Pakistanis come out to make vote count amid mobile shutdown, disarray at polling stations

Special Pakistanis come out to make vote count amid mobile shutdown, disarray at polling stations
A woman casts her vote at a polling station during a general election, in Quetta, Pakistan, on February 8, 2024. (REUTERS)
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Updated 09 February 2024
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Pakistanis come out to make vote count amid mobile shutdown, disarray at polling stations

Pakistanis come out to make vote count amid mobile shutdown, disarray at polling stations
  • Voters complained they had trouble finding their polling stations because of communication problems
  • Many lamented disarray and mismanagement at polling booths, could not vote despite waiting for hours

Islamabad/Lahore/Peshawar/Quetta: Pakistanis on Thursday turned out to vote in an election they hope will lead to political stability and improve the nation’s economic woes, despite allegations of rigging, a rise in militant attacks and the government shutting down mobile phone networks throughout the country.

Political parties are vying for a share of the 266 seats that are up for grabs in the Pakistani National Assembly, or the lower house of parliament, with an additional 70 seats reserved for women and minorities. The main contenders are the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of three-time former premier Nawaz Sharif, and the Bilawal Bhutto Zardari-led Pakistan People’s Party.

Out of a population of 241 million, 128 million Pakistanis, or all those above 18 years of age, are eligible to vote. Polling booths opened at 8 a.m. and voting will continue until 5 p.m. (0300 GMT to 1200 GMT), but this time may be extended in exceptional individual circumstances.

Whoever wins Thursday’s election will inherit a deeply divided country with an economy in tatters, decades-high inflation, a rupee in freefall and a balance of payments crisis. An immediate challenge for the new government will be to renegotiate a new bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The last one, an ongoing $3 billion program, barely saved Pakistan from a debt default last June.

In the southwestern city of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, Muhammad Asif, 23, cast his vote in the city’s NA-263 constituency, with what he described as “high spirits.”

“I am feeling very well [after casting vote] and we hope the Noon League’s [Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz] candidate, Zarak Khan Mandokhail, a young candidate, we expect him to come [to power] and God willing, take us to betterment,” the first-time voter said.

“The country has suffered in the last five years, but we are optimistic that the situation will get better after general polls.”

“I am expecting from the upcoming government to be fair between the poor and the rich people ... and I want the government to decrease inflation,” Shandana Munir, a resident of the northwestern city of Peshawar told Arab News, after voting in the NA-32 constituency.

“They should focus on the poor people, facilitate them in hospitals, in the education system.”

Farhan Shareef, another voter in Peshawar’s NA-32 constituency, said the people of Pakistan wanted peace and prosperity, no matter who came to power.

“My wish is that whoever comes should do better for the country,” Shareef told Arab News. “We want peace, we want less inflation, that people be happy, and that’s what we want. These days everyone is worried.”

“COMMUNICATION PROBLEMS“

Across the country, voters complained that they had trouble finding their polling stations because of communication problems as Pakistan temporarily suspended mobile phone services due to security concerns.

“People are trying to find their polling stations to vote, someone is going here, someone is going there,” Muhammad Shafiq said as he waved a PTI flag in the NA-46 constituency in the capital city of Islamabad.

“If service was open we could find out more easily where the polling station is. But I hope that God will help us.”

Jamaat-e-Islami party supporter Sadia Mirza said the “turnout was great” at the NA-46 constituency, but the network shutdown had created problems.

“We are facing problems because we are not able to communicate with anyone, which is an issue for everyone... people are not happy with that,” Mirza added.

“I am voting for the first time but what they have done, this shutting the mobile service, it’s really bad,” said Abdur Rehman, a first-time young voter, who said he supported the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party.

“Because of this I could not call my friends, or contact PML-N camp people to ask them where the camp is. I had a transport problem in getting to the polling station so all of that was made difficult [by the mobile phone shutdown].”

