MANILA/DAVAO CITY: Bazer Sulaiman was ready to perform the Hajj in 2020, when coronavirus travel restrictions swept the world, preventing him and millions of other foreign pilgrims from reaching Makkah for two years.
One of Islam’s five main pillars of faith, the Hajj was restricted over pandemic fears to only 1,000 people living in Saudi Arabia in 2020. Last year, the Kingdom limited the pilgrimage to 60,000 domestic participants, compared with the pre-pandemic 2.5 million.
But this year, as it has already lifted most of its COVID-19 curbs, Saudi Arabia will welcome one million pilgrims from abroad — and 3,500 of them will come from the Philippines.
A predominantly Christian country of 110 million people, the Philippines has a Muslim minority comprising about a tenth of its population. Most Filipino Muslims live in the country’s south, in parts of Mindanao, Palawan and the Sulu Archipelago.
“It’s the most important moment of my life. I have been waiting for this,” Sulaiman, a 59-year-old retired policeman, told Arab News.
Embarking on his journey to Makkah and Madinah on Wednesday, the two holiest sites of Islam, Sulaiman will fly more than 8,500 km from Parang, Maguindanao province, in the southern part of Mindanao.
“I want to meet my fellow Muslims from the other side of the planet,” he said. “I want to strengthen my faith.”
This year, the Philippines has been allotted a quota of 4,074 pilgrims, but not all of them will be able to join the Hajj as the transportation industry still has not rebounded from two years of pandemic closures and travel costs are high, Malo B. Manonggiring, who heads the bureau of pilgrimage of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, told Arab News.
“They (the pilgrims) may be ready, but the problem is their financial capability because the cost of doing the Hajj now is $3,390. Before it was less than $3,000,” he said.
“The quota given to us was 4,074, but we are analyzing the situation, which is why we lowered it to 3,500.”
Mike Bantilan, a 58-year-old who is traveling to Makkah from Cotabato City in Maguindanao, has been supported by his family to perform the pilgrimage.
“There were donations from my relatives,” he said. “Because of my excitement and thinking of the memorable journey, there were nights I couldn’t sleep.”
Bantilan has already processed all the documents, and prepared himself physically, as he will travel this week.
“It’s obligatory for all Muslims who can afford to attend the Hajj,” he said. “I am doing this for Allah.”
Village life left in ruins after deadly Afghan quake
A 5.9-magnitude earthquake rumbled through the area last Wednesday, killing more than 1,000 people
The harsh winter, which lasts almost five months in this remote mid-mountain region, will arrive in September
Updated 18 sec ago
AKHTAR JAN, Afghanistan: Village life has always been tough for Afghans in the rugged mountains of the east, but compared to what they are enduring today it was paradise. A 5.9-magnitude earthquake rumbled through the area last Wednesday, killing more than 1,000 people, injuring three times that many, and leaving tens of thousands homeless. “If life before was not really good — because for years there was war — the earthquake has made it even harder for us,” says Malin Jan, who lost two daughters in the quake. All 14 houses in his village of Akhtar Jan were flattened, and survivors — including some from outlying hamlets — are now living in tents among the ruins. Two small makeshift camps have been set up in dusty gardens, with stunted grass grazed by three cows, a donkey, two goats and a flock of chickens. In tents pitched in a circle, about 35 families — more than 300 people including many children — are trying to survive. Living in such close proximity to non-relatives is anathema to Afghans — particularly in the conservative countryside where women rarely interact with strangers. Sanitary conditions are likely to deteriorate rapidly — there are no toilets, and people have to draw water from a well to wash. “Before the earthquake, life was nice and beautiful,” says villager Abdu Rahman Abid. “We had our houses and God was good.” He gives a gruesome count of those he lost in the rubble — his parents, his wife, three daughters, a son and a nephew. “The earthquake killed eight members of my family and my house is destroyed,” he says, looking weary. “There is a big difference now. Before we had our own houses and everything we needed. Now we have nothing and our families are living in tents.” Neighbor Malin Jan is already looking ahead, fearful of what the future holds. The