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.”


Pakistan players to get separate Test and limited overs contracts

Updated 12 sec ago

Pakistan players to get separate Test and limited overs contracts

  • Previously, top players were offered one contract and could be called on to play any version of the game
  • Contracts are part of vision and strategy to identify, groom and develop specialists, chief selector saysIslamabad: Pakistan has given separate contracts to players in the Test and limited-overs squads in a bid to build long-term depth, the chief selector

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has given separate contracts to players in the Test and limited-overs squads in a bid to build long-term depth, the chief selector said Thursday.
Previously, top players were offered one contract and could be called on to play any version of the game, but specialisation has made this out of fashion for many cricketing nations.
"These contracts are part of our vision and strategy to identify, groom and develop specialists for the traditional and purist format of the game," chief selector Mohammad Wasim told press conference.
Babar Azam, captain of the Test, ODI and Twenty-20 teams, is one of just five players offered both red and white ball contracts.
The others are Hasan Ali, Imam-ul-Haq, Mohammad Rizwan and Shaheen Shah Afridi.
Ten players received test contracts, while 11 players earned contracts for the shorter versions of the game.
All players named will get a ten per cent increase in their match fees, while Azam also gets a bonus for being captain.

Red and white ball contracts:
Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Hasan Ali and Imam-ul-Haq.

Red ball:
Azhar Ali, Fawad Alam, Abdullah Shafique, Naseem Shah, Nauman Ali, Abid Ali, Sarfaraz Ahmed, Saud Shakeel, Shan Masood and Yasir Shah

White ball:
Fakhar Zaman, Shadab Khan, Haris Rauf, Mohammad Nawaz, Asif Ali, Haider Ali, Khushdil Shah, Mohammad Wasim Junior, Shahnawaz Dahani, Usman Qadir and Zahid Mehmood 


Court orders recounting of Punjab CM election votes, minus de-seated dissident MPs

Updated 14 min 9 sec ago

Court orders recounting of Punjab CM election votes, minus de-seated dissident MPs

  • The prime minister’s son Hamza Shahbaz was elected CM of Pakistan’s largest province in mid-April
  • Election regulator in May de-seated 25 MPs from ex-PM Khan’s party who defected in favor of Shahbaz

ISLAMABAD: The Lahore High Court on Thursday ordered the recounting of votes for the election of the Punjab chief minister held in April and won by Hamza Shahbaz, instructing that the votes of 25 dissident lawmakers who had defected from ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party and voted for Shahbaz be excluded from the counting process.

Shahbaz, who is the son of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, was elected chief minister of Pakistan’s largest and most populous Punjab province on April 16. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and its allies boycotted the election and challenged the voting procedure in the court.

On May 20, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) de-seated 25 dissident PTI legislators who had voted for then opposition candidate Shahbaz in the Punjab CM election.

The top post in Punjab had fallen vacant after the resignation of former Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, a close Khan aide, in early April.

“The Presiding Officer (Deputy Speaker) of the election held on 16th April 2022 is, therefore, directed to recount votes after excluding 25 votes of the defecting members,” the court order said, saying voting should take place tomorrow, Friday.

If the required majority for Shahbaz, which is 186 votes in the 371-member strong house, to stay the CM is not secured, the election would be held again under Article 130(4), unless another candidate had majority votes, the court said.

According to Article 130(4), in the second round of voting, a member would not require 186 votes but simply needed a majority of those “present and voting” to be elected the chief minister.

The court also said that Hamza Shahbaz would cease to be the chief minister if he lost the required majority after the exclusion of the 25 dissident votes by the presiding officer.

Following the de-seating of the 25 dissident lawmakers last month, Shahbaz, who had won the CM election with their help, had lost his majority in the Punjab Assembly, raising questions about the status of his government.

Shahbaz, a member of the now ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, got 197 votes in the chief minister’s election but was left with the support of 172 members in the house after the disqualification of the 25 MPs.

According to Article 63-A of the constitution, a parliamentarian can be disqualified on grounds of defection if he or she “votes or abstains from voting in the House contrary to any direction issued by the parliamentary party to which he belongs, in relation to election of the prime minister or chief minister; or a vote of confidence or a vote of no-confidence; or a money bill or a Constitution (amendment) bill.”

