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)
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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.”

Saudi ambassador honors Pakistani policewoman for heroic rescue, offers royal invitation to kingdom

Updated 11 sec ago

Saudi ambassador honors Pakistani policewoman for heroic rescue, offers royal invitation to kingdom

  • ASP Shehrbano Naqvi safely extracted a woman from an enraged blasphemy mob in Lahore last month
  • She received widespread acclaim from the general public and was also praised by Pakistan’s army chief

ISLAMABAD: The Saudi ambassador to Pakistan, Nawaf bin Saeed Al-Malki, praised a female Pakistani police officer for her timely intervention that saved a woman surrounded by an enraged blasphemy mob in the eastern city of Lahore, extending a royal invitation to her for a visit to the kingdom.
Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Shehrbano Naqvi received widespread acclaim from politicians, officials and the general public after a social media video showed her rescuing a woman wearing a dress with Arabic inscriptions, which some people mistook for verses from the Holy Qur’an.
Naqvi, who safely extracted the woman from the crowd, later clarified that the dress bore no sacred inscriptions, featuring only the Arabic word “halwa.”
According to the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) news agency, during a meeting at the embassy, the Saudi envoy commended Naqvi’s selfless devotion that defused the volatile situation.
He also extended an invitation to her to visit the kingdom.
“The Saudi Ambassador to Pakistan praised the bravery of the police officer and assured her that the Saudi government would cover the expenses of her and her family’s trip to Saudi Arabia as honored guests,” reported the APP.
Independent Urdu, quoting an embassy spokesperson, revealed that Naqvi, along with her family, would be visiting Riyadh as royal guests before performing Hajj.
Prior to her meeting with the Saudi diplomat, Pakistan’s army chief General Asim Munir also invited Naqvi to his office to commend her dedication.
In the past, blasphemy charges have triggered mob lynchings in the country, with politicians assassinated, lawyers murdered and students killed over unverified accusations.

Pakistan’s former interior minister, Mir Sarfraz Bugti, elected unopposed as Balochistan’s chief minister

Updated 01 March 2024

Pakistan’s former interior minister, Mir Sarfraz Bugti, elected unopposed as Balochistan’s chief minister

  • Bugti took oath as a caretaker federal minister last August before resigning in December to contest the recent elections
  • He asks Baloch insurgents to cease fighting and engage in dialogue, warning that the state would not condone violence

QUETTA: Pakistan’s former caretaker interior minister Mir Sarfraz Bugti was elected as the 25th chief minister of the southwestern Balochistan province on Friday, after no other lawmaker submitted nomination papers to contest the post.
Bugti previously served as the home and tribal affairs minister of the province and remained a senator from 2015 to 2021. Last year in August, he took the oath as the country’s interim minister for interior before resigning in December to contest the recent elections.
He participated in the provincial polls after joining Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
“I am thankful to President @AAliZardari, Chairman @BBhuttoZardari, my party @PPP_Org, and the people of #DeraBugti who allowed me to serve the people of #Balochistan,” he said in a social media post. “May Allah guide me and help me to do justice with this heavy responsibility.”
Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province by area, holds a strategic position of immense importance due to its rich mineral resources, including natural gas, coal and minerals, along with its access to the Arabian Sea through the deep-sea port of Gwadar.
The port is also a cornerstone of the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, making the province a pivotal player in regional connectivity and trade routes between Asia, the Middle East and beyond.
Balochistan has also experienced a low-level insurgency for decades by Baloch separatist groups who express grievances over political disenfranchisement, economic marginalization and the exploitation of the province’s rich natural resources without adequate benefit to the local population.
However, Pakistani authorities have always denied these claims.
Bugti, scheduled to take the oath at the Governor House tomorrow, asked Baloch insurgents to cease fighting the state and engage in dialogue while speaking to the media.
“The Pakistan Peoples Party believes in dialogue to resolve all political issues,” the newly elected chief minister said. “We wish all militants to skip violence and become part of the mainstream political paradigm. However, the state will not condone any kind of violence.”

Pakistan condemns Israel’s ‘policy of mass starvation’ after killing of over 100 Palestinians in Gaza

Updated 01 March 2024

Pakistan condemns Israel’s ‘policy of mass starvation’ after killing of over 100 Palestinians in Gaza

  • Eyewitnesses say Israeli troops opened fire on a group of Palestinians waiting for life-saving aid and food delivery
  • Pakistan’s foreign office says Israel must face justice for committing crimes against Palestinians with impunity

