Spain: Cold snap plummets temperatures to lowest in 20 years

Snowstorms across much of Spain left three people dead and caused chaos across much of the country, trapping motorists and closing the capital’s air and rail links, with more falls to come. (AFP)
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Updated 12 January 2021

Spain: Cold snap plummets temperatures to lowest in 20 years

  • Eleven of Spain’s 51 provinces and autonomous regions were in the highest level of alert
  • Authorities are urging people to stay at home unless they really need to go out

MADRID: Much of Spain is struggling to return to normality three days after a 30-hour-long record snowfall that was then hardened by record-low temperatures, turning streets and roads into dangerous ice sheets in areas not used to extreme winters.
Rubén del Campo, spokesman for the Spanish weather agency AEMET, said Tuesday that the previous night had been the coldest since at least 2001. Eleven of Spain’s 51 provinces and autonomous regions were in the highest level of alert.
Schools remained closed in Madrid and much of central Spain, with emergency and military crews still working to reopen roads, remove fallen trees, re-establish power lines, as well as ensuring the distribution of food and coronavirus vaccine.
Authorities are urging people to stay at home unless they really need to go out, to avoid accidents that could further strain emergency rooms. A military hospital in the capital had already seen a worrying uptick in trauma cases, Defense Minister Margarita Robles said late on Monday.
The town of Bello, in the northeastern Teruel province, registered a temperature of minus 25.4 degrees Celsius (minus 13.7 F), while Molina de Aragón, in the central Guadalajara province, was only a tenth of a degree less cold. Some temperatures were the lowest since 1982.

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GALLERY: Snowscapes around the world

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In Madrid and the badly hit surrounding region, home to 6.6 million people, thermometers plummeted up to minus 16 degrees Celsius overnight, although a sunny day gave respite to people trying to get to work and crews cleaning up ice and debris from streets.
In a preliminary assessment, the city hall estimated that at least 150,000 of Madrid’s 800,000 trees have fallen due to the weight of snow.
The capital’s airport, the busiest in the country, was expected to get back to full operation on Tuesday, and railway operations were steadily increasing in frequency, although Madrid’s subway and commuter trains were dangerously overcrowded.
Madrid’s main retail market also re-opened Tuesday for the first time since Friday, leading to a frantic activity of trucks and vans coming in and out to stock up the aisles of supermarkets that had seen shortages of fresh produce.
Storm Filomena left up to half a meter (20 inches) of snow across large swaths of Spain starting Friday morning.
The Madrid regional government said Tuesday it was still waiting for a new batch of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines against the coronavirus that had been due to arrive the day before by plane but had to be diverted to a northern Spanish airport. Vaccination, meanwhile, continued in nursing homes and among health personnel with existing doses.


Taliban welcomes India’s diplomatic representation ‘upgrade’ in Kabul

Updated 14 August 2022

Taliban welcomes India’s diplomatic representation ‘upgrade’ in Kabul

  • Indian diplomats were recently sent back to the embassy in Afghanistan
  • Indian diplomats were recently sent back to the embassy in Afghanistan

KABUL: The Afghan foreign ministry has welcomed the “upgrade” of India’s diplomatic representation in Kabul, as the Taliban administration continued to struggle for recognition by the international community a year after it took over Afghanistan.

India had closed its embassy and consulates in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover last August, but New Delhi deployed a technical team earlier this year in June to coordinate their humanitarian efforts and assess the security situation in the country. 

Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar confirmed on Friday that a batch of diplomats, except for the ambassador, was recently sent back to the embassy in Kabul to address a number of issues, such as humanitarian and medical assistance, as well as development projects. 

The Taliban administration has welcomed the move and promised security and immunity for Indian diplomats in Afghanistan.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan welcomes India’s step to upgrade its diplomatic representation in Kabul,” Abdul Qahar Balkhi, Afghan foreign ministry spokesperson, said in a statement issued on Saturday. 

“The Afghan government hopes that upgrading diplomatic representation and dispatching diplomats would strengthen Afghan-India relations leading to the completion of unfinished projects by India and the commencement of new vital projects.” 

Though India was one of the few countries which opposed the reconciliation process with the Taliban in the past, experts said on Sunday that New Delhi is now looking to reshape its relations with Afghanistan. 

