16 killed in Pakistan chemical factory fire

KARACHI, Pakistan (Reuters) – At least 16 people were killed in a factory fire on Friday in Pakistan’s largest city and financial hub, Karachi, raising questions about the industrial safety in a country not new to such accidents.

The fire broke out at a multi-story chemical factory in eastern part of the city, and most windows of the factory were blocked, police and fire officials said.

Many factory workers died after being trapped on the second floor in the fire, which broke out on the ground floor of the three-story factory.

“At least 16 people have died in the fire,” Saqib Ismail Memon, deputy inspector general of Karachi’s eastern part, told Reuters.

Private television channels’ footage showed thick grey smoke billowing out from the top floors of the factory.

“The factory had only one entry point, which was also being used as exit, and the roof exit was blocked, which badly hampered rescue efforts,” Mubeen Ahmed, chief fire officer of the fire department, told a Geo, a private television channel.

Over 260 workers were burnt alive when a multi-story garment factory was set on fire in September 2012 in what became the deadliest industrial blaze in Pakistan’s history.

Blazes and accidents are common in South Asia’s factories, many of which operate illegally and without proper fire safety measures.

(Reporting by Raza Hassan; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Trucks rolling across Afghanistan border as trade resumes

QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) – Commercial traffic across Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan at the Spin Boldak/Chaman crossing picked up on Thursday, traders said, as the shock of the Taliban’s lightning seizure of power began to ease and confidence returned.

Despite the Ashura religious holiday, truckloads of agricultural produce from Kandahar province were driven across the border, a sign that trade was beginning to return to normal.

“Today, many trucks loaded with fresh fruit (from Afghanistan), including famous ‘Sunder-Khani’ grapes, were cleared at Customs House Chaman,” a senior Custom Officer told Reuters via WhatsApp.

He said movement was strong in both directions, with long-bodied trucks loaded with export and Afghan transit goods also going from Pakistan to Afghanistan’s Spin Boldak and the nearby provincial capital of Kandahar.

Along with the Tokham crossing near Peshawar, Chaman is one of the main trade routes between Afghanistan and Pakistan, providing a clear picture of economic activity between them.

The Pakistani official, who could not be quoted by name, said trade had picked up over recent days after fighting ended in Kandahar last week and the fall of Kabul on Sunday gave the Taliban complete control of the country.

“After the Taliban took control over Kabul, trade was increased from both sides and empty trucks were also coming back to Chaman without any difficulty,” he said.

The Vice President of Pak-Afghan joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Imran Khan Kakar, told Reuters that Pakistani drivers had previously faced problems returning from Afghanistan.

He said the police and other armed people had been allowing empty trucks to proceed only after taking payments ranging from 10,000-20,000 Pakistani rupees ($61-$122).

“Since the return of the Taliban, there have been no such problems,” Kakar added.

($1 = 163.6000 Pakistani rupees)

(Reporting by Gul Yousafzai; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Catherine Evans)

U.S. finds Pakistan useful only to clean up mess in Afghanistan -Khan

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan accused the United States of seeing his country as useful only in the context of the “mess” it is leaving behind in Afghanistan after 20 years of fighting.

Washington has been pressing Pakistan to use its influence over the Taliban to broker an elusive peace deal as negotiations between the insurgents and Afghan government have stalled, and violence in Afghanistan has escalated sharply.

“Pakistan is just considered only to be useful in the context of somehow settling this mess which has been left behind after 20 years of trying to find a military solution when there was not one,” Khan told foreign journalists at his home in Islamabad.

The United States will pull out its military by Aug. 31, 20 years after toppling the Taliban government in 2001. But, as the United States leaves, the Taliban today controls more territory than at any point since then.

Kabul and several Western governments say Pakistan’s support for the insurgent group allowed it to weather the war.

The charge of supporting the Taliban despite being a U.S. ally has long been a sore point between Washington and Islamabad. Pakistan denies supporting the Taliban.

Khan said Islamabad was not taking sides in Afghanistan.

“I think that the Americans have decided that India is their strategic partner now, and I think that’s why there’s a different way of treating Pakistan now,” Khan said.

Pakistan and India are archrivals and have fought three wars. The two share frosty ties and currently have minimal diplomatic relations.

A political settlement in Afghanistan was looking difficult under current conditions, Khan added.

He said he tried to persuade Taliban leaders when they were visiting Pakistan to reach a settlement.

“The condition is that as long as Ashraf Ghani is there, we (Taliban) are not going to talk to the Afghan government,” Khan said, quoting the Taliban leaders as telling him.

