Afghans demand resumption of Pakistan flights at pre-Taliban fare

Pakistan International Airline has suspended flights to Kabul. It has not yet announced whether and when it is going to resume its Afghanistan flights. (AFP/File)
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Updated 17 October 2021

Afghans demand resumption of Pakistan flights at pre-Taliban fare

  • Taliban order airline to adjust its ticket prices for Kabul-Islamabad flights
  • Travel to Pakistan crucial for many Afghans in need of lifesaving treatment that is unavailable in Afghanistan

KABUL: Afghan citizens and government officials said on Saturday they are hopeful Pakistan International Airlines would soon resume its Kabul operations at the cheaper fares it offered before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.

PIA resumed special flights from Kabul to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, after the Taliban seized power in mid-August, serving as a lifeline for many Afghans trying to flee the new regime and economic crisis or seek treatment in Pakistan, as they used to before.

But with most airlines no longer flying to Afghanistan, tickets for PIA flights have spiraled out of the reach of most Afghans, selling for as much as $2,500, according to travel agents in Kabul, compared with $120-$150 before the Taliban takeover.

Earlier this week, the Taliban Transportation Ministry issued a statement ordering the airline to “adjust the price of tickets for Kabul-Islamabad flights to the ticket standard set before the victory of the Islamic Emirate.” Otherwise, the ministry said, “they will not be permitted to run their operations from Kabul airport.”

Following the statement, PIA said it had suspended flights to Kabul over the “unprofessional attitude” of Taliban authorities.

“We hope PIA will understand and act according to the demand of Islamic Emirate Transport and Aviation Ministry,” Bilal Karimi, spokesman and member of the Taliban cultural commission, told Arab News on Saturday.

“What we are looking for is to provide the means to ordinary Afghans who want to go to Pakistan but who do not have the budget to do so.”

Ordinary Afghans are hopeful that flights will soon be available at affordable fares. For some, travel to Pakistan is necessary for lifesaving treatment that in many cases is unavailable in Afghanistan, where healthcare infrastructure is largely fragile and inadequate for more complex medical interventions.

Abdul Ali Hussaini arrived in Kabul last week to bring his injured brother to Pakistan for urgent surgery after a deadly Daesh attack in the northern city of Kunduz on Oct. 8.

“I brought my brother to Kabul after the attack occurred. He is in an emergency hospital. The doctors told me that for further treatment he should be transferred to Pakistan,” he told Arab News. “The suspension of flights and the high rate of tickets are a problem. We hope that flights resume and that we can buy tickets at a cheaper price.”

Ataullah, 35, arrived in Kabul from Helmand province to travel with his mother, a leukemia patient, for urgent treatment in Pakistan.

“I was asked $2,500 for each ticket,” he said. “I tried very hard to get my mother to Pakistan as soon as possible. I do not know what to do. I am hoping for a miracle.”

Mohammed Rashad from Kabul said he had received a scholarship from an Italian university but had been unable to travel due to PIA’s impossibly high flight prices.

“I have 15 days to go to Islamabad and, from there, travel to Italy,” the 26-year-old told Arab News. “I will miss this opportunity.”

Sayed, who works for a foreign agency in Afghanistan, wants to leave the country with his family and is now trying to reach Islamabad. Still, the blocking of PIA flights to Kabul has posed a serious challenge to him.

“One of the embassies operating in Islamabad has sent my family and me our visas. They asked me to come to Pakistan within a week,” he said. “The delay in my trip to Pakistan has now become a major problem for us and has multiplied my security fears here in Kabul.”

While PIA has earlier said its Afghanistan operations are “not very lucrative financially” as it faces “difficult circumstances” at Kabul airport, some Afghan experts say high demand has allowed the carrier to impose skyrocketing fares.  

“Demand for travel to Islamabad has increased,” Sayed Massoud, economics professor from Kabul University, told Arab News. “Everyone is trying to get to Islamabad as soon as possible and from there to another place. PIA is trying to monopolize flights to Islamabad to make more money.”

