First batch of 630 pilgrims from Indian-administered Kashmir leaves for Hajj

Kashmiri Muslim pilgrims wave from a bus as they depart for Saudi Arabia to perform the annual hajj pilgrimage, in Srinagar on June 7, 2022. (AP)
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Updated 07 June 2023

First batch of 630 pilgrims from Indian-administered Kashmir leaves for Hajj

  • Out of India’s Hajj quota of 1,75,025 pilgrims, 12,000 departing from Kashmir region
  • This year’s contingent is the region’s largest-ever embarking on the spiritual journey

NEW DELHI: The first batch of 630 pilgrims from Indian-administered Kashmir performing Hajj this year left for Saudi Arabia on Wednesday from Srinagar airport, an official from the region’s Hajj authority said.

Out of India’s annual Hajj quota of 1,75,025 pilgrims, 12,000 will be departing from the Himalayan region, nearly double Kashmir’s Hajj contingent last year and the region’s largest-ever group embarking on the spiritual journey that is one of the five pillars of Islam.

Special Hajj flights from India started in the last week of May.

“We have the highest quota this year,” Safina Baig, chairperson of the Jammu and Kashmir Haj Committee, told Arab News after 630 pilgrims departed for Jeddah from Kashmir’s main airport in Srinagar.

“It was an emotional scene with many feeling overwhelmed by the opportunity to perform Hajj in their lifetime.”

Most pilgrims were selected through a draw, except for the elderly and women traveling without a mahram, or male guardian.

“Generally, the selection process happens through draw but as a special gesture we are allowing single women and people above 70 to apply directly without going through the process of draw,” Baig said.

Special arrangements had been made by the Indian government for women traveling without a mahram, she said, including separate accommodation and women helpers.

“By Allah’s grace, I got the opportunity to travel alone to perform Hajj,” said Shamima Akhter, 56, a widow from the southern Pulwama district of Kashmir, who is among 120 Kashmiri women pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia alone.

“This is a good decision to allow single women to travel.”

Akhter’s three daughters helped her raise about $5,000 to pay for her Hajj package, which is around $1,000 more expensive for Kashmir compared with other regions of India.

Baig said she had raised the issue of the higher cost with the Ministry of Minority Affairs and the Haj Committee of India.

“What I understand is that the rise in the total expenses is due to higher prices of air fare from Kashmir,” she said. 

“Kashmir is a Muslim majority region, and the government should be more considerate … I feel that the government should provide some relief to the Kashmiri Hajis. It sends a good message.”

Australian government faces legal action for failing to rescue women, children detained in Syrian detention camp 

Updated 7 sec ago

Australian government faces legal action for failing to rescue women, children detained in Syrian detention camp 

  • Australia has effective control over the detention of Australians, Save the Children claims

LONDON: More than 30 Australian women and children detained in a Syrian detention camp are taking legal action against their government, arguing that it has the authority and obligation to repatriate them to Australia, The Guardian reported on Monday. 

The Australians, who are wives, widows and children of dead or jailed Daesh fighters, remain detained inside the Roj camp in northeast Syria. Most have been in the camp for more than four years and some of the children born at the location have never left. 

Many of the women claim their husbands coerced or manipulated them into traveling to Syria. None has been charged with a crime or received a warrant for arrest, The Guardian reported.

The Australians are being forcibly held by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and its military wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Save the Children Australia, which represents 12 Australian women and their 21 children, argues in federal court filings that Australia is a part of the coalition that “specifically supports the AANES to maintain the detention of persons, including women and children.”

According to the court documents, AANES has openly urged coalition countries, including Australia, to repatriate citizens.

There is no safety issue with traveling to camps, the organization added, as journalists, family members, and nongovernmental organization employees often travel in and out.

Save the Children claims that Australia has effective control over the detention of Australians and that the government must prove that the women and children are lawfully detained, or that Australia cannot repatriate them, “or bring their bodies to the court.”

Michael Newton, a Vanderbilt University law school professor, has argued in an affidavit that Australia “enjoys the practical ability, by virtue of exercising de facto authority, to make arrangements for ending the extended detention of Australian women and children in northeastern Syria.”

He added: “As a logical corollary, Australian officials have the means, in my expert opinion, of securing the release and subsequent return of the Australian women and children in northeastern Syria.”

The Australian government has said in court documents that it “does not have control of the remaining Australian women and children” and cannot be forced to return them, The Guardian reported.

It claims it is not responsible for Australians traveling to Syria or being detained, and that camp detention is at the “absolute discretion” of the AANES, over which the government has no power.