Peace talks between the Taliban, who view Ghani and his government as U.S. puppets, and a team of Kabul-nominated Afghan negotiators started last September but have made no substantive progress.

Representatives of a number of countries, including the United States, are currently in the Qatari capital of Doha talking to both sides in a last-ditch push for a ceasefire.

U.S. forces have continued to use air strikes to support Afghan forces against Taliban advances, but it remains unclear if such support will continue after Aug. 31.

Khan said Pakistan had “made it very clear” that it does not want any American military bases in Pakistan after U.S. forces exit Afghanistan.

(Reporting by Gibran Peshimam; editing by John Stonestreet and Jonathan Oatis)

Officials, Taliban strike ceasefire deal in western Afghanistan, says provincial governor

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi

KABUL (Reuters) -Government officials in a western Afghan province said on Thursday they had negotiated “an indefinite ceasefire” with the Taliban to prevent further attacks on the capital of the province.

The move came after fighters from the Islamist group secured complete control over all the districts in Badghis province, reflecting wider gains by the Taliban over territory and infrastructure in the weeks since U.S. President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops by Sept. 11.

“Ten tribal elders had taken the responsibility of ceasefire, so they first talked to the Taliban, and then talked to the local government and both sides reached a ceasefire,” the provincial governor, Husamuddin Shams, told Reuters.

The Taliban reached an agreement with the tribal elders to move to the outskirts of Qala-e-Naw, the capital of Badghis, Shams said.

A spokesman for the Taliban denied they had agreed to a ceasefire but said they had left the city to avoid civilian casualties.

“Qala-e-Naw is the only city in Afghanistan where the Taliban announced a ceasefire,” said Abdul Aziz Bek, the head of the provincial council in Badghis.

Afghan officials in the capital, Kabul, were not available to comment.

There were conflicting reports on Thursday about who was in control of a major trading town on the border with Pakistan. The Spin Boldak-Chaman border post is the second most important crossing on the Pakistan border and a major source of revenue for the Western-backed government in Kabul.

A senior Afghan government official said on Thursday security forces had retaken control of the town hours after the Taliban seized it on Wednesday.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid dismissed that and said his forces still held it.

“It is merely propaganda and a baseless claim by the Kabul administration,” he told Reuters.

The defense ministry spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

Pakistan, worried about a spillover of fighting, has shut its side of the Spin Boldak-Chaman border, which lies on the main commercial artery between the second Afghan city of Kandahar and Pakistani ports.

CLASHES HAVE INTENSIFIED

Clashes between the Taliban and government forces have intensified as U.S.-led international forces have been withdrawing. The Taliban have captured several districts and border crossings in the north and west.

The government has accused the Taliban of destroying hundreds of government buildings in 29 of the country’s 34 provinces. The Taliban deny accusations of extensive destruction by their fighters.

A senior Afghan government official in Kabul, Nader Nadery, said the security forces were working to push back Taliban fighters and regain control over 190 districts.

The deteriorating security situation has raised fears of a new Afghan refugee crisis. President Ashraf Ghani met regional leaders in Uzbekistan on Thursday and Pakistan said it would host a conference of senior Afghan leaders in an effort to find solutions.

Diplomatic efforts have focused on pushing the rival Afghan sides to make progress towards a ceasefire.

Pakistan was for years accused of backing the Taliban with the aim of blocking the influence of its old rival India in Afghanistan. But Pakistan denied that and now says it wants to encourage negotiations to ensure a peaceful outcome.

Pakistani information minister Fawad Chaudhry said on Twitter that Pakistan was arranging more talks and that important leaders including former President Hamid Karzai, who remains an influential figure, had been invited.

Chaudhry said Taliban leaders would not be attending as Pakistan was holding separate talks with them.

Karzai and some top Afghan political leaders are expected to fly to Qatar this weekend for talks with members of the Taliban who have an office in the capital, Doha.

The Islamist militants ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until they were ousted in 2001, weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. They have fought since to expel foreign forces and topple the government in Kabul.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul, Writing by Gibran Peshimam, Rupam Jain, Editing by Robert Birsel)

Afghan Taliban seize border crossing with Pakistan in major advance

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi

KABUL (Reuters) – Taliban fighters in Afghanistan seized control of a major border crossing with Pakistan on Wednesday, achieving a key strategic objective during a rapid advance across the country as U.S. forces pull out.

A Pakistani official said Taliban insurgents had taken down the Afghan government flag from atop the Friendship Gate at the border crossing between the Pakistani town of Chaman and the Afghan town of Wesh.

