DHAKA: Bangladeshi women pilgrims have lauded Hajj operations in Saudi Arabia, describing their experience so far as smooth while thanking authorities in the Kingdom for treating them with care and kindness.
Bangladesh is sending about 125,000 individuals for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, more than double the quota it received last year, when it was 60,000. This year, over 35,000 pilgrims will be women.
Hajj flights from the country commenced on May 21 and with Hajj expected to begin on June 26, over 57,000 Bangladeshis have already arrived in Saudi Arabia.
As they continued their spiritual journey, Bangladeshi women told Arab News they were delighted by the thoughtful attention they received in the Kingdom.
For Eva Haque, such treatment was extended to her as soon as she landed in Saudi Arabia, when she found herself unwell.
“I was hospitalized for one day. As a Hajj pilgrim, I received very special care from all the doctors and nurses at the hospital. They took care of me as though I were one of their closest family members,” the 43-year-old told Arab News.
Following treatment, she felt fit to start following Hajj rituals. Haque, who is from Dhaka, believes the pilgrimage will be good for her well-being.
“My health has not been good for the last two years, so I intended to perform the holy Hajj this year as I believe it will bring mental peace and heal my pains,” Haque said.
“I will never forget the hospitality and cordial behaviors of the hospital staff. They made me feel like I was home. Words are not enough to convey my gratitude.”
That Saudi hospitality was also felt by Umm Kulsum, a 64-year-old pilgrim from the Sylhet district in northeast Bangladesh.
When she became lost trying to reach her hotel last week, Kulsum said a Hajj volunteer in Madinah helped her find her way back.
“Seeing me in a puzzled situation suddenly, a volunteer came to help me. I was able to mention my hotel name and the volunteer assisted me to reach the hotel gate easily,” she told Arab News. “I pray from the core of my heart for the well-being of that young man.
“I am amazed to see the management here. It’s a herculean task, but people here with the management are so well-trained that everything is running very smoothly.”
In moments when women need specific care and attention, Shehnaz Begum said she saw Saudi authorities addressing the issues subtly, while also keeping the women’s comfort in mind.
As she is traveling with her youngest son this time around, Begum said she might consider going solo for her future pilgrimage.
“Maybe, in my next pilgrimage, I will travel alone as the Kingdom now allows single women to perform Hajj without their male guardians,” she said.
Like many pilgrims who had waited years to perform Hajj, Begum found herself unable to hold back tears when she arrived in Madinah.
“By the grace of the Almighty, I have landed in the Holy Land after waiting so many years,” Begum told Arab News. “Thousands of devotees from different countries of the world are walking side by side, offering prayers together. But everything remains peaceful here. It’s like a celestial moment on Earth.
“I must thank the Kingdom authorities for managing this great task in a smooth way.”
Ukrainian troops repel Russian attacks on eastern front — officials
Ukraine’s General Staff reported air strikes on four localities in the area and said 15 towns and villages had come under artillery and mortar attack
Updated 11 sec ago
Ukrainian troops held off determined attacks on Wednesday by Russian forces trying to regain lost positions on the eastern front, military officials said, while analysts suggested Kyiv’s forces were also making progress in the southern theater.
The Ukrainian military launched its counteroffensive in June intending to recoup ground in the east and in the past two weeks announced the capture of two key villages, Andriivka and Klishchiivka, near the shattered city of Bakhmut.
Its forces are also trying to advance southward to the Sea of Azov to sever a land bridge established by Russia between the annexed Crimean Peninsula and positions it holds in the east.
Ilia Yevlash, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern group of forces, told national television: “We continue to repel intense enemy attacks near Klishchiivka and Andriivka.
“The enemy is still storming these positions with the hope of recapturing lost positions, but without success.”
There had been 544 Russian shelling incidents in the past 24 hours in the area, seven combat clashes and four air attacks, Yevlash said.
President Volodymyr Zelensky referred briefly in a post on the Telegram messaging app to “our advance in the Donetsk sector” in the east, but provided no details.