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Friday condemned the killing of over 100 Palestinians who were trying to get food from an aid convoy in Gaza City a day earlier, saying the incident had highlighted Israel’s “deliberate and inhumane policy of mass starvation.”
According to eyewitnesses, Israeli troops opened fire on a crowd of Palestinians waiting for aid and food amid the rubble of their city destroyed by relentless airstrikes ordered by the Netanyahu administration last year in October.
Israel besieged the Gaza Strip after a surprise attack was initiated by Hamas in response to the deteriorating condition of Palestinian people living under Israeli occupation. The ensuing war has led to the killing of over 30,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children, as much of the world has accused the Israeli authorities of carrying out a genocide in Gaza.
International aid groups have also complained of increasing difficulties while delivering food supplies to starving Palestinians due to the Israeli military.
“Pakistan strongly condemns yesterday’s massacre by Israel’s occupation forces of unarmed Palestinians, who were awaiting life-saving aid and food delivery in Gaza,” foreign office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch said during her weekly media briefing. “This massacre demonstrates a blatant disregard for civility and international humanitarian law and Israel’s deliberate and inhumane policy of mass starvation.”
Baloch reiterated her country’s stance for an immediate and urgent ceasefire while calling for unimpeded access of humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza.
“Israel must also face justice for its crimes against humanity being perpetrated with impunity against the Palestinian people,” she added.
The incident in Gaza has come at a time when various stakeholders in and around the region are trying to negotiate a ceasefire to end the conflict which has lasted for nearly five months.

Brothers accused of sparking blasphemy riot against Christians in Pakistan last year released

Updated 01 March 2024

Brothers accused of sparking blasphemy riot against Christians in Pakistan last year released

  • The brothers were detained on suspicion of defacing the Holy Qur’an in Jaranwala where a mob vandalized Churches
  • Christians make up around two percent of Pakistan’s population and occupy one of the lowest rungs in society

LAHORE: Two brothers accused of blasphemous acts that sparked a mob in Pakistan to ransack homes and churches in a Christian enclave last year have been freed from jail, their lawyer said Friday.
More than 80 Christian homes and 19 churches were vandalized by crowds in the eastern city of Jaranwala last August, after accusations spread that a Holy Qur’an had been desecrated.
Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in deeply conservative, Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam have provoked deadly vigilantism.
While police rounded up more than 125 suspected rioters, they also detained two Christian brothers on suspicion of having defaced a Holy Qur’an – a violation of Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws which can carry the death penalty.
But the brothers’ lawyer Tahir Bashir told AFP they had been freed after an anti-terror court declined to bring their case to trial on Thursday.
“Without a trial, no suspect can be detained indefinitely in jail,” Bashir said, declining to publicly name his clients out of fear for their safety.
“They are free, they are with their family. They were very happy to be released,” he added.
Hundreds of Christians fled Jaranwala’s Christian quarter last summer when rioters surged in, setting churches ablaze and raiding homes.
At its peak the crowd numbered around 5,000 and was spurred by mosque loudspeakers announcing a Holy Qur’an had been torn, scrawled with offensive words and stuck to the walls of a local mosque.
Christians, who make up around two percent of Pakistan’s population, occupy one of the lowest rungs in society and are frequently targeted with spurious blasphemy allegations.
Politicians have also been assassinated, lawyers murdered and students lynched over such accusations.
Last week, police were forced to intervene in the eastern city of Lahore when a woman wearing a shirt adorned with Arabic calligraphy was surrounded by a mob accusing her of blasphemy.
The crowd of men said the clothing depicted the Holy Qur’an but it was in fact emblazoned with the Arabic word for “beautiful.”
The woman issued an apology for causing offense, but none of the men were arrested.
Pakistan’s top Supreme Court judge has also been targeted by veiled death threats recently after ordering the release of a man accused of disseminating a blasphemous text.

Inflation in Pakistan hits 23.1%, reaching its lowest point since June 2022

Updated 01 March 2024

Inflation in Pakistan hits 23.1%, reaching its lowest point since June 2022

  • Pakistan faces historically high inflation, though the situation has improved from 38 percent recorded last year in May
  • Given the February inflation rate, experts predict the central bank to begin monetary policy easing from this month

KARACHI: Pakistan’s inflation rate was recorded at 23.1 percent in February, marking its lowest level since June 2022, on an annual basis despite surging food and energy costs, according to official data released on Friday.
Pakistan continues to face historically high inflation, though the situation has improved from the all-time high level of 38 percent recorded last year in May.
Last month, the prices of tomatoes and cigarettes saw substantial increases of 114.6 percent and 71.2 percent, respectively, on an annual basis. Condiments and spices rose by 55.3 percent, sugar by 53.4 percent, fresh vegetables by 46.2 percent and wheat flour by 45 percent.
In the non-food category, gas charges skyrocketed by 318.7 percent, electricity charges by 74.9 percent, transport services by 35.1 percent, textbooks by 34.7 percent, newspapers by 34.2 percent and accommodation services by 29.5 percent.
February’s inflation, the lowest in 20 months, suggests a potential easing in the country’s monetary policy stance.
“The low inflation rate was expected and interestingly despite incorporating recent gas and petroleum price increase in February the number is low. We will see this trend continue in the future and inflation trajectory will be downward,” Tahir Abbas, head of research at Arif Habib Limited, told Arab News.
Given the February inflation rate, experts predict the central bank will begin monetary policy easing from March onwards, with the market anticipating an indicative interest rate cut of around 1 percent this month.
Since June last year, the State Bank of Pakistan has maintained the interest rate at an all-time high of 22 percent.
The central bank recently adjusted its average inflation forecast for the current fiscal year to 23-25 percent, up from 20-22 percent, due to hikes in energy prices.