“God willing it is so far peaceful and let’s see what happens as they have shut Internet and phone services,” a voter who was wearing a Pakistan Peoples Party hat said at a polling station in Peshawar.

“DISARRAY“

There were also reports of disarray and mismanagement at polling booths in parts of the South Asian country.

After polling opened on Thursday morning, widespread delays were reported in the opening of polling booths, with some stations such as in NA-223 in Badin in the southern Sindh province and NA-236 in Faisalabad in Punjab province, still not open well past noon.

Local media also widely reported delays in voting, including that voting was halted at two polling stations in NA-97 in Faisalabad due to allegations of rigging.

“There’s a lot of confusion since presiding officers are not putting the stamp on ballot papers,” a young woman voter in NA-128 in Lahore’s Model Town, who described herself as a PTI supporter, told Arab News. “Not many people know that this can invalidate their vote.”

An elderly voter in the same constituency said he had left his home early in the morning but had not managed to cast his ballot by the early afternoon.

“We live in Bhatta Chowk near the Defense Housing Society, but they have shifted our vote to Model Town,” he said, adding that he could not find his name in the voter list at the polling station specified by the election commission.

Mehwish Khan, a resident of Peshawar city in the NA-32 constituency, also lamented mismanagement.

“People do not know about the place where they’re going to cast votes and there have been last minute changes in the voting list as well, so a lot of people don’t know where they have to go [to vote],” Khan said.

 

 

“I think the Internet and mobile connections shouldn’t have been down, it would have been easier for people.”

In Karachi’s NA-248 constituency, Shagufta Aftab said there was “no system.”

“I have been worrying here [polling station at Altaf Hussain Hali School] for the last one and a half hours … The [caretaker] government made lofty claims, but there is no system in place here,” she told Arab News.

“I have even seen elderly and people with disabilities being upset over here.”

- With additional reporting by Rehmat Mehsud in Peshawar and Naimat Khan, Buraq Shabbir and Khurshid Ahmed in Karachi


Ex-PM Khan’s wife alleges violation of privacy, dignity under house arrest in Islamabad

Ex-PM Khan’s wife alleges violation of privacy, dignity under house arrest in Islamabad
Updated 16 April 2024
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Ex-PM Khan’s wife alleges violation of privacy, dignity under house arrest in Islamabad

Ex-PM Khan’s wife alleges violation of privacy, dignity under house arrest in Islamabad
  • Bushra Bibi petitions court that room she has been confined to is bugged, hidden cameras installed in room and bathroom
  • Tells court she is being subjected to “mental and physical torture which is becoming a serious threat to her health and life”

ISLAMABAD: Former prime minister Imran Khan’s wife Bushra Bibi has filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court this week alleging that authorities were violating her fundamental rights during her incarceration at the Islamabad home of her husband where she has been jailed since being convicted in January for graft. 

Bushra has been living under house arrest at her husband’s sprawling Bani Gala mansion, declared a sub-jail, in Islamabad since Jan. 31 when both were sentenced to 14 years in prison in a case that relates to accusations they undervalued gifts from a state repository and gained profits from selling them while Khan was prime minister from 2018-22. Khan is jailed at Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail. 

In February, Khan and his wife were also sentenced to seven years on charges they violated the country’s marriage law when they wed in 2018 — the fourth sentence so far for Khan and the second for his wife.

In her petition to the court filed on Monday, Bushar, a deeply religious woman widely believed to be Khan’s spiritual guide, alleged she was being poisoned through contaminated food and subjected to “mental and physical torture which is becoming a serious threat to her health and life.”

“She experienced severe gut pain and a burning sensation in her throat and mouth. She suspects that she has been given some sort of acid in her meal,” the petition read.

“That the sub-jail is predominantly male heavy, with only one female associate at her disposal … It is clearly a form of mental harassment. She has voiced this concern, but it hasn’t been given much attention.”

She also alleged that her room and bathroom had been bugged and multiple hidden cameras installed. 