Ukraine’s General Staff reported air strikes on four localities in the area and said 15 towns and villages had come under artillery and mortar attack.
In its account of military activity, Russia’s Defense Ministry also reported heavy fighting in the area, saying its forces had beaten back 10 attacks by Ukrainian troops near Klishchiivka and further south, near the village of Nevelske.
Ukrainian officials have spoken of gains in the drive southward, with General Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, commander of forces in the south, telling CNN last week of a “breakthrough,” while noting that progress was slower than had been hoped.
Zelensky and other officials have said the counteroffensive will take time and have dismissed Western critics who said the advance has been too slow and beset by strategic errors.
Tarnavskyi referred to the village of Verbove, which other officials have said Ukrainian forces are poised to seize. Ukrainian forces are targeting several other villages as they progress through Zaporizhzhia region toward the major town of Tokmak.
“There have been three or four days of painstaking hard work by our assault group and commanders conducting tactical tasks in this area which have led to very serious problems for the Russians,” military analyst Roman Svitan told NV Radio.
“I would not speak of a breakthrough until we reach Tokmak.”
Reconstruction aid lagging for 2022 Pakistan floods: UN chief
“Delays are undermining people’s efforts to rebuild their lives,” the UN chief said during a special session dedicated to the catastrophe
Updated 28 September 2023
UNITED NATIONS, US: A year after deadly floods inundated a third of Pakistan, the broken promises to rebuild the country present “a litmus test for climate justice,” the head of the United Nations said Wednesday.
“Billions were pledged” by rich nations in the aftermath of the disaster, said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “but the vast majority was in loans. And Pakistan is still waiting for much of the funding.”
“Delays are undermining people’s efforts to rebuild their lives,” the UN chief said during a special session dedicated to the catastrophe, adding that the Asian nation was “a double victim — of climate chaos and of our outdated and unjust global financial system.”
Some $9 billion was pledged to help reconstruct Pakistan in January, though it is still reeling from the effects of the heavy monsoon rains, which displaced eight million people and killed some 1,700.
More than eight million residents in areas hit by the floods lack access to clean water, Guterres said, while noting that Pakistan is responsible for less than one percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that likely fueled last year’s “climate chaos.”
“The countries that contributed most to global heating must contribute most to righting the harm it has done.”
Guterres also called for the creation of a “loss and damage” fund for developing countries — many of which, like Pakistan, are at outsized risk of climate change despite contributing relatively little in the way of carbon emissions.
Such a fund was promised at COP27 late last year, though it has yet to take shape. It is on the agenda for this year’s COP28, to be hosted by the United Arab Emirates.
Calling again for the world to move away from fossil fuels, Guterres warned that climate change is no longer “knocking on everyone’s door.”
“Today, it is beating that door down, from Libya to the Horn of Africa, China, Canada and beyond.”
Philippines to remove any barrier China installs in the disputed South China Sea
The barrier has prevented a swarm of Filipino boats from entering the rich fishing area
Updated 27 September 2023
MANILA: Filipino forces would dismantle any floating barrier that China’s coast guard may install in the disputed South China Sea, a Philippine admiral said Wednesday after Manila infuriated China by removing one such obstruction in a contested shoal.
Philippine officials strongly condemned the installation last week of a 300-meter-long (980-foot) barrier by Chinese coast guard vessels at the entrance to the lagoon of Scarborough Shoal as a violation of international law and the country’s sovereignty.
The barrier has prevented a swarm of Filipino boats from entering the rich fishing area, they said. The shoal lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone just west of the main Luzon Island, but has been occupied by China since 2012 as part of a push by Beijing to lay claim to virtually the entire South China Sea.
On Monday, the Philippine coast guard said it has complied with an order by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to launch a covert operation to remove the rope and net barrier held up by small buoys in the mouth of the shoal. China reacted on Tuesday by asking the Philippines “not to make provocations or seek trouble.”
“Huayang Island is China’s inherent territory,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday, referring to the Chinese name for Scarborough.
