Families of Pakistan snowstorm victims blame government for 'nightmare' in Murree

A woman cries inside an ambulance after she lost her family member during a heavy snowfall-hit area in Murree, some 28 miles (45 kilometers) north of the capital of Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. (AP)
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Updated 09 January 2022

Families of Pakistan snowstorm victims blame government for 'nightmare' in Murree

  • At least 22 people died on Saturday in freezing temperatures while being stranded in their vehicles in Murree
  • Families say administration should have issued red alert, blocked vehicles from entering the area to watch snowfall

ISLAMABAD: It was on the evening of January 7 that a holiday to the Pakistani mountainside town of Murree to view the winter snowfall turned into a nightmare for Muhammad Bilal.

Bilal, 21, was among tens of thousands of visitors that thronged to Murree this weekend to see unusually heavy snowfall and ended up stuck in a major traffic jam on snow-clogged roads on Friday evening.

At around 4pm, Bilal, who hails from Mardan in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, called his family and said the group, which comprised Bilal, two relatives and a friend, were returning home because of the unmanageable snowfall. During another call at 9pm, Bilal told his family the group’s car was now stuck in a traffic jam.

“His last words were that they will reach back as soon as the road opened,” Muhammad Ghafoor, Bilal’s father, told Arab News via phone from his hometown of Katlang. 




In this photo provided by the Inter Services Public Relations, people walk past vehicles trapped in a heavy snowfall-hit area in Murree, some 28 miles (45 kilometers) north of the capital of Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. (AP)

On Saturday morning, when Bilal’s mother called his cellphone to get an update on his whereabouts, a stranger picked up and told her that her son had been found dead in his car.

Bilal is among at least 22 people who died in Murree in freezing temperatures on the night between Friday and Saturday. Police say some of the victims froze to death in their cars, while others died from asphyxiation after inhaling exhaust fumes in snow-bound vehicles.

“This was so shocking and unbelievable that she [mother] almost fainted,” Ghafoor said. “Then we called on the numbers of the other persons who were with Bilal on the trip and got the same reply from another person .. they discovered their bodies after opening their car doors as they were not responding after multiple knocking on the windows.”

The Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) had predicted heavy snowfall in Murree and the Galiyat mountainous regions from January 6 to 9. But despite appeals by authorities to postpone travel plans due to bad weather and roadblocks, tens of thousands of snow-tourists arrived in Murree, 64 km (40 miles) northeast of the capital Islamabad, in the past two days. 




Women cry inside an ambulance after they lost their family members during a heavy snowfall-hit area in Murree, some 28 miles (45 kilometers) north of the capital of Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. (AP)

The resort town built by the British in the 19th century as a sanatorium for colonial troops clutches the sides of steep hills and its narrow roads are jammed even in good weather. Critics of the government say local authorities were ill-equipped to handle the annual influx of snow-tourists but did not prepare to deal with an emergency amid unusually heavy snowfall. They say even though authorities warned last weekend that too many vehicles were trying to enter Murree, they failed to discourage hordes of day trippers from going up the mountain from the capital.

It was only on Saturday, after the first reports emerged that people may have died, that the administration jolted into action to clear roads and begin rescue work. The army and paramilitary troops were also then called in to assist. An operation to clear roads and rescue stranded people was ongoing on Sunday afternoon.

In a tweet on Saturday, Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has personally promoted tourism to Murree and its surrounding areas, appeared to be blaming the tourists for negligence.

“Unprecedented snowfall & rush of ppl proceeding without checking weather conditions caught district admin unprepared,” Khan said on Twitter.

Ghafoor blamed the government. 




Ambulance carry the dead body of victim after they lost their life after a heavy snowfall-hit area in Murree, some 28 miles (45 kilometers) north of the capital of Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. (AP)

“We accept it as will of Allah,” he said of his son’s death. “But the government should have warned the tourists about severe weather conditions and closed the entry to the hill station to avoid the traffic congestion.”

Zahoor Ahmed, whose cousin was married to another victim, Sohail Ahmed, echoed the sentiment.

“We are not putting blame on anyone but timely response could have saved many lives,” he told Arab News. 