harsh winter, which lasts almost five months in this remote mid-mountain region, will arrive in September. “If our children stay in this situation their lives will be in danger because of the rain and snow,” he says. Massoud Sakib, 37, who lost his wife and three daughters, also fears for the months ahead. “Even living in a house is difficult during winter, so if our houses are not rebuilt by then our lives will be in danger,” he says. On Saturday, the UN’s top official in the country, Ramiz Alakbarov, arrived from Kabul by helicopter to visit the region — including the village of Akhtar Jan — with representatives of each UN agency. Alakbarov was moved to tears as he met a young girl and was offered tea by a survivor, praising the “resilience and courage” of the people. But their tenacity only stretches so far. Interviewed by AFP, the Afghan minister of health, Qalandar Edad, warned of the “mental and psychological” suffering of victims. Malin Jan said the villagers were doing their best to help each other through the crisis. “When a family is hit by a tragedy, the others naturally come to surround and support them,” he said. “Everything is affected... we console each other.” But they cannot do it alone, adds villager Abdul Rahman Abib. “We ask the world to help us as long as we need it. It must share our pain.”
NATO summit host Spain seeks focus on southern security
When NATO leaders convene in Madrid on June 28-30 they are due to revamp the alliance’s strategic concept
Updated 26 June 2022
MADRID: Spain is lobbying for NATO to pay more attention to security threats on its southern flank when the military alliance gathers for a summit in Madrid later this week.
But with the war in Ukraine entering its fifth month, the priority for Spain’s NATO partners remains firmly on deterring Russian in the east.
When NATO leaders convene in Madrid on June 28-30 they are due to revamp the alliance’s strategic concept, which outlines its main security tasks and challenges but has not been revised since 2010.
Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares has been pushing for NATO to broaden its scope to help deal with non-military threats such as “the political use of energy resources and illegal immigration” in Africa.
“The threats are as much from the southern flank as from the eastern flank,” he told a Madrid news conference on Wednesday.
Madrid is also concerned about lawlessness and violent Islamist movements in the Sahel region, a vast territory stretching across the south of the Sahara Desert.
“We have this war in Europe, but the situation in Africa is really worrying,” said Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles.
The issue is particularly acute for Spain, a main gateway into Europe for irregular migration from Africa and a country which relies on Algeria for gas supplies.
Last year Morocco allowed thousands of migrants to enter Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta during a diplomatic crisis over the disputed Western Sahara, prompting Madrid to accuse Rabat of “blackmail.”
Although the two countries recently normalized their relations after Spain ended its decades-long position of neutrality over Western Sahara to publicly support Morocco’s stance, the migration crisis hasn’t come to an end.
On Friday at dawn, around 2,000 African migrants tried to storm the border with Melilla, the other Spanish enclave on Morocco’s northern coast. At least 23 died in the incursion, making it the deadliest incident to occur at the borders of the two Spanish enclaves — the only borders between the EU and Africa.
And earlier this month Morocco’s arch-rival Algeria suspended a co-operation treaty with Spain in response to Madrid’s U-turn over Western Sahara.
But with an active conflict on NATO’s eastern flank, it is going to be “an uphill struggle” to convince member states to make a commitment to the southern flank, said Sinan Ulgen, a NATO expert at the Carnegie Europe think-tank in Brussels.
“The war in Ukraine has changed the equation. The threat from Russia has become the main preoccupation for almost all the countries,” the former Turkish diplomat said.
In Washington, US national security spokesman John Kirby said “the focus right now is on the eastern flank.”
“But there remains a continued effort to make sure we are also paying attention to the southern flank,” he added.
In an interview published Saturday by Spanish daily El Pais, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said the Alliance would “strengthen (its) cooperation with southern countries,” mentioning Mauritania in particular.
