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.


Pfizer and BioNTech launch trial of omicron-targeted COVID-19 vaccine

Updated 25 January 2022

Pfizer and BioNTech launch trial of omicron-targeted COVID-19 vaccine

  • The companies plan to study the safety and tolerability of the shots in the more than 1,400 people who will be enrolled in the trial

NEW YORK: Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE said on Tuesday they started a clinical trial to test a new version of their vaccine specifically designed to target the COVID-19 omicron variant, which has eluded some of the protection provided by the original two-dose vaccine regimen.
The companies plan to test the immune response generated by the omicron-based vaccine both as a three-shot regimen in unvaccinated people and as a booster shot for people who already received two doses of their original vaccine.
They are also testing a fourth dose of the current vaccine against a fourth dose of the omicron-based vaccine in people who received their third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine three to six months earlier.
The companies plan to study the safety and tolerability of the shots in the more than 1,400 people who will be enrolled in the trial.
“While current research and real-world data show that boosters continue to provide a high level of protection against severe disease and hospitalization with omicron, we recognize the need to be prepared in the event this protection wanes over time and to potentially help address omicron and new variants in the future,” Pfizer’s head of vaccine research and development, Kathrin Jansen, said in a statement.
Pfizer has said that a two-dose regimen of the original vaccine may not be sufficient to protect against infection from the omicron variant, and that protection against hospitalizations and deaths may be waning.
Still, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a third dose of an mRNA vaccine like the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has provided 90 percent protection against hospitalization due to COVID-19.
Some countries have already started offering additional booster doses, but a recent study from Israel showed that while a fourth dose of an mRNA vaccine boosted antibodies, the level was not high enough to prevent infection by the omicron variant.
BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin told Reuters in November that regulators would not likely require testing of an omicron-based vaccine on humans because it and Pfizer had already created versions of their established vaccine to target the earlier Alpha and Delta variants, with clinical trials continuing.
However, the debate appears to have shifted as the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said in a statement on Friday that international regulators now preferred clinical studies to be carried out before approval of a new vaccine.
These studies should show that neutralising antibodies in the blood of participants are superior to those elicited by current vaccines. Another desired feature of an upgraded vaccine would be for it to also protect against other variants of concern, the EMA said.
The omicron variant has replaced the Delta variant as the dominant lineage in many parts of the world and omicron itself is now splitting into different subforms, one of which, BA2, is causing particular concern.


France’s Macron condemns Burkina Faso coup, says calm prevails for now

Updated 25 January 2022

France’s Macron condemns Burkina Faso coup, says calm prevails for now

  • Macron said his government was following the situation “minute by minute”

PARIS: President Emmanuel Macron condemned on Tuesday a military coup in Burkina Faso, adding that the situation in the West African country had appeared calm in the last few hours.
Macron also told reporters during a trip in central France that he had been informed Burkina Faso’s ousted President Roch Kabore was “in good health” and not being threatened.
Burkina Faso’s army said on Monday that it had ousted President Roch Kabore, suspended the constitution, dissolved the government and the national assembly, and closed the country’s borders.
Macron said his government was following the situation “minute by minute.”


London police investigating Downing Street lockdown parties

Updated 25 January 2022

London police investigating Downing Street lockdown parties

  • The gatherings are already being investigated by a senior civil servant Sue Gray
  • Boris Johnson has apologized for attending a party in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020

LONDON: London police said Tuesday they were investigating Downing Street lockdown parties in 2020 to determine if UK government officials violated coronavirus restrictions, putting further pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The Metropolitan Police Service has launched an inquiry into “a number of events” at Downing Street because they met the force’s criteria for investigating the “most serious and flagrant” breaches of COVID-19 rules, Commissioner Cressida Dick told the London Assembly, the capital’s local government council.
Johnson is facing calls to resign amid revelations that he and his staff attended a series of parties during the spring and winter of 2020 when most social gatherings were banned throughout England, forcing average citizens to miss weddings, funerals and birthdays as friends and relatives died alone in hospitals. The gatherings are already being investigated by a senior civil servant Sue Gray whose report, expected this week, will be crucial in determining whether Johnson can remain in power.
Johnson has apologized for attending a party in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020, but said he had considered it a work gathering that fell within the social distancing rules in place at the time.
In the latest revelation, ITV News reported late Monday that Johnson attended a birthday party in his Downing Street office and later hosted friends at his official residence upstairs in June 2020. His office denied that the gathering violated lockdown regulations, saying that the prime minister hosted a small number of family members outdoors, which was in line with rules at the time.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the police investigation.
“The public rightly expect the police to uphold the law without fear or favor, no matter who that involves, and I have been clear that members of the public must be able to expect the highest standards from everyone, including the Prime Minister and those around him,” Khan said in a statement. “No one is above the law. There cannot be one rule for the government and another for everyone else.”
Police have previously faced criticism for suggesting that they wouldn’t investigate the “partygate” scandal because they don’t routinely investigate historical breaches of coronavirus regulations.
But Dick told the assembly that an investigation was warranted in this case because there is evidence that those involved knew or should have known that what they were doing was illegal, not investigating would “significantly undermine the legitimacy of the law,” and there seems to be no reasonable defense for the conduct.
“So in those cases, where those criteria were met, the guidelines suggested that we should potentially investigate further and end up giving people tickets,” she said.