The crossing, south of Afghanistan’s main southern city Kandahar, is the landlocked country’s second busiest entry point and main commercial artery between its sprawling southwest region and Pakistani sea ports. Afghan government data indicate that the route is used by 900 trucks a day.

The Taliban takeover forced Pakistan to seal parts of its border with Afghanistan after heavy fighting between insurgent and Afghan government forces around Wesh.

Afghan officials said government forces had pushed back the Taliban and were in control of the Spin Boldak border district in Kandahar province. But civilians and Pakistani officials said the Taliban controlled the Wesh border crossing.

“Wesh, which has great importance in Afghan trade with Pakistan and other countries, has been captured by the Taliban,” said a Pakistani security official deployed at the border area. A Taliban spokesman confirmed Wesh’s capture by the insurgents.

Officials in Chaman said the Taliban had suspended all travel through the gate.

The Taliban have in recent days seized other major border crossings, in Herat, Farah and Kunduz provinces in the north and west. Control of border posts allows the Taliban to collect revenue, said Shafiqullah Attai, chairman of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment in the capital Kabul.

“Income has started to go to the Taliban,” Attai told Reuters, though he could not estimate how much they were earning.

The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist from 1996 until their ouster in 2001 by a U.S. invasion following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, have been fighting since to topple the Western-backed government in Kabul.

Emboldened by the departure of foreign forces by a September target, with peace talks stalled, they are making a fresh push to surround cities and capture territory.

PRESIDENT VOWS TO BREAK TALIBAN BACKBONE

President Ashraf Ghani travelled to the northern province of Balkh on Tuesday to assess security after the Taliban pushed government forces out of several districts there.

Ghani, 72, met civilians and assured them that “the Taliban’s backbone will be broken” and government forces would soon retake all of the areas lost to the militants, the Tolo News network reported.

In the western province of Herat, a security official said Taliban fighters had fired several mortars at the Salma Dam, a vital hydroelectric and irrigation project.

Officials at the National Water Affairs Regulation Authority appealed to the Taliban to treat the dam as a “national treasure (that) is the common property of all and should not be damaged in military conflict”.

The Indian-financed dam generates over 40 megawatts of power and helps irrigate over 75,000 hectares of land in the region.

Vice President Amrullah Saleh said the Taliban were forcing members of a small ethnic minority to either convert to Islam or leave their homes in the northern province of Badakhshan.

“These are minority Kerghiz who lived there for centuries…They are now (across the border) in Tajikistan awaiting their fate,” he said on Twitter.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan said it was increasingly concerned about reports of rights abuses as the fighting spreads. “The reports of killing, ill-treatment, persecution and discrimination are widespread and disturbing, creating fear and insecurity,” the mission said in a statement.

Educated Afghans – especially women and girls who were barred from school and most work under Taliban rule – have voiced alarm at their rapid advance, as have members of ethnic and sectarian minorities persecuted under the Taliban’s severe interpretation of Sunni Islam.

Taliban spokespeople reject accusations that they abuse rights, and say women will not be mistreated if the Taliban return to power.

“The best way to end harm to civilians is for peace talks to be reinvigorated in order for a negotiated settlement to be reached,” the U.N. mission said.

The Taliban made a commitment to negotiate with their Afghan rivals as part of an agreement under which the United States offered to withdraw its forces. But little progress has been made towards a ceasefire in several rounds of talks in Qatar.

Senior politicians from Kabul were preparing to leave for Qatar for more talks this month as Western diplomats urged the rival sides to work towards a power-sharing agreement.

(Additional reporting by Gul Yosuefzai in Quetta, Gibran Peshimam in Islamabad; Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Robert Birsel and Mark Heinrich)

Taliban warns nearby nations against hosting U.S. military after withdrawal

KABUL/PESHAWAR (Reuters) – The Afghan Taliban on Wednesday warned nearby nations against allowing the United States to use their territory for operations in the country after they withdraw from Afghanistan.

As foreign forces withdraw troops by President Joe Biden’s announced deadline of Sept. 11, experts and diplomats have speculated that Washington’s future role in the region could include bases in nearby countries, especially Pakistan.

“If such a step is taken, then the responsibility for all the misfortunes and difficulties lies upon those who commit such mistakes,” the insurgent group said in a statement, without specifying a country.

U.S. officials have privately said that they are exploring potential basing options in countries near Afghanistan, like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, but have so far not come to an agreement with any of them.

In recent days, there has been a spate of talks between senior Pakistani and U.S. officials, including a meeting between Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Pakistani counterpart.