Aside from Russia, Washington’s other major concern is China, which is expected to be mentioned in NATO’s strategic concept for the first time.
To try to convince its NATO allies, Spain has sounded the alarm over the growing presence of Russian mercenaries in African nations like Mali and the Central African Republic, arguing instability could increase African migration to Europe.
Madrid has also suggested that Russia was behind Spain’s recent diplomatic spat with Algeria.
“Unfortunately the threats from the south are increasingly Russian threats from the south,” Albares said.
Ulgen said that another difficulty is that while other southern European nations want a greater NATO engagement in Africa, they have different priorities, making it hard to set a common alliance-led strategy.
“Rome, Paris, Madrid, Ankara still assess the political and security challenges differently. That is the fundamental reason why there is not a stronger push for NATO to have a bigger role” in the southern flank, said Ulgen.
In addition, many top US policymakers believe NATO should focus on territorial defense, not non-conventional threats, said Angel Saz, the director of the Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics at Spain’s Esade business school.
“And the only threat to territorial defense is Russia. The Sahel can destabilize Europe, but it will not conquer Spain or Italy,” he said.
Spain has “perhaps put too much emphasis” on the call for a greater NATO role in the southern flank and “it runs the risk of under accomplishing,” he added.
Explosions shake Kyiv’s center, fire at residential building – officials
Blasts occurred half an hour after air raid sirens sounded in the capital
Thick smoke was seen in the affected residential area, which was cordoned off by police
Updated 54 min 55 sec ago
KYIV: Four explosions were heard in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv early Sunday, with AFP journalists reporting a residential complex near the center of the city had been hit, causing a fire and cloud of grey smoke.
The blasts occurred around 6:30 a.m. (0330 GMT), half an hour after air raid sirens sounded in the capital, which has not not come under Russian bombardment for nearly three weeks.
There was no immediate information on casualties.
An AFP colleague living in the same residential complex heard a loud buzz preceding the explosions.
“Several explosions in the Shevchenkivsky district,” Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Telegram.
“Ambulances and rescuers are on site. In two buildings, the rescue and evacuation of residents is underway,” he added.
Thick smoke was seen in the affected residential area, which was cordoned off by police.
At the end of April, a Ukrainian journalist from Radio Liberty was killed in her apartment by a Russian strike on Kyiv during a visit by UN chief Antonio Guterres.
To charge or not to charge: the Trump dilemma roiling America
The committee has presented a trove of text messages suggesting Trump did nothing to stop the violence for hours as increasingly frantic allies tried to get him to call off the mob
Updated 26 June 2022
WASHINGTON: A chilling portrait of a US president who knew he’d lost an election but tried to steal it anyway has emerged in testimony on the Capitol assault, posing a perilous question: should prosecutors indict Donald Trump?
In their comments to the congressional committee investigating the deadly violence, White House and Trump campaign staff, lawyers and even family members have drawn the contours of a possible prosecution, outlining potential presidential misconduct culminating in the riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
The picture they have painted is that it was part of a broader “coup” attempt led by the defeated president and his lawyer John Eastman.
“The odds are in favor of the Justice Department indicting Mr. Trump,” Kevin O’Brien, a former assistant US attorney in New York who now specializes in white-collar criminal defense, told AFP.
“The legal case is sound and would be compelling to a jury, assuming prosecutors can establish a link between the plans of Trump and John Eastman to thwart the counting of electoral votes on the one hand, and the insurrection at the Capitol building on the other.”
The committee’s official line has always been that it will leave charging decisions to the proper authorities.
But it has heavily hinted it will accuse Trump of at least two felonies — obstructing Congress’s counting of electoral votes, and joining a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States.
And the established facts don’t look good for the 76-year-old former reality TV star.
Trump spent weeks ahead of the violence in Washington duping his followers into thinking the election had been stolen.