“What the Philippines (has) done is nothing but a farce that entertains itself. China will continue to safeguard territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests of Huangyan Island.”
Philippine Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, who heads the military’s Western Command in charge of overseeing the South China Sea, told journalists he was concerned that the Chinese coast guard may also install a similar floating barrier at the entrance to Second Thomas Shoal, which is occupied by a small Philippine navy contingent on a long-grounded warship but has been surrounded by Chinese coast guard ships.
“My concern is, if they also put a barrier in Ayungin … we also have to remove the barrier,” Carlos told journalists, using the Philippine name for Second Thomas Shoal. “Whatever they install, we will remove.”
Under Marcos, who took office last year, the Philippines has intensified efforts to fight China’s increasingly aggressive actions in one of the world’s most hotly contested waters. The Philippine coast guard now often invites journalists to join its territorial patrols in an effort, it says, to expose China’s bullying in the busy waterway.
Aside from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are also involved in the long-simmering territorial conflicts in the South China Sea. The areas have long been regarded as a potential Asian flashpoint and a delicate fault line in the US-China rivalry in the region.
Washington lays no claim to the sea passageway, a major global trade route, but US Navy ships and fighter jets have carried out patrols for decades to challenge China’s expansive claims and promote freedom of navigation and overflight. China has told the US to stop meddling in what it says is a purely Asian dispute.
Carlos said the Philippine military would comply with Marcos’s order to ensure that the marooned and crumbling navy ship, which Filipino forces use as a territorial outpost at Second Thomas Shoal “should remain there, strong enough to be able to fly the Philippine flag.”
China has asked the Philippines to tow away the ship from the shoal. But Marcos and the Philippine military have insisted the offshore region lies in their country’s exclusive economic zone.
Chinese coast guard ships have repeatedly tried to block Philippine resupply vessels, resulting in near-collisions.
Washington has said it’s obligated to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if Filipino forces, ships and aircraft come under attack, including in the South China Sea.
Albanian PM: ‘I wish our bond with Gulf states will become stronger and stronger and stronger’
Edi Rama tells Adhwan Al-Ahmari, host of Asharq News talk-show Al-Madar, achievements of Gulf countries are a “source of inspiration”
Explains why ties with Iran remain broken, sounds confident about EU accession, says being in the Western camp is a priority for Albania
Updated 27 September 2023
LONDON: During a wide-ranging interview with Asharq News, Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania, has heaped praise on Gulf Cooperation Council countries, opened up about tensions with Iran, and expressed optimism about its path to joining the EU.
Speaking to Adhwan Al-Ahmari, host of the Asharq News talk-show Al-Madar, he expressed his admiration for the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the other GCC member states, describing their accomplishments as “a source of inspiration.”
“As for Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries, we have very strong relations with the UAE, with Saudi and with Kuwait, and I wish they will become stronger,” said Rama, a painter, writer, former university lecturer, publicist and ex-basketball player.
“I see with admiration what is happening there, both in UAE and in Saudi (Arabia), and I praise a lot the leaders there that are showing vision and are lifting up these countries, and they are making them, in many ways, a source of inspiration.
“We can disagree on certain things but this is not a reason to not admire what they are doing, and we have a lot to learn from them. And I wish our bond will become stronger and stronger and stronger.”
By contrast, one Middle East country with which relations remain strained is Iran. Albania, a member of NATO, accused Iran of carrying out a cyberattack on July 15 last year, which temporarily shut down numerous Albanian government digital services and websites. Days later, a second cyberattack hit one of Albania’s border systems.
Tirana responded by cutting diplomatic ties with Tehran and expelling Iranian embassy staff. At the time, Saudi Arabia condemned the cyberattack.
“We had to act on Iran because Iran was acting brutally against us,” said Rama. “They targeted Albania with a very vicious cyberattack.
“Why? Because we have given shelter to a few thousand Iranians, not to make Albania a political platform against the regime — although we have nothing to like about that regime — not to give them a platform against the regime, but to give them a shelter because their lives were in danger.”