Even if repatriation was agreed by Syrian forces, “the commonwealth would need to arrange for their safe repatriation having regard to the security and geopolitical situation that exists at the relevant time.”

Save the Children Australia CEO Mat Tinkler said the legal challenge was necessary because “these innocent Australian children … have been abandoned by their own government.”

He added: “Despite countless opportunities to repatriate these families, the Australian government has ultimately failed in its duty to bring all of its citizens home to safety.”

Eight orphaned children, including a pregnant teenager, were returned to New South Wales in 2019. Four women and 13 children were also rescued from Roj in October last year.

The government has said that it is committed to repatriating all Australians who may be safely evacuated, but has not stated when another operation may be carried out.

Saudi crown prince launches masterplan for new 'Soudah Peaks' luxury tourism project

Updated 25 September 2023

Saudi crown prince launches masterplan for new 'Soudah Peaks' luxury tourism project

  • Soudah situated within extraordinary natural and cultural environment in the Aseer region, southwest Saudi Arabia
  • Project is key part of Public Investment Fund efforts to diversify economy by expanding industries like tourism

RIYADH: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman  has launched the masterplan to develop a new project in the mountainous region of Soudah to present a new face of luxury mountain tourism.

The project called “Soudah Peaks” will see a luxury mountain tourism destination set 3,015 meters being created above sea level on Saudi Arabia's highest peak. It will extend from the region of Souda and parts of Rijal Almaa.

Situated within an extraordinary natural and cultural environment in the Aseer region, southwest Saudi Arabia, the project is a key part of the Public Investment Fund (PIF)’s efforts to diversify the economy by expanding vital industries such as tourism, hospitality, and entertainment, and supporting Aseer development strategy.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Chairman of Soudah Development’s Board of Directors, stated that Soudah Peaks represents a new era of luxury mountain tourism by providing an unprecedented living experience while preserving the natural environment, cultural, and heritage richness. 

It is strategically aligned with Vision 2030 goals of expanding tourism and entertainment, supporting economic growth, attracting investments, contributing more than SAR29 billion to the Kingdom’s cumulative GDP, and creating thousands of direct and indirect job opportunities.

The Crown Prince said: “Soudah Peaks will be a significant addition to the tourism sector in Saudi Arabia and place the Kingdom on the global tourism map, whilst highlighting and celebrating the country’s rich culture and heritage. Visitors will have the opportunity to discover the beauty of Soudah Peaks, explore its rich culture and heritage, and experience the authentic hospitality of the local community. Soudah Peaks will offer unforgettable experiences amidst lush greenery, above the clouds.”

Soudah Peaks aims to offer high-end luxurious hospitality services to over two million visitors throughout the year by 2033. The masterplan is being designed to reflect the local traditional, and architectural styles, and will promote both the cultural and landscape heritage of the region.

The destination will be home to 6 unique development zones: Tahlal, Sahab, Sabrah, Jareen, Rijal, and Red Rock. Each will offer a range of world-class facilities including hotels, luxury mountain resorts, residential chalets, villas, premium mansion sites, entertainment and commercial attractions, as well as outdoor attractions dedicated to sports, adventure, wellness and culture.

Soudah Development will deliver 2,700 hospitality keys, 1,336 residential units, and 80,000 square meters of commercial space for Soudah Peaks by 2033.

Indonesia’s alms agency hopes to increase collaboration with KSrelief  

Updated 25 September 2023

Indonesia’s alms agency hopes to increase collaboration with KSrelief  

  • KSrelief has been supporting vulnerable Indonesians with various programs 
  • Nearly 10 percent of the Indonesian population lives below poverty line  

JAKARTA: Indonesia’s National Alms Agency is hoping for more collaboration in education and humanitarian programs with the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center to promote the welfare of Indonesians, the organization’s top official said on Monday.  

BAZNAS, a government agency responsible for zakat and other Islamic social funds in Indonesia, has experience in working with various international aid agencies, including the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA and UNICEF.  

KSrelief partnered with BAZNAS in 2022 to support Indonesians in need with food aid. This year, the Saudi aid agency also distributed food assistance in 22 Indonesian districts and cities during Ramadan. 

Saidah Sakwan, who heads the distribution and utilization department in BAZNAS, told Arab News that Saudi cooperation is always welcome.  

“BAZNAS is hoping that this cooperation will continue and develop further on other programs for the sake of promoting the welfare of Muslims and other people in the world,” she said. 

With nearly 10 percent of the Indonesian population, or about 26 million people, living below the national poverty line, support from aid agencies is often crucial.  

