Authorities seal 15 hotels in Pakistani resort town for overcharging tourists during snowstorm 

A man uses a shovel to clear snow from his vehicle stuck along a road after a blizzard that started on January 7 abd led to visitors being trapped in vehicles along the roads to the resort hill town of Murree, some 70 kms northeast of Islamabad on January 9, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 12 January 2022

Authorities seal 15 hotels in Pakistani resort town for overcharging tourists during snowstorm 

  • 22 tourists died trapped in cars last week after snowstorm clogged roads and trapped people overnight in freezing weather
  • Stranded tourists share videos on social media saying hotels took advantage of their misery, charged exorbitant rates

ISLAMABAD: Authorities have sealed more than a dozen hotels in the resort town of Murree, local media reported on Wednesday, for overcharging tourists during a snowstorm last week.

Twenty-two tourists died trapped in their cars last Saturday after a storm clogged roads and stranded tourists overnight in freezing weather. 

Police said some of the victims froze to death in their cars, while others died from asphyxiation after inhaling exhaust fumes in snow-bound vehicles. 

Videos of tourists stranded in Murree during the snowstorm circulated on social media, with many saying hotels in the resort town had taken advantage of stranded people and overcharged them. 

One tourist who managed to leave Murree before the storm began said hotels that normally charged Rs4,000 for a night were demanding up to Rs20,000 for rooms that didn’t even have heaters. 

“The Assistant Commissioner of Murree has sealed hotels located on Kuldana Road, Upper Jhika Gali Road, Bank Road and Abu Dhabi Road after receiving complaints on social media of overcharging and other offenses,” the deputy commissioner of Rawalpindi said on Twitter.

Rawalpindi police also said they had arrested a man for swindling stranded tourists.

According to a tweet by Rawalpindi police, the suspect would deliberately shovel snow onto the roads so cars would get trapped.

“When vehicles would get stuck, he would ask for a significant amount of money in return for towing the car with the help of his jeep,” police said.

On Tuesday, Information Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain told reporters the government was introducing new tourist laws and would ‘revamp’ the district administration in Murree in light of the deaths of the snow-tourists. 


'Mack Solo': Weather delays Karachi landing of youngest pilot on round-the-world record attempt

Updated 15 sec ago

'Mack Solo': Weather delays Karachi landing of youngest pilot on round-the-world record attempt

  • 17-year-old Mack Rutherford inspired by sister who became youngest woman to fly solo around the world
  • Had to cancel scheduled flight from Dubai to Karachi on Thursday afternoon due to unfavorable weather 

KARACHI: A 17-year old Belgian-British pilot who is attempting to become the youngest person to fly across the world solo in a small plane canceled his scheduled flight to Karachi from Dubai on Thursday afternoon due to unfavorable weather conditions, his team said.

Mack Rutherford was scheduled to land in Karachi at 2pm PST and stay for two-days before flying onwards to the Indian city of Ahmedabad as part of his journey to fly to 52 countries in five continents to break the record of Travis Ludlow, who completed the feat in 2021 at 18.

Rutherford will now re-attempt to fly to the Pakistani port city on Friday morning.

Rutherford comes from a family of aviators and was inspired to take on his latest journey by his sister, Zara Rutherford, who in January this year became the youngest woman to fly solo around the world. He wanted to fly since he was eleven, having flown hundreds of hours with his father who is a professional pilot. He received his microlight pilot’s license when he was 15.3 years old, making him at the time the youngest pilot in the world.

“With this trip, I hope to show that young people can make a difference and that you don’t have to wait until you are 18 to follow your dreams,” Rutherford told Arab News from Dubai. “You can start working toward them now.”

“I am expecting an amazing and unique experience in Pakistan,” he added. “I have heard Pakistan is very different from other places with deserts and mountains and I can’t wait to see it for myself.”

“I am happy to find out what the local food is and try it out,” he added.

