Afghanistan more than doubles coal prices as exports to neighbouring Pakistan boom

Hazara workers prepare to load coal onto a truck in Bamiyan province on October 3, 2021. (AFP/FILE)
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Updated 06 July 2022

Afghanistan more than doubles coal prices as exports to neighbouring Pakistan boom

  • Customs duties from coal exported to Pakistan are a key source of revenue for cash-strapped Afghanistan
  • Sanctions and cut in development aid since Taliban rule last August have severely hampered economy

KABUL:  Afghanistan’s Taliban administration has more than doubled prices for coal, the finance ministry said on Wednesday, as the group seeks to raise revenue from coal exports and shrink its budget deficit after being cut off from international aid.
Customs duties from coal exported to Pakistan are a key source of revenue for cash-strapped Afghanistan. Sanctions on the banking sector and a cut in development aid since the Taliban took control last August have severely hampered its economy.
The Taliban administration last week lifted prices for coal to $200 per ton from $90 per ton, according to finance ministry spokesman Ahmad Wali Haqmal. Around 12,000 to 14,000 tons are exported, mostly to Pakistan, each day. Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities have said they want to move the country away from dependence on foreign aid.
With customs duties increased to 30 percent from 20 percent in May, Afghan authorities will receive $60 per ton, which Haqmal said was expected to make a significant dent in the country’s forecast 44 billion Afghani ($502.11 million) budget deficit this year.
The price hike came just after Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif announced plans last week to import coal from Afghanistan using local currency to save foreign reserves.
“(The timing) was coincidence. Any country would be irresponsible to suddenly lift the price without giving it consideration and study,” Haqmal said.
A Pakistani source said they had received indications weeks ago that the price was being reconsidered.
Pakistan mainly imported coal from South Africa. South African coal prices have been rising in recent weeks due to higher demand from Europe.
Haqmal declined to comment on the decision but had previously said that transactions were between private traders and all customs duties would be collected in Afghanis.
Haqmal added that a team of technical staff had spent weeks studying regional markets, the domestic situation and rising global coal prices in the wake of the war in Ukraine, and settled on the price.
It was calculated with the goal of ensuring Afghan traders could receive as much revenue as possible, while not sparking Pakistani traders to switch to other options, he said.
Authorities were also trying to smooth things over at border crossings — where hundreds of trucks pass each day — so that customs facilities would open 16 hours per day instead of around 12 currently, and to create space for more trucks.


Germany suspends military operations in Mali

Updated 8 sec ago

Germany suspends military operations in Mali

  • The German move comes as Mali’s junta turned away from France and toward Russia in its fight against militancy
BERLIN: The German defense ministry said Friday it had suspended most of its operations in Mali after the local military-led government denied flyover rights to a UN peacekeeping mission.
“The Malian government has once again refused to give flyover rights to a flight planned today” for the rotation of personnel on the ground, a ministry spokesman said at a regular press conference.
In response, Germany had decided to “suspend until further notice the operations of our reconnaissance forces and CH-53 (helicopter) transport flights.”
“It is no longer possible to support the MINUSMA reconnaissance missions on an operational basis,” the spokesman said.
Without the new troops, who were set to “replace French forces” in the process of withdrawing, “security on site is not assured” as the “remaining forces must be kept ready for security operations.”
The flyover rights were refused despite assurances to the contrary from the Malian Defense Minister Sadio Camara in a call with his German counterpart Christine Lambrecht Thursday, the spokesman said.
“Camara’s actions tell a different story than his words,” Lambrecht said in a statement posted by her ministry on Twitter.
The German move comes as Mali’s junta turned away from France and toward Russia in its fight against militancy.
The long-running insurgency has claimed thousands of lives and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.
The relationship between Bamako and Paris, its former colonial power and traditional ally, has deteriorated in recent months.
The arrival of Russian paramilitaries in the country on the invitation of the government was a key factor in France’s decision to pull its military forces out.
The withdrawal is expected to be completed in the coming weeks.

