considering sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, Biden responded, “No.”
On Tuesday, the Ukrainian defense minister was asked if Biden’s ‘’no” to F-16s was the final word.
“All types of help first passed through the ‘no’ stage,” Reznikov said. “Which only means ‘no’ at today’s given moment. The second stage is, ‘Let’s talk and study technical possibilities.’ The third stage is, ‘Let’s get your personnel trained.’ And the fourth stage is the transfer (of equipment).”

UK Home Office orders Afghan refugees to uproot families and leave London within a week

UK Home Office orders Afghan refugees to uproot families and leave London within a week
Updated 02 February 2023

UK Home Office orders Afghan refugees to uproot families and leave London within a week

UK Home Office orders Afghan refugees to uproot families and leave London within a week
  • The 40 families have been living in a Kensington hotel for over a year but now must move to North Yorkshire
  • One of the refugees said the British government broke its promise to help find them find homes

LONDON: The UK Home Office has notified hundreds of Afghan refugees who have been living in London for 18 months that they must move 200 miles north to West Yorkshire within a week, the Guardian reported on Thursday.

They are among 9,000 Afghans who are living in temporary accommodation across the UK after fleeing the Taliban. They left their home country as part of Operation Pitting, which was launched in August 2021 to get British nationals and Afghans who had worked and fought alongside UK forces out of the country after the Taliban seized control.

“We will never forget the brave sacrifice made by Afghans who chose to work with us at great risk to themselves,” former Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at the time.

Now, the Home Office has told 40 families, including 150 children, who have been living in a hotel in Kensington for over a year that they must move to another hotel in Wetherby, near Leeds.

Some of the refugees, including a former general and translators who assisted British Army troops, told the Guardian that they are refusing to move because their children, who have already experienced great trauma, would now be forced to go through the upheaval of changing schools in the middle of the academic year.

Others have found jobs in London and are worried about giving them up and having to find work in a new location.

Most the Afghans living in the hotel have decided to protest against the relocation plan, one of the refugees told the Guardian.

Hamidullah Khan, a former parliamentary adviser in Kabul who came to the UK with his wife and three sons, said the government has broken a series of promises it made to refugees that it would assist them in finding permanent housing.

“We asked the Home Office, ‘Why do you want to force us out?’ and they say: ‘This hotel is expensive. The Leeds hotel is cheaper.’ But we didn’t choose this hotel or this area to live in, the Home Office did,” Khan said.

“Now we have been here, not out of choice, for 18 months. Our children are going to local schools and, in the middle of the school year, they ask us to leave.”

In Wetherby, meanwhile, some residents said they oppose the decision to move Afghan refugees into a local hotel. One person told the Leeds Live website that the government was acting in an “underhand and secretive” manner.

Under the UK’s Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act, the Home Office is obliged to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children when it makes any immigration decision.”

A Home Office spokesperson told the Guardian that the refugees were told months ago that they would have to move north.

“While hotels do not provide a long-term solution, they do offer safe, secure and clean accommodation,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to bring down the number of people in bridging hotels, moving people into more sustainable accommodation as quickly as possible.

“Occasionally, families may be moved from a hotel scheduled for closure to another hotel. In these instances, families are given appropriate notice of a move and are supported by their local authority. We are proud this country has provided homes for more than 7,500 Afghan evacuees but there is a shortage of local housing accommodation for all.”

According to briefings given to local councils, the government aims to move all Afghan refugees into permanent accommodation by the end of the year.