“It is a blatant violation of her privacy, dignity and honor,” the plea said. 

The petition said Bushra was only given ten minutes for meetings with family members and lawyers, with five jail staff supervising at all times. 

The petitioner requested the court to allow Bushra’s medical check-up and treatment from Shaukat Khanam Memorial Hospital, or any other private medical specialist or lab of her own choice. She also urged the court to order authorities to ensure the protection of her fundamental rights.

Khan was first jailed after being handed a three-year prison sentence in August 2023 by the Election Commission for not declaring assets earned from selling gifts worth more than 140 million rupees ($501,000) in state possession and received during his premiership. In January, Khan and Bushra were handed 14-year jail terms following a separate investigation by the country’s top anti-graft body into the same charges involving state gifts. 

An anti-graft court in Islamabad also handed Khan a 10-year jail term in January for revealing state secrets, a week before national elections on Feb. 8. The ruling on his marriage to Bushra and a seven-year sentence each for both also came ahead of the polls.

Khan has also been indicted under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism law in connection with violence against the military that erupted following his brief arrest related to the Al-Qadir case on May 9. A section of Pakistan’s 1997 anti-terrorism act prescribes the death penalty as maximum punishment. Khan has denied the charges under the anti-terrorism law, saying he was in detention when the violence took place. 

Khan’s convictions mean he is banned from holding public office and ruled the 71-year-old out of general elections earlier this year. Arguably Pakistan’s most popular politician, Khan says all cases against him are motivated to keep him out of politics. 


Pakistan says discussing new three-year, multi-billion-dollar loan program with IMF

Pakistan says discussing new three-year, multi-billion-dollar loan program with IMF
Updated 16 April 2024
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Pakistan says discussing new three-year, multi-billion-dollar loan program with IMF

Pakistan says discussing new three-year, multi-billion-dollar loan program with IMF
  • Finance minister Aurangzeb is in Washington for spring meetings organized by International Monetary Fund, World Bank
  • Meets Pakistan Business Council, Climate Vulnerable Forum chief, Pak-US businessmen and tech entrepreneurs

KARACHI: Pakistan has initiated discussions with the IMF over a new multi-billion dollar loan agreement to support its economic reform program, its new finance minister told AFP on Monday, during a visit to Washington for spring meetings organized by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

An ongoing nine-month, $3 billion loan program with the IMF designed to tackle a balance-of-payments crisis which brought Pakistan to the brink of default last summer will expire this month. 

With the final $1.1 billion tranche of that deal likely to be approved later this month, Pakistan has begun negotiations for a new multi-year IMF loan program worth “billions” of dollars, Finance Minister Muhammad Aurangzeb said during an interview in Washington.

“The market confidence, the market sentiment is in much, much better shape this fiscal year,” said Aurangzeb, a former banker who took up his post last month.

“It’s really for that purpose that, during the course of this week, we have initiated the discussion with the Fund to get into a larger and an extended program,” he added.

An IMF spokesperson told AFP that the Fund is “currently focused on the completion of the current Stand-by Agreement program,” referring to the ongoing nine-month program scheduled for completion shortly.

“The new government has expressed interest in a new program, and Fund staff stands ready to engage in initial discussions on a successor program,” the spokesperson added.

During his visit to Washington, Aurangzeb will also attend the spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank, which kick off in earnest Tuesday, with two clear objectives: to help countries combat climate change, and to assist the world’s most indebted nations.

The meetings, which bring central bankers together with finance and development ministers, academics, and representatives from the private sector and civil society to discuss the state of the global economy, will kick off with the IMF’s publication of its updated World Economic Outlook.

“US VS. CHINA”

Pakistan held elections in February this year which were marred by allegations of rigging, with opposition leader Imran Khan jailed and barred from running, and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party subject to a crackdown.

The shaky coalition that emerged, led by Shehbaz Sharif, is now tasked with engineering an economic turnaround by implementing a raft of unpopular belt-tightening measures.

