Hundreds still entering Pakistan from Iran despite border closure over coronavirus

A soldier wearing a facemask stands guard as buses carry pilgrims returning from Iran via the Pakistan-Iran border town of Taftan, leading to a quarantine facility zone to prevent the spread the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, in Sukkur in southern Sindh province on March 18, 2020. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 30 March 2020
Follow

Hundreds still entering Pakistan from Iran despite border closure over coronavirus

  • On Thursday, 113 pilgrims crossed into Balochistan via the Taftan crossing, according to immigration documents seen by Arab News
  • Balochistan home minister says thousands arrived in Balochistan without proper screening in Iran, Pakistan had “no choice” but to let them enter

DUBAI/MARDAN: Over a hundred pilgrims returned to Pakistan on Thursday from Iran via a land border crossing at Taftan in Balochistan province, immigration documents have shown, despite the border being sealed by the Pakistan government to try to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus from neighboring Iran.

Pakistan and Iran, one of the countries worst-hit by the outbreak, share a 900-kilometer border, frequently used for trade and by minority Shia Muslims who travel from Pakistan to Iran for religious pilgrimages, often using a border crossing at Taftan in the southwestern Balochistan province.

But in past weeks, errors made in the testing and quarantine of travelers who recently returned from Iran have turned Taftan into a hotbed of coronavirus.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan crossed 1,200 on Friday, health officials said. On Tuesday, when Pakistan had 892 confirmed cases, health chief Dr. Zafar Mirza said 78 percent of them had a history of travel to Iran.

Though infections in Iran began to rise rapidly last month, the Pakistan government only officially shut the border on March 16 — and the Taftan crossing remains porous.

On Thursday, despite the border being closed, 113 pilgrims crossed into Balochistan from Iran, according to immigration documents seen by Arab News, bringing the tally of total people having entered through Taftan since February to 6,080.

Of the 6,080, 4,596 have been sent onwards to their home provinces, while 1,484 remain in quarantine at Taftan, according to figures from the Balochistan chief minister’s office.

The Iranian Embassy in Islamabad did not respond to emailed questions about the continued movement of pilgrims from Iran into Pakistan and whether it had screened pilgrims before sending them home.

In an interview with Arab News on Wednesday, Balochistan Home Minister Mir Zia Ullah Langove said the provincial government had contacted the federal government when the outbreak first began last month and asked them to inform Iranian authorities not to send any pilgrims back to Pakistan without proper screening. He said provincial government officials had also met Iranian authorities to communicate their concerns.

But thousands of pilgrims still arrived in Balochistan without having been screened in Iran, Langove said, “and we were left with no choice but to let them enter and quarantine them on our side of the border.”

He said the provincial government fulfilled its responsibility of quarantining the pilgrims and handing them over to their home provinces with complete records.

“When they [Pakistanis returning from Iran] came back, we, according to our policy, at Taftan, we quarantined them and then once they had completed their quarantine, then we transported them in very special conditions, under security, all of them, to different provinces where they belonged,” health minister Mirza told Arab News in an interview.

But health and government officials have said thousands were released from the Taftan quarantine without being properly tested or even isolated, leading to the spread of the virus.

Unverified video clips on social media showed four or five people lodged in a single tent at the border quarantine site, according to a Reuters report. Others showed scores of people lying close together on the floor of a single corridor of Pakistan House — a building at Taftan, originally built to house pilgrims who were going to, or returning from Iran.

In a media briefing on Friday, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan admitted that the Balochistan government did not have enough funds to provide adequate facilities for travelers arriving from Iran. Balochistan remains Pakistan’s poorest region despite its vast mineral wealth.

This week, the Islamabad High Court issued notices to top government officials in a petition seeking the setting up of a high-level judicial commission to fix responsibility for the spread of the virus in Pakistan.

According to reports in Pakistani media, the petition says the federal government had failed to exercise its diplomatic privileges and convince the government of Iran not to send pilgrims back to Pakistan.

A senior Balochistan government official said Iranian authorities had kept sending pilgrims and other Pakistanis to the Taftan border despite Islamabad having officially communicated that the border was closed. The official declined to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media about the issue.

“International borders with both Iran and Afghanistan are closed since March 16, 2020 and the same has officially been communicated to Iran but it continues to send pilgrims,” the official said.