Rutherford started his journey in March from Sofia, Bulgaria, from where he flew south across the Mediterranean and through the Sahara to the Congolese jungle. Turning east through Mozambique and Madagascar, he reached the far eastern Mauritius island of Rodrigues. He then north through his first antipodal point before continuing through the Seychelles and the Yemeni island of Socotra.

He then went onwards through Oman and the UAE. Rutherford arrived in Dubai five weeks ago and struggled to get an Iranian visa but changed his plan and decided to skip Iran. He also couldn’t make it to Russia due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

He will now fly onwards to India, China, South Korea and Japan, then enter Alaska and go down the West Coast of the US, to Baja California, and a small island in the Pacific, Isla Socorro, his second and last antipodal.

The last leg of Rutherford’s journey will take him through mainland Mexico and Texas, to New York and Canada. He will also visit Greenland and Iceland to cross the Atlantic to Scotland before continuing through England to Belgium and returning to Sofia.

“I want to use the opportunity to meet young people on my route who do incredible things, making a difference to their communities or even to the world,” Rutherford said. “Often few people know about them. Together we can show that young people make a difference.”

Rutherford said his journey had been “amazing” so far.

“I had some amazing flights over Kenya and Sudan,” he told Arab News. “Where I was able to see incredible deserts and wildlife.”


Pakistani policeman killed, 4 wounded in hand grenade attack

Updated 07 July 2022

Pakistani policeman killed, 4 wounded in hand grenade attack

  • Officers transported the dead and wounded to a nearby hospital after the assault in Mardan
  • No one immediately claimed responsibility and the attackers’ identities were not released

PESHAWAR: Attackers threw a hand grenade at a roadside police post in northwest Pakistan on Thursday, killing an officer and wounding four people before fleeing the scene, local officials said.

No one immediately claimed responsibility and the attackers’ identities were not released after the assault in Mardan, a district in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan.

Police spokesman Adnan Khan said officers transported the dead and wounded to a nearby hospital. He provided no further details and said officers were still investigating.

Pakistan’s northwestern former tribal regions share a lengthy porous border with Afghanistan and for years served as a safe haven for militants. The military carried out massive operations to clear the area, forcing the militants to escape into Afghanistan or hide in other areas near the border. 


'In the mouth of dragons': Melting glaciers threaten Pakistan’s north

Updated 07 July 2022

'In the mouth of dragons': Melting glaciers threaten Pakistan’s north

  • Pakistan is home to more than 7,000 glaciers, more than anywhere else on Earth outside the poles 
  • Rising global temperatures linked to climate change are causing the glaciers to rapidly melt 

HASSANABAD, Pakistan: As dawn broke over Javed Rahi’s Pakistani mountain village, a loud boom shattered the silence and a torrent of water came cascading down from the melting glacier nearby, followed by a thick cloud of smoke.

Rahi, a retired maths teacher, had been due to attend his nephew’s wedding the day the flood rushed through the village of Hassanabad.

“I expected women and children to sing and dance... Instead I heard them screaming in terror,” the 67-year-old said.

“It was like doomsday.”

In this picture taken on June 9, 2022, the remains of two electrical power stations are seen after they were swept away by a lake outburst because of a melting glacier, in Hassanabad village of Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan region. (AFP)

The flood — which occurred as a heatwave was gripping South Asia in May — swept away nine homes in the village and damaged half a dozen more.

The water also washed away two small hydro plants and a bridge that connected the remote community to the outside world.

In this picture taken on June 9, 2022, locals and tourists drive through a temporary bridge after the main bridge was swept away by a lake outburst because of a melting glacier, in Hassanabad village of Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan region. (AFP)

Pakistan is home to more than 7,000 glaciers, more than anywhere else on Earth outside the poles.

Rising global temperatures linked to climate change are causing the glaciers to rapidly melt, creating thousands of glacial lakes.