“I do think that we will at least be requesting for a three year program,” Aurangzeb said. “Because that’s what we need, as I see it, to help execute the structural reform agenda.”

“By the time we get to the second or third week of May, I do think we’ll start getting into the contours of that discussion,” he added.

Pakistan has close economic ties to both the United States and China, which has put it in a tricky position as the two countries have embarked upon a costly trade war.

“From our perspective it has to be an and-and discussion,” Aurangzeb said when asked how the Sharif government plans to conduct its trading relationships with the world’s two largest economies.

“[The] US is our largest trading partner, and it has always supported us, always helped us in terms of the investments,” he said. “So that is always going to be a very, very critical relationship for Pakistan.”

“On the other side, a lot of investment, especially in infrastructure, came through CPEC,” he said, referring to the roughly 1,860-mile-long China-Pakistan Economic Corridor designed to give China access to the Arabian Sea.

Aurangzeb said there was a “very good opportunity” for Pakistan to play a similar role in the trade war as countries like Vietnam, which has been able to dramatically boost its exports to the US following the imposition of tariffs on some Chinese goods.

“We have already a few examples of that already working,” he said. “But what we need to do is to really scale it up.”

As part of the structural reform program agreed to by the previous government, Pakistan is in the middle of a privatization drive to sell off its poorly-performing state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

The first SOE on the list is Pakistan International Airlines, the country’s flag carrier.

“We will get to know in the next month or so with respect to interest from prospective bidders,” Aurangzeb said.

“Our desire is to go through with that privatization and take it through the finishing line by the end of June,” he added.

If the PIA privatization goes well for the government, other companies could soon follow.

“We’re creating an entire pipeline,” he said, adding: “Over the next couple of years we want to really accelerate that.”

“MEETINGS WITH BUSINESS COMMUNITY”

In a meeting with members of the Pakistan Business Council (USPBC) on the sidelines of the IMF and World Bank spring meetings, the finance minister appreciated the important role of the US corporate sector in strengthening Pak-US economic ties. 

“Despite the challenges, the government was committed to implementing difficult but necessary reforms to ensure long-term economic growth and macro-economic stability,” Aurangzeb said. 

He highlighted key initiatives, including the Investment Policy 2023, aimed at attracting more foreign investments to enhance investor confidence and streamline project implementation, particularly in priority sectors such as agriculture, IT, energy, minerals and mining. 

“The new policy would simplify business regulations, provide foreign investors freedom to repatriate their profits abroad in their own currency and receive special protection,” the finance minister informed USPBC.

“He also apprised them of the government’s efforts to digitalize the economy and expand the tax base to ensure sustainable economic growth.”

Separately, in a meeting with the secretary general of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) Mohamed Nasheed, who is a former president of the Maldives, Aurangzeb highlighted Pakistan’s vulnerability to climate-induced disasters, drawing attention to 2022 floods that affected 33 million people and caused losses of approximately $15.2 billion. 

“He emphasized the need for developed economies to scale up their efforts to provide additional financing, technology transfer, and capacity-building assistance to developing countries, including Pakistan,” a statement from the finance ministry said. 

Aurangzeb also highlighted Pakistan’s pro-active role in mobilizing global support for a Loss and Damage Fund at COP 28. 

Aurangzeb also met influential Pakistani American businessmen and tech entrepreneurs and lauded the important role of the Pakistani diaspora in the socio-economic development of Pakistan, calling them “bridge-builders in deepening trade and investment ties between Pakistan and the United States.”

The Minister highlighted various initiatives taken by the government to improve business-friendly environment and attract foreign investment in Pakistan and specifically highlighted the potential of Pakistan in the IT sector as a host to a community of over a million freelancers, ranked third globally in the freelance market and annually producing over 75,000 IT graduates from 250+ recognized universities. 