US, Indonesia, Australia hold drills amid China concerns

Updated 31 min 59 sec ago

US, Indonesia, Australia hold drills amid China concerns

  • More than 5,000 personnel from the US, Indonesia, Australia, Japan and Singapore are participating in this year’s exercises

BATURAJA, Indonesia: Soldiers from the US, Indonesia and Australia joined a live-fire drill on Friday, part of annual joint combat exercises on Sumatra island amid growing Chinese maritime activity in the Indo-Pacific region.
A total of more than 5,000 personnel from the US, Indonesia, Australia, Japan and Singapore are participating in this year’s exercises, making them the largest since they began in 2009.
The expanded drills are seen by China as a threat. Chinese state media have accused the US of building an Indo-Pacific alliance similar to NATO to limit China’s growing military and diplomatic influence in the region.
The United Kingdom, Canada, France, India, Malaysia, South Korea, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and East Timor also sent observers to the exercises, which began early this month.
The US Indo-Pacific commander, Adm. John C. Aquilino Aquilino, said the 14 nations involved in the training are signaling their stronger ties as China grows increasingly assertive in claiming virtually the entire South China Sea and holds exercises threatening self-ruled Taiwan.
“The destabilizing actions by the People’s Republic of China as it applied to the threatening activities and actions against Taiwan is exactly what we are trying to avoid,” he said at a joint news conference with Indonesian military chief Gen. Andika Perkasa in Baturaja, a coastal town in South Sumatra province.
“We’ll continue to help deliver a free and open Indo-Pacific and be ready when we need to respond to any contingency,” Aquilino said.
Indonesia and China enjoy generally positive ties, but Jakarta has expressed concern about what it sees as Chinese encroachment in its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
Despite its official position as a non-claimant state in the contested South China Sea, Indonesia has been “dragged along” in the territorial dispute since 2010 after China claimed part of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the northern region of the Natuna Islands, said Connie Rahakundini Bakrie, a security analyst at the University of Indonesia.
The edge of the exclusive economic zone overlaps with Beijing’s unilaterally declared “nine-dash line” demarking its claims in the South China Sea.
Increased activities by Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing boats in the area have unnerved Jakarta, prompting Indonesia’s navy to conduct a large drill in July 2020 in waters around Natuna at the southern portion of the South China Sea.
Indonesia sees the current exercises with the US as a deterrent in defense of the Natuna Islands, while for Washington, the drills are part of efforts to forge a united front against China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, Bakrie said.
“Indonesia wants to send the message that it is fully prepared for any high-intensity conflict in the South China Sea area,” she said.
The joint combat exercises end Sunday.


Afghan girls face uncertain future one year after Taliban school ban

Updated 41 min 47 sec ago

Afghan girls face uncertain future one year after Taliban school ban

  • Some are trying to find ways to keep education from stalling for a generation of young women
  • Underground schools present an alternative, though with limitations

