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.”


Japan announces $38.9 million grant for Pakistan’s flood victims

Updated 07 December 2022

Japan announces $38.9 million grant for Pakistan’s flood victims

  • Floods in Pakistan earlier this year killed over 1,700, demolished millions of homes
  • Japan says will support Pakistan’s floods victims with international organizations

ISLAMABAD: Japan announced a grant assistance of $38.9 million for Pakistan as part of the country’s efforts to deliver life-saving aid to flood victims, the Japanese embassy in Pakistan announced on Tuesday.

Unusually heavy rains and melting glaciers during the monsoon season in Pakistan this year triggered flash floods in many parts of the country. Over 1,700 people were killed while millions of houses were swept away by raging currents.

The floods, as per Pakistan’s estimates, inflicted losses of up to $30 billion on the country. Millions were displaced from their homes while thousands continue to suffer from water-borne and vector-borne diseases.

Pakistan has appealed to the international community for aid to mitigate the massive losses caused to it by the floods.

“On December 2, the Government of Japan announced its plan to provide grant assistance of USD 38.9 million to Pakistan as part of Japan’s supplementary budget to deliver life-saving aid to the flood victims,” the Embassy of Japan in Pakistan said in a statement.

It said Japan would support flood victims in various social and economic dimensions in partnership with international organizations across Pakistan’s four provinces and in its capital city, Islamabad.

The embassy said an amount of $34.2 million would be provided for emergency medical assistance, food distribution, agriculture and livestock restoration, livelihood recreation, and gender-based violence risk mitigation and response.

“In order to ensure the rapid rollout to reach the most vulnerable, these projects will commence in January 2023,” it added.

Japan, the embassy said, would also provide support through JICA, equivalent to USD 4.7 million, for recovery from the floods in health, agriculture, education, gender, and resilient disaster management.


Pakistan could be world’s sixth largest economy by 2075— Goldman Sachs report

Updated 07 December 2022

Pakistan could be world’s sixth largest economy by 2075— Goldman Sachs report

  • China to overtake US as world’s largest economy by 2050, report says
  • Climate catastrophe, populist nationalists in power risk to projections

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan could be the sixth largest economy in the world by 2075, according to a report compiled by renowned US investment banking firm Goldman Sachs earlier this week.

Titled ‘The Path to 75’, the research report predicts the state of the global economy in the decades to come and goes as far as 2075. 

According to the report, China will dethrone the US in 2050 to become the largest economy in the world. However, by 2075, the report predicts the largest economies in the world would be China, India, the US, Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan.

“By 2075, with the appropriate policies and institutions, Nigeria, Pakistan and Egypt could be among the world’s largest economies,” it stated. The prediction regarding Pakistan’s growth was made due to the country’s population growth in the years to come.

The report warned, however, that climate catastrophes and populist leaders were risks to its projections.
It added that populist nationalists in power may lead to increased protectionism that could potentially result in the reversal of globalization which could increase income inequality across countries.

Furthermore, Goldman Sachs predicted that global growth will average just under 3 percent a year over the next decade, down from 3.6 percent in the decade before the financial crisis. The report said that global growth would be on a gradually declining path afterwards, reflecting a slowing of the labor force growth.

In another key projection, the report said that emerging markets would continue to converge with industrial nations as China, the US, India, Indonesia and Germany top the league table of the largest economies when measured in dollars.

Nigeria, Pakistan and Egypt could also be among the biggest, it added.


Saudi Arabia committed to averting Pakistan’s economic crisis— ex-envoy Ali Asseri

Updated 07 December 2022

Saudi Arabia committed to averting Pakistan’s economic crisis— ex-envoy Ali Asseri

  • Pakistani PM has ability, courage and will to take country forward, ex-Saudi envoy says
  • Ambassador highlights ongoing ‘major transformation’ in Pak-Saudi economic relations

Saudi Arabia is committed to rescuing Pakistan’s economy and help the country achieve political and economic stability, Dr. Ali Awadh Asseri, Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to Pakistan, said on Wednesday.

The statement from the ex-Saudi envoy comes at a time when the South Asian nation reels from dwindling foreign exchange reserves, a depreciating currency and a ballooning current account deficit amid soaring inflation.

To make matters worse, torrential rains in mid-June triggered flash floods across the country, killing over 1,700, destroying millions of homes and washing away large swathes of crops. Pakistan estimates losses from the climate disaster to be over $30 billion.

Speaking at the Islamabad Conclave organized by the Institute of Strategic Studies, Asseri said it was crucial for Pakistan to achieve economic stability as it brings about political stability and can help Pakistan safeguard its national security.

“This is clear from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s personal resolve for not only addressing Pakistan’s immediate financial needs but also guaranteeing long-term investments in the energy sector,” he said.

Asseri said PM Shehbaz Sharif has the “ability, courage and will” to take Pakistan forward. “He can count on the Saudi nation and its leadership for whatever support is needed for economic and political stability,” he added.

Asseri pointed out that the Saudi Vision 2030 offered “enormous opportunities” for Pakistan’s trade and investment relationship with the kingdom. He said it was a chance for the South Asian nation to employ its skilled manpower in mega development projects.

He said a major transformation is underway in Pak-Saudi economic relations. Asseri said Riyadh was eyeing long-term investments in Pakistan.

“The Saudi leadership is committed to $20 billion dollars investment in refinery, petrochemical complex, mining and renewable energy projects in Pakistan,” he said.