The finance minister also attended a seminar on “Opportunities and Challenges for the Pakistani Economy through 2024 and Beyond” hosted by the Atlantic Council. 

In his address, he highlighted the prevailing economic conditions in Pakistan and measures being taken by the government to put the economy on a higher growth trajectory by facilitating exports, increasing remittances, expanding the tax-base, improving ease of doing business, digitalizing economy and attracting FDI into the country. 

“Positive trends in the industrial activity, better agriculture outlook, and improvements in the Composite Leading Indicators (CLI) of Pakistan’s major export markets were all signs that the economy was on a recovery path,” Aurangzeb said, adding that the implementation of reforms under the 9th IMF Stand-By Agreement (SBA) had provided Pakistan with much-needed macro-economic stability. 

He said Pakistan was prioritizing investment in key areas of agriculture, IT, mining and energy to enhance productivity and ensure sustainable growth and invited international stakeholders to become partners in Pakistan’s journey toward economic prosperity and development.

– With inputs from AFP


Pakistani premier says Saudi FM’s visit heralds ‘new era’ of strategic, commercial partnership 

Pakistani premier says Saudi FM’s visit heralds ‘new era’ of strategic, commercial partnership 
Updated 16 April 2024
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Pakistani premier says Saudi FM’s visit heralds ‘new era’ of strategic, commercial partnership 

Pakistani premier says Saudi FM’s visit heralds ‘new era’ of strategic, commercial partnership 
  • Saudi foreign minister’s visit comes a little over a week after Saudi crown prince met Pakistani PM in Makkah
  • Crown prince has reaffirmed commitment to expedite investment worth $5 billion that was previously discussed

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said on Tuesday the ongoing visit of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan to Islamabad would herald a new era of strategic and commercial partnerships between the two long-time allies. 

The Saudi foreign minister arrived in Islamabad on Monday on a two-day visit aimed at enhancing bilateral economic cooperation and pushing forward previously agreed investment deals. His trip comes a little over a week after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met Sharif in Makkah and reaffirmed the Kingdom’s commitment to expedite investments worth $5 billion that were previously discussed.

“The visit is the beginning of a new era of strategic and commercial partnership between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia,” Sharif was quoted as saying in a statement from his office after he met Prince Faisal. “Pakistan wants to further promote cooperation in the fields of trade and investment between the two countries.”

Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif (center) meets Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan who is leading a high-level delegation in Islamabad, Pakistan on April 16, 2024. (PM Office)

The PM said Pakistan was taking steps to promote foreign investment and make partnerships “mutually beneficial” for allies, adding that Islamabad was grateful to the Saudi leadership for increasing investment.

Informing the Saudi delegation about the wide potential of investment in Pakistan, Sharif briefed them about the Special Investment Facilitation Council and measures the body was taking to promote investment. The body was set up last year to oversee all foreign funding.

Sharif also invited the Saudi crown prince to Islamabad.

“The people of Pakistan are looking forward to the visit of His Highness the Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman to Pakistan,” the PM’s office said. 

Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif (right) greets Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Islamabad, Pakistan on April 16, 2024. (PM Office)

“INVESTMENT PUSH

In a statement shared with media on Monday, the Pakistan information ministry said the Saudi delegation would consult with Pakistani officials “on the next stages of investment and implementation issues.”

Saudi Arabia’s planned investment in the Reko Diq gold and copper mining project would also be discussed during the visit, the ministry said, a day after Pakistani state media reported Saudi Arabia was likely to invest $1 billion in the mine project in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, one of the world’s largest underdeveloped copper-gold areas.

Riyadh was also interested in investing in agriculture, trade, energy, minerals, IT, transport and other sectors in Pakistan, the statement said.

“As a result of this visit, Pakistan’s export capacity will increase, joint ventures will be launched and new opportunities will be paved.”

The Pakistani foreign office has said the Saudi foreign minister is expected to hold meetings with the Pakistani PM, president and members of the apex committee of Pakistan’s Special Investment Facilitation Council.