The government has warned that 33 of these lakes — all located in the spectacular Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges that intersect in Pakistan — are at risk of bursting and releasing millions of cubic meters of water and debris in just a few hours, like in Hassanabad.

At least 16 such glacial lake outburst floods linked to heatwaves have occurred this year already, compared with an average of five or six per year, the Pakistani government said earlier this week.

The devastation caused by such floods makes recovery for impacted communities an arduous task.

After disaster struck Hassanabad, Rahi and fellow villagers who lost their homes had to move to a nearby camp for displaced people.

In this picture taken on June 9, 2022, local resident Javed Rahi shows damages in his home caused by a lake outburst because of a melting glacier, in Hassanabad village of Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan region. Pakistan is home to more than 7,000 glaciers, more than anywhere else on Earth outside the poles. (AFP)

Inside their makeshift tents are the few belongings they managed to salvage and mattresses to sleep on.

“We never thought we would fall from riches to rags,” Rahi said.

In this picture taken on June 9, 2022, local residents pick cherries from a tree beside tents setup after their homes were swept by a lake outburst because of a melting glacier, in Hassanabad village of Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan region. (AFP)

Pakistan is the world’s eighth most vulnerable country to extreme weather caused by climate change, according to the Global Climate Risk Index compiled by the environmental NGO Germanwatch.

The country is experiencing earlier, hotter and more frequent heatwaves, with temperatures already hitting 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) this year.

Floods and droughts in recent years have killed and displaced thousands of people, destroyed livelihoods, and damaged infrastructure.

In this picture taken on June 9, 2022, residents removes a door from a damaged house after a lake outburst because of a melting glacier in Hassanabad village of Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan region. (AFP)

According to the UN Development Programme, a lack of information on glacial changes in Pakistan makes it difficult to predict hazards originating from them.

Although Hassanabad had an early warning system in place — including cameras that monitor water flow in glacial lakes — the villagers believed they were living high enough above the water to avoid any impact, according to local officials.

Zahida Sher, who lost her home in the Hassanabad flood, said the power of the water took out buildings that had previously been considered safe.

The mountain communities depend on their livestock, orchards, farms and tourism for survival, but climate change threatens all of it.

“Our economy is agrarian and people don’t have enough resources to move from here,” said Sher, a researcher for a local development NGO.

In this picture taken on June 9, 2022, residents removes a door from a damaged house after a lake outburst because of a melting glacier in Hassanabad village of Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan region. (AFP)

Siddique Ullah Baig, a disaster risk reduction analyst in the northern region, said around seven million people are vulnerable to such events, but many are not aware of the gravity of the threat.

“People are still constructing homes in areas declared as a red zone for flooding. Our people are not aware and prepared to deal with any possible disaster,” he told AFP.

Further north of Hassanabad lies Passu, another precarious hamlet that has already lost around 70 percent of its population and area after being hit by floods and natural river erosion.

The village is sandwiched between White glacier in the south, Batura glacier in the north and the Hunza River in the east — three forces given the respectful title of “dragons” because of their destructive power.

“Passu village lies in the mouths of these three dragons,” said local scholar Ali Qurban Mughani, pointing to the centuries-old bodies of dense ice towering over the village.

As he spoke, laborers worked on a protective concrete wall on a riverbank — a bid to shield the village from further erosion.

Kamran Iqbal invested 500,000 rupees (around $2,400) that he borrowed from a local NGO to open a picnic spot for visitors with a breathtaking view.

The beauty of the glaciers has made the region one of the country’s top tourist destinations.

Business was flourishing until a “horror night” last year when a flash flood washed away Iqbal’s investment.

Even the most ambitious international climate targets of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century could lead to the melting of one third of Pakistan’s glaciers, the Nepal-based scientific organization the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development said in a 2019 study.

“In 2040 we could start facing problems of (water) scarcity that could lead to drought and desertification — and before that we may have to cope with frequent and intense riverine flooding, and of course flash floods,” said Aisha Khan, head of the Mountain and Glacier Protection Organization, which researches glaciers in Pakistan.