In a unanimous decision in May, ECP members said the PTI dissidents were being de-seated for defecting from the party under Article 63-A of the constitution. The Supreme Court of Pakistan, in its interpretation of Article 63-A, has said votes cast against the party direction “cannot be counted and must be disregarded.”

Former Punjab Assembly speaker Pervaiz Elahi, Khan’s candidate for CM, had filed a reference with the ECP against the dissident PTI lawmakers, requesting the electoral body to disqualify them for violating party discipline and deviating from its policy.


Pakistan PM reaffirms commitment to enhance security of Chinese nationals

Updated 30 June 2022

Pakistan PM reaffirms commitment to enhance security of Chinese nationals

  • International media reports say China has asked Pakistan to allow its own security company to protect its nationals
  • Pakistan has set up a special desk at the ministry of interior to ensure the security of foreign nationals, especially Chinese

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in a meeting with Senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi on Thursday reaffirmed Islamabad’s commitment to enhance the security of Chinese nationals working in the country.

Beijing has pledged over $60 billion for infrastructure and energy projects in Pakistan under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) framework that is a central part of China’s initiative to forge new “Silk Road” land and sea ties to markets in the Middle East and Europe.

At the center of CPEC is the impoverished southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan, where Beijing is building the port of Gwadar. Chinese engineers working at the port came under attack from an operation claimed by the separatist Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) last year.

The BLA has claimed a number of major attacks in recent months, including a simultaneous storming of two paramilitary bases in Balochistan earlier this year and an attack outside a university in Karachi in which three Chinese nationals were killed. In July last year, a suicide bomber blew up a passenger bus in northern Pakistan that killed 13 people, including nine Chinese working on a hydro-power plant.

This week, reports in international media suggested following recent attacks China had asked Pakistan to allow it to use its own security company to protect its nationals and assets in Pakistan. The interior ministry did not respond to Arab News requests for comment.

In a meeting with Yang Jiechi, a high-ranking Chinese politician and diplomat, who is serving as a member of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, PM Sharif reiterated his strong condemnation of the attack outside the Karachi University and underscored Pakistan’s determination to bring the perpetrators to justice.

“He reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to enhanced measures for safety, security and protection of the Chinese nationals, projects and institutions in the country,” the foreign office said in a statement.

Pakistan has set up a special desk at the ministry of interior to ensure the security of foreign nationals, especially Chinese citizens. A 15,000-strong army division was set up in 2017 specifically to safeguard projects in the CPEC initiative.

Sindh raised a protection unit of about 2,600 police officers to help safeguard 4,000 Chinese working on CPEC projects, and another 1,000 working in other businesses. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province also conducted a census of Chinese nationals and raised a force of about 4,200 officers to protect foreigners.


As life-saving drugs disappear in Pakistan, pharma industry seeks tax break, price revision

Updated 30 June 2022

As life-saving drugs disappear in Pakistan, pharma industry seeks tax break, price revision

  • Industry reps say new sales tax on medicines will annually deprive them of Rs70 billion
  • Number of life-saving drugs unavailable in the market can go up to 200 within weeks

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s pharmaceutical industry has urged the government to abolish a newly imposed one percent sales tax and jack up prices of all medicines to overcome the shortage of over fifty life-saving drugs in the local market.

The new sales tax was included in Pakistan’s latest budget, approved by parliament this week. The government has been struggling to levy maximum direct and indirect taxes on different products and businesses to shore up its fragile economy and meet the conditions of the International Monetary Fund to revive a stalled $6 billion loan program.

“We strongly urge the government to withdraw one percent sales tax on medicines to keep the industry viable and overcome shortage of life-saving drugs in the market,” Qazi Mansoor Dilawar, chairman of Pakistan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association, told Arab News.

He said the supply of over fifty essential medicines had been disrupted in the market since manufacturers were importing the raw material to produce only those medicines that were profitable to them.

“Our input cost has escalated manifold in the last two years with the appreciation of dollar, increase in freight charges and international raw material, but the government is not willing to increase the prices of medicine,” he said.

The annual total pharmaceutical market in Pakistan is estimated to be around Rs700 billion. Pakistan imports much of the medicinal raw material from China and industrial experts say freight charges have increased around eight times since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In January, the country’s ousted premier Imran Khan’s administration imposed a 17 percent sales tax on the import of raw material, promising that the amount would be refunded to pharmaceutical companies after the consumption of their stock.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government has now withdrawn the 17 percent tax on the import of raw material, but levied one percent sales tax on all medicines.

