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)

Taliban prisoner issue almost resolved, peace talks expected ‘soon’: sources, officials

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield

KABUL/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Peace talks between warring Afghan factions are expected to start as soon as they iron out their main differences over the release of the “most dangerous” Taliban prisoners, officials and sources from both sides said.

Despite a major push by the United States, there has been a delay in the intra-Afghan talks as the Afghan government and some key NATO members are uncomfortable about the release of Taliban commanders accused of conducting large-scale attacks that killed civilians in recent years.

An Afghan government source said the prisoner issue had largely been resolved and they would release an alternative set of prisoners with talks expected to start mid-July.

“The Taliban agreed because it was delaying the talks,” he said, adding the government had also demanded a guarantee from the Taliban that it was no longer holding any Afghan security force prisoners.

A source close to the Taliban said the group was willing to move forward so long as most of the 5,000 prisoners demanded were released.

“I don’t think releasing or not releasing 200 or 300 prisoners will matter in the process, the Taliban can agree for (those) prisoners to remain in Afghan government custody,” the source said.

Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen could not be reached for comment but has reiterated in recent weeks that the group expects the full terms of their February agreement with the United States, including the release of 5,000 prisoners, to be implemented before talks can start.

Pakistan, seen as a key regional player in getting the Taliban to peace talks, said it expected negotiations to begin very soon and was optimistic that sticking points, including the prisoner issue, would be resolved.

“I think we are almost there,” Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told Reuters in an interview on Thursday. “The impediments have been addressed one by one and now there is a general agreement that this is the way forward…I’m expecting things to be begin quickly.”

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Hamid Shalizi and Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Pakistani airliner carrying 99 plunges into Karachi houses

By Syed Raza Hassan

KARACHI, Pakistan (Reuters) – A Pakistan International Airlines Airbus jet with 99 people aboard crashed into a crowded residential district of the city of Karachi on Friday afternoon while approaching the airport.

At least 56 people were confirmed to have died, hospital officials told Reuters, though other officials gave different figures and authorities did not release an estimate of casualties on the ground.

Two passengers survived, including Zafar Masood, president of the Bank of Punjab, a Sindh provincial government spokesman said. The bank said he had suffered fractures but was “conscious and responding well”.

The other survivor, engineer Muhammad Zubair, told Geo News the pilot came down for one landing, briefly touched down, then took off again.

After around 10 more minutes of flying, the pilot announced to passengers he was going to go around for a second go, then crashed as he approached the runway, Zubair said from his bed in Civil Hospital Karachi.

“All I could see around was smoke and fire,” he added. “I could hear screams from all directions. Kids and adults. All I could see was fire. I couldn’t see any people – just hear their screams.

“I opened my seat belt and saw some light – I went towards the light. I had to jump down about 10 feet to get to safety.”

‘WE HAVE LOST ENGINES’

Smoke billowed from the scene where flight PK 8303 came down at about 2:45 p.m. (0945 GMT). Twisted fuselage lay in the rubble of multi-story buildings as ambulances rushed through chaotic crowds.

The crash happened on the eve of the Muslim festival of Eid when Pakistanis travel to visit relatives.

“The airplane first hit a mobile tower and crashed over houses,” witness Shakeel Ahmed said near the site, a few kilometers short of the airport.

The Airbus A320 was flying from the eastern city of Lahore to Karachi in the south with 91 passengers and eight crew, civil aviation authorities said, just as Pakistan was resuming domestic flights in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

A total of 56 bodies were brought to JPMC hospital and the Civil Hospital Karachi, officials from both institutions said. The airline’s chief executive, Arshad Malik, told reporters he knew of 41 confirmed deaths.

Seconds before the crash, the pilot told air traffic controllers he had lost power from both engines, according to a recording posted on liveatc.net, a widely respected aviation monitoring website.

“We are returning back, sir, we have lost engines,” a man was heard saying in a recording released by the website. The controller freed up both the airport’s runways but moments later the man called “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!”.

‘IMMEDIATE INQUIRY’

There was no further communication from the plane, according to the tape, which could not immediately be authenticated.

“The last we heard from the pilot was that he has some technical problem … It is a very tragic incident,” said the state carrier’s spokesman, Abdullah H. Khan.

Another senior civil aviation official told Reuters it appeared the plane had been unable to lower its undercarriage for the first approach due to a technical fault, but it was too early to determine the cause.