Like Bilal’s family, the Ahmeds too found out about Sohail’s passing because a stranger picked up his cellphone and informed them that he had been found dead with three others in a car. 

Local journalist Tayyab Gondol also traveled to Murree by public transport on Friday to enjoy the snow and said he survived and made it back only because he got off the bus and trundled through the snow on foot. 

“We were on public transport,” he told Arab News. “We were lucky that we were not having our own car, otherwise could have met the same fate.”

His cousin Naveed Iqbal, a police officer from Islamabad, however, was not so lucky. Iqbal died in his car with seven others — three daughters, a son and his sister, niece and nephew. 

When the nightmare struck on Friday evening, Iqbal called Gondol and asked for help, saying his car was stuck amid continuing snowfall.

“After talking to Iqbal, I called every responsible official CTO (chief traffic officer), Murree police officers, local administration and other high officials in Rawalpindi but no one responded with concrete actions,” Gondal said, adding that he kept sharing the live location of Iqbal with various officials but most responded that they were aware of the situation and promised that the roads would be clear “very soon.”

“I received his last message at 4am on Saturday in which he said they were still stuck on the same spot without any help,” Gondol said. 

He lamented that the government had only spring into action once news of the crisis went viral on social media. 

“The administration should have issued a red alert about the weather and snow and stopped vehicles at the toll plaza,” He added. “That could have saved many precious lives.”
 


Pakistan issues fresh guidelines for Eid Al-Adha as COVID-19 cases rise

Updated 05 July 2022

Pakistan issues fresh guidelines for Eid Al-Adha as COVID-19 cases rise

  • Pakistan has had very few COVID-19 cases in recent months and did away with almost all precautions
  • In 24 hours, Pakistan recorded 653 positive cases, nearly double the number at the start of last Monday

ISLAMABAD: The National Command and Operation Center (NCOC), Pakistan’s federal pandemic response body, on Tuesday issued fresh guidelines for Eid Al-Adha, urging people to follow standard operating procedures (SOPs) as coronavirus cases rise across the country.

Pakistan has had very few COVID-19 cases in recent months and did away with almost all precautions.

But over the past 24 hours, the country recorded 653 positive cases, nearly double the number at the start of last Monday, according to NIH data. Over 162 people were reported to be in critical care.

 

“Eid UI Adha prayers should be organized in open spaces under stringent COVID protocols. In case of any compulsion to offer the prayers inside mosques, then all windows and doors should be kept open for ventilation / to minimize the chances of disease spread,” the NCOC said in a statement.

The body said up to three Eid prayers should be organized at a single venue with staggered timings to allow maximum people to offer prayers with COVID-19 protocols in place.

“All ulemas leading Eid prayers should be sensitised to keep sermons ... short so that people remain present in the prayer venues for a brief duration,” the guidelines said. “Efforts should be made to discourage sick, elderly and young children from attending Eid prayers.”

People without face masks should not be allowed to enter the prayer venue, the NCOC said, adding that prayer venues should have multiple entry and exit points and venue organizers should ensure the availability of hand sanitisers.

“It should be mandatory for all coming for prayers to use sanitisers before entering the venue,” the guidelines said.

“To ensure social distancing protocols, venue organizers to ensure prominent marking (6 feet apart) to allow sufficient space/distance between individuals. People should be encouraged to perform abulution at home before coming for the prayers and also bring their own prayer mats to the venue. Efforts should be made to sensitise people to refrain from embracing and handshaking after the prayer to avoid chances of disease transmission. There should not be any gathering at the prayer venue before the prayer and people should be asked to disperse immediately after the prayer.”

The NCOC said efforts would be made to promote and encourage central and collective sacrifices through various public, private and community organizations, while ensuring adherence to COVID-19 protocols of mask-wearing, social distancing and avoidance of crowds.
 