While PIA has not announced whether and when it is going to resume its Afghanistan flights, the airline’s representative in Kabul, Ahmad Salim Rohani, said he is hopeful it will soon return to its operations with more affordable fares.

“Once the flights resume, we hope that tickets will return to lower prices,” he said.


Ghislaine Maxwell ‘served up’ girls for sex to Epstein: prosecutors

Updated 30 November 2021

Ghislaine Maxwell ‘served up’ girls for sex to Epstein: prosecutors

NEW YORK: Ghislaine Maxwell set young girls up to be abused by “predator” Jeffrey Epstein, prosecutors said Monday as the sex trafficking trial of the British jet-set socialite and heiress began in New York.
Maxwell was the “lady of the house” in financier Epstein’s world who maintained “a culture of silence” over their years-long arrangement to sexually exploit girls under 18 years old, said attorney Lara Pomerantz as she presented the federal case in the first day of the trial.
Maxwell “made those girls feel seen. They made them feel special. But that was a cover,” Pomerantz told a jury.
In fact, she “served them up to be sexually abused,” Pomerantz said.
Two years after Epstein killed himself in jail before he went on trial for similar charges, Maxwell sat in the packed Manhattan courtroom facing six counts of enticing and transporting minors for sex.
Four unnamed women who allegedly suffered at the hands of the two are the key witnesses in the trial, which takes place under intense media attention.
Masked and wearing in a beige sweater and black slacks, the 59-year-old daughter of the late newspaper baron Robert Maxwell stared straight ahead during proceedings.
She faces the possibility of spending the rest of her life in prison if convicted.
Maxwell, whose sister Isabel was also inside the courtroom, has pleaded not guilty to all six counts.
Her attorneys have claimed she is being prosecuted only because US authorities were unable to bring Epstein himself to justice.
But Pomerantz said that during the period the charges against her cover, 1994-2004, she was Epstein’s “right-hand” partner, winning the trust of girls as young as 14 and then conditioning to give nude massages and then sex to Epstein.
Maxwell “knew exactly what Epstein was going to do to those children when she sent them in those massage rooms” in Epstein’s luxurious homes in New Mexico, Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida, as well as her own London home, the prosecutor said.
Epstein was a multi-million-dollar money manager who befriended countless celebrities, including Britain’s Prince Andrew, and was accused of providing them with women, including minors.
The indictment says Maxwell took part in the abuse of the four unidentified women, wooing them with shopping and movie theater trips before coaxing them to engage in sex acts with Epstein before giving them money.
Two of the women say they were just 14 and 15 years old when they were sexually abused.
Epstein, who for years skirted charges with the help of flawed laws, powerful connections and sympathetic law enforcement, was arrested in July 2019.
But a month later he committed suicide while in prison.
Prosecutors vowed to go after anyone who helped him in the abuse of the girls, and arrested Maxwell in July 2020.
The trial is expected to stretch over six weeks, and Maxwell faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
The key witnesses will be the women who allegedly suffered in her and Epstein’s hands. They will be allowed to testify with their identities kep secret.
Due to the threat of Covid-19, and heightened fears of the new Omicron variant, plexiglass boxes with air filters have been set up for the witnesses and questioning attorneys.
Maxwell’s attorneys have indicated they will challenge the accusers’ credibility by referencing alleged previous substance abuse and erroneous memories of what happened.
Days before the trial, fake claims spread across social media, echoed by some prominent political conservatives, that the judge in the case had banned media coverage, ostensibly to protect Epstein’s powerful friends and associates.
While the trial proceedings are not being televised, reporters in fact were in the courtroom as well as watching the trial by video in a separate courthouse media room.


Finland’s secret school for children of Daesh fighters in Iraq

Updated 30 November 2021

Finland’s secret school for children of Daesh fighters in Iraq

HELSINKI: At home in the Finnish capital, Ilona Taimela scrolls through hundreds of WhatsApp chats with her former pupils — pictures of animals, maths sums and simple sentences in English and Finnish.
The teacher last year gave lessons to Finnish children imprisoned some 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles) away in Syria’s Al-Hol displacement camp — using only the messaging app.
Al-Hol is a sprawling tent
city housing around 60,000 people, mainly women and children displaced by the US-backed battle to expel the Daesh group from war-torn Syria.
Among them are thousands of children of foreign mothers who traveled to Syria to be the wives of Daesh fighters.
“Some of the children didn’t know what a building is, what a house is, because they’ve always been in a tent,” Taimela told AFP.
“There was so much that they needed to learn.”
Rights observers warn the camp’s children are under constant threat from violence, poor sanitation and fires.
“It’s a miserable place, it’s out of control,” said Jussi Tanner, Finland’s special envoy charged with ensuring the fundamental rights of the Finnish children in Al-Hol, including access to health care and schooling, and eventual repatriation.
Extremist propaganda “is free to roam with no counter-messaging,” he said.
Tanner had the idea of offering lessons by phone to Al-Hol’s Finnish children when schoolchildren everywhere moved to distance learning at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
With the help of Finland’s Lifelong Learning Foundation, officials engaged Taimela, a specialist in teaching Finnish kids abroad, and another teacher, to design and teach a curriculum.
With phones banned in the camp, the lessons would have to be in secret, and the politically sensitive project was also to be kept hidden from the Finnish public.
Tanner forwarded details about the voluntary classes to the mothers.
“That same day ... we got maybe eight children,” Taimela said.
Soon 23 of around 35 Finnish children in the camp had signed up.
“Good morning! Today is Thursday May 7, 2020. The first day of distance school!“
Taimela’s first message to the children included a smiling selfie.
“The sun is shining here in Finland. What kind of weather is it there?“
Soon Taimela and her colleague were exchanging hundreds of text and voice messages a day with the children, who were taught one or two subjects a day.
“The little ones would always get Finnish, and the older ones would get geography or history, and some of them also wanted to learn English.”
Sending photos used too much data, so the teachers relied on emojis, but soon realized there were no symbols for mathematical fractions or the ubiquitous Finnish blueberry.
“During the year the blueberry [emoji] arrived, so we were happy,” Taimela says, laughing.
Despite only knowing scant details about the children, Taimela said she and her colleague were “worried all the time about their welfare.”
“Especially when we heard that they were sick, or there was a storm and the tent had collapsed.”
Communication with some families would periodically stop.
“Some of them escaped the camp,” special envoy Jussi Tanner says, “so they were actually taking part in the school while on the run in northwestern Syria in an active conflict zone.”
Others were suddenly repatriated and left the group for good.
After months of lessons, the mother of one six-year-old revealed her daughter could now read.
“Not all six-year-olds in Finland can do that,” Taimela says, smiling. “It was a eureka moment.”
Daesh fighters declared a “caliphate” in large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, three years into Syria’s civil war.
Taimela says she feels “sadness rather than anger” toward the mothers who led their children into the conflict.
Many were vulnerable and believed the promises of militants that they would live in some “kind of paradise.”
But several military offensives whittled away at the brutal Daesh proto-state, until in 2019 Syrian Kurdish forces declared it defeated.
Reluctant Western nations have since brought home handfuls of their Daesh-linked nationals, mostly children.
Taimela had accepted that she would never know what happened to the repatriated children she had taught, but one day she was called to a reception center in Finland.
“It was an emotional few hours” meeting some of her pupils face to face for the first time, she said.
They “came very close” and Taimela read to them.
“I just wanted to know, ‘How is everything, what can I help with?’,” she said.
Finland’s foreign ministry has now repatriated 23 children and seven adults.
Tanner told AFP that only around 15 “harder-to-reach” individuals, of whom 10 are children, remain in camps in Syria.
The issue originally proved divisive in Finland, but opposition has “become much more muted.”
Taimela’s teaching drew to a natural close in mid-2021 and the ministry later made the project public.
She is now looking at how to use the innovative teaching model in other crisis zones or camps, and has received requests regarding Greece, Myanmar and Colombia.
“The Al-Hol teacher, that’s my label now,” Taimela smiles.
“But I’m proud of what we did.”