Aviation safety experts say air crashes typically have multiple causes, and that it is too early to understand them within the first hours or days.

Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted: “Shocked & saddened by the PIA crash … Immediate inquiry will be instituted. Prayers & condolences go to families of the deceased.”

Airbus said the jet first flew in 2004 and was fitted with engines built by CFM International, co-owned by General Electric and France’s Safran.

(Additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad, Gibran Peshimam in Karachi and Tim Hepher in Paris; Writing and reporting by Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Andrew Heavens; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Kevin Liffey and Jonathan Oatis)

Germany ‘heading for epidemic’ as virus spreads faster outside China

By David Stanway and Josh Smith

SHANGHAI/SEOUL (Reuters) – Germany said on Wednesday that it was heading for a coronavirus epidemic and could no longer trace all cases, as the number of new infections inside China – the source of the outbreak – was for the first time overtaken by those elsewhere.

Asia reported hundreds of new cases, Brazil confirmed Latin America’s first infection and the new disease – COVID-19 – also hit Pakistan, Greece and Algeria. Global food conglomerate Nestle suspended all business travel until March 15.

Stock markets across the world lost $3.3 trillion of value in four days of trading, as measured by the MSCI all-country index, but on Wednesday Wall Street led something of a rebound.

U.S. health authorities, managing 59 cases so far, have said a global pandemic is likely, but President Donald Trump accused two cable TV channels that frequently criticise him of “doing everything possible to make (the coronavirus) look as bad as possible, including panicking markets”.

The disease is believed to have originated in a market selling wildlife in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority in China.

While radical quarantining measures have helped to slow the rate of transmission in China, elsewhere it is accelerating.

Germany, which has around 20 cases, said it was already impossible to trace all chains of infection, and Health Minister Jens Spahn urged regional authorities, hospitals and employers to review their pandemic planning.

“Large numbers of people have had contact with the patients, and that is a big change to the 16 patients we had until now where the chain could be traced back to the origin in China,” he said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had also spoken on Tuesday of a nascent pandemic. “It’s not a question of ‘if’. It’s a question of ‘when’ and how many people will be infected,” said its principal deputy director, Anne Schuchat.

‘PANDEMIC’ – OR NOT?

The World Health Organization (WHO) said China had reported 411 new cases on Tuesday – against the 427 logged in 37 other countries.

However, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus advised diplomats in Geneva on Wednesday against speaking of a pandemic.

“Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralysing systems,” he said.

“It may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true.”

Dr Bruce Aylward, head of a joint WHO-Chinese mission on the outbreak, told reporters on his return to Geneva:

“Think the virus is going to show up tomorrow. If you don’t think that way, you’re not going to be ready … This a rapidly escalating epidemic in different places that we have got to tackle super-fast to prevent a pandemic.”

Trump tweeted that he would attend a briefing on Wednesday. But the White House denied a report by the Politico outlet that it was considering appointing a “coronavirus czar”.

The WHO says the outbreak peaked in China around Feb. 2, after measures that included isolating Hubei province.

China’s National Health Commission reported 406 new infections on Wednesday, down from 508 a day earlier and bringing the total confirmed cases in mainland China to 78,064. Its death toll rose by 52 to 2,715.

The WHO said only 10 new cases were reported in China on Tuesday outside Hubei.

FEARS FOR OLYMPICS

South Korea, which with 1,261 cases has the most outside China, reported 284 new ones including a U.S. soldier, as authorities prepared to test more than 200,000 members of a Christian church at the centre of the outbreak.

Brazil reported the first case in Latin America, a source said on Wednesday – a 61-year-old who had visited Italy.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for sports and cultural events to be scrapped or curtailed for two weeks to stem the virus as concern mounted for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Japan has nearly 170 cases, besides the 691 linked to a cruise ship that was quarantined off its coast this month. Six people have died there, including four from the ship.

There have been nearly 50 deaths outside China, including 12 in Italy and 19 in Iran, according to a Reuters tally.

While Iran has reported only 139 cases, epidemiologists say the death rate of around 2% seen elsewhere suggest that the true number of cases in Iran must be many times higher, and cases linked to Iran have been reported across the Middle East.

In Europe, Italy has become a front line in the global outbreak with 322 cases. Italians or people who had recently visited Italy have tested positive in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Romania, Spain and Switzerland.

Two hotels, one in Austria and one on Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands, were locked down over cases linked to Italy.

