COLOMBO: Schools across Sri Lanka will close for one week starting Monday, the Education Ministry has announced, as the island nation grapples with its worst economic crisis since gaining independence in 1948.
Sri Lanka is struggling to find critical funding to finance the import of essential goods, including fuel, food and medicines.
The country’s existing stock of petrol and diesel is only sufficient for a few more days, and is now limited for use in essential services, such as health, public transport and food distribution. Long queues of drivers have been sighted across Colombo at gas stations, as some wait for more than 48 hours to fill their vehicles.
The announcement comes after schools in Colombo and other urban areas were closed for two weeks in a row. Lessons were replaced with online classes, with officials previously citing transportation difficulties caused by the fuel crisis.
With the worsening economic turmoil, the Ministry of Education announced an early “holiday week” for all schools across the island, following an official review of the “notifications about the distribution of fuel” in the country.
“The week from July 4 to July 8 will be declared as a holiday week for all government schools and government-approved private schools across the island,” a circular issued by the ministry on Sunday reads.
The latest announcement comes after schools in Colombo and other urban areas were closed for two weeks in a row. Lessons were replaced with online classes, with officials previously citing transportation difficulties caused by the fuel crisis.
The extended closures have raised concerns among Sri Lankans, as some are worried about how the crisis will affect the future of younger generations.
“Simply closing schools will damage the future of the next generation,” Prof. Chandima Wijegunawardena, leader of the Sri Lanka Humanity Party, told Arab News.
“It’s sad that the political blunder of the parliamentarians is affecting children’s education.”
The economic meltdown has triggered a political crisis, with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa facing accusations of corruption and economic mismanagement. Anti-government protesters have taken to the streets for months to demand his resignation.
Wijegunawardena said that the government should implement a system that allows students to attend schools closest to their homes.
“It’s a scheme that allows children to walk to schools nearby their homes, so the rule can apply to teachers and other staff, too,” he said. “Policies and principles can be changed with the changing times.”
Ismeth Fatima, principal of Zahira College in Colombo, said that students should not be deprived of education in schools.
“Let them go to the nearby school and transfer teachers to their respective places of origin so they can cut down on the travel,” Fatima told Arab News.
“It is sad that the country has to undergo this ordeal,” she said. “A school is a school — we cannot expect the children to learn properly in their own respective home environment.”
Online learning as an alternative has also worried educators, with MRM Rifky, principal of Al-Humaisara National School located in Beruwala, a town 60 kilometers south of Colombo, warning that students at his school have failed to attend the new virtual classes.
“Online education is an utter failure,” he told Arab News.
The two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have already deprived children in Sri Lanka of their educational experiences, said women’s rights activist Shreen Saroor.
“Now with this ad-hoc management of the education system, Sri Lanka will lose out on our history and pride.”
Girl unable to enter Kyiv shelter killed in Russia attack, Zelensky demands change
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy expressed frustration at the miscue and said if local officials were unable to provide protection, they could be prosecuted
Police opened a criminal investigation into the three deaths near a medical clinic in the Desnyanskyi district of Kyiv
Updated 01 June 2023
KYIV: A nine-year-old Ukrainian girl, her mother and another woman were killed in a Russian missile strike on Kyiv on Thursday after the air raid shelter they rushed to failed to open, witnesses said.
President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed frustration at the miscue and said if local officials were unable to provide protection, they could be prosecuted.
His comments appeared aimed at Kyiv city authorities and Mayor Vitali Klitschko, with whom he has periodically clashed during the war.
Police opened a criminal investigation into the three deaths near a medical clinic in the Desnyanskyi district of Kyiv after the 18th attack on the capital since the start of May.
“Three people, one of them a child, died near the clinic last night,” Klitschko said. “A rocket fragment fell near the entrance to the clinic four minutes after the air alert was announced. And people headed for the shelter.”
Residents said people were unable to enter the shelter because it was closed. It was not clear why.
“The air alert sounded. My wife took our daughter and they ran to the entrance here,” local resident Yaroslav Ryabchuk told Reuters in the Desnyanskyi district.
“The entrance was closed, there were already maybe five to 10 women with children. No one opened up for them.”
The case prompted calls for residents to check shelters and report safety violations. Local media said prosecutors searched city administration offices as part of the investigation.
PRESIDENT CALLS OUT LOCAL GOVERNMENT
Zelensky, in his nightly video message, said shelters “must be kept accessible. Never again should we see a repeat of the situation that occurred last night in Kyiv...”
This was “very clearly” the duty of local authorities “and if this duty is not fulfilled at the local level, it is the direct duty of law enforcement bodies to prosecute.”
In earlier comments to reporters in Moldova, Zelensky said that as well as facing the Russian enemy, “we also have internal ones.” He said the response could be a “knockout” blow, a veiled dig at Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion.