The Pakistani foreign office did not respond to questions on whether it had officially asked Iran not to return Pakistanis in Iran, as it had to China when the coronavirus outbreak first broke out in December and Islamabad ruled out bringing back more than 1,000 students from China, where the virus is said to have originated.

The Balochistan government official said 20-50 Pakistanis kept arriving at Taftan daily, a fact confirmed by immigration records seen by Arab News, and added that the Balochistan government had “no option” but to receive them and then send them onwards to their home provinces.

Earlier this month, Balochistan government spokesman Liaquat Shahwani told the local The News that at least 5,000 Pakistanis were stranded in Iran after the closure of the border and a final decision to open the border or allow them in would be made by the federal government.

At a media briefing on Thursday, foreign office spokesperson Aisha Farooqui said Pakistan was working closely with Iran on the movement of pilgrims.

“We are closely coordinating with Iranian authorities to ensure that the movement takes place as per the SoPs [stand operating procedures] prescribed by the government,” she told reporters. “Every effort is being made to sort out issues, if any, through mutual coordination.”

Farooqui did not elaborate on the Pakistani government’s SOPs or explain why people were still entering Pakistan despite the borders being closed.

A senior official based in Islamabad, who declined to be named, told Arab News he was privy to a recent intelligence assessment presented to the federal government by Pakistan’s top spy agency, which had recommended changes in troop deployment on the Iran Pakistan border in the wake of the spread of coronavirus. The report also suggested the reshuffling of custom’s officers posted at the Taftan border.

A second official confirmed the intelligence report, but Arab News could not obtain a copy of the original document.

The first official added that the report said that hundreds of people coming from Iran after the coronavirus outbreak had been allowed to crossover into Pakistan by “influential” people in the government and the provincial bureaucracy who were able to prevail upon the Balochistan government to allow entry.

Last week, opposition politicians and journalists said Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Overseas Pakistanis, Sayed Zulfikar Abbas Bukhari, had used his “influence” with the Balochistan chief minister to ensure the unchecked entry of pilgrims into Pakistan.


“Neither I have been involved with Taftan nor [I have] any influence,” Bukhari told Arab News, adding that the allegations against him were “completely baseless.”


Pakistan’s finance minister says new IMF loan agreement targeted for early July

Updated 7 sec ago
Follow

Pakistan’s finance minister says new IMF loan agreement targeted for early July

  • The quantum and duration of new loan is still not clear, though the government wants at least a three-year program
  • Muhammad Aurangzeb says the modalities of the new loan will be thrashed out with an IMF delegation next month

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s finance minister Muhammad Aurangzeb said on Tuesday the country planned to discuss the contours of a new loan program with an International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation next month while hoping to reach a staff-level agreement with the global lender by early July.

Pakistan secured a $3 billion IMF bailout last year to avert a sovereign default and hopes to receive the final tranche later this month. However, the government wants a fresh IMF loan since the country continues to face tough economic challenges and plans to implement structural reforms.

“We are still hoping that we can get into a staff-level agreement by the time June is done or early July so that we can move on,” the finance minister said while addressing a news conference.

He informed he had had good discussions with IMF and World Bank officials during the spring meetings held by both international lending organizations in Washington.

Aurangzeb maintained it was not right to say that the IMF was imposing strict conditions on Pakistan since the country needed to carry out reforms on its own to strengthen its economy.

“This is Pakistan’s program which is helped, supported, assisted by the fund,” he said. “This is how we have to see it since this is the way ownership will come.”

He said the quantum and duration of the new IMF program was yet not clear, though the government wanted to secure at least a three-year loan package.

Both sides have said they were already in discussions for the new loan.

A formal request, however, will be made once the current facility expires, with the IMF board likely to meet late this month to approve the second and last tranche of the current support scheme.

The economy is expected to grow by 2.6 percent in the fiscal year 2024, the finance minister said, adding that the inflation was projected at 24 percent, down from 29.2 percent in fiscal 2023.

It touched a record high of 38 percent last May.

Aurangzeb said structural reforms would include increasing the government’s tax revenue-to-GDP ratio to 13 percent to 14 percent in the next two or three years from the current level of around 9 percent, reducing losses of state-owned enterprises through their privatization, and better management of the debt-laden energy sector.