Authorities said the more than 700 guests at Tenerife’s four-star Costa Adeje Palace could leave their rooms after a day of confinement but would have to stay in the hotel for 14 days.

“It’s very scary because everyone is out, in the pool, spreading the virus,” said 45-year-old Briton Lara Pennington, fearing for her two young sons and her elderly in-laws.

(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html)

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen and Susan Heavey in Washington, Diane Bartz in Chicago, Gavin Jones, Francesca Piscioneri and Crispian Balmer in Rome, Ryan Woo, Yilei Sun and Lusha Zhang in Beijing, Kate Kelland in London, Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in Seoul, Geert De Clercq in Paris, Paresi Hafezi and Alexander Cornwell in Dubai and Stephanie Nebehay and Michael Shields in Geneva; Writing by Michael Perry, Nick Macfie and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Pravin Char and John Stonestreet)

Rescuers hunt for survivors as Pakistan landslide death toll rises

Rescuers hunt for survivors as Pakistan landslide death toll rises
By Abu Arqam Naqash

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) – Army helicopters flew rescue missions for the third day running in an avalanche-hit area of Pakistani-Kashmir as the death toll from the disaster rose to 77 on Thursday, officials said.

The latest victim of the avalanches in Neelum Valley, in the Himalayan region disputed by Pakistan and India, was a six-year-old girl, Safia, who died in hospital on Thursday.

Safia had been pulled out alive on Tuesday after being buried for close to 20 hours, a doctor, quoting the child’s family, said. “She had suffered fractures in her skull and orbital bones and left leg and despite our best efforts died of her brain injuries,” the doctor, Adnan Mehraj, told Reuters.

Safia’s family were elated when she was found alive, her uncle, Naseer Ahmed told Reuters, but now relatives were in shock. Safia was the 19th member of the family to perish in the Neelum Valley avalanches.

“I am not in my senses … We have lost almost everyone in the family from young kids to elderly members,” said a visibly disturbed Ahmed.

“This extreme weather has played havoc with the lives of people living in high altitude mountains,” Pakistani-Kashmir’s top administrative official, Mathar Niaz Rana, said.

“We are trying our best to alleviate their sufferings,” he told Reuters as two helicopters were being loaded with relief supplies, including food and medicine, in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Meanwhile, in a separate area in Pakistan, further north, five personnel of the Pakistan army were killed when an avalanche hit them as they were carrying out rescue efforts, according to a senior official.

The five were from the engineer corps and helping clear roads covered by landslides in an area of Gilgit-Baltistan, a mountainous region that borders China. Avalanches in the area had earlier killed a woman and child, an official of the local disaster management authority, Farid Ahmed, said.

In total, 109 people have died across Pakistan in snow and landslide-related incidents over the last five days, including 20 deaths in the south-western province of Baluchistan.

(Writing by Gibran Peshimam, Editing by William Maclean)

Gunmen in Pakistan kill two police escorting polio vaccinators

By Jibran Ahmed

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – Gunmen shot and killed two police officers escorting a polio vaccination team on Wednesday forcing a suspension of the immunization campaign in a district of northwest Pakistan, where the crippling disease is endemic.

Previous attacks have been inspired by religious hardliners spreading false rumors, and the latest ambush of a vaccination team comes at a time when the polio cases in Pakistan have jumped from 12 to over 100 in the last one year, making it only one of three countries in the world where the disease is endemic.

The gunmen opened fire at the officials when they were escorting the vaccination team in Lower Dir district, said police official Sultan Ghani. “The polio campaign has been suspended after the incident in the area,” he said.

Of the 104 total polio cases in Pakistan, 75 has been reported from the northwest Pakistan, a region plagued by Islamist militancy.

No one claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack, though religious hardliners over the past year have raised a scare on social media that some children were being poisoned and dying from contaminated vaccines.

In the past, militants have called vaccination teams foreign agents, and peddled conspiracy theories that their campaigns were a Western ploy to sterilize Muslims.

Pakistan’s government has tried to counter those falsehoods with public education campaigns, recruiting Muslim religious leaders to reassure people that the vaccine only protects their children.

The involvement of a Pakistani doctor in helping U.S. intelligence agents to locate the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden had fueled suspicion of the anti-polio campaign, though attacks on vaccination teams pre-dated the 2011 killing of the al Qaeda leader in the northwestern town of Abbottabad.

Afghanistan and Nigeria are the other countries where the polio virus, which can cause paralysis or death, remains endemic.

(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)