“This one percent sales tax on medicines means the industry will be collectively paying Rs70 billion in tax this year,” Dilawar said.

Unlike other businesses, the pharma industry cannot increase medicines prices on its own since only the federal government is authorized to revise the rates of lifesaving drugs.

“We have a capping of every medicine and cannot increase their price on our own,” the association chief said, adding if the government failed to withdraw the sales tax and increase medicines prices, there would be a shortage of another two hundred drugs in the market within a couple of weeks.

The government has promised to look into the demands of pharmaceutical companies and address their concerns to ensure smooth supply of medicines in the market.

“We are well aware of the pharma industry’s demands and are trying to address them,” Sajid Hussain Shah, a spokesperson for the health ministry, told Arab News.

However, he warned that the ministry would initiate action in case medicines were hoarded to create an artificial shortage in the market.

“We are closely monitoring the medicine supply,” he said, “and won’t spare anyone who is found guilty of creating artificial shortage of medicines.”


Ahead of Eid, lumpy skin disease spreads fast among cattle in northwestern Pakistan

Updated 30 June 2022

Ahead of Eid, lumpy skin disease spreads fast among cattle in northwestern Pakistan

  • Influx of animals into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from other provinces has intensified problem, officials say
  • Provincial administration says willing to release more funds for procurement of vaccines for animals

PESHAWAR: The livestock department in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has ramped up efforts to control the spread of lumpy skin disease (LSD) among cattle ahead of the Muslim festival of Eid Al-Adha, a senior official said on Wednesday, adding that he feared the influx of animals into the province from other areas of the country would unleash a larger outbreak of the disease.

The Eid Al-Adha holiday is one of the two most important festivals of the Islamic calendar. Marking the willingness of Ibrahim, or Abraham, to sacrifice his son on God’s command, Muslims mark the holiday by slaughtering animals such as sheep and goats. The meat is shared among family and friends and also donated to the poor.

Cattle markets across Pakistan, the second largest Muslim country in the world, fill up ahead of Eid, with thousands of animals brought to major livestock bazars across the country, including in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

This year, the situation has.been complicated by breakouts of the lumpy skin disease that causes fever and multiple nodules on the skin and mucous membrane of animals. The virus was first reported in Punjab in October last year but later also spread among cattle in Sindh.

Prevalent in Africa since 1929, LSD is transmitted by bloodsucking insects like ticks and mosquitoes. It does not affect people and is rarely fatal.

“With the arrival of Eid Al-Adha, animals have been brought from Punjab and Sindh provinces and we fear the disease will spread further instead of being contained,” Sayed Asad Ali Shah, who works as epidemiologist with the livestock department, told Arab News.

He said precautionary measures, such as the formation of a task force and a cell for online reporting of the disease, had already been taken after LSD was first reported in Punjab and Sindh. Special checkpoints had been set up at various entry points of the province to keep infected animals from entering Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he added.

However, the infection, which was previously reported in a few districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, had now spread across the province.

“A total of 8,265 LSD cases were reported until Tuesday,” Shah said. “The disease has also claimed the lives of 203 animals.”

“After conducting a series of meetings, the government has released Rs100 million for vaccine procurement,” he said. “We have an estimated population of nine million cattle excluding buffaloes in the province. So far, we have vaccinated 135,761 animals and used anti-tick spray on millions of others.”

Speaking to Arab News, the provincial government spokesperson, Barrister Muhammad Ali Saif, said the government was working closely with the livestock department to adopt precautionary measures and release necessary funds to control the disease.

“This is a serious problem and the disease is partly spreading because of the buying and selling of animals ahead of Eid Al-Adha,” he said. “People should cooperate with the government to contain the spread of this viral disease. We will also release more funds to procure more vaccines to protect animals.”

But Rehmat Gul Miani, a resident of Gomal, a dusty village on the outskirts of southern Tank district, said several LSD cases had been reported in his area but authorities were not doing enough to vaccinate animals.

“Several animals in our neighborhood have been infected,” he said. “Livestock officials should take measures to contain the disease before Eid Al-Adha. Otherwise, people will be reluctant to buy sacrificial animals even at cheaper rates.”