“India is keen to engage with the Taliban as New Delhi believes that the Taliban government is going to stay for 5+ years this time or maybe longer,” Farid Mamundzay, Afghan ambassador to India appointed by the previous government, told Arab News. 

“So it’s important for India’s geopolitical interest to forget the past and form new working relations with Kabul.”

An Afghan foreign ministry official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told Arab News that India didn’t want to be left behind its geopolitical rivals.

“India wants to have their own direct lines of communication to the Afghan government, as well as to counter Pakistani and Chinese influence in Afghanistan,” the official said.

India recently opposed plans by China and Pakistan to involve third countries in their ongoing multibillion-dollar infrastructure project, after Beijing and Islamabad agreed to extend the program to Afghanistan. New Delhi said last month that the proposed participation of third countries on those projects “directly infringe on India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

India’s efforts to improve relations with the Taliban government are aimed at protecting its own interests, Torek Farhadi, analyst and advisor to the former Afghan government, told Arab News. 

“When it comes to the Taliban, India will instrumentalize them against Pakistan when it is convenient for New Delhi,” he said. 

“What we need to understand about India is that they are a pragmatic player, driving towards their own interests.” 


Salman Rushdie off ventilator and condition improving, agent says

Updated 14 August 2022

Salman Rushdie off ventilator and condition improving, agent says

  • “He’s off the ventilator, so the road to recovery has begun,” his agent, Andrew Wylie, said
  • Suspect pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder and assault at court appearance on Saturday

NEW YORK: Salman Rushdie, the acclaimed author who was hospitalized on Friday with serious injuries after being repeatedly stabbed at a public appearance in New York state, is off a ventilator and his condition is improving, his agent said on Sunday.
“He’s off the ventilator, so the road to recovery has begun,” his agent, Andrew Wylie, wrote in an email to Reuters. “It will be long; the injuries are severe, but his condition is headed in the right direction.”
Rushdie, 75, was set to deliver a lecture on artistic freedom at Chautauqua Institution in western New York when police say a 24-year-old man rushed the stage and stabbed the Indian-born writer, who has lived with a bounty on his head since his 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” prompted Iran to urge Muslims to kill him.
The suspect, Hadi Matar of Fairview, New Jersey, pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder and assault at a court appearance on Saturday, his court-appointed lawyer, Nathaniel Barone, told Reuters.
Following hours of surgery, Rushdie had been put on a ventilator and was unable to speak as of Friday evening, Wylie said in a prior update on the novelist’s condition, adding that he was likely to lose an eye and had nerve damage in his arm and wounds to his liver.
Wylie did not provide further details on Rushdie’s health in his email on Sunday.
The stabbing was condemned by writers and politicians around the world as an assault on freedom of expression. In a statement on Saturday, President Joe Biden commended the “universal ideals” of truth, courage and resilience embodied by Rushdie and his work.
“These are the building blocks of any free and open society,” Biden said.
Neither local nor federal authorities offered any additional details on the investigation on Saturday. Police said on Friday they had not established a motive for the attack.
An initial law enforcement review of Matar’s social media accounts showed he was sympathetic to Shiite extremism and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), although no definitive links had been found, according to NBC New York.


The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal

Updated 14 August 2022

The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal

  • Aid-dependent economy remains in free fall since the Taliban takeover of the war-ravaged country
  • Prices of food and other essentials have soared as drought compounds financial collapse

KABUL: When the Taliban captured Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, amid the withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan, the group’s stunning return to power marked the end of two decades of warfare, which had killed tens of thousands of Afghans on their own soil. 

One year on, with the country pauperized and isolated on the world stage under its new leadership, life for ordinary Afghans has changed — largely for the worse.

During their first stint in power, from 1996 until late-2001, the Taliban declared an Islamic emirate, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, enforced with brutal public punishments and executions. 

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Women and girls were removed from public life, prevented from working or receiving an education, and even barred from leaving the house without the all-enveloping niqab and a male relative to chaperone them.

In Oct. 2001, US-led forces invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power, accusing the group of sheltering Osama bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader deemed responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US that killed almost 3,000 people.

Edi Maa holding her baby receiving treatment for malnutrition at a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) nutrition centre in Herat. (AFP)

What followed were 20 blood-soaked years of fighting between the NATO-backed Afghan national forces and Taliban guerrilla fighters intent on retaking power.