KABUL: For most teenage girls in Afghanistan, it’s been a year since they set foot in a classroom. With no sign the ruling Taliban will allow them back to school, some are trying to find ways to keep education from stalling for a generation of young women.
At a house in Kabul, dozens gathered on a recent day for classes in an informal school set up by Sodaba Nazhand. She and her sister teach English, science and math to girls who should be in secondary school.
“When the Taliban wanted to take away the rights of education and the rights of work from women, I wanted to stand against their decision by teaching these girls,” Nazhand said.
Hers is one of a number of underground schools in operation since the Taliban took over the country a year ago and banned girls from continuing their education past the sixth grade. While the Taliban have permitted women to continue attending universities, this exception will become irrelevant when there are no more girls graduating from high schools.
“There is no way to fill this gap, and this situation is very sad and concerning,” Nazhand said.
The relief agency Save the Children interviewed nearly 1,700 boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 17 in seven provinces to assess the impact of the education restrictions.
The survey, conducted in May and June and released Wednesday, found that more than 45 percent of girls are not going to school, compared with 20 percent of boys. It also found that 26 percent of girls are showing signs of depression, compared with 16 percent of boys.
Nearly the entire population of Afghanistan was thrown into poverty and millions were left unable to feed their families when the world cut off financing in response to the Taliban takeover.
Teachers, parents and experts all warn that the country’s multiple crises, including the devastating collapse of the economy, are proving especially damaging to girls. The Taliban have restricted women’s work, encouraged them to stay at home and issued dress codes requiring them to cover their faces, except for their eyes, though the codes are not always enforced.
The international community is demanding that the Taliban open schools for all girls, and the US and EU have created plans to pay salaries directly to Afghanistan’s teachers, keeping the sector going without putting the funds through the Taliban.
But the question of girls’ education appears to have been tangled in behind-the-scenes differences among the Taliban. Some in the movement support returning girls to school — whether because they see no religious objection to it or because they want to improve ties with the world. Others, especially rural, tribal elders who make up the backbone of the movement, staunchly oppose it.
During their first time ruling Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban imposed much stricter restrictions on women, banning school for all girls, barring women from work and requiring them to wear an all-encompassing burka if they went outside.
In the 20 years after the Taliban were driven from power in 2001, an entire generation of women returned to school and work, particularly in urban areas. Seemingly acknowledging those changes, the Taliban reassured Afghans when they seized control again last year that they would not return to the heavy hand of the past.
Officials have publicly insisted that they will allow teen girls back into school, but say time is needed to set up logistics for strict gender segregation to ensure an “Islamic framework.”
Hopes were raised in March: Just before the new school year was to begin, the Taliban Education Ministry proclaimed everyone would be allowed back. But on March 23, the day of the reopening, the decision was suddenly reversed, surprising even ministry officials. It appeared that at the last minute, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, bowed to the opposition.
Underground schools present an alternative, though with limitations.
A month after the Taliban takeover, Nazhand started teaching street children to read with informal outdoor classes in a park in her neighborhood. Women who couldn’t read or write joined them, she said.
Some time later, a benefactor who saw her in the park rented a house for her to hold classes in, and bought tables and chairs. Once she was operating inside, Nazhand included teen girls who were no longer allowed to go to public school.
Now there are about 250 students, including 50 or 60 schoolgirls above sixth grade.
“I am not only teaching them school subjects, but also trying to teach them how to fight and stand for their rights,” Nazhand said.
The Taliban haven’t changed from their first time in power in the late 1990s, she said. “These are the same Taliban, but we shouldn’t be the same women of those years. We must struggle: by writing, by raising our voice, by any way possible.”
Nazhand’s school, and others like it, are technically illegal under the Taliban’s current restrictions, but so far they haven’t shut hers down. At least one other person operating a school declined to speak to reporters, however, fearing possible repercussions.
Despite her unwavering commitment, Nazhand worries about her school’s future. Her benefactor paid for six months’ rent on the house, but he died recently, and she doesn’t have any way to keep paying for rent or supplies.
For students, the underground schools are a lifeline.
“It is so hard when you can’t go to school,” said one of them, Dunya Arbabzada. “Whenever I pass by my school and see the closed door ... it’s so upsetting for me.”

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UN’s Guterres expresses ‘clear commitment’ to North Korea denuclearization

Updated 12 August 2022

UN’s Guterres expresses ‘clear commitment’ to North Korea denuclearization

  • UN leader: The goal is a ‘fundamental objective to bring peace, security and stability to the whole region’

SEOUL: United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday expressed his “clear commitment” to North Korea’s denuclearization during his visit to Seoul, weeks after Pyongyang said it was “ready to mobilize” its nuclear deterrent.
Guterres arrived in Seoul on Thursday following a trip to Japan, where he gave a speech to mark the 77th anniversary of the world’s first nuclear bomb attack in Hiroshima. He has also been to Mongolia.
“I would like to reaffirm our clear commitment to the full, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, of the DPRK,” he said at his meeting with South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol, using North Korea’s official name.
The goal is a “fundamental objective to bring peace, security and stability to the whole region,” Guterres told Yoon, according to footage broadcast by local media.
Guterres’s comments come as Washington and Seoul officials have repeatedly warned that the North is preparing to carry out what would be its seventh nuclear test.
On Thursday, Pyongyang blamed Seoul for a COVID-19 outbreak in the North and threatened to “wipe out” Seoul’s authorities.
Pyongyang has conducted a record-breaking blitz of weapons tests so far this year, including firing an intercontinental ballistic missile at full range for the first time since 2017.
Last month, the North’s leader Kim Jong Un said his country was “ready to mobilize” its nuclear deterrent in any future military conflict with the United States and Seoul.
Guterres delivered a stark warning against the horrors of atomic weapons in New York at a key nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference last week, which he reiterated in Japan on Monday.
“We are witnessing a radicalization in the geopolitical situation that makes the risk of a nuclear war again something we cannot completely forget,” he said at a press conference in Tokyo.


First export of wheat under UN deal as two more ships leave Ukraine

Updated 12 August 2022

First export of wheat under UN deal as two more ships leave Ukraine

  • Belize-flagged Sormovsky left Ukraine’s Chornomorsk port, carrying 3,050 tons of wheat
  • Marshall Island-flagged Star Laura departed from Pivdennyi, carrying 60,000 tons of corn

ISTANBUL: Two more ships left Ukraine’s Black Sea ports on Friday, including one laden with the first Ukrainian wheat to be exported under a UN-brokered deal, Turkey’s defense ministry said.

A total 14 ships have now departed from Ukraine over the past two weeks, following the deal with Russia to allow a resumption of grain exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, after they were stalled for five months due to the war.

The agreement, brokered by the United Nations along with Turkey, was reached last month amid fears that the loss of Ukrainian grain supplies would lead to severe food shortages and even outbreaks of famine in parts of the world.

The Belize-flagged Sormovsky left Ukraine’s Chornomorsk port on Friday, Turkey’s defense ministry said, carrying 3,050 tons of wheat to Turkey’s northwestern Tekirdag province.

It was the first shipment of wheat from Ukraine, which, along with Russia, accounted for nearly a third of global wheat exports before Feb. 24, when Moscow launched what it describes as a “special operation” to demilitarise its neighbor.

Ukraine has some 20 million tons of grain left over from last year’s crop, while this year’s wheat harvest is also estimated at 20 million tons.

The Marshall Island-flagged Star Laura also departed from the port of Pivdennyi, bound for Iran with 60,000 tons of corn aboard, the ministry said.

So far most of the cargoes under the deal have carried grain for animal feed or for fuel.

There have yet to be shipments to countries most at risk from the global food crisis, although on Thursday Ukraine said a ship is due to come into port that is scheduled to take grain to Ethiopia.

As part of the UN deal, all ships are inspected in Istanbul by the Joint Coordination Center, where Russia, Ukrainian, Turkish and UN personnel work.

The Razoni, the first ship to depart Ukraine under the deal, docked in Turkey on Thursday and was headed to Egypt on Friday, Refinitiv ship tracker data showed, after its initial buyer in Lebanon refused delivery.

Shipping agent Toros, which managed the Razoni’s offloading in Turkey, said on Thursday that the ship would drop off 1,500 tons of its 26,527-ton load of corn in southern Turkey’s Mersin and the rest of it would go to Egypt.

The Rahmi Yagci, which left Ukraine on Tuesday for Istanbul, was anchored on the northern end of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait on Friday, while the Mustafa Necati, which left for Italy on Sunday, was anchored on the southern end.

Four other vessels were approved for travel to Ukraine after being inspected by a JCC team in Istanbul. Turkey’s defense ministry said on Thursday that the ships that arrived in Ukraine were being loaded.

It was not immediately clear when they would leave. The UN has said the number of inbound ships was expected to grow as grain sales are agreed.