Home to more than 220 million people, Pakistan says it is responsible for less than one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet it remains highly vulnerable to climate change impacts, dependent on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture and natural resources.

“There are no factories or industries here that can cause pollution... We have a clean environment,” said Amanullah Khan, a 60-year village elder in Passu.

“But when it comes to the threats posed by climate change, we are at the forefront.”

Asif Sakhi, a political activist from Passu, said mountain communities were increasingly fearful about the perils posed by glaciers.

“This area belongs to glaciers; we have occupied it,” the 32-year-old said. 


Pakistan reports highest single-day coronavirus death toll in almost four months

Updated 07 July 2022

Pakistan reports highest single-day coronavirus death toll in almost four months

  • Pakistan reports 3.77% positivity rate, 872 new infections on Thursday
  • As coronavirus cases rise, Pakistan urges caution ahead of Eid holidays

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s health ministry on Thursday reported nine deaths from coronavirus, the highest single-day death toll since March 8, signaling a rise in the South Asian country’s cases of the infection.   

After reporting a significant decline in coronavirus cases over the past couple of months, Pakistan did away with almost all coronavirus restrictions. However, in recent weeks, the country has seen a spike in COVID-19 infections.

The national COVID-19 positivity ratio rose to 3.77 percent in the last 24 hours as nine people passed away from the infection, the National Institute of Health (NIH) said on Thursday. The last time Pakistan reported nine deaths from the infection was on March 8.

Health authorities conducted 23,125 coronavirus tests in the last 24 hours, of which 872 turned out to be positive. Over 165 patients are currently in critical care across the country.

Pakistan disbanded the National Command and Operations Center, its main pandemic response body, on March 31 as infections fell to the lowest since the outbreak began in 2020.

However, on May 23, Pakistan reconstituted the NCOC at the NIH after health officials detected a new omicron sub-variant in a passenger arriving from Qatar. The new Omicron sub-variant is said to be highly infectious, though not as deadly as previous coronavirus strains.

This week, the NCOC issued fresh guidelines for Eid Al-Adha.

“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 earlier this week.

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 prayer venues, the NCOC said, adding that prayer venues should have multiple entry and exit points and venue organizers should ensure the availability of hand sanitisers.

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 the COVID-19 protocols of mask-wearing, social distancing and avoidance of crowds.


'Bad idea': Pessimism over outcome as Pakistan formally okays talks with local Taliban 

Updated 07 July 2022

'Bad idea': Pessimism over outcome as Pakistan formally okays talks with local Taliban 

  • Parliamentary Committee on National Security on Tuesday formally approved negotiations with TTP militants
  • TTP extended cease-fire indefinitely after talks with Pakistani tribal elders mediated by Afghan Taliban in June 

ISLAMABAD: Experts this week called holding negotiations with local Taliban militants “the only solution” for the government to end militancy in the country but many were skeptical about whether the process would lead to a positive outcome after having failed in the past.

The Pakistani Taliban — known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — has carried out some of the bloodiest attacks inside Pakistan since 2007, including a 2014 assault on a school in which 134 students were killed. The group is not directly affiliated with the Afghan Taliban, but pledges allegiance to them.

Pakistan has since 2007 carried out a number of military operations against the TTP, but, despite reducing the militant group’s footprint, with most fighters fleeing to neighboring Afghanistan, it has not been able to fully stop attacks, which had begun to rise again along its western border in recent months.

On June 4, the TTP extended a cease-fire with the government for an indefinite period, after two-day talks with a delegation of Pakistani tribal elders facilitated by the Afghan Taliban, who head the government in Kabul since US-led forces withdrew last year.

This week, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chaired an in-camera meeting in Islamabad attended by over 100 lawmakers and officials to deliberate on talks with the Pakistani Taliban. The Parliamentary Committee on National Security subsequently gave its formal approval to hold the talks and also set up a parliamentary committee to oversee the process and ensure it was carried out within the ambit of the constitution.