With input from Reuters


Pakistan refiners warn $6 bln upgrades at risk due to fuel price deregulation plan

Updated 23 April 2024
Follow

Pakistan refiners warn $6 bln upgrades at risk due to fuel price deregulation plan

  • Regulatory authority proposes oil marketers, refineries be allowed to set prices instead of government 
  • Refiners demand they be consulted before the implementation of “irrational recommendations”

KARACHI: Pakistan’s plans to deregulate fuel prices could lead refiners to halt planned upgrades worth up to $6 billion and force some refineries to close, some of the country’s top refiners said in a letter to the country’s oil regulator.

Looking to drive down prices for consumers, the South Asian nation’s Oil & Gas Regulatory Authority (OGRA) has proposed that oil marketers and refineries be allowed to set fuel prices, instead of the government setting prices.

As part of the change, OGRA proposed scrapping or reviewing a rule that requires fuel buyers to purchase supply from local refineries, another issue the refiners said could result in “disastrous consequences.”

The refiners — state-run Pakistan Refinery and private domestic refiners Pak Arab Refinery, Attock Refinery, Cinergyco, and National Refinery — said they were already struggling to operate near full capacity and asked that they be consulted before the implementation of “irrational recommendations.”

“The refining sector requires OGRA support through pragmatic and supportive measures, rather than suggesting ways that if implemented would result in their permanent closure,” the refiners told OGRA on Monday in a letter, which was reviewed by Reuters.

The deregulation was aimed at boosting competition and protecting the public interest, OGRA told Reuters in a statement on Tuesday, but did not respond to specific questions on the letter from the refiners. However, it said in an April 17 presentation reviewed by Reuters the potential impact of deregulation on refinery upgrades had to be assessed carefully, calling it a challenge.

“The refineries upgradation will bring in investment of $5 — 6 billion and not only result in cleaner environment friendly fuels but also result in savings of precious foreign exchange of the country,” the refiners wrote in the letter to OGRA.


Pakistan hopes to get new IMF loan by early July, says finance minister

Updated 23 April 2024
Follow

Pakistan hopes to get new IMF loan by early July, says finance minister

  • Pakistan’s current $3 billion financial arrangement with IMF expires in late April
  • Islamabad is seeking “bigger,” long-term loan to ensure macroeconomic stability

Pakistan is hoping to reach a staff-level agreement with the International Monetary Fund by June or early July, its finance minister said on Tuesday.

The country’s current $3 billion arrangement with the fund runs out in late-April, which it secured last summer to avert a sovereign default.

Islamabad is seeking a long-term bigger loan to help bring permanence to macroeconomic stability as well as an umbrella under which the country can execute structural reforms.

“We are still hoping that we get a staff-level agreement by June or early July,” Finance Minister Muhammad Aurangzeb told a conference in Islamabad.

He returned from Washington last week after leading a team to attend the IMF and World Bank’s spring meetings. “We had very good discussions in Washington,” he said.

He said he did not know at this stage the volume and tenure of the longer program.


Pakistan ‘rarely’ punished officials for rights abuses in 2023— State Department report

Updated 23 April 2024
Follow

Pakistan ‘rarely’ punished officials for rights abuses in 2023— State Department report

  • US State Department releases annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” for the year 2023
  • Report says Pakistan witnessed extrajudicial killings, torture and restrictions on media freedoms last year

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s government “rarely” took steps to identify and punish officials who may have been involved in rights abuses in 2023, a report released by the US State Department said on Tuesday, pointing out incidents of extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, violence against journalists and restrictions on media freedom had taken place in the country last year. 

US Department of State released its annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” to highlight rights issues in several countries, including Pakistan. In the report, Washington identified that Pakistan last year witnessed arbitrary killings, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance, torture and “cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government or its agents.”

“The government rarely took credible steps to identify and punish officials who may have committed human rights abuses,” the report said. 

Cases of “enforced disappearances” of citizens have long plagued Pakistan, where militants have waged a war against the state for decades. Families say people picked up by security forces often disappear for years, and are sometimes found dead, with no official explanation. Pakistani security agencies deny involvement in such disappearances.

The report also pointed out that last year Pakistan had seen incidents of restrictions on freedom of expression and media freedom, violence against journalists, unjustified arrests, disappearances of journalists, censorship and criminal defamation laws. 

Pakistan’s recent actions to restrict Internet and mobile services throughout the country, especially on days when elections are held, have invited criticism from rights organizations and Washington. The interior ministry last week confirmed it had banned social media platform X in February to protect national security, maintain public order, and preserve the country’s “integrity.”