“The aid distributed by KSrelief means a lot for them to fulfill their daily needs,” Sakwan said, adding that BAZNAS is in talks with KSrelief for an education program for tens of thousands of Indonesian orphans.  

She was part of a high-level BAZNAS delegation visiting KSrelief headquarters in Riyadh in May to discuss ways to advance collaboration.  

“In the future, BAZNAS hopes to continue synergizing with KSrelief to increase cooperation for the public through education and humanitarian programs, as well as poverty alleviation,” Sakwan said.   

“Relations between Saudi Arabia and Indonesia continue to develop. Should this continue positively, it will bring many benefits for the public.”  

Taliban weighs using US mass surveillance plan, met with China’s Huawei

Updated 25 September 2023

Taliban weighs using US mass surveillance plan, met with China’s Huawei

  • Mass camera rollout is part of a new security strategy that will take four years to be fully implemented
  • Preventing attacks by militant groups is at heart of interaction between Taliban and many foreign nations

KABUL: The Taliban are creating a large-scale camera surveillance network for Afghan cities that could involve repurposing a plan crafted by the Americans before their 2021 pullout, an interior ministry spokesman told Reuters, as authorities seek to supplement thousands of cameras already across the capital, Kabul.

The Taliban administration — which has publicly said it is focused on restoring security and clamping down on Daesh, which has claimed many major attacks in Afghan cities — has also consulted with Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei about potential cooperation, the spokesman said.

Preventing attacks by international militant groups — including prominent organizations such as Daesh — is at the heart of the interaction between the Taliban and many foreign nations, including the US and China, according to readouts from those meetings. But some analysts question the cash-strapped regime’s ability to fund the program, and rights groups have expressed concern that any resources will be used to crackdown on protesters.

Details of how the Taliban intend to expand and manage mass surveillance, including obtaining the US plan, have not been previously reported.

The mass camera rollout, which will involve a focus on “important points” in Kabul and elsewhere, is part of a new security strategy that will take four years to be fully implemented, Ministry of Interior spokesman Abdul Mateen Qani told Reuters.

“At the present we are working on a Kabul security map, which is (being completed) by security experts and (is taking) lots of time,” he said. “We already have two maps, one which was made by USA for the previous government and second by Turkiye.”

He did not detail when the Turkish plan was made.

A US State Department spokesperson said Washington was not “partnering” with the Taliban and has “made clear to the Taliban that it is their responsibility to ensure that they give no safe haven to terrorists.”

A Turkish government spokesperson didn’t return a request for comment.

Qani said the Taliban had a “simple chat” about the potential network with Huawei in August, but no contracts or firm plans had been reached.

Bloomberg News reported in August that Huawei had reached “verbal agreement” with the Taliban about a contract to install a surveillance system, citing a person familiar with the discussions.

Huawei told Reuters in September that “no plan was discussed” during the meeting.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said she was not aware of specific discussions but added: “China has always supported the peace and reconstruction process in Afghanistan and supported Chinese enterprises to carry out relevant practical cooperation.”


There are over 62,000 cameras in Kabul and other cities that are monitored from a central control room, according to the Taliban. The last major update to Kabul’s camera system occurred in 2008, according to the former government, which relied heavily on Western-led international forces for security.

When NATO-led international forces were gradually withdrawing in January 2021, then-vice president Amrullah Saleh said his government would roll out a huge upgrade of Kabul’s camera surveillance system. He told reporters the $100 million plan was backed by the NATO coalition.

“The arrangement we had planned in early 2021 was different,” Saleh told Reuters in September, adding that the “infrastructure” for the 2021 plan had been destroyed.

It was not clear if the plan Saleh referenced was similar to the ones that the Taliban say they have obtained, nor if the administration would modify them.

Jonathan Schroden, an expert on Afghanistan with the Center for Naval Analyzes, said a surveillance system would be “useful for the Taliban as it seeks to prevent groups like the Islamic State ... from attacking Taliban members or government positions in Kabul.”

The Taliban already closely monitor urban centers with security force vehicles and regular checkpoints.

Rights advocates and opponents of the regime are concerned enhanced surveillance might target civil society members and protesters.

Though the Taliban rarely confirm arrests, the Committee to Protect Journalists says at least 64 journalists have been detained since the takeover. Protests against restrictions on women in Kabul have been broken up forcefully by security forces, according to protesters, videos and Reuters witnesses.

Implementing a mass surveillance system “under the guise of ‘national security’ sets a template for the Taliban to continue its draconian policies that violate fundamental rights,” said Matt Mahmoudi from Amnesty International.

The Taliban strongly denies that an upgraded surveillance system would breach the rights of Afghans. Qani said