At a makeshift memorial for the girl, another parent woken by the attacks spoke of her terror.
“I grabbed my child and ran into the corridor because I didn’t have any other options. We sat there the whole time, there were a few more explosions,” said Oleksandra, 25, visiting the memorial with her five-year-old son Hryhoriy.
“My child got really scared, he sat in the corner of our corridor. He cried, saying that we’re all gonna die. I was terrified to hear this from him. It was terrible.”
Russia has denied targeting civilians or committing war crimes though its air strikes have caused devastation in cities across Ukraine since the full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.
Ukraine reported no major damage from Thursday’s attack, saying it had shot down all 10 missiles. But, in a statement on International Children’s Day, UN human rights monitors in Ukraine said 525 children had been killed since the invasion.
Biden, 80, had just shaken hands with a cadet and begun walking back to his seat when he fell
Air Force personnel helped him back up and he did not appear to require further help
Updated 01 June 2023
COLORADO SPRINGS, United States: President Joe Biden took a face-first tumble on Thursday after tripping over an obstacle on stage at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, but he appeared unhurt.
Biden, 80, who had delivered the commencement address to graduates of the military academy, had just shaken hands with a cadet and begun walking back to his seat when he fell.
Air Force personnel helped him back up and he did not appear to require further help.
As he rose, Biden pointed to the object that had apparently caught his foot. It resembled a small black sandbag on the stage.
Biden is the oldest person ever in the presidency and is seeking a second term in the 2024 election. His official doctor’s report this year declared him physically fit and he exercises regularly.
In November 2020, shortly after winning his election against the incumbent Donald Trump, Biden broke his foot while playing with a pet dog.
UK seeks Bulgaria’s help to tackle small boats, illegal immigration
British PM Rishi Sunak to announce security partnership with Bulgaria to boost intelligence sharing
Move will target organized people-smuggling gangs and equipment used to make dinghies
Updated 01 June 2023
LONDON: Britain is seeking a new partnership with Bulgaria in a bid to halt illegal immigration as over a million Syrian and Afghan refugees are expected to head to western Europe from Turkiye. The Times reported on Thursday that British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is set to announce a security partnership with Bulgaria to boost intelligence sharing between the National Crime Agency and Bulgarian police.
The aim is to combat organized crime groups that smuggle migrants and equipment used to manufacture dinghies, mainly in Turkiye.
Sunak’s main goal is tackling the small boats crisis by urging fellow European leaders to treat illegal migration as a top priority.
After this year’s earthquake in February and the resumption of deportations to Afghanistan, over a million refugees of both countries who are currently based in Turkiye are expected to head to western Europe and Britain.
Illegal immigrants travel in dinghies being manufactured in Turkiye, which the UK Border Force says has become a hub for people smugglers ferrying migrants across the English Channel.
While no official cooperation deal is expected soon, the NCA has been commissioned to build “closer links” with Turkish authorities to target smuggling gangs.
Bulgaria has become a major entry point to the EU for gangs bringing in boats’ equipment from Turkiye and for migrants following a crackdown on Aegean Sea crossings into Greece.
The arrangement helps Bulgaria to “destroy the business model” of the criminals, according to Downing Street.
Bulgaria has stopped 11,000 illegal entries across its border with Turkiye since January, a 40 percent increase compared with the same period in 2022.
Sunak said illegal migration posed an “unprecedented” threat to Europe’s borders.
“Europe is facing unprecedented threats at our borders, from (Russian President) Putin’s utter contempt of other countries’ sovereignty to the rise in organized immigration crime. We cannot address these problems without Europe’s governments and institutions working closely together,” he was quoted as saying.
The Home Office said: “Migration is driven by a number of factors, and we will continue to work with international partners to overcome them. We have a close partnership with Turkiye when it comes to the shared problem of illegal migration.”
Meanwhile, the NCA said: “Tackling people smuggling is a top priority, and we work closely with international partners to disrupt the supply of vessels.”
Finland feels safer now it is part of NATO, Minister for Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto tells Arab News
Expresses gratitude to Saudi Arabia for providing a platform for Sudanese factions to discuss ceasefire
Offers Helsinki’s support for the circular economy, a model that is also championed by Saudi Arabia
Updated 51 min 43 sec ago
HELSINKI: Although Finland has a strong military, including a conscript army and 300,000 male and female reservists, the Nordic nation feels safer now that it is part of NATO, Pekka Haavisto, its minister for foreign affairs, told Arab News.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 set off a chain of events that culminated in Finland becoming the 31st member of the Western military alliance on April 4, more than doubling the length of the Russian Federation’s border with NATO.