He encouraged his supporters to descend on the city on January 6, riled up the huge crowd at his “Stop the Steal” rally and instructed them to march on the Capitol as lawmakers were ratifying the election.
The committee has presented a trove of text messages suggesting Trump did nothing to stop the violence for hours as increasingly frantic allies tried to get him to call off the mob.
And the House committee’s hearings have positioned the violence within a larger conspiracy to cling to power by intimidating and harassing poll workers, election officials and the federal justice department.
Trump’s defenders argue that he genuinely believed the election was stolen and was engaged in a good faith attempt to protect voters.
But the live testimony and videotaped depositions at the hearings suggest he knew he’d been fairly defeated, given the sheer number of times he was told so by his closest aides.
One of the most credible and impactful witnesses was retired judge J. Michael Luttig, a star in conservative judicial and political circles who testified that Trump presented a “clear and present danger” to US democracy.
While there is a degree of consensus outside of Trump’s support base that he could reasonably be charged, a more fraught question for Attorney General Merrick Garland is whether he should be.
For a start, the burden of proof for conviction in a criminal prosecution is considerably higher than the bar for condemning someone in a congressional hearing. “A botched prosecution would make Trump stronger and even help re-elect him,” Washington-based Financial Times columnist Edward Luce wrote this week.
Garland could expect strong public support if he decided to go after Trump, with a new ABC News and Ipsos poll finding almost 60 percent of Americans think the ex-president should face charges.
But Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor in San Diego, said he didn’t think the attorney general had “the stomach” for the fight.
“Indicting a former president would be unprecedented, and it takes an aggressive prosecutor that is willing to take on a difficult and politically charged prosecution,” Rahmani told AFP.
“I don’t think Merrick Garland is that prosecutor.”
Many Americans fear a prosecution would spark widespread civil unrest as Trump’s supporters, feeling under attack, took to the streets. Violence, after all, has already been wielded in Trump’s defense.
Nicholas Creel, a law professor at Georgia College and State University, argues however that letting Trump walk would make a mockery of the central tenet of American justice that “no man is above the law.”
“While an indictment would violate the norms of not prosecuting former presidents and would almost certainly unleash massive civil upheaval from his supporters... the alternative is to allow him to have attempted a coup unpunished, wounding the nation far more than his prosecution would,” he told AFP.
Russians ‘fully occupy’ Severodonetsk, focus shifts to Lysychansk
Millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes and their country since the invasion, most to neighboring Poland
Russia has intensified its offensive in the northern city of Kharkiv in recent days
Updated 26 June 2022
KYIV/POKROVSK, Ukraine: Russian forces fully occupied the eastern Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk on Saturday, both sides said, confirming Kyiv’s biggest battlefield setback for more than a month following weeks of some of the war’s bloodiest fighting.
Ukraine called its retreat from the city a “tactical withdrawal” to fight from higher ground in Lysychansk on the opposite bank of the Siverskyi Donets river. Pro-Russian separatists said Moscow’s forces were now attacking Lysychansk.
The fall of Sievierodonetsk — once home to more than 100,000 people but now a wasteland — was Russia’s biggest victory since capturing the port of Mariupol last month. It transforms the battlefield in the east after weeks in which Moscow’s huge advantage in firepower had yielded only slow gains.
Russia will now seek to press on and seize more ground on the opposite bank, while Ukraine will hope that the price Moscow paid to capture the ruins of the small city will leave Russia’s forces vulnerable to counterattack.
President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed in a video address that Ukraine would win back the cities it lost, including Sievierodonetsk. But acknowledging the war’s emotional toll, he said: “We don’t have a sense of how long it will last, how many more blows, losses and efforts will be needed before we see victory is on the horizon.”
• Capture of Sievierodonetsk big gain for Russia
• Ukraine says it carries out 'tactical withdrawal'
• Dozens of missiles hit Ukrainian military bases
“The city is now under the full occupation of Russia,” Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said on national television. “They are trying to establish their own order, as far as I know they have appointed some kind of commandant.”
Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, told Reuters that Ukraine was carrying out “a tactical regrouping” by pulling its forces out of Sievierodonetsk.
“Russia is using the tactic ... it used in Mariupol: wiping the city from the face of the earth,” he said. “Given the conditions, holding the defense in the ruins and open fields is no longer possible. So the Ukrainian forces are leaving for higher ground to continue the defense operations.”
Russia’s defense ministry said “as a result of successful offensive operations” Russian forces had established full control over Sievierodonetsk and the nearby town of Borivske.
Not long after that, however, Ukrainian shelling from outside Sievierodonetsk forced Russian troops to suspend evacuation of people from a chemical plant there, Russia’s Tass news agency quoted local police working with Russian separatist authorities as saying.
Oleksiy Arestovych, senior adviser to Zelensky, said some Ukrainian special forces were still in Sievierodonetsk directing artillery fire against the Russians. But he made no mention of those forces putting up any direct resistance.
Russia’s Interfax news agency cited a representative of pro-Russian separatist fighters saying Russian and pro-Russian forces had entered Lysychansk across the river and were fighting in urban areas there.
Russia also launched missile strikes across Ukraine on Saturday. At least three people were killed and others may have been buried in rubble in the town of Sarny, some 185 miles (300 km) west of Kyiv, after rockets hit a carwash and a car repair facility, said the head of the local regional military administration.
Russia denies targeting civilians. Kyiv and the West say Russian forces have committed war crimes against civilians.
Seeking to further tighten the screws on Russia, US President Joe Biden and other Group of Seven leaders attending a summit in Germany starting on Sunday will agree on an import ban on new gold from Russia, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters. ’IT WAS HORROR’
In the Ukrainian-held Donbas town of Pokrovsk, Elena, an elderly woman in a wheelchair from Lysychansk, was among dozens of evacuees who arrived by bus from frontline areas.
“Lysychansk, it was a horror, the last week. Yesterday we could not take it any more,” she said. “I already told my husband if I die, please bury me behind the house.”
As Europe’s biggest land conflict since World War Two entered its fifth month, Russian missiles also rained down on western, northern and southern parts of the country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops over the border on Feb. 24, unleashing a conflict that has killed thousands and uprooted millions. It has also stoked an energy and food crisis which is shaking the global economy.
Since Russia’s forces were defeated in an assault on the capital Kyiv in March, it has shifted focus to the Donbas, an eastern territory made up of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk were the last major Ukrainian bastions in Luhansk.
The Russians crossed the river in force in recent days and have been advancing toward Lysychansk, threatening to encircle Ukrainians in the area.
The capture of Sievierodonetsk is likely to seen by Russia as vindication for its switch from its early, failed attempt at “lightning warfare” to a relentless, grinding offensive using massive artillery in the east.
Moscow says Luhansk and Donetsk, where it has backed uprisings since 2014, are independent countries. It demands Ukraine cede the entire territory of the two provinces to separatist administrations.
Ukrainian officials had never held out much hope of holding Sievierodonetsk but have sought to exact a high enough price to exhaust the Russian army.
Ukraine’s top general Valeriy Zaluzhnyi wrote on the Telegram app that newly arrived, US-supplied advanced HIMARS rocket systems were now deployed and hitting targets in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.
Asked about a potential counterattack in the south, Budanov, the Ukrainian military intelligence chief, told Reuters that Ukraine should begin to see results “from August.”
Russian missiles also struck elsewhere overnight. “48 cruise missiles. At night. Throughout whole Ukraine,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. “Russia is still trying to intimidate Ukraine, cause panic.”
The governor of Lviv region in western Ukraine said six missiles were fired from the Black Sea at a base near the border with Poland. Four hit the target but two were destroyed.
The war has had a huge impact on the global economy and European security, driving up gas, oil and food prices, pushing the European Union to reduce reliance on Russian energy and prompting Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership.