Internet disruption reported in southeast Iran amid unrest

A woman uses a smartphone while standing along a street in the Iranian capital Tehran on November 23, 2019. (AFP/File)
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Updated 28 February 2021

Internet disruption reported in southeast Iran amid unrest

  • Crowds with light arms and grenade launchers descended on Kurin checkpoint near Iran’s border with Pakistan on Thursday
  • The Iranian government previously has cut off internet access and cellphone service in tense times

DUBAI: Iran’s impoverished southeast has been experiencing wide disruptions of internet services, experts said, as unrest gripped the remote province after fatal border shootings.
Several rights groups reported in a joint statement that authorities shut down the mobile data network in the restive province of Sistan and Balochistan, calling the disruptions an apparent “tool to conceal” the government’s harsh crackdown on protests convulsing the area
The reports of internet interference come as Iranian authorities and semiofficial news agencies increasingly acknowledge the turmoil challenging local authorities in the southeast — a highly sensitive matter in a country that seeks to repress all hints of political dissent.
Starting Wednesday, the government shut down the mobile data network across Sistan and Balochistan, where 96% of the population accesses the internet only through their phones, rights groups said, crippling the key communication tool.
After four days of unverified “localized regional network disruptions” amid the protests, NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide internet access, confirmed a new disruption to internet connectivity in the province beginning late Saturday.
“This is Iran’s traditional response to any kind of protest,” Amir Rashidi from Miaan Group, a human rights organization that focuses on digital security in the Middle East, told The Associated Press on Saturday. “Shutting down the internet to block news and pictures getting out makes (authorities) feel more comfortable opening fire.”
The week saw a series of escalating confrontations between police and protesters. Crowds with light arms and grenade launchers descended on Kurin checkpoint near Iran’s border with Pakistan on Thursday, Abouzar Mehdi Nakhaie, the governor of Zahedan, the provincial capital, said in comments carried by Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency. The violence killed one policeman, he added.
Earlier this week, protesters attacked the district governor’s office and stormed two police stations in the city of Saravan, outraged over the shootings of fuel smugglers trying to cross back into Iran from Pakistan on Monday. The border shootings and ensuing clashes killed at least two people, the government said. Many rights activists in the area reported higher death tolls without offering evidence.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, vowed Friday to investigate the deaths. Officials insisted that calm had returned to the streets.
The Iranian government previously has cut off internet access and cellphone service in tense times. In the fall of 2019, for instance, Iran imposed a near nationwide internet blackout as anti-government protests sparked by an increase in fuel prices roiled the capital of Tehran and other cities. Hundreds were reportedly killed in the crackdown nationwide.
Given that authorities targeted the mobile network and not the landline in Sistan and Balochistan, the disruption likely wouldn’t appear on regular network data, said Mahsa Alimardani, researcher at Article 19, an international organization that fights censorship. The area already suffered from unreliable internet connections.
"This targeted shutdown was very intentional because they knew the realities of this province,” where people are poor and use cheap phones as opposed to computers, Alimardani said.
Sistan and Balochistan is one of most unstable and least developed parts of Iran. The relationship between its predominantly Sunni residents and Iran’s Shiite theocracy long has been fraught. A low-level violent insurgency in Sistan and Balochistan involves several militant groups, including those demanding more autonomy for the region.
The area also lies on a major trafficking route for drugs and petrol, which is highly subsidized in Iran and a key source of income for smugglers.

Behave normally, UK transport minister tells Britons queuing for fuel

Updated 59 min 27 sec ago

Behave normally, UK transport minister tells Britons queuing for fuel

  • Long lines of vehicles formed at petrol stations in recent days as motorists waited in line to fill up with fuel

BRIGHTON, England: Transport Minister Grant Shapps on Sunday called on Britons to behave normally when buying petrol, saying there was no shortage of fuel and the government was stepping in to ease a shortage of drivers bringing it to petrol stations.
In recent days long lines of vehicles formed at petrol stations as motorists waited in line, some for hours, to fill up with fuel after oil firms reported a lack of drivers was causing transport problems from refineries to forecourts, leading some operators to ration supplies and others to close gas stations.
“There’s plenty of fuel, there’s no shortage of the fuel within the country,” he told Sky News.
“So the most important thing is actually that people carry on as they normally would and fill up their cars when they normally would, then you won’t have queues and you won’t have shortages at the pump either.”
The government on Sunday announced a plan to issue temporary visas for 5,000 foreign truck drivers.
But business leaders have warned it is a short-term fix that will not solve an acute labor shortage that risks major disruption beyond fuel deliveries, including for retailers in the run-up to Christmas.
Shapps called the panic over fuel a ‘manufactured situation’ and blamed it on a hauliers’ association.
“They’re desperate to have more European drivers undercutting British salaries,” he said.

Top Russian diplomat defends mercenaries’ presence in Mali

Updated 26 September 2021

Top Russian diplomat defends mercenaries’ presence in Mali

  • France has announced it is reducing its force fighting extremists in Mali and the region
  • Mali has been trying to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012.

UNITED NATIONS: Russia’s top diplomat on Saturday defended the Mali government’s right to hire a private Russian military company to help fight terrorists, accusing French troops in the country of failing to get rid of them and scolding the European Union for demanding that the Russian mercenaries leave.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the company has a “legitimate” right to be in the West African nation because it was invited by the transitional government, and insisted Russian government is not involved.
France and Germany have both objected to the presence of mercenaries from the Wagner Group, which reportedly is linked to the Kremlin, in Mali, which also hosts a more than 18,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission. Wagner has been accused of human rights abuses in the Central African Republic and involvement in the conflict in Libya.
Lavrov said France has announced it is reducing its force fighting extremists in Mali and the region. And in a stinging rebuke of their performance, he said, the French forces “should have been combating terrorists who have established a presence in Kidal (in northern Mali), but they didn’t manage to do that.”
“Terrorists continue to reign in that area,” he told a news conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s annual meeting of world leaders.
Mali has been trying to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels were forced from power in Mali’s northern cities with the help of a 2013 French-led military operation. However, the insurgents quickly regrouped in the desert and began launching frequent attacks on the Malian army and its allies fighting the insurgency.
The extremists have expanded their reach well into central Mali, where their presence has inflamed tensions between ethnic groups in the area.
Lavrov said the European Union has been announcing that Russia will be “pushed away, deterred and engaged with.”
So, he said, he asked EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s high-level gathering: “What will you engage in with us?”
In June, Col. Assimi Goita was sworn in as president of a transitional government in Mali after carrying out his second coup in nine months. Mali faces increasing isolation from the international community over the junta’s power grab.

US agency to probe Amtrak derailment that killed 3 in Montana

Updated 26 September 2021

US agency to probe Amtrak derailment that killed 3 in Montana

  • People trapped aboard soon after the derailment have all been taken off the train

At least three people died on Saturday and some passengers were injured after an Amtrak train derailed in north-central Montana, an official at the local sheriff’s office said.

The National Transportation Safety Board said late on Saturday it will investigate the incident.

The Seattle-bound Empire Builder train had about 141 passengers and 16 crew aboard when eight cars derailed near the town of Joplin, Amtrak said in a statement.

People trapped aboard soon after the derailment have all been taken off the train, said the official at the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

There were multiple injuries but no final count, the official added. A social media user posted photos of train cars on their side after the incident and other damaged train cars.

The cause of the incident was not immediately clear.

The 10-car train with two locomotives had departed from Chicago.

Amtrak said Empire Builder trains originating on Saturday are canceled between Minot, North Dakota, and Shelby, Montana, while on Sunday the westbound Empire Builder train will terminate in Minneapolis and an eastbound Empire Builder train will originate in Minneapolis.

Dhaka airport opens COVID-19 test labs for UAE-bound foreign workers

Updated 26 September 2021

Dhaka airport opens COVID-19 test labs for UAE-bound foreign workers

  • The privately run PCR labs at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport are aimed at outbound travelers who require proof that they are virus-free on arrival at their destinations

DHAKA: Bangladesh on Saturday opened six COVID-19 testing facilities at its largest airport in the capital Dhaka to facilitate international travel, mainly for its UAE-bound migrant workers impacted by flight restrictions in the wake of the pandemic, a government official said.

The privately run PCR labs at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport are aimed at outbound travelers who require proof that they are virus-free on arrival at their destinations.

They are the first at an airport in Bangladesh, one of three international hubs in the country, with a capacity to carry out more than 5,000 tests a day.

“We have set up all necessary facilities and equipment. We will conduct a test-run tonight and hand over the facilities to the civil aviation authorities,” Dr. Shariar Sazzad, the health officer in charge at the airport, told Arab News.

The tests are not covered by insurance, with each international traveler required to pay for COVID-19 screening.

“Each of the tests will cost around $20 at all six facilities at the airport,” Sazzad said.

Instalment of the testing facilities comes after the UAE in August lifted flight curbs for travelers from a list of previously suspended countries, including Bangladesh, provided they were fully vaccinated with a jab approved by the World Health Organization and tested negative for COVID-19 six hours before departure.

Since then, thousands of Bangladeshi migrant workers had been rallying for authorities to install PCR labs at the airport. On Sept. 6, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina directed authorities to establish PCR testing facilities at all three international airports in Dhaka, Chattogram and Sylhet.

With nearly 1,250 cases a day, Bangladesh has struggled to combat a surge in COVID-19 infections driven by the highly contagious Delta variant. As of this week, only 9.3 percent of its population of 170 million people had received both doses of the COVID-19 jabs.

The South Asian nation’s economy has taken a beating from a lack of foreign remittances after thousands of migrant workers were unable to return to work due to travel curbs imposed by host nations.

The UAE is the second-largest destination for Bangladeshi migrant workers in the Gulf and the Middle East, with more than 1 million employed in the country.

However, tens of thousands of workers were impacted by flight curbs imposed by the Gulf state, with several left stranded in Bangladesh after returning home for a break.

Mohammad Abul Bashar, a 38-year-old construction worker in Dubai, is one example. He traveled to Bangladesh six months ago and is “desperately waiting” to return to the UAE.

“I was supposed to resume duty in the first week of September but couldn’t take the flight since there were no COVID-19 testing facilities at the airport,” he told Arab News.

“Now I am waiting to renew my visa and hope to travel within the next two weeks,” Bashar said, adding he was “so relieved” that PCR labs had finally been launched at the airport.

Salahuddin Chowdhury, another migrant worker, said that the delay in setting up the PCR labs had “caused huge losses for many.”

“I have been working as a salesperson at a shop in the UAE for six years and was supposed to return by mid-August. The delay has cost me around $300, which is a month’s salary,” Chowdhury, 27, told Arab News.

“I’m hoping to fly by the end of this week,” he added.

While workforce recruiting agencies welcomed the move to set up PCR labs at Dhaka airport, they urged authorities to launch more flights “to help as many workers as possible.”

“Every day, around 1,000-1,500 migrant workers would travel to the UAE (before the outbreak). Since more than 35,000 workers are now waiting to return to their workplaces, I think aviation authorities should introduce extra flights from Dhaka for the next few weeks,” Tipu Sultan, president of the Recruiting Agencies Unity Forum, told Arab News.

He also urged authorities to shoulder the costs of the tests.

“A majority of these migrant workers are extremely poor and spend a lot of money to secure a job in the overseas market, incurring huge debts for the visa and tickets. The $20 COVID-19 tests will be an extra burden on them,” he said.

Instead, Sultan suggests that the government either subsidise the cost or pay for it through “the expatriates’ welfare fund, which is also funded by the migrant workers.”

Shariful Hasan, migration program head for BRAC, a Bangladeshi-origin international NGO, agrees and said it was imperative for government ministries to make a “coordinated effort” and ease travel for migrant workers.

“Our migrant workers are desperate to return to work at any cost. Authorities should remain vigilant and ensure the smooth functioning of PCR labs installed at the airport,” Hasan told Arab News.

“These facilities will serve the migrant workers a lot, especially if other host countries also introduce the same travel rules as the UAE.”

Moscow-Ankara tensions on display at Lavrov press conference

Updated 26 September 2021

Moscow-Ankara tensions on display at Lavrov press conference

  • Russian foreign minister criticizes Turkey over Crimea, Syria
  • Lavrov praises ‘wise’ Saudi approach to resolving Israel-Palestine conflict

NEW YORK: Russia’s foreign minister on Saturday accused Turkey of a “lack of diplomatic professionalism,” and announced that his government currently has no intention of recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.

At a press conference held at the UN and attended by Arab News, Sergei Lavrov also reiterated Russia’s support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and praised the Saudi-led approach to immediate Arab-Israeli reconciliation upon the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

Earlier this week, a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman said elections held by Russia in Crimea — which Moscow annexed in 2014 — have “no legal validity” in Ankara’s eyes.

Lavrov said the Turkish position exhibited “a lack of diplomatic professionalism, a lack of professionalism in foreign policy, because professionals understand full well that the Crimean issue has been put to rest once and for all.”

He also defended Russia’s recent assault on rebel-held territory in Syria’s Idlib province, saying there needs to be an “uncompromising assault on terrorism on Syrian soil.”

He added: “There was a special agreement on Idlib between the presidents of Russia and Turkey, and our Turkish colleagues took upon themselves the obligation to separate normal opposition forces from terrorists. This was to have been done a long time ago now, but it has not happened to date.”

Lavrov also said Russian recognition of the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan is “not currently on the table.”

He added: “The reality that is currently unfolding (in Afghanistan) is based on statements by the Taliban, who have proclaimed their intent to combat extremism, to combat terrorism, including the Islamic State (Daesh) and Al-Qaeda, (and) not to project instability on neighbors. What’s most important, probably, is for these promises to be honored.”

For Moscow, he added, the top priority is that the Taliban fight terrorism. “They (the Taliban) announced that they’re determined to fight ISIL (Daesh) and other terrorist groups, and we’ll do everything possible to support them to ensure that this be made a reality,” he said.

Lavrov reiterated Russia’s longstanding position that a two-state solution is the only viable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and supported US overtures in this regard.

“It’s very important that the Biden administration has reaffirmed its commitment to a two-state solution,” said Lavrov, adding that the conflict remains of paramount importance to regional stability. 

He endorsed the Saudi-led approach of the early 2000s toward resolving the conflict and its resulting regional tensions.

“At the initiative of the king of Saudi Arabia, an Arab Peace Initiative was adopted which stipulated that as soon as a viable Palestinian state is established, which meets all the criteria set out at the UN, then immediately the Arab states would normalize relations with Israel. I think this was a very wise approach,” said Lavrov.