“In case we are attacked at any day now, we are safer when we can also get NATO support at any moment,” Haavisto said during an interview in Helsinki, which covered issues ranging from the war in Ukraine to crises in the Horn of Africa and his own country’s prominent role as a champion of sustainable development.
In response to Finland’s move, Russian officials issued thinly veiled threats against the country, which until last year maintained a policy of military nonalignment. The Kremlin called the NATO accession “an encroachment on our security and on Russia’s national interests” that would force Russia to “take countermeasures.”
Haavisto, who last month formally handed Finland’s NATO accession document to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Brussels, called the possibility that Russia would launch an attack on Finland “unpredictable.”
“What we are afraid of, of course, is that Russia can make other miscalculations in Europe, and we don’t want to be part of any miscalculation,” he said.
Haavisto clarified that Finland had had “the NATO option” since 2004, which meant that while the country was outside the organization, any event that caused concern could lead it to apply for membership.
“(But) our estimation of our situation and our security situation changed,” he said, alluding to the Ukraine invasion. “We decided that together with Sweden, we will apply for NATO membership because of our own security.
“We will not threaten anyone. We are not currently threatened. But, of course, when you saw a war in Europe, you could always imagine what an escalation of war could mean in Europe.”
While Finland and Sweden both applied for NATO membership on July 5 last year, their accessions to the alliance were stalled for months. For a country to join NATO, all existing members must ratify the accession, and in the case of Sweden and Finland, Turkiye and Hungary initially refused to do so.
In particular, Turkiye made several demands of Sweden and Finland, including the extradition of several individuals that its claims are terrorists and the lifting of arms embargoes imposed on Ankara after it sent its forces into northern Syria in 2019.
As part of the negotiations, Sweden announced that it would allow arms exports to Turkiye again and pass stronger anti-terrorism laws. Finland followed suit in January.
Although Turkiye eventually ratified Finland’s accession, the Swedish bid is still on the table.
“There are good chances that prior to the NATO summit in July in Vilnius, Sweden will be approved as a NATO member,” Haavisto said.
With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan winning re-election for another five-year term, Haavisto is closely following several foreign policy issues related to Turkiye in addition to the Swedish application for NATO membership.
He cited the importance of Turkiye-Syria relations, saying that “the fate of Turkey and Syria is very interlinked” and called for “a peaceful path” to a political solution in Syria.
* Finland became NATO’s 31st member on April 4 this year.
* The UN World Happiness Report has ranked Finland No. 1 every year since 2016.
* Saudi Arabia and Finland have had diplomatic relations since 1969.
He also called for a solution to tensions between Greece and Turkiye in the Eastern Mediterranean, citing the territorial dispute that has divided the island since 1974 as an example.
Another file Haavisto is following closely is the crisis unfolding in Sudan. He believes the ongoing conflict must not distract the international community from the goal of transferring political power ultimately to the Sudanese people.
“It’s very important that the future of Sudan is based on the civilian components,” said Haavisto, who previously served as a high-level EU envoy to conflict-prone areas of Africa.
On Monday, representatives of the Sudanese Armed Forces, led by General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, and Rapid Support Forces, led by Mohamed “Hemedti” Dagalo — the two factions locked in combat since April 15 — agreed to a five-day extension of an existing ceasefire and humanitarian arrangements brokered by Saudi Arabia and the US following talks in Jeddah.
“We are very grateful to Saudi Arabia for giving a platform for Al-Burhan and Hemedti’s military representatives to negotiate all these issues. (What is really needed now) are peace initiatives,” Haavisto said.
Having previously supported efforts to end the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray as the EU’s special envoy to that country, Haavisto’s ministry is closely monitoring the Sudan crisis, which has engulfed the capital Khartoum and other states.
An unfortunate fallout of the armed conflict, he said, was that “the perspective that everything was about transforming the power in Sudan from the military to the civilians has been lost. And unfortunately, the (former) prime minister, (Abdalla) Hamdok, was sidelined.”
Hamdok, who was appointed prime minister during Sudan’s transition to a civilian-led government in 2019, was ousted during a military coup in October 2021. Although he was restored as prime minister a month later amid growing public outrage toward the military, he resigned in January 2022.
Haavisto said he was in touch with Hamdok and a number of individuals and civil society groups in Sudan. “We hope, of course, that (the current ceasefire) will be continued until the future, and those who are taking up arms will lay them down as soon as possible,” he said.
During a visit to Riyadh in April 2021 for discussions with Saudi officials while on his way to Ethiopia amid the Tigray war, Haavisto told Arab News it was important that the EU worked with Saudi Arabia in view of the Kingdom’s “good relations with all parties in the whole of Africa.”
“International cooperation … is very important,” he said at the time, citing, presciently, the risks of another conflict in a part of Africa where disputes were rife.