Libyan presidential hopefuls petition against PM’s candidacy

Updated 30 November 2021

Libyan presidential hopefuls petition against PM’s candidacy

TRIPOLI: Candidates for Libya’s presidential election have petitioned against the interim prime minister’s bid and a Tripoli court is to examine their request, media reports said Sunday.
Influential former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha was among several presidential hopefuls to have filed appeals against Premier Abdulhamid Dbeibeh’s candidacy, the reports said.
The Tripoli appeals court accepted their petitions and will examine them before giving a ruling.
If it rejects Dbeibeh’s bid, he will have 72 hours to appeal, according to the reports.
A source close to Bashagha told AFP the court would look specifically into complaints that Dbeibeh did not resign his post three months before submitting his candidacy, in accordance with Libya’s electoral law.
The December 24 polls come as part of a push to end a decade of violence in oil-rich Libya following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Libya’s electoral commission HNEC said earlier this month it had rejected the candidacy of Qaddafi’s son, Seif Al-Islam Qaddafi.
He was among 25 candidates rejected on legal grounds as well as based on information from officials, including the public prosecutor, it said.
For Seif Al-Islam, the HNEC pointed to articles of the electoral law stipulating that candidates “must not have been sentenced for a dishonorable crime” and must present a clean criminal record.
Seif Al-Islam is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes committed during the Libyan uprising.
He was also sentenced to death by a Tripoli court for crimes committed during the revolt that toppled his father, but later pardoned by a rival administration in eastern Libya.
A total of 98 candidates, including two women, had registered for the December polls, according to the HNEC.
Among the most notable hopefuls is Khalifa Haftar, leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army in control of the country’s east and parts of the south.
Dbeibeh, 62, had promised during talks with the UN that he would not stand in the presidential polls.

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After Channel boat disaster, Iraqi families fear worst

Updated 30 November 2021

After Channel boat disaster, Iraqi families fear worst

  • Fate of migrants difficult to know, as the investigation is yet to reveal the identities of the recovered victims

QADRAWA, IRAQ: The last time 20-year-old Mohamed spoke with his father, who lives in Iraqi Kurdistan, he told him that he was about to cross the English Channel.
That was on November 23. The next day, France announced the sinking of a boat in the busy waterway, killing at least 27 people, in a disaster that has made global headlines.
The family now fears the very worst.
“Our last contact was on the eve of the tragedy,” says the father, Qader Abdallah, 49, sitting in his living room in Qadrawa, a small village in Kurdistan, northern Iraq.
“He told us that he was going to go to Britain. He sent us a message on (Facebook) Messenger.
“We told him it was dangerous, that there were risks with this crossing. He tried to reassure us by telling us there had been many crossings ... and that there had been no problems.”
Since then, several families in Qadrawa have desperately waited for news on their family members. Were they onboard the ill-fated boat? Did they arrive in Britain?
It is difficult to know, as the investigation is yet to reveal the identities of the recovered victims, their nationalities or the cause of the capsize.
Immigration ministers from France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands met in the French port of Calais on Sunday and promised to strengthen “operational cooperation” on tackling people smugglers.
France said EU border agency Frontex would deploy a plane to help fight migrant trafficking in the Channel from December 1.
Mohamed flew to Turkey a month ago from the Kurdish region’s Irbil airport.
He made his way illegally to Italy, then to France. He wanted to join his two brothers, who have been living in Britain for two years.
“Our family had agreed that he should go to Europe,” Abdallah admitted. “All young people try to go to Europe to find a better future.”
In the autonomous region of Kurdistan, he said, “living conditions are difficult.”
“The young people have demonstrated because of the deteriorating economic situation that prevents them from finding a job,” he said about recent protests by university students.
Last Wednesday’s tragedy was the worst to date in the English Channel, which is now crossed daily by migrants trying to reach the English coast, usually in flimsy boats.
The crossings have multiplied since 2018 following restrictions at the port of Calais and in the Eurotunnel, which irregular migrants had traversed by hiding in vehicles.
Another father in the Kurdish region, Abu Zaniar, said he too had lost track of his 20-year-old son.
“On November 23 we spoke, but since then there has been no information on his fate,” he said.
A month ago, the young man had left by plane for Turkey, from where he was able to travel illegally to Italy, then France.
“We made an agreement with a smuggler to take him to Britain in exchange for $3,300,” the father said.
During the interview with AFP, the father tried once again to reach the smuggler by phone, but to no avail. The phone was turned off.
The father then called the traffickers’ relatives, telling them: “He had promised us to get Zaniar safely to England.”
“If my son survived this time, I will send him back to Europe,” said Abu Zaniar. “No life is possible in the Kurdistan region; graduates here can’t find work.”
Two years ago, his son had tried to reach Western Europe via Bulgaria, where he was arrested, mistreated in prison, and then deported to Iraq.
According to rescuers, those shipwrecked in the Channel were crammed into a soft-bottomed inflatable boat about 10 meters (32 feet) long.
Only one Iraqi and one Somali were saved.
Could the Iraqi be a man named Mohamed Khaled? His mother, Cheleir Ahmed, thinks so, saying she has received a phone call from her son.
The 22-year-old had gone to Belarus two months ago, before reaching France with the help of smugglers.
“His health is very bad because he stayed in the water for a long time,” his mother said.
“He informed me that he and an African migrant had survived.”
She said her son told her there had been 32 people on the boat, including children and entire families, almost all of whom would have drowned.


