Philippines’ autonomous Muslim region builds deradicalization center for former militants

Philippines’ autonomous Muslim region builds deradicalization center for former militants
Philippine soldiers escort a hearse during the funeral of a victim killed in a cathedral bombing in Jolo, Sulu province on the southern island of Mindanao. (File/AFP)
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Updated 13 June 2022

Philippines’ autonomous Muslim region builds deradicalization center for former militants

Philippines’ autonomous Muslim region builds deradicalization center for former militants
  • More than 860 members of ASG have surrendered to the military in Sulu since 2017
  • Such centers and their programs are essential for ‘lasting peace,’ an expert says

MANILA: A center aimed at helping former militants reintegrate into the community is being built in the southern Philippines as part of government efforts to sustain peace in one of Southeast Asia’s most conflict-torn regions, officials said on Monday.

Bangsamoro, a region covering predominantly Muslim areas of Mindanao, has undergone a peace process for nearly a decade since the government struck a permanent cease-fire agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front after almost four decades of conflict.

As part of the peace process, the region’s inhabitants voted for greater autonomy in a referendum held in 2019. This followed the months’-long battle in Mindanao’s Marawi City in 2017 between the Philippine army and pro-Daesh militants, including members of the Abu Sayyaf Group.

The threat from ASG has declined since then; the Philippine military said in April that its operations had decreased the risk from militants affiliated with Daesh. As more ASG members surrender to the military, the government in Bangsamoro is aiming to help them rejoin society.

“This facility is part of the commitment we’ve made to the Western Mindanao Command and the local government . . . as we join them in rebuilding the lives of (the former) ASG members,” Naguib Sinarimbo, who heads the department responsible for local governance in Bangsamoro, said in a statement.

The $469,000 facility will be located in Barangay Langhub in the southwestern Sulu province, which was a stronghold of ASG.

Once it is established, the center will conduct programs to ensure that former militants “will become productive citizens as they return to the community.”

The regional military spokesperson, Col. Alaric Delos Santos, stressed the importance of the center “for the deradicalization of the former ASG members.”

“We all know that inside the ASG, what they were taught was an extremist point of view on Islam. So this time, they will go through the process and get a proper study and understanding of Islam. We will also be able to see their potential to determine the kind of livelihood that should be provided to each of them,” Delos Santos told Arab News.

Since 2017, more than 860 members of the ASG have surrendered to the military in Sulu, according to official data. More than half will join the first batch of programs run at the center, Delos Santos said.

The center, according to security expert Rikard Jalkebro, is essential to sustain peace in Sulu.

“It’s something that has to be done otherwise you can’t really have lasting peace or any kind of sustainable peace situation in Sulu,” Jalkebro told Arab News.

To build trust between former fighters and the local community, Jalkebro said that it was important “to integrate these people into society” by teaching them skills and providing vocational training, adding that these processes take time.

“It’s very difficult, and it’s very easy for them to simply slip back into the old ways.”


Two more ships depart from Ukraine – Turkey’s defense ministry

Two more ships depart from Ukraine – Turkey’s defense ministry
Updated 54 min 27 sec ago

Two more ships depart from Ukraine – Turkey’s defense ministry

Two more ships depart from Ukraine – Turkey’s defense ministry
  • Belize-flagged Sormovsky left Ukraine’s Chornomorsk port, carrying 3,050 tons of wheat
  • Marshall Island-flagged Star Laura departed from Pivdennyi, carrying 60,000 tons of corn

ISTANBUL: Two more ships left from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports on Friday, Turkey’s defense ministry said, bringing the total number of ships to depart the country under a UN-brokered deal to 14 and marking the first export of wheat.
Belize-flagged Sormovsky left Ukraine’s Chornomorsk port, carrying 3,050 tons of wheat to Turkey’s northwestern Tekirdag province, it said. Also, Marshall Island-flagged Star Laura departed from Pivdennyi and headed to Iran, carrying 60,000 tons of corn.


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).