Pakistan approves imports in local currency from neighboring Afghanistan

Updated 05 July 2022

Pakistan approves imports in local currency from neighboring Afghanistan

  • The move is mainly aimed at buying coal to help ease energy shortages
  • Pakistan has shortage of forex reserves to buy LNG, oil in international market 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Tuesday approved imports from neighboring Afghanistan in exchange for local currency, a move mainly aimed at buying coal to help ease an energy shortage.
The decision was taken in a meeting of Pakistan’s Economic Coordination Committee (ECC), a finance ministry statement said.
The ECC approved amendment in the Import Policy Order 2022 “to allow import of goods of Afghan origin against Pak Rupee” for a period of one year, it said.
The move is aimed at importing Afghan coal for Pakistan as it faces an energy crises due to a shortage of foreign reserves to buy LNG or oil in the international market to run its power plants.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif announced plans last week to import coal from Afghanistan using local currency to save foreign reserves.
Islamabad has already announced an easy visa regime for Afghan nationals to help facilitate trade on both sides of the border. An Afghan finance ministry spokesman did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Customs duties from coal exported to Pakistan are a key source of revenue for cash-strapped Afghanistan. Sanctions on the banking sector and the cut in development aid since the Taliban took control last August year have severely hampered its economy.
No country has officially recognized the Taliban government, which has meant international financial assistance has dried up while Afghanistan faces a humanitarian and economic crisis.
The Afghan Taliban have lately stepped up coal exports to Pakistan to generate more revenue from its mining sector in the absence of direct foreign funding.
Kabul has raised duties on sales and increased rates recently.
Pakistan has also been facing an economic crises, with foreign reserves falling as low as hardly enough for 45 days of imports.


Media watchdog demands Pakistan ensure safety as two reporters killed in two days

Updated 05 July 2022

Media watchdog demands Pakistan ensure safety as two reporters killed in two days

  • Gunmen killed Ishtiaq Sodharo of Sindhi weekly Chinag in Khairpur district in Sindh province on July 1
  • Iftikhar Ahmed from Daily Express shot dead in northwestern Pakistani district of Charsadda the next day

ISLAMABAD: The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on Tuesday demanded the Pakistani government ensure the safety of journalists, days after gunmen killed two reporters within two days in two separate incidents.

Unidentified assailants killed Ishtiaq Sodharo, associated with the Sindhi weekly Chinag, in Khairpur district of the southern Sindh province on July 1. A day later, Iftikhar Ahmed, a reporter for the Daily Express, was shot dead in the northwestern Pakistani district of Charsadda. Police are investigating the motive behind Ahmed’s death, including personal enmity, while Sodharo’s wife has alleged he was killed on the orders of a local policeman. 

The IFJ condemned the murders and called on the Pakistani authorities to fulfil their international obligations under Pakistan’s constitution to safeguard press freedom.

“Pakistan’s government must take appropriate measures to ensure journalists’ safety and security, as required by law, and act to reduce assaults on journalists so that they may carry out their work without fear,” the IFJ said in a statement on its website.

Pakistan is considered a dangerous country for journalists who often have to face violence, legal cases, abductions, detentions and threats from both state and non-state actors. 

In May, the country fell 12 points on the World Press Freedom Index from 145 in 2021 to 157 in 2022.


Pakistan concludes Hajj flights, all 83,312 pilgrims arrive in Saudi Arabia

Updated 6 min 17 sec ago

Pakistan concludes Hajj flights, all 83,312 pilgrims arrive in Saudi Arabia

  • 34,453 pilgrims traveled under government scheme and over 48,000 through private operators
  • 52 flights have utilized the Route to Makkah immigration facility at Islamabad airport this year

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s director-general of Hajj in Jeddah said on Tuesday the country’s Hajj flight operation was complete and all 83,312 Pakistani pilgrims had arrived in Saudi Arabia. 

One of Islam’s five main pillars of faith, the Hajj was restricted over pandemic fears to only 1,000 people living in the Kingdom in 2020 and to 60,000 domestic participants last year, compared with the pre-pandemic 2.5 million pilgrims annually. 

This year, after Saudi Arabia lifted COVID-19 restrictions, the kingdom will welcome one million domestic and foreign pilgrims. A quota of 81,132 pilgrims was initially allocated for Pakistan this year, which was later increased by 2,000.