The Pakistani and Saudi foreign ministers will also address a joint press conference after a bilateral meeting scheduled for 4pm. 

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enjoy strong trade, defense and cultural ties. The Kingdom is home to over 2.7 million Pakistani expatriates and the top source of remittances to the cash-strapped South Asian country.

Cash-strapped Pakistan desperately needs to shore up its foreign reserves and signal to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that it can continue to meet requirements for foreign financing that has been a key demand in previous bailout packages. Pakistan’s finance minister, Muhammad Aurangzeb, is currently in Washington to participate in spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and discuss a new bailout program. The last loan deal expires this month.

Saudi Arabia has often come to cash-strapped Pakistan’s aid in the past, regularly providing it oil on deferred payments and offering direct financial support to help stabilize its economy and shore up its forex reserves.

Last year, however, Saudi Arabia’s finance minister said the Kingdom was changing the way it provides assistance to allies, shifting from previously giving direct grants and deposits unconditionally and moving toward mutually beneficial investment deals backed by internal economic reforms. 


China says ready to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation after deadly Pakistan suicide attack

China says ready to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation after deadly Pakistan suicide attack
Updated 16 April 2024
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China says ready to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation after deadly Pakistan suicide attack

China says ready to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation after deadly Pakistan suicide attack
  • On Mar. 26, suicide bomber hit a convoy of Chinese engineers working on Dasu hydropower project 
  • Five Chinese nationals and their Pakistani driver were killed in the attack in northwestern Pakistan 

ISLAMABAD: Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Jiang Zaidong has said Beijing was ready to enhance counter-terrorism and security cooperation between the two nations, Radio Pakistan reported on Tuesday, two weeks after the killing of five Chinese nationals in a suicide attack in Pakistan’s northwest.

On Mar. 26, a suicide bomber rammed a vehicle into a convoy of Chinese engineers working on a hydropower project at Dasu in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, killing five Chinese nationals and their Pakistani driver.

The assault was the third major attack in little over a week on China’s interests in the South Asian nation, where Beijing has invested more than $65 billion in infrastructure projects as part of its wider Belt and Road initiative. 

“China stands ready to work hand-in-hand with Pakistan to defeat the evil attempt at disrupting our cooperation,” Jiang was quoted as saying in a report published by state-run Radio Pakistan. 

“We are also ready to work with Pakistan to safeguard development with security and to promote security with development … We should take the promotion of international security as a support, and further enhance China-Pakistan counter-terrorism and security cooperation.”

Jiang said all countries needed to “work together in addressing various security challenges for win-win results.”

He expressed hope that Pakistan would speed up the investigation of the Mar. 26 attack and bring the perpetrators to justice. 

“We should take economic security as foundation, and continue to promote the building of an upgraded version of CPEC,” Jiang said. “For this purpose, China stands ready to further strengthen counter-terrorism and security cooperation with Pakistan, to maintain high pressure and rigorous operation, so as to decisively strike the terrorism.”

The Mar. 26 bombing followed a Mar. 20 attack on a strategic port used by China in the southwestern province of Balochistan, where Beijing has poured billions of dollars into infrastructure projects, and a Mar. 25 assault on a naval air base, also in the southwest. Both attacks were claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), the most prominent of several separatist groups in Balochistan.

Dasu, the site of a major dam, has been attacked in the past, with a bus blast in 2021 killing 13 people, nine Chinese among them, although no group claimed responsibility, like the Mar. 26 bombing.
 
Pakistan is home to twin insurgencies, one mounted by religiously-motivated militants and the other by ethnic separatists who seek secession, blaming the government’s inequitable division of natural resources in southwestern Balochistan province.

Chinese interests are under attack primarily by ethnic militants seeking to push Beijing out of mineral-rich Balochistan, but that area is far from the site of the Mar. 26 bombing. 