Babar Azam reclaims number 3 position in ICC Test batter rankings

Updated 07 December 2022

Babar Azam reclaims number 3 position in ICC Test batter rankings

  • Babar Azam scored 136 runs in Pakistan’s first innings against England
  • Australia’s Marnus Labuschagne secures top spot in Test batter’s ranking

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s all-format captain Babar Azam on Wednesday reclaimed the third spot in the ICC Men’s Test Batting Rankings, according to the International Cricket Council (ICC).

Azam, widely regarded as one of the best batters in international cricket today, is currently ranked at number 1 and number 4 on ICC’s ODI and T20I batters rankings. According to the latest update to the ICC rankings released on Wednesday, Azam reclaimed the number three spot he had lost with 879 points.

He scored an impressive 136 runs against England in Rawalpindi during the first Test match between Pakistan and England. However, Azam was unable to hold off the English bowling onslaught in the second innings, succumbing to 4 runs from 5 balls off a Ben Stokes delivery.

Pakistan ended up losing the match by 74 runs, earning flak from cricket analysts and pundits for their defensive approach. Stokes and the English side, on the other hand, won praise for playing attacking cricket and forcing a result out of a Test match that was headed for a certain draw.

Azam will have a chance to further move up the rankings as Pakistan take on England again in the second Test match of the series. The match will be played in Multan from December 9-13.

Meanwhile, Australia’s Marnus Lasbuschagne removed Joe Root to claim the top spot in the ICC’s Test Batter rankings.

Labuschagne registered scores of 204 and 104* against the West Indies during the first Test in Perth and that helped him take the top ranking and rise to a total of 935 rating points.

Currently, Australia’s Steven Smith is placed at number 2 with 893 points, followed by Azam with 879 points.  


Pakistan Supreme Court orders new investigation team to probe journalist's assassination

Updated 07 December 2022

Pakistan Supreme Court orders new investigation team to probe journalist's assassination

  • Fact-finding report says Arshad Sharif was forced to leave Pakistan, UAE after his relations suffered with military
  • The document says role of transnational characters is suspected behind the journalist’s assassination in Kenya

KARACHI: Pakistan’s top court on Wednesday directed the federal government to constitute a new joint investigation team (JIT) to probe the assassination of journalist Arshad Sharif which, according to a fact-finding team (FFT), was the work of transnational individuals.

Sharif, a prominent Pakistani journalist who turned into a harsh critic of the incumbent government and the country’s military, was shot and killed by the police in the East African state of Kenya on October 23. The authorities in Nairobi described the incident as a case of “mistaken identity,” adding it took place when the journalist’s vehicle sped up and drove through a checkpoint.

The federal government constituted a five-member JIT to probe the murder a day after the first information report (FIR) was registered by the Islamabad police on the Supreme Court’s instructions on Tuesday. The FIR was lodged against three people, Waqar Ahmed, Khurram Ahmed and Tariq Wasi, who are suspected to have played a role in Sharif’s killing.

“The federal government should immediately constitute a new joint investigation team,” Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial said while hearing the suo moto case related to the matter. “The court wants an independent team to probe this case.”

Justice Bandial said the new team should include officials belonging to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Intelligence Bureau (IB), Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and police. He argued the court had not constituted a judicial commission as demanded by Sharif’s family since it was a criminal case.

The slain journalist’s mother, who attended the proceedings along with her daughter-in-law, told the court the fact-finding report had recorded how her son was forced to leave Pakistan and then pressured to move out of Dubai.
The court proceedings would resume tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the fact-finding team’s report seen by Arab News said the role of transnational characters in Kenya, Dubai and Pakistan could not be ruled out in the assassination.

“Both the members of the FFT have a considered understanding that it is a case of planned targeted assassination with transnational characters rather than a case of mistaken Identity,” the report said.

The team noted there were compelling reasons for Sharif to leave Pakistan, adding that criminal cases registered against him in different districts were most likely the reason why he was also asked to leave by the UAE authorities.

“The four GSU [General Service Unit] police officials [in Kenya] ... had been used as instruments in this case under any influence, either financial or some other compulsion,” the report said, adding that Waqar, who hosted Sharif, was connected to the National Intelligence Service (NIS) of Kenya and international intelligence agencies and police.

His brother, Khurram, was driving Sharif back to Nairobi when the shooting incident took place.

The fact-finding team said the role of Tariq Wasi was also dubious.

“Since he was the one who was directly linked with Waqar and who arranged for Arshad Sharif to be hosted by Waqar in Kenya, if indeed the case has a transnational angle, then Tariq Wasi would also become a key lynchpin for anybody wanting to murder Arshad Sharif,” the report added.

The document noted Sharif was widely considered throughout the journalistic community in Pakistan as a “pro-establishment journalist.” He was known to have a very positive relationship with the military and also developed a very close relationship with former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

The report said the slain journalist became critical of “the military’s stance” following the no-trust motion against Khan which resulted in the change of government in the country.

“That criticism became sharper and sharper and, in some cases, came out in very personal terms against certain individuals,” it maintained. “This created a rift with the institution.”

The document further said Sharif was struggling to reconcile his previous closeness to the military with his new anti-establishment stance, adding he was conducting a dialogue “either internally or with someone else.”

Barrister Shoaib Razzaq, Sharif’s lawyer and friend, confirmed to the fact-finding team that 16 cases had been registered against the slain journalist who left Pakistan due to the fear of being arrested. He added that some of these cases were brought against Sharif on the behest of a serving brigadier since the two developed a bad relationship after the downfall of Khan’s administration.

Pakistan’s military has so far not responded to the claim.