Crisis-hit Sri Lanka extends school closures

Crisis-hit Sri Lanka extends school closures
Long queues of drivers have been sighted across Colombo at gas stations, as some wait for more than 48 hours to fill their vehicles. (AFP)
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Updated 05 July 2022

Crisis-hit Sri Lanka extends school closures

Crisis-hit Sri Lanka extends school closures
  • Island’s dwindling stock of petrol, diesel expected to run out in days
  • Follows 2-week shutdown in Colombo and urban areas

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.

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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.”


Sri Lanka introduces bill to clip presidential powers

Sri Lanka introduces bill to clip presidential powers
Updated 56 min 45 sec ago

Sri Lanka introduces bill to clip presidential powers

Sri Lanka introduces bill to clip presidential powers
  • If passed into law, the amendments would reinstate democratic reforms made in 2015

COLOMBO: A Sri Lankan government minister on Wednesday submitted to Parliament a constitutional amendment bill that would clip the powers of the president, a key demand of protesters calling for political reforms and solutions to the country’s worst economic crisis.
Justice Minister Wijayadasa Rajapakshe presented the bill, which would transfer some presidential powers — including those to appoint independent election commission members, police and public service officials, and bribery and corruption investigators — into the hands of a constitutional council comprising lawmakers and respected non-political persons. The council would then recommend candidates for these appointments that the president could choose from.
Under the proposed amendments, the president also would only be able to appoint a chief justice, other senior judges, an attorney general and a central bank governor on the recommendation of the council. The prime minister would recommend appointments to the Cabinet and the president would not be allowed to hold any ministry positions except defense.
The bill, which will undergo debate, must be approved by two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s 225-member Parliament to become law.
If passed into law, the amendments would reinstate democratic reforms made in 2015. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was ousted as president by angry protests last month, reversed those reforms and concentrated power in himself after being elected to office in 2019.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who succeeded Rajapaksa, has promised to limit the powers of the presidency and strengthen Parliament in response to the protesters’ demands.
Sri Lankans have staged massive street protests for the past four months demanding democratic reforms and solutions to the country’s economic collapse.
Protesters blame the Rajapaksa family’s alleged mismanagement and corruption for the economic crisis that has led to serious shortages of essentials like medicines, food and fuel.
The island nation is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout program.
The protests have largely dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty that ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to Singapore last month after angry protesters stormed his official residence and occupied several key state buildings. His older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister in May and three other close family members resigned from their Cabinet positions before him.


Dozens missing after Greece rescues 29 migrants from capsized boat

Dozens missing after Greece rescues 29 migrants from capsized boat
Updated 10 August 2022

Dozens missing after Greece rescues 29 migrants from capsized boat

Dozens missing after Greece rescues 29 migrants from capsized boat

ATHENS: Dozens of migrants are reported missing from a sunken boat after Greece’s coast guard rescued 29 in the Aegean Sea on Wednesday.
The rescued migrants said their boat had set out from Antalya, Turkey, heading toward Italy with 60 to 80 people aboard, according to a coast guard spokesperson.
It had capsized and sunk off the island of Karpathos in the southern Aegean, spokesperson Nikos Kokkalas told state television. The search and rescue operation had begun in the early morning hours amid strong winds, he added.
The rescued migrants were Afghans, Iranians and Iraqis, another coast guard official said on condition of anonymity.
Greece was at the front line of a European migration crisis in 2015 and 2016, when a million refugees fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan arrived in the country, mainly via Turkey.
The number of migrant arrivals has fallen sharply since then. But Greek authorities say they have recently seen a sharp increase in attempted entries through the country’s islands and land border with Turkey.


Philippines cancels Russia helicopter deal over US sanctions

Philippines cancels Russia helicopter deal over US sanctions
Updated 10 August 2022

Philippines cancels Russia helicopter deal over US sanctions

Philippines cancels Russia helicopter deal over US sanctions
  • Manila, a longtime Washington ally, agreed in November to pay $228 million for the Mi-17 helicopters

MANILA: The Philippines has scrapped an order for 16 Russian military helicopters, an official confirmed Wednesday, following reports former president Rodrigo Duterte decided to cancel it due to US sanctions on Moscow.
Manila — a longtime Washington ally — agreed in November to pay $228 million (12.7 billion pesos) for the Mi-17 helicopters, as it seeks to modernize its military hardware.
The United States and its allies imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow in the wake of its assault on Ukraine in February.
They are aimed at cutting off Russia from the global financial system and choking off funds available to Moscow to finance the war.
The Philippine defense department was “formalizing the termination” of the contract, spokesman Arsenio Andolong said Wednesday.
Without mentioning US sanctions on Moscow, Andolong said “changes in priorities necessitated by global political developments resulted in the cancelation of the project by the previous administration.”
Delfin Lorenzana, who served as defense secretary under Duterte, said in March that the Philippines had paid a deposit for the transport helicopters before war erupted in Ukraine and the deal was “on track.”
But last week Lorenzana, who now heads a different government agency, told local media that Duterte himself decided to cancel the deal in the waning days of his administration over the sanctions threat.
“I don’t know if we can still get back the money since we were the ones who terminated the contract,” Lorenzana told reporters.
Russian embassy officials in Manila could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Philippine ambassador to Washington Jose Romualdez recently told AFP the decision to cancel was triggered by “the Ukrainian war.”
Romualdez said Manila was also wary of falling foul of a US law passed in 2017 that sanctions anyone doing business with Russia’s intelligence or defense sectors.
The United States was offering “alternative helicopters to meet our needs,” he added.
Manila began a modest military modernization program in 2012. Until recently, its equipment featured Vietnam War-era helicopters and World War II naval vessels used by the United States.
After President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took power on June 30, the new government reviewed the Russian deal, arriving at the same decision as Duterte.


