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

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.”


46 Afghan soldiers seek refuge in Pakistan after losing border military posts

Updated 26 July 2021

46 Afghan soldiers seek refuge in Pakistan after losing border military posts

  • Hundreds of Afghan soldiers and civil officials have fled to neighbouring Tajikistan, Iran and Pakistan in recent weeks
  • Taliban has escalated offensive since US announced it would withdraw troops by September, ending 20-year military presence

Forty-six Afghan soldiers sought refuge in Pakistan after losing control of military positions across the border following advances by Taliban insurgents, Pakistan’s army said on Monday.
Hundreds of Afghan army soldiers and civil officials have fled to neighboring Tajikistan, Iran and Pakistan in recent weeks after Taliban offensives in border areas.
The Afghan military commander requested refuge at the border crossing in Chitral in the north, the Pakistan army said in a statement, adding the soldiers were given safe passage into Pakistan on Sunday night after clearance from Afghan authorities.
“Afghan soldiers have been provided food, shelter and necessary medical care as per established military norms,” the statement said.
The move comes at a time of poor relations between the neighbors. Afghanistan recalled its diplomats from Pakistan after the brief kidnapping of the Afghan ambassador’s daughter in Islamabad earlier in the month.
Afghan officials did not respond to a request for comment.
The Taliban has escalated its offensive since the United States announced in April that it would withdraw its troops by September, ending a 20-year foreign military presence.
Washington has said it will continue to carry out air strikes to support Afghan forces facing insurgent attacks.
Afghan government and Taliban negotiators have met in Qatar’s capital, Doha, in recent weeks, although diplomats say there have been few signs of substantive progress since peace talks began in September.
Reeling from battlefield losses, Afghanistan’s military is overhauling its war strategy against the Taliban to concentrate forces around critical areas such as Kabul and other cities, border crossings and vital infrastructure, Afghan and US officials have said.
The Pakistan army said the soldiers who sought refuge will be returned to Afghanistan after due process, as had taken place in the case of another batch of 35 soldiers earlier in July. 


Scottish climber dies on Pakistan’s K2 

Updated 26 July 2021

Scottish climber dies on Pakistan’s K2 

  • Allen was killed after being hit by an avalanche while attempting a new route on the mountain over the weekend 
  • Allen’s death comes week after South Korea’s Kim Hong-bin was killed in a fall descending from nearby Broad Peak

ISLAMABAD: Scottish climber Rick Allen has died while attempting to summit Pakistan’s K2, his expedition team said, the latest death on the world’s second-highest peak.
Allen was killed after being hit by an avalanche while attempting a new route on the mountain over the weekend. His body was recovered on Sunday evening.
“After consulting with his family and friends, the legend will be buried this morning under the foot of Mighty K2,” Karakorum Expeditions wrote on Facebook Monday.
A charity that Allen was raising money for during the climb also confirmed his death.
“Rick died doing what he loved the most and lived his life with the courage of his convictions,” tweeted Partners Relief & Development, adding that two other climbers on the expedition survived the avalanche.
Allen’s death comes a week after South Korea’s Kim Hong-bin was killed after falling into a crevasse while descending from the nearby Broad Peak.
With Pakistan’s borders open and few other places to go due to the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s summer climbing season is attracting a large number of alpinists.
The summer season follows history being made in northern Pakistan as a team of Nepali climbers became the first to summit K2 in the winter.
But at least five other climbers died on K2’s slopes while a sixth went missing during an ascent on a nearby peak.
Known as “the savage mountain,” K2 has harsh conditions — winds can blow at more than 200 kilometers per hour (124 miles per hour) and temperatures can drop to minus 60 degrees Celsius (minus 76 Fahrenheit).
Unlike the world’s highest peak Mount Everest, which has been scaled by thousands of climbers young and old, K2 is much less traveled.


Pakistan welcomes resumption of Umrah for foreign pilgrims from August 10

Updated 26 July 2021

Pakistan welcomes resumption of Umrah for foreign pilgrims from August 10

  • Says will follow whatever mechanism Saudi government devises
  • Pakistani religious affairs and Saudi Hajj ministries coordinating

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special assistant on the Middle East, Tahir Mahmood Ashrafi, on Monday welcomed Saudi Arabia’s decision to resume the Umrah pilgrimage for international visitors, halted earlier due to the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Saudi media, the Kingdom has decided to resume International Umrah from the first of the Islamic month of Muharram, likely to fall on August 10 this year.
“We welcome the decision of resumption Umran for foreign pilgrims and whatever mechanism Saudi government will devise, Pakistan will follow that,” Ashrafi told Arab News. “Pakistani ministry of religious affairs and [Saudi] Ministry of Hajj and Umrah have contacts and if there will be any issues, both will coordinate on that.”
Media reports suggested COVID-19 vaccinations would be mandatory for all pilgrims.
Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis would visit Saudi Arabia every year, mainly for Umrah and Hajj, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Umrah is a pilgrimage which can be undertaken at any time of the year, in contrast to Hajj, which has specific dates according to the Islamic lunar calendar.
Saudi Arabia closed its borders last February to foreign Umrah pilgrims, and in March stopped its own citizens and residents from taking part. Last July, it allowed a limited number of domestic pilgrims to perform the Hajj. This year too, Saudi Arabia restricted the annual Hajj pilgrimage to its own citizens and residents for the second year running in response to the coronavirus pandemic.