US combat jet crashes in South China Sea exercise, 7 hurt

Updated 25 January 2022

US combat jet crashes in South China Sea exercise, 7 hurt

  • Details on the crash of the multimillion-dollar aircraft are still being verified

BANGKOK: A US Navy F35C Lightning II combat jet conducting exercises in the South China Sea crashed while trying to land on the deck of an American aircraft carrier, injuring seven sailors, the military said Tuesday.
The pilot was able to eject before the aircraft slammed into the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson on Monday and then fell into the water. The pilot was safely recovered by a helicopter, said Lt. Mark Langford, a spokesman for the US 7th Fleet.
Seven sailors, including the pilot, were injured and three were evacuated for medical treatment in Manila, Philippines, while four were treated on board the ship. The three sent to Manila were reported in stable condition on Tuesday morning, the Navy said.
Details on the crash of the multimillion-dollar aircraft were still being verified, Langford said.
“The status and recovery of the aircraft is currently under investigation,” he said.
Two American carrier strike groups with more than 14,000 sailors and marines are conducting exercises in the South China Sea, which the military says is to demonstrate the “US Indo-Pacific Command Joint Force’s ability to deliver a powerful maritime force.”
Impact to the deck of the USS Carl Vinson was “superficial,” Langford said, and both carriers have resumed routine flight operations.
As China has pressed territorial claims in the South China Sea and increased pressure on Taiwan, the US and its allies have stepped up exercises in the region, in what they call freedom of navigation operations in line with international law.
As the Carl Vinson and Abraham Lincoln strike groups began their dual carrier operations on Sunday, China flew 39 warplanes toward Taiwan in its largest such sortie of the new year, according to Taiwan’s defense ministry.
The formation of 24 Chinese J-16 and 10 J-10 fighter jets stayed out of Taiwanese air space, but the maneuver prompted Taiwan to scramble its own aircraft in response.
Chinese pilots have been flying toward Taiwan on a near-daily basis, and it was unclear if Sunday’s flights were a response to the American exercises. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to comment.
Taiwan and China split during a civil war in 1949, but China claims the island as its own territory. Beijing has used diplomatic and military means to isolate and intimidate the self-ruled island, but the US has continued to support Taiwan by selling it advanced weapons and fighter planes.


German woman in dock over joining Daesh in Syria as teenager

Updated 25 January 2022

German woman in dock over joining Daesh in Syria as teenager

  • Leonora Messing, 21, is on trial on suspicion that she and her husband enslaved a Yazidi woman
  • She joined Daesh in Syria at the age of 15

BERLIN: A German woman who traveled to Syria as a 15-year-old to join Daesh goes on trial on Tuesday accused of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.
Leonora Messing, now aged 21, is in the dock in the eastern German city of Halle on suspicion that she and her Daesh husband enslaved a Yazidi woman in Syria in 2015.
During the course of the trial scheduled to last until at least mid-May and being held behind closed doors, Messing will also face charges of membership of a terrorist organization and weapons law violations.
The high-profile case has prompted soul searching in Germany about how a teenage girl from a small town became radicalized and joined the Islamist cause.
Messing ran away from her home for the Daesh-controlled part of Syria in March 2015.
After reaching Raqqa, then the de facto “capital” of Daesh in Syria, she became the third wife of a German national originally from that region.
Messing’s father, a baker from the German village of Breitenbach, only learned his daughter had converted to a radical brand of Islam by opening her abandoned computer and reading her journal after her disappearance.
Six days after she vanished, her father received a message informing him his daughter “chose Allah and Islam” and that she had “arrived in the caliphate.”
“She was a good student,” her father, Maik Messing, told regional broadcaster MDR in 2019.
“She used to go to a retirement home to read to the elderly. She took part in carnival as a majorette. That was when a lot of the people we know saw her for the last time.”
Messing had been living a double life and was visiting, apparently without her parents’ knowledge, a mosque in the western city of Frankfurt that was in the crosshairs of Germany’s domestic intelligence service.
She is among the more than 1,150 Islamists who left Germany from 2011 for Syria and Iraq, according to government findings.
Her case has attracted particular scrutiny due to her young age, and because her father agreed to be followed for four years by a team of reporters from public broadcaster NDR.
As part of the report, he made public thousands of messages he continued to exchange with his daughter, offering rare insights into daily life under Daesh, but also eventually her attempts to break free.
Prosecutors say Messing took part in human trafficking, after her husband “bought” and then “sold” a 33-year-old Yazidi woman.
Messing, who had given birth to two small girls, wound up detained in a Kurdish-controlled camp in northern Syria.
In December 2020, she was repatriated in one of four operations bringing 54 people, most of them children, back to Germany.
Although she was arrested upon her arrival at Frankfurt airport, Messing was later released.
Germany has repeatedly been ordered by its courts to repatriate the wives and children of Daesh recruits.
A Berlin tribunal had demanded in October 2019 that a German woman and her three children be brought back, arguing that the minors were traumatized and should not be separated from their mother.
There are an estimated 61 Germans still in camps in northern Syria, as well as around 30 people with a link to Germany, according to official estimates.
A German court in November issued the first ruling worldwide to recognize crimes against the Yazidi community as genocide, in a verdict hailed by activists as a “historic” win for the minority.
The Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking group hailing from northern Iraq, have for years been persecuted by Daesh militants who have killed hundreds of men, raped women and forcibly recruited children as fighters.