Pakistan shares a border with Afghanistan that runs along heavily contested areas of south and eastern Afghanistan where the Taliban have a large presence.

A spokesman for Pakistan’s foreign office said on Monday that any speculation over U.S. use of bases in Pakistan “was baseless and irresponsible”.

The U.S. embassy in Islamabad did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Fighting between the Taliban and Afghan forces has escalated sharply in Afghanistan since Washington announced its decision, a slower timeframe than envisaged in a deal former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration signed with the insurgents that said troops would withdraw by May subject to security guarantees.

Many analysts have warned that the country could descend into civil war as efforts to secure a peace deal through talks in Doha have largely stalled.

Two Taliban sources said several members of the group’s political office are currently in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad for talks over the ongoing negotiations, including whether to take part in a conference due to take place in Turkey that they had previously boycotted.

Pakistan has been criticized in the past for ties to the Taliban, but in recent years has been praised by Washington for helping to bring the group to the negotiating table.

(Reporting by Afghanistan and Pakistan bureaux; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Pakistan sees record COVID-19 deaths as officials consider stricter lockdowns

By Umar Farooq

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan recorded more than two hundred COVID-19 deaths in a day for the first time since the start of the pandemic on Tuesday, as the government said it was considering stricter lockdowns.

A total of 201 new deaths were recorded on Tuesday, bringing the country’s overall death toll from the virus to 17,530, according to the National Command Operation Center (NCOC), which oversees the government’s pandemic response. The previous highest daily death count was 157 recorded on April 23.

A total of 5,292 new cases were reported on Tuesday, bringing the total cases to 810,231 in the country of more than 220 million people.

The national positivity ratio, the number of infections among those tested, was 10.8%. The death rate, the number of infections resulting in fatalaties, hit the highest point since the start of the pandemic, reaching around 2.2%.

Only around two million vaccinations have been administered in Pakistan, and the country has struggled to procure supplies to cover enough of its population.

Officials have said health care facilities are at risk of being overwhelmed. Pakistan has very limited health resources, with ventilators and oxygen in short supply.

Around 6,286 COVID-19 patients were being treated in 631 hospitals on Tuesday, and more than 70% of ventilators and oxygenated beds were occupied in hospitals in many major cities, according to the NCOC.

On Monday, Pakistani army troops were deployed in 16 major cities with high positivity rates, to assist civilian law enforcement in enforcing measures meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus, including the wearing of masks in public and the closing of non-essential businesses after 6pm.

Stricter measures were taken in a handful of cities with the highest positivity rates this week, and on Tuesday Health Minister Faisal Sultan warned such steps could be extended to other areas if the public did not heed advice on social distancing, wearing masks, and other precautionary measures, especially during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan with the upcoming Eid holiday next month.

“Please keep your Ramadan and Eid simple this year, so we can fight this disease and get through this difficult situation,” Sultan said.

The southern province of Sindh announced intercity transportation will be halted starting April 30, and remain in place through May 17, just after the Eid holiday.

(Reporting by Umar Farooq; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Roshan the camel brings books to homeschooling children in rural Pakistan

(Reuters) – Plodding his way through the desert in remote southwest Pakistan, Roshan the camel carries priceless cargo: books for children who can no longer go to school because of coronavirus lockdowns.

The school children, who live in remote villages where the streets are too narrow for vehicles, put on their best clothes and rush out to meet Roshan. They crowd around the animal shouting “the camel is here!”

Pakistan’s schools first closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, and have only opened sporadically since then, with around 50 million school-age children and university students told to continue their education from home. It’s been especially difficult in places like Balochistan, where in many villages internet access is almost non-existent.

Raheema Jalal, a high school principal who founded the Camel Library project with her sister, a federal minister, says she started the library last August because she wanted children around her remote hometown to continue learning despite schools being closed.

The project is a collaboration with the Female Education Trust and Alif Laila Book Bus Society, two NGOs that have been running children’s library projects in the country for 36 years.

Roshan carries the books to four different villages in the district of Kech, visiting each village three times a week and staying for about two hours each time. Children borrow books and return them the next time Roshan visits.

“I like picture books, because when I look at the pictures and the photographs, I can understand the story better,” nine-year-old Ambareen Imran told Reuters.

Jalal hopes to continue and expand the project to cover more villages, but needs funding: around $118 a month is needed now each month for Roshan.

Murad Ali, Roshan’s owner, says he was taken aback when he was first contacted about the project, but thought camels were the sensible mode of transport. He enjoys the trips and seeing the happy children and still earns as much as he used to when he transported firewood.