While under the Western-backed administration, Afghanistan made progress with the emergence of independent media and a growing number of girls going to school and university. 

However, in many regions beyond the big cities, Afghans knew only war, depriving them of the many development projects implemented elsewhere by foreign donors.

Now that US-led forces have withdrawn and the Taliban has traded guerrilla warfare for the day-to-day running of the country, security has greatly improved.

During their first stint in power, from 1996 until late-2001, the Taliban declared an Islamic emirate, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, enforced with brutal public punishments and executions. (AFP)

“We only saw war in the past several years. Every day, we lived in fear. Now it’s calm and we feel safe,” Mohammad Khalil, a 69-year-old farmer in northwest Balkh province, told Arab News. “We can finally breathe.”

But the uneasy peace has come at a cost.

Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy has been in free fall since the Taliban returned to power. Billions of dollars in foreign assistance have been suspended and some $9.5 billion in Afghan central bank assets parked overseas have been frozen.

Denied international recognition, with aid suspended and the financial system in paralysis, the UN says that Afghanistan faces humanitarian catastrophe. About 20 percent of the country’s 38 million population are already on the brink of famine.

Afghanistan: One year since the Taliban takeover

Aug. 15, 2021 - Taliban campaign culminates with the fall of Kabul.

Aug. 30 - The last US troops depart Kabul airport after evacuating more than 120,000 people over 17 days.

September - A new interim government is unveiled. The Taliban bring back the feared religious police.

October - More than 120 people are killed in two Daesh-claimed mosque blasts in Kandahar and Kunduz.

Jan. 2022 - Deprived of aid, Afghanistan is plunged into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis.

March - The Taliban block secondary school girls from returning to class. Government employees must grow beards.

May - Women and girls are ordered to wear the hijab and cover their faces when in public. Women are banned from making long-distance journeys alone.

June - More than 1,000 people killed and thousands left homeless in a massive earthquake.

August - The US announces the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in a drone strike on his Kabul hideout.

The price of essential commodities has soared as the value of the Afghan currency has plummeted. A continuing drought has further aggravated the situation in rural areas.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimates about 70 percent of Afghan families are unable to meet their basic food needs.

“Most of the time we eat bread and drink tea or just water. We can’t get meat, fruit or even vegetables for the children. Only a few people have goats or cows to feed the children with milk,” Khalil said.

In the capital, Kabul, food is widely available, but few can afford a vaied and nutritious diet.

“There are plenty of food items in the market, but we don’t have the money to buy them,” Mohammad Barat, a 52-year-old daily wage earner, told Arab News.

The looming catastrophe is not only one of shocking levels of poverty, but also lost hope and opportunities.

Tens of thousands of Afghans fled the country over several chaotic days last August, when US forces and their coalition partners hastily airlifted Afghans from Kabul airport. Many others, including professionals, have since followed in their footsteps.

“Doctors are leaving, engineers are leaving, professors and experts are also leaving the country,” Abdul Hamid, a student at Kabul University, told Arab News. “There’s no hope for a better future.”

Those who worked for the deposed Western-backed administration have been removed from public life, particularly women, who are now forced to wear face coverings, banned from making long-distance journeys alone, and prevented from working in most sectors beyond health and education.

Women face a growing number of restrictions in their daily lives; right, Taliban fighters in Kandahar celebrate the US withdrawal. (AFP)

Education, too, has been strictly limited for women, even though allowing girls into schools and colleges has been one of the international community’s core demands since the Taliban retook control of the country.

In mid-March, after months of uncertainty, the Taliban said that they would allow girls to return to school. However, when they arrived at schools around the country to resume studies, those above the age of 13 were ordered to return home.

In a last-minute decision, the Taliban had announced that high schools would remain closed for girls until a plan was ready to receive them in accordance with Islamic law.

Almost half a year later, teenage girls fear they will not return to the classroom anytime soon.

“There’s no reason for banning girls from school,” Amal, an 11th grade student at Rabia Balkhi High School in Kabul, told Arab News. “They just don’t want us to get an education.”

Now that US-led forces have withdrawn and the Taliban has traded guerrilla warfare for the day-to-day running of the country, security has greatly improved. (AFP)

Despite repeated hints by the predominantly Pashtun, Islamic fundamentalist group that experience and the passage of time have softened its rough edges, the streets of Kabul increasingly resemble the Taliban-governed pre-2002 era.