UN marks International Day of Solidarity with Palestinian people

Updated 29 November 2021

UN marks International Day of Solidarity with Palestinian people

  • OIC, Arab League, and Palestinian activists addressed UN delegates on Monday
  • ‘If the judge is your enemy, to whom do you complain?’ prominent activist asks UN delegates

NEW YORK: The president of the UN General Assembly and heads of various international organizations marked the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people and called on the international community to recognize their aspirations for self-determination and sovereignty.

Taking place on Nov. 29 every year, the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people is not only an opportunity for parties to express their concern for the plight of the Palestinians, but also an opportunity for the international community to assess progress in resolving the Palestinian question.

Abdulla Shahid, president of the UN General Assembly, said: “Peace in the Middle East has remained at the forefront of the global agenda since the foundation of the UN, and much of that conversation has revolved around implementing a just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

“Scattered across the Middle East and beyond, Palestinian families, uprooted in 1948, are losing hope of ever returning to their original homes, especially as illegal settlements outside of Israel’s demarcated borders proliferate.

“Palestinians in the Gaza strip continue to live in appalling conditions, with limited access to basic amenities and services, including running water, electricity, medicine, and education.”

He added: “Deprived of statehood, they cannot even advocate on their own behalf as a peer member of the global community,” alluding to the fundamental issue for many Palestinians: The lack of a country to call their own.

A representative for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation expressed support for the Palestinian cause in their “struggle to recover their legitimate rights.

He said: “The International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people comes this year at a critical juncture over the Palestinian cause, given the continued practices of Israel, the occupying power, to perpetrate its colonial occupation on Palestinian land.”

Israel does this, he continued, by way of policies based on “aggression, forced displacement, ethnic cleansing, settlement Judaization, land confiscation, destruction of property, and denial of the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people.”

He also specifically highlighted the plight of Palestinian families in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem, many of whom are at risk of imminent eviction by Israeli authorities, warning that Israeli actions “fuel violence and extremism” and threaten to “ignite a religious conflict with unpredictable repercussions.”

Representatives from the Arab League and African Union also spoke, expressing their support for a two-state solution based on 1967 borders.

Also present was Mohammed El-Kurd, a prominent Palestinian activist from Sheikh Jarrah, who told delegates: “Our lives are consumed by the anxiety of living on the brink of homelessness. The UN has called this a war crime, but more importantly: I know this is theft.”

El Kurd expressed his dismay at coming to the platform as one of “countless Palestinians” who have spoken before him at the UN, but have failed to end the colonization of their land — or even make any discernible progress.

He lamented the “quasi-democratic” way in which the Israeli judicial system legitimizes settler claims to Palestinian land and recalled a question asked by his own grandmother, who was expelled from her home during the Nakba, a period in the 1940s of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Israelis.

According to El-Kurd, his grandmother asked: “If the judge is your enemy, to whom do you complain?”