Now, more than a month into the Sudan conflict, Finland wholeheartedly supports Saudi and American efforts to broker a long-lasting ceasefire and peace deal between the feuding factions.
As Haavisto sees it, the war in Sudan is a complex challenge that will require the participation of many actors and the implementation of long-term plans. The strong links between Sudan’s military and economy, especially during the rule of dictator Omar Al-Bashir in the 1990s and 2000s, created serious problems for the country.
“Now I’m seeing that the same problem remains both with Al-Burhan and Hemedti — that economic and military interests are connected. And this, of course, is also something that is an obstacle for Sudan to develop its economy on a free basis, as a free-market economy, in the future. And, unfortunately, (this factor) is probably slowing the economic growth of Sudan as well.”
Concerns about regional and international conflicts have neither stopped nor slowed Finland’s drive to become a global environmental leader. Helsinki is currently hosting the World Circular Economy Forum 2023, which aims to create a new “green” economy and more jobs by taking advantage of circular economy solutions in line with the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals.
“This circular economy meeting that takes place in Helsinki, of course, is part of our policy to support the circular economy, not only in our own country, but worldwide,” said Haavisto, who is a veteran of Finland’s Green League party and a former minister of the environment.
“Recycled materials have huge energy-saving and renewable energy forms … For example, there has been a huge wind power investment now to Finland, and wind power is becoming a more and more important source of energy for us.”
Finland has some of the highest energy consumption per capita in the EU and is one of the only countries in the world that still uses peat as an energy source, so it has plenty of motivation to increase its use of renewables.
So far, the country has made good on a number of its promises: Over the past seven years, the number of operational wind turbines in the country increased from 552 to 1,266, according to the Finnish Wind Power Association. Last year, Finland passed the Climate Change Act, which set 2035 as the target for the country to go carbon neutral, with carbon-negative goals set for 2040.
“We see a lot of potential in both wind and solar power globally,” Haavisto said, adding that Finland was eager to demonstrate new technologies and inventions for energy efficiency at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai.
“We can combine economic growth with a good environment, and a safe environment. I think that’s our key message from Finland.”
Australian child pleads with PM to be rescued from Syrian camp
Around 40 Australians, including 10 women, 30 children, remain detained inside the Roj camp in north-east Syria
Updated 01 June 2023
LONDON: An Australian child stuck in a Syrian detention camp has written to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, pleading to be brought home, the Guardian reported on Thursday.
The child, who is less than 10 years old, told Albanese “please don’t leave me behind,” after the government rescued a second group of Australians from the camps more than seven months ago and promised to repatriate others left behind.
Around 40 Australians, including 10 women and 30 children, remain detained inside the Roj camp in north-east Syria, the Guardian reported. They are the wives, widows and children of dead or jailed Daesh fighters. Most have been in the camp for more than four years.
Some of the children born in the camp have never left. Many of the women claim their husbands coerced or manipulated them into traveling to Syria.
“I am one of the children left behind in Roj camp and I have spent half my life in a tent closed off by gates like a prison. “I have never been to school, laid in grass or climbed a tree,” the child said to the prime minister.
“When my friends left, I thought I was going to go to Australia too. I had so much hope and was looking forward to Australia saving me from this place. But it’s been seven months, we are still here.”
A UN expert panel has repeatedly expressed “deep concerns about the deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions of detention in Roj camp”. It has warned that boys separated from their families are at risk of being “forcibly disappeared, and subject to sale, exploitation, abuse (and) torture.”
In the message, the child said: “I am very sick. I took lots of needles. There is no hospital here to help us. I am always scared that the soldiers will walk into our tent and take me or my sisters or my mum.”
The child pleaded not to be left in Syria. “I just want to feel safe, live in a house and be a normal kid. Please, can you save me like you save the other Australian children that you took back. Please don’t leave me behind.”
Australia has carried out two repatriation operations from Syrian camps.
In 2019, eight orphaned children including a pregnant teenager were returned to New South Wales. In October, four women and 13 children were also rescued from Roj.
That rescue mission was politically controversial, with Australian opposition leader Peter Dutton saying he had “grave concerns” that those repatriated posed a “significant risk … that can’t be mitigated”.
Mat Tinkler, chief executive of Save the Children Australia, said that the Roj camp was “one of the worst places in the world to be a child.”
“They have untreated shrapnel wounds from conflict, medical conditions that could be treated but they can’t access sufficient care, severe dental decay meaning they are malnourished, and psycho-social illnesses: these kids are in a really fragile state, and we hold grave concerns that some may not survive,” Tinkler said.
“These are innocent kids, these are Australian citizens, and they have an entitlement to return to their home country. If we don’t make the decision to bring them home to safety, inevitably a child will be injured or killed as a result.”