‘It’s magnificent, it’s beautiful’: Visitors flock to northern Pakistan for ‘Blossom Festival’

‘It’s magnificent, it’s beautiful’: Visitors flock to northern Pakistan for ‘Blossom Festival’
Updated 16 April 2024
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‘It’s magnificent, it’s beautiful’: Visitors flock to northern Pakistan for ‘Blossom Festival’

‘It’s magnificent, it’s beautiful’: Visitors flock to northern Pakistan for ‘Blossom Festival’
  • Festival organized for the first time to promote local and international tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan region
  • Area is home to thousands of apricot, cherry, apple and peach trees providing perfect backdrop to spring 

KHAPLU: Hundreds of people have gathered in Khaplu valley in Pakistan’s picturesque Gilgit-Baltistan region in the last few days for a ‘Blossom Festival’ organized for the first time to promote local and international tourism.

Home to five of the world’s 14 mountain summits of at least 5,000 metres, the northern Gilgit-Baltistan region is Pakistan’s only land link to China and at the heart of the $65 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure development program. Due to its geographic location and climate patterns, thousands of apricot, cherry, apple and peach trees are found in GB, with their beautiful colors offering the perfect backdrop to spring.

“We are holding this [Blossom] festival to celebrate the upcoming spring,” Rizwan Hussain, an assistant executive engineer at the GB Communication and Works department and a member of the event's organizing committee, told Arab News.

“The blossom festival is mainly in the Baltistan region and starts with cherry blossom as well as apricot blossom ... it’s mainly about celebrating the flowering of apricot and [other trees],” he added. “Mainly in Ghanche [district in GB], we are now celebrating apricot blossoms because cherry blossoms are very rare here."

Locals attend Blossom Festival in Khaplu Valley in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region on April 14, 2024. (AN photo)

The festival also featured sword dances and other cultural and musical performances, stalls of handicrafts and polo matches.

“Different festivals, different cultural shows have been organized as part of the celebration and they have their own significance,” Hussain added.

Musicians bang drums during Blossom Festival in Khaplu Valley in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region on April 14, 2024. (AN photo)

Iftikhar Ali, an assistant commissioner in Ghanche, told Arab News the festival “signified the arrival of spring.”

“This event is celebrated annually on a local scale. But this year the district administration with the support of associated departments has decided to organize the festival at a mega-level,” he added.

Visitors, both local and foreign, marveled at the beautiful colors and cultural shows organized as part of the festival. 

“April is the best time to be here,” said Tshering Digi, a Taiwanese tour guide who was visiting GB for the first time.

“We can see all the different fruits like apricots, the cherry blossom season. That’s why we are here … We see so many flowers blossoming and it’s really beautiful,” she told Arab News as she stood by an apricot tree planted in the garden of Khaplu Palace, an old fort and palace located in Khaplu, a city in Gilgit-Baltistan.

“We can see [blossoms] in our country also, but we found here that everywhere you go, every valley, riverside or village, all are blossoming with flowers, it’s magnificent, it’s beautiful.

“And the view is fantastic, you can see the magnificent Karakorum Mountain Range … you can see different flowers and colours that make everybody very happy. So I would recommend my Taiwanese people to visit here [Pakistan], especially to the northern part, to the Gilgit-Baltistan area.”

Foreign tourists attend Blossom Festival in Khaplu Valley in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region on April 14, 2024. (AN photo)

A local tourist who identified himself only by his first name Faizan said he was visiting with his parents, wife and children.

“We have come for the first time to the Skardu and Khaplu area,” Faizan told Arab News. “We are especially here to see spring blossoms ... we have seen cherry and apricot blossoms and seen really great colors in this area.”

Visitor Sidra was also in GB for the first time:

“Our experience was very good. We saw cherry blossoms … And definitely, we will recommend our friends and relatives to visit this region and observe its culture, enjoy its weather, especially in this season, and enjoy these spring blossoms.”