Four Pakistani soldiers die in road accident in Azad Kashmir

Updated 26 July 2021

Four Pakistani soldiers die in road accident in Azad Kashmir

  • The soldiers were in the semi-autonomous region to police local parliamentary polls
  • Their vehicle plunged down a ravine off a curvy mountain road in Azad Kashmir

ISLAMABAD: Four Pakistani soldiers died on Sunday when their vehicle plunged down a ravine off a curvy mountain road in Azad Kashmir, the part of the disputed Himalayan region administered by Pakistan, the military said in a statement.
The soldiers were in the semi-autonomous region to police its local parliamentary polls, it added. Another three soldiers and the driver were injured in the accident.
Violence has marred the voting, with local administration officials saying two supporters of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party were shot and killed at a polling station.
The shooting involved supporters of the rival Pakistan People’s Party, once led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was killed in 2007 as she campaigned.
Pakistan and neighbor India each control part of the former princely state of Kashmir. Both countries claim a united Kashmir as their own. They have fought two wars over Kashmir and have come close to another on more than one occasion.


Hundreds light candles in Pakistan for murdered ex-diplomat’s daughter 

Updated 26 July 2021

Hundreds light candles in Pakistan for murdered ex-diplomat’s daughter 

  • Noor Mukadam was killed and beheaded last week by suspect Zahir Jaffer at his house in Islamabad
  • Protests and candlelight vigils held in major Pakistani cities, including Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Multan

ISLAMABAD: Protests and candlelight vigils were held on Sunday in major Pakistani cities, including Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Multan, over last week’s killing of 27-year-old Noor Mukadam, the daughter of former Pakistani Ambassador to South Korea, Shaukat Mukadam.
Mukadam was allegedly killed and beheaded on Tuesday night, the eve of Eid Al-Adha, by suspect Zahir Jaffer at his house in Islamabad’s posh F-7/4 sector. Jaffer, his parents and two members of their household staff have been arrested in connection with the murder.
The protest in Islamabad on Sunday was organized by the Women’s Democratic Front (WDF) and the women’s rights organization, the Aurat Azadi March, with hundreds of demonstrators gathering in solidarity over violence against women in Pakistan.
“We demand an end to state impunity against patriarchal violence,” Ismat Shahjahan, WDF president, said, addressing protesters. “We want a complete overhaul in the very structures of the state and society that are contributing to femicide in Pakistan.”

Women holding posters against brutal killing of 27-year-old Noor Mukadam, daughter of former Pakistani Ambassador to South Korea, Shaukat Mukadam, Pakistan on July 25, 2021. (AN Photo)

Last week, Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi expressed “my absolute condemnation of the recent violence and brutality against women.”

Protestors gather outside to protest brutal killing of 27-year-old Noor Mukadam, daughter of former Pakistani Ambassador to South Korea, Shaukat Mukadam at Islamabad Press Club in Islamabad, Pakistan on July 25, 2021 (AN Photo)

“This has no place in our society, lives, religion or culture,” he said. “We must work harder and do more for prevention & for justice.”

“For Saima, for Quratulain, for Noor,” he added, naming two other recent women murder victims.

Protestors gather outside to protest brutal killing of 27-year-old Noor Mukadam, daughter of former Pakistani Ambassador to South Korea, Shaukat Mukadam at Islamabad Press Club in Islamabad, Pakistan on July 25, 2021 (AN Photo)

A candlelight vigil in Islamabad’s Swiss Avenue Park followed Sunday evening’s protest. Similar vigils have also been held in Canada and Ireland where Mukadam spent many years growing up.

People light candles at a vigil to protest brutal killing of 27-year-old Noor Mukadam, daughter of former Pakistani Ambassador to South Korea, Shaukat Mukadam at Islamabad Press Club in Islamabad, Pakistan on July 25, 2021 (AN Photo)

Renowned rights activist Tahira Abdullah addressed the crowd at the vigil, standing beside the Mukadam family and leading chants of “Justice for Noor.”

The candlelight vigil held to protest the killing of 27-year-old Noor Mukadam, daughter of former Pakistani Ambassador to South Korea, Shaukat Mukadam, Pakistan on July 25, 2021. (AN Photo)

Ali Khan, a resident of Islamabad who attended the vigil with his family, said he had come out as part of “a drive for justice.”
“We need to show our support,” he said, “and we need our numbers to show we will not rest [until justice].”