Rama was referring to members of the anti-regime People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, also known as Mojahedin-e-Khalq or MEK, who moved their headquarters from Iraq to Albania in 2016.
“We are a country that always honors human beings and human life,” said Rama. “Iran didn’t understand that well, or at all, and attacked us, so we had to sever diplomatic ties and kick them out.”
Rama appeared confident during the interview that his nation will soon be admitted to the 27-member EU bloc.
“I’m always tragically optimistic — I’m not pessimistic — but I must say that to me, the EU is the most fascinating thing in the world history of politics that humankind has created,” he told Al-Ahmari.
“A vision for peace and for security and an action to bring together countries with a long history of fighting each other, and to put common interests for the future above the separate ways of looking at history.
“And on the other hand, the EU has created an incredible experience of state functioning, of institutional functioning, of true separation of powers, of rights, of people being respected and of equality before the law.”
Albania applied for EU membership in April 2009 and was granted candidate status in June 2014. The EU held its first intergovernmental conference with Albania in July 2022.
Since then, the EU-Albania Stabilization and Association Council has praised Tirana’s progress on the rule of law, in particular its comprehensive justice reforms and battles against corruption and organized crime. It has, however, called for more tangible progress on freedom of expression and the consolidation of property rights.
“There are no unrealistic demands from the EU, I must say,” said Rama. “We have to do our homework and it’s very important to make sure that everyone understands that our homework is not something we have to do because of them, or for them. Our homework is something we have to do for our children, for the Albania of tomorrow.”
Besides Albania, there are seven other recognized candidates for EU membership, including Turkiye, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Albania’s road to EU membership has not been smooth, however, leading to suggestions of deliberate stalling or sabotage.
According to a 2011 census, 56.7 percent of Albania’s population adheres to Islam, making it the largest religion in the country. The remaining population either follows Christianity (16.99 percent) or are irreligious.
There has been speculation in recent months that a decision on Albania’s EU membership has been delayed because of misgivings over its Muslim-majority population on a continent that is historically Christian. Rama rejected this as a conspiracy theory.
“We might have a lot of Muslims in our country, God bless them,” he said. “And we have a lot of Christians, too. And we also have a lot of atheists.
“But the important thing, and what we treasure most, is that before all, they are all Albanians, they are all brothers and sisters, and we never had religious problems and we never had conflicts, and we always lived our life together. And it’s very common in our country that Christians celebrate Ramadan and Muslims celebrate Christmas. So I would say that we are really in a very good place and there is no space for (conspiracy) theories.
“Secondly, I know that in Europe there is not always, let’s say, an easy way to accept Muslims. And there is sometimes, unfortunately and disgracefully, one voice here, one voice there, one party here, one party there, that says it shamelessly.
“But overall, the EU is not a place where Muslims are seen as a danger or seen like a problem, and they are being quite welcomed and integrated.”
Bulgaria’s veto over North Macedonia joining the EU stalled Albania’s progress because the bloc is treating both countries as part of a single membership package. However, the path was finally cleared in July last year.
Rama said any suggestion that Bulgaria, an EU member since 2007, plans to put further obstructions in the way of Albania’s accession would be news to him.
“No, this is not something true, I believe,” he said. “Or at least if this is true, it is the first time I’m hearing about it — and I would be very, very surprised. But with Bulgaria we have a very friendly relationship and we have never had a problem.
“Yes, we had some debates in the past but not about Albania, about North Macedonia, which is our beloved neighbor. But no, Bulgaria would never do such a thing to please Russia and veto the integration of Albania in the EU.”
Similarly, Rama said he sees little chance that EU member Greece will stand in the way of Albania’s EU membership, regardless of past disputes.
“On the contrary, Greece has been good to us, has been supportive to our integration process,” said Rama. “And there are hundreds of thousands of Albanians that live in Greece and they are integrated, they work there. And there are a lot of Greeks coming here for tourism. So we are brotherly countries.”