Balochistan makes up nearly half of Pakistan by area, but the sparsely populated province is also the country’s most impoverished.

(Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Umar Farooq; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Kashmir villagers hopeful but wary after India and Pakistan agree to ceasefire

By Fayaz Bukhari and Abu Arqam Naqash

SRINAGAR, India/MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) – Villagers living on both sides of the Line of Control dividing the Himalayan region of Kashmir welcomed an agreement between long-time foes India and Pakistan to stop shelling from each side, but some were skeptical it would hold.

The nuclear-armed neighbors signed a ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control (LoC) in 2003, but that has frayed in recent years and there have been mounting casualties.

In a joint statement on Thursday, India and Pakistan said they would observe a ceasefire.

“It has given a new lease of life to us. We were living in constant fear of being hit,” said Laldin Khatana, the headman of Churnada village on the Indian side of the border.

Khatana said that two people had been killed last year by shelling in the hillside village, home to 1,600 people, many of whom gathered at a mausoleum to celebrate the new agreement.

“It was affecting our farming and grazing,” he told Reuters via telephone. “And children were scared to go to school.”

Kashmir has long been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan, which claim the region in full but rule only in part. Tensions reignited after New Delhi withdrew the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir state in August 2019 and split it into two federally administered territories.

Since 2018, Indian data shows that 70 civilians and 72 soldiers have been killed in cross-border firing.

On the Pakistani side, nearly 300 civilians have been killed since 2014, when ceasefire violations began rising, according to a Pakistan military source.

“The fresh announcement is welcome and can help us live a life free of fear, only if implemented in letter and in spirit,” said Danish Shaikh, a resident of Ban Chattar village in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir’s Neelum valley.

“Who knows how seriously and how long they will stick to the fresh understanding?”

The picturesque Neelum valley saw hundreds of hotels and guesthouses sprout up when the ceasefire held, with tourists visiting year round.

But with skirmishes and firing increasing, tourism went into a tailspin and guesthouse operators like Khawaja Owais were forced to dig into their savings.

“This is good news indeed. Not just for us who are running businesses in the valley but for everyone who has faced death and destruction during heavy shelling,” Owais said of the agreement.

“Let’s hope and pray it remains intact.”

(Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Tajikistan quake shakes north India, Pakistan, no major damage

By Neha Arora

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – A strong earthquake struck Tajikistan on Friday and the tremors were felt as far away as north India and Pakistan, witnesses said. Many residents ran out of their homes, but no major damage was reported.

The U.S Geological Survey put the quake’s magnitude at 5.9 and centered 35 km (55 miles) west of Murghob in Tajikistan, central Asia.

The Tajikistan Emergency Situations Ministry said the epicenter was 420 km (260 miles) east of the Tajik capital Dushanbe near the border with China.

The seismic service of the country’s Academy of Sciences told Russia’s RIA Novosti that the quake’s intensity was measured at 6.1. The news agency said there were no casualties or damage, citing the Committee on Emergency Situations.

Monitoring agencies in the region pegged the quake as being a bit more severe. India’s National Center for Seismology said its magnitude was 6.3, while the National Seismic Monitoring Center in Pakistan measured it at 6.4.

Tremors were felt in Dushanbe but the epicenter was in a sparsely populated area.

Cracks were reported in some homes in northern Kashmir, the Indian Meteorological Department said. A witness also reported a wall collapse near the northern Indian city of Amritsar, but there were no reports of casualties.

A resident in Indian Kashmir’s Baramulla district said it felt like a strong wind had lashed his house. “My whole house shook and cracks appeared in a corner of one of the rooms,” Firdous Ahmad Khan said.

Tremors were felt across Pakistan including the capital, Islamabad, and northwestern Peshawar, and even as far as the eastern city of Lahore, which borders India.

In Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, where a 2005 earthquake wreaked serious destruction, there was panic, according to witnesses, and many people rushed out of their homes in fear.

“I thought it’s the same like what had hit us in 2005. My children started crying,” said Asif Maqbool, a resident in Madina Market, a neighborhood of Muzaffarabad that was almost flattened in the 2005 quake.

Saima Khalid, a resident of the Khawaja Muhalla district of Muzaffarabad, said everyone in the neighborhood came out onto the streets.

The quake was also felt in northern Afghanistan but there were no reports of casualties or damage.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Nazarali Pirnazarov in Tajikistan Fayaz Bukari in Srinagar, Rupam Jain, Charlotte Greenfield and Umar Farooq in Islamabad, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Abu Arqam Naqash in Muzaffarabad, Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore ; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Giles Elgood)