“Our Hajj flights have been completed and all 83,312 Pakistani pilgrims have arrived in Makkah,” DG Hajj, Abrar Ahmed Mirza, told Arab News over the phone from Makkah.

He said 34,453 pilgrims had traveled under the government scheme and over 48,000 through private operators.

“We are now giving them training on Hajj rituals which are starting from Wednesday especially preparing them for Mina, Arafat, and Muzdalifah where pilgrims from all over the world move at the same time,” Mirza said.

Haseeb Ahmed Siddiqui, the director of the Hajj Complex in Islamabad, said 52 flights had utilized the Route to Makkah facility at Islamabad airport this year. 

The Route to Makkah initiative allows pilgrims to fulfil all immigration requirements at the airport of origin. This saves them several hours upon reaching the kingdom since they can enter the country, having already gone through immigration at home. 

“17,077 pilgrims proceeded to the Kingdom under Route to Makkah project using 52 flights this year,” Siddiqui told Arab News.

Adeel Ahmed, a pilgrim from Rawalpindi, said he had no words to express his happiness at being selected for the pilgrimage.

“My name was not part of the first draft and I got a chance at the last moment,” Ahmed told Arab News. “I am unable to share my feelings and happiness as Allah has granted me this privilege to fulfill my dream.” 

Sumera Kiran, another pilgrim from Rawalpindi, expressed satisfaction with arrangements at the airport.

“The [Saudi] government and Pakistani authorities have done very good arrangements at the airport,” she said, adding that she had received her luggage at the hotel.


Pakistan central bank may raise rates by 125 bps to tame 13-year high inflation

Updated 4 min 33 sec ago

Pakistan central bank may raise rates by 125 bps to tame 13-year high inflation

  • The South Asian nation is wrestling with economic turmoil, a fall in reserves and a weakening currency
  • Another hike would increase government debt servicing costs as well as hurt industries, says an economist

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s central bank looks set to raise its key policy rate by 125 basis points at its review on Thursday, as it attempts to tackle 13-year high retail inflation, according to the median estimate in a snap poll of 10 economists and market watchers. 

The economists, analysts and senior professors surveyed were widely split on the quantum of increase by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), with views ranging from 50 to 200 basis points. 

Two respondents did not see a need for a rate increase. 

The central bank raised the benchmark interest rate by 150 bps in May, taking the total increase to 400 bps so far this year to counter rising inflation. 

The South Asian nation is wrestling with economic turmoil, a fall in reserves and a weakening currency. 

Data on Friday showed consumer prices in June leapt 21.3 percent from a year earlier, largely on account of a 90 percent spike in fuel prices since the end of May after the government scrapped costly fuel subsidies. 

With the current policy rate at 13.75 percent and inflation running well above, real interest rates in the economy have turned sharply negative. 

“The last monetary policy committee statement is proof that the State Bank of Pakistan is way behind the curve on anticipating inflation,” said Yousuf Nazar, an economist who writes for various publications and formerly with Citigroup. 

“Another hike would increase government debt servicing costs as well as hurt industries. 

It is not going to have much of an impact on exchange rate or overall demand,” he added. 

Most believed a hike was inevitable, given persistently high global energy prices, the abrupt ending of fuel subsidies as well as the need to control demand after SBP said in its last policy statement the economy had rebounded much more strongly than anticipated. 

“The overall policy mix is geared toward stabilization and demand management,” CEO of Macro Economic Insights Sakib Sherani said, adding that this will induce a sharp slowdown in the economy, possibly a recession, in the short run. 

But Fahad Rauf, head of research at Ismail Iqbal Securities, said he does not see the need to increase rates further. 

“The economy is already slowing down. The layoffs have started and are expected to increase further. 

Further cost pressures would only enhance the burden on industries and workers,” Rauf said. 

“The fiscal arm is working now, tough measures have been taken. SBP needs to wait for the results before further tightening,” he added. 

With Pakistan expecting a restart of the much-awaited bailout package from the International Monetary Fund after the country agreed on some tough economic policy adjustments to promote stability, the SBP’s decision is being closely watched.