While Albania has set its sights on closer ties with Europe, other powerful players, including China, Turkiye and Russia, have made inroads into the Western Balkans region.
“I would not put the three of them in the same basket because they are three different actors with different reasons and also different will in approaching the Balkans or other areas,” said Rama.
A communist state from 1946 to 1991, Albania split from the Soviet Union in the late 1950s following Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Joseph Stalin, which Albania’s leader at the time, Enver Hoxha, viewed as a departure from the ideological principles of communism.
Rama said strategic relations with Russia did not serve the interests of the Balkans back then and they do not serve them today, as demonstrated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Russia has (revealed) itself fully by attacking Ukraine brutally in the third decade of the 21st century at the gates of the EU, by investing in a war, killing people, and (revealing) itself in a way that is really shocking. It’s a completely imperialistic vision of the world,” said Rama.
“What Russia wants in the region, it’s easy to understand, and we are not interested in having any type of substantial relationship with Russia because of our history, for good or for bad. Of course it is not the same Russia (now). But it’s not very different and so we’re not interested. They also have understood, in time, that Albania is not a field to plant their seeds of division with Europe, with the West.”
Instead, Albania has prioritized ties with Western countries, he said.
“We are totally dedicated to the Euro-Atlantic community, because history has taught us some very important lessons and it is the best place to be for reasons of peace and security,” he added.
Russia accuses Ukraine’s Western allies of helping attack its Black Sea Fleet headquarters
“There is no doubt that the attack had been planned in advance using Western intelligence means,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said
Moscow has repeatedly claimed that the US and its NATO allies have effectively become involved in the conflict
Updated 27 September 2023
KYIV: Russia on Wednesday accused Ukraine’s Western allies of helping plan and conduct last week’s missile strike on the Black Sea Fleet’s headquarters on the annexed Crimean Peninsula.
“There is no doubt that the attack had been planned in advance using Western intelligence means, NATO satellite assets and reconnaissance planes and was implemented upon the advice of American and British security agencies and in close coordination with them,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a briefing.
Moscow has repeatedly claimed that the US and its NATO allies have effectively become involved in the conflict by supplying weapons to Ukraine and providing it with intelligence information and helping plan attacks on Russian facilities.
Unconfirmed news reports said Storm Shadow missiles provided to Ukraine by the UK and France were used in the attack on the headquarters.
The UK Ministry of Defense didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on Zakharova’s remarks or reports that Storm Shadow missiles were used in the strike.
The accusation came the day after video appeared to show the fleet’s commander, Adm. Viktor Sokolov, was still alive despite Ukraine’s claims — without providing supporting evidence — that he was among 34 officers killed in Friday’s strike on the port city of Sevastopol.
The Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, has been a frequent target since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Crimea has served as the key hub supporting the invasion and has increasingly come under fire by Ukraine.
Ukraine said the strike that put a large hole in the main building of the headquarters had wounded 105 people, though those claims couldn’t independently be verified.
Russia initially said one serviceman was killed but quickly retracted that statement and said the person was missing.
Moscow has provided no updates on any casualties.
The Kremlin didn’t comment Tuesday on Sokolov’s status but posted video showing him among other senior officers attending a video conference with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Sokolov didn’t speak in the clip.
When asked about Sokolov on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted that he took part in Tuesday’s video call with Shoigu but refrained from further comment.
Ukraine’s Special Operation Forces posted a statement Tuesday saying its sources claimed that Sokolov was among the dead, many of whom hadn’t yet been identified. It said it was trying to verify the claim after the video surfaced.
Sokolov was shown speaking to journalists about the Black Fleet’s operations in a video posted Wednesday on a news channel linked to the Russian Defense Ministry. It wasn’t clear when the video was recorded. The video didn’t contain any mention of the Ukrainian attack on fleet headquarters.
Zakharova’s statements follow comments made Tuesday by Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, who said the arrival of American-made Abrams tanks in Ukraine and a US promise to supply an unspecified number of long-range ATACMS missiles would push NATO closer to a direct conflict with Russia.