The State Department report further pointed out that rights issues in Pakistan during 2023 included extensive gender-based violence, including domestic or intimate partner violence, sexual violence, early, child and forced marriages. It said Pakistan had also reported incidents of female genital mutilation and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of religious, racial and ethnic minorities. 

The report added that violence, abuse and social and religious intolerance by militant organizations and other non-state actors, both local and foreign, contributed to a culture of lawlessness in the country. 

“Terrorist and cross-border militant attacks against civilians, soldiers, and police caused hundreds of casualties,” the report noted, crediting Pakistan’s military, police and other law enforcement agencies for carrying out “significant campaigns” against militants last year. 

The South Asian country has seen an uptick in violence, mainly suicide attacks, since November 2022 when a fragile truce between militants and the state broke down. Pakistan has since then carried out military operations against the Pakistani Taliban or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and a Baloch separatist militant organization, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) in the country’s two western provinces that border Afghanistan.


Iranian president in Lahore on second day of official visit to Pakistan

Updated 23 April 2024
Follow

Iranian president in Lahore on second day of official visit to Pakistan

  • On Monday, Islamabad and Tehran signed eight accords including on trade, technology, health, culture, information 
  • Interior ministers of Pakistan and Iran agree on joint action plan to deal with terrorism, smuggling, drug trafficking 

ISLAMABAD: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi arrived in Lahore on Tuesday on the second day of a three-day visit to Pakistan where he will meet top government officials and business leaders before traveling to the country’s commercial hub, Karachi. 

Raisi arrived in Islamabad on Monday on a three-day visit as the two Muslim neighbors seek to mend ties after unprecedented tit-for-tat military strikes earlier this year. The Iranian official’s visit is the first by any head of state to Pakistan after the South Asian nation’s February general elections and the formation of a new government headed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. The visit also comes as tensions are high in the Middle East after Iran launched airstrikes on Israel a week ago and Israel retaliated with its own attack on Friday.

“Iranian President Syed Ibrahim Raisi has reached Lahore,” state television PTV reported, where he was received by Punjab Chief Minister Maryam Nawaz. 

The Iranian president began his Lahore trip by visiting the mausoleum of Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Pakistan’s national poet, whose literary works in the Persian language have garnered him wide recognition in Iran.

After meetings in Lahore, Raisi will travel to Karachi, where he will hold meetings with the provincial leadership and be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Karachi, state-run Radio Pakistan reported. 

Commuters ride past a welcoming billboard displaying an image of the Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi along a street in Karachi on April 22, 2024. (AFP)

On Monday, Raisi held delegation-level meetings in the Pakistani capital as well as one-on-one discussions with the prime minister, president, army chief, chairman senate and speaker national assembly. 

He also witnessed the signing of eight MoUs and agreements covering different fields including trade, science technology, agriculture, health, culture, and judicial matters. These include an MoU on the establishment of the Rimdan-Gabd Joint Free/Special Zone; on cooperation between the Ministry of Cooperative Labour and Social Welfare of Iran and the Ministry of Overseas Pakistani and Human Resources Development of Pakistan; on judicial assistance and legal cooperation at the ministry levels; on cooperation for animal hygiene and health; on mutual recognition in the field of quarantine and phytosanitary; and on the promotion of culture and films.

“The economic and trade volume between Iran and Pakistan is not acceptable at all and we have decided at the first step to increase the trade volume between our two countries to $10 billion,” Raisi said at a joint press conference with Sharif. 

The interior ministers of Pakistan and Iran also met on Monday and discussed border management to prevent smuggling and drugs trafficking, and “decided in principle to ban terrorist organizations in their respective countries,” state news wire APP said.

“The two sides agreed on a joint plan of action to deal with the menace of terrorism being a common problem, with further improving mutual support and exchange of intelligence information.”

A security agreement regarding this decision would be signed “at the earliest,” APP added. 

Pakistan and Iran have had a history of rocky relations despite a number of commercial pacts, with Islamabad being historically closer to Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Their highest profile agreement is a stalled gas supply deal signed in 2010 to build a pipeline from Iran’s South Fars gas field to Pakistan’s southern provinces of Balochistan and Sindh.

Pakistan and Iran are also often at odds over instability on their shared porous border, with both countries routinely trading blame for not rooting out militancy.

Tensions surged in January when Pakistan and Iran exchanged airstrikes, both claiming to target alleged militant hideouts in each other’s countries. Both sides have since then undertaken peace overtures and restored bilateral ties.