Pakistan media has widely reported that at the heart of talks is an offer to accommodate the TTP with a safe passage back to Pakistan from Afghanistan in exchange for the group agreeing to a long-term cease-fire, dissolving its organization and possibly even joining mainstream politics.

“Pakistan wants to do it [talks] because the militancy problem is not over and they have realized that the only solution to this problem is that local Taliban should be integrated into the mainstream,” Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Kabul, told Arab News on Wednesday.

“Because for how long can military operations go on?”

Though the Afghan Taliban were brokering talks with the TTP as they had to uphold an international obligation not to let any militants use Afghan soil to attack another country, Mohmand said the Kabul government also did not want to push the TTP forcibly to come to the table or agree to a deal.

Afghan Taliban leaders have in the past openly praised the TTP for its contributions to the insurgency against the United States and the former Afghan government, and hinted that it can’t abandon the Pakistani affiliate.

“Afghan Taliban are the facilitators and they are playing this role because for some time TTP fighters fought with them in Afghanistan,” Mohmand added. “But if they [Afghan Taliban] will force them toward Pakistan, then TTP will blame them for their arrests [in Pakistan].”
 
Speaking about the main demands of the militant group, the diplomat said the TTP wanted a resolution of the issue of missing persons, compensation for losses caused to them during military operations, and for Pakistan to scrap a 2018 law that did away with the semi-independent status of the former tribal regions, FATA, that dates back to British colonial rule.

The TTP also wants a substantial reduction of Pakistani military forces from the former tribal areas, which border Afghanistan and where the group was mostly harboring before being driven out through military operations.

“Government will not accept the revival of the tribal system as it requires a constitutional amendment,” Mohmand said. “Also, there is little hope on missing persons, so in reality, they can only move forward on the compensation issue.”

Abdul Basit Khan, a research fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the government’s negotiations with the TTP were a “sensible move” to reduce violence in Pakistan’s border regions.

“Pakistan wants to reduce violence and they have achieved it as due to the cease-fire, attacks have already gone down,” Khan told Arab News, adding that there was “no military solution” to the TTP problem.

“Parliamentary committee on national security has taken a clear position that only those demands which fall within the Pakistani constitutional framework will be accepted and any demand contradictory to it will not be accepted, such as reversal of FATA merger,” Khan said. “And TTP will also not be allowed to keep arms even if it is repatriated to Pakistan.”

Former diplomat, Ayaz Wazir, supported the talks but was skeptical there could be “permanent solution” unless the people of the former tribal regions were included in the decision-making process. 

“The real problem with the decision-makers is that they never take people of FATA into the confidence, neither at the time of military operations, nor during the merger, and that vacuum has always provided space to the TTP to resurface,” he said. 

Last year, the two sides had agreed to a cease-fire but talks broke down due to a disagreement over the release of TTP prisoners held by Pakistan, according to local media.

Another analyst, retired Brig. Mahmood Shah, a former chief of security in the tribal areas, said another round of negotiations with TTP after previous failures was a “bad idea” that was bound to fail. He also said the Pakistani constitution did not allow for talks with any group that challenged the nation’s sovereignty. 

“These talks cannot succeed and will never produce a sustainable solution as TTP will not back down from its core ideology and keep pursuing it with the use of violence as a tool,” Shah told Arab News.

Between 2006 and 2015, nearly 50 militant groups declared war on the Pakistani state, conducting over 16,000 terror attacks, according to government figures. More than 80,000 people have been killed in the violence, which cost over $150 billion in losses to the Pakistani economy and drove 3.5 million people from their homes in the tribal regions where military operations were carried out.

“Pakistan have thrown them [TTP] out of tribal areas after extensive military operations and a lot of sacrifices,” said. “What was the rationale of all those previous actions if they will now be allowed to return?”