Since the restoration of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which enforces the group’s austere interpretation of Islam, traditional clothing, turbans and burqas have replaced suits and jeans, which only a year ago had been considered normal attire in the Afghan capital.

Key symbols of the nation’s identity are also changing, with the white and black banner of the Taliban now appearing on government buildings and in public spaces, gradually replacing Afghanistan’s tricolor, despite earlier pledges it would not be changed.  

For some, the replacement of the old national flag is more than symbolic, and is indicative of the Taliban’s hijacking of the country. 

“It doesn’t represent any government or regime. The Taliban could keep both,” Shah Rahim, a 43-year-old resident of Kabul, told Arab News. 

“The flag is a representation of our nation, our values and our history.”

 

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River torrent kills 7 in China amid widespread heavy rains

Updated 14 August 2022

River torrent kills 7 in China amid widespread heavy rains

BEIJING: Seven people were killed by a torrent of water that came rushing down a river in a popular recreational spot following mountain rains in southwestern China, authorities said Sunday.
Workers and volunteers mobilized to urge people to leave the area after receiving an imminent heavy rain warning about 2:40 p.m. on Saturday, the emergency management bureau in Pengzhou city said.
People could be seen scrambling to flee in videos posted on social media, but some were caught when the torrent hit about 50 minutes later at 3:30 p.m.
One man at the scene said several people were washed away, including some children, when the water flow in the lower reaches of the river suddenly increased in just 10 to 20 seconds, the state-owned China National Radio reported.
The Chengdu city government said Sunday that seven people had died and three others were hospitalized with minor injuries. Pengzhou is a tourist spot about 70 kilometers (45 miles) north of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.
A video showed a helicopter rescuing a person stranded on a small outcropping by descending to just above the water and opening a door so the person could climb in.
Elsewhere in China, heavy rain flooded streets in the northwestern city of Xining on Saturday night. Heavy to torrential rain was forecast for the northeast from Sunday to Monday afternoon, with 10 to 18 centimeters (4 to 7 inches) of rainfall expected in parts of Liaoning and Jilin provinces.
A heat wave was hovering over a wide swath of southern China, with forecast highs on Sunday of 35 to 39 degrees Celsius (95 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit) and possibly surpassing 40 degrees (104 Fahrenheit) in some places including Shanghai.
Jiangsu province warned that road surface temperatures could rise to 72 degrees (162 Fahrenheit), raising the risk of flat tires, state broadcaster CCTV reported.


Rushdie attack a ‘wake-up call’ on Iran, says Britain’s PM candidate Sunak

Updated 14 August 2022

Rushdie attack a ‘wake-up call’ on Iran, says Britain’s PM candidate Sunak

  • Iran’s reaction to the attack strengthens the case for proscribing the IRGC, the former finance minister told the Sunday Telegraph

LONDON: Rishi Sunak, one of two candidates seeking to become Britain’s next prime minister, said Friday’s attack on author Salman Rushdie should serve as a wake-up call to the West over Iran, the Sunday Telegraph reported.
Indian-born author Rushdie, who spent years in hiding after Iran urged Muslims to kill him over his novel “The Satanic Verses,” was stabbed in the neck and torso on stage at a lecture in New York state. After hours of surgery, Rushdie was on a ventilator and unable to speak as of Friday evening.
There has been no official government reaction in Iran to the attack on Rushdie, but several hard-line Iranian newspapers praised his assailant.


ALSO READ: Background of Rushdie attacker sheds light on Khomeini sympathizers in US


“The brutal stabbing of Salman Rushdie should be a wake-up call for the West, and Iran’s reaction to the attack strengthens the case for proscribing the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps),” Sunak, the former finance minister, said, according to the paper.
The IRGC controls Iran’s elite armed and intelligence forces.
Sunak, referring to stuttering talks between Iran and the West to revive a nuclear deal, said, “We urgently need a new, strengthened deal and much tougher sanctions, and if we can’t get results then we have to start asking whether the JCPOA is at a dead end.”
The JCPOA, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is the 2015 agreement under which Iran curbed its nuclear program in return for relief from US, EU and UN sanctions.
“The situation in Iran is extremely serious and in standing up to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin we can’t take our eye off the ball elsewhere,” Sunak said.