Police kill knife-wielding man at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport

Police kill knife-wielding man at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport
Updated 10 August 2022

Police kill knife-wielding man at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport

Police kill knife-wielding man at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport
  • Initially the man left while yelling curses but he soon returned and brought out a knife

BOBIGNY, Fra.: Police officers shot and killed a man who brandished a knife at the Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris on Wednesday, police and airport sources said.
“Officers neutralized a threatening individual in possession of a knife at the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport,” the Paris police department said on its Twitter account.
An airport source said the incident occurred at the busy Terminal 2F at around 8:20 am (0620 GMT), when “a homeless man started bothering security agents and border police were called in to remove him.”
Initially the man left while yelling curses but he soon returned and brought out a knife, when one of the officers fired his weapon.
An AFP photographer who witnessed the scene said “a large person of color brandished something that looked like a knife at the police.”
“He was ordered to stop but kept advancing toward them, and an officer fired a single shot.”
The man was quickly put on a stretcher and evacuated, the photographer said.
Security forces have been on high alert for terrorist attacks since a wave of jihadist killings that have killed more than 250 people since 2015, often by so-called “lone wolves” who often target police.


Suspect named in ‘serial’ killings of four Albuquerque Muslims

Suspect named in ‘serial’ killings of four Albuquerque Muslims
Updated 10 August 2022

Suspect named in ‘serial’ killings of four Albuquerque Muslims

Suspect named in ‘serial’ killings of four Albuquerque Muslims
  • Muhammad Syed was arrested on Monday after a traffic stop more than 160 kilometers away from his home in Albuquerque

CHICAGO: A 51-year-old man, Mohammed Syed, was named Tuesday as the primary suspect, and has been charged, with the shooting and killing of two of four Muslim men in Albuquerque, New Mexico, over the past 10 months.

Police said they are continuing to investigate whether Syed, himself Muslim, is connected to the other two victims in the apparent serial murder case, although no motive was released.

The possible connection between the murders surfaced on Aug. 1 after the body of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, was discovered. Police determined evidence in his murder was similar to the fatal shooting of two other Muslims, Aftab Hussein, 41, on July 26, 2022, and Mohammad Amir Ahmadi, 62, on Nov. 7, 2021.

“All were ambushed with no warning, fired on and killed. All of the killings appeared to be of a similar nature,” Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said during a special press conference Tuesday afternoon.

“We tracked down the vehicle believed to be involved in a recent murder of a Muslim man in Albuquerque. The driver was detained and he is our primary suspect for the murders.”

A fourth Muslim man, Naeem Hussain, 25, was found dead hours after attending an Islamic service held for Muhammad Afzaal Hussain and Aftab Hussein. Police said they are investigating if Naeem Hussain’s death is tied to the shooting of the other three.

Muhammad Syed was taken into custody on Aug. 8, 2022, in connection with the killings of four Muslim men in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Albuquerque Police Department via AP)

Syed, an immigrant from Afghanistan, has had several misdemeanor arrests in New Mexico, police said, although they did not provide details of those crimes. He has lived in Albuquerque at least five years, police said.

Syed is charged with the murder of Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain.

“We are working with the District Attorney’s office on potential charges of murder of two other Muslim men, Naeem Hussain and Mohammad Amir Ahmadi,” Medina said, praising support that he received from the US Attorney, FBI, ATF or Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and even President Joe Biden.

“We knew Albuquerque would step up and someone would find and identify that vehicle for us which is exactly what happened. It is the city of Albuquerque and its residents and in particular the members of the Muslim community who stepped forward, had faith in the department and trusted us, and gave us the information needed so that we could follow through and make the arrest that we made yesterday (Monday).”

“To the Muslim community, a big thank you,” Medina said, noting he has worked with them during the past year to create an “ambassador program” to allow the city to “hear their voice.”

Syed was arrested after police released a photo of a vehicle on Sunday, Aug. 7, which they said had been identified as being used by the then unknown suspect. Medina said tips came from “members of the Muslim community” who recognized the suspect’s car, a Volkswagen Jetta. During the search of the car and Syed’s home, police said they discovered other evidence that allegedly tied him to the two murders.

“The tip was as a result of reaching out to the community. It came directly from the Muslim community and we explored it. It pointed us in the direction of the Syed family,” Medina said.

Police caught Syed while he was driving his car in Santa Rosa in southeastern Albuquerque when he was pulled over and arrested late Monday. A firearm was found in the vehicle. Police said they believe Syed knows at least one of the victims personally.

Medina emphasized they are continuing to investigate the killings of the two other Muslim victims to determine whether the suspect was involved.

Medina said he was asked repeatedly if this was a “hate crime” or a “serial” murder. He said he resisted jumping to conclusions, explaining: “We don’t have (any) indication that either of these labels or topics are appropriate.”

Rumors have been circulating in the community that the killings may have involved a family quarrel over an engagement, although the police declined to provide any details.

“Right now, we are charging only one person,” a police official stressed, adding the door has not been closed on possible accomplices who helped Syed, who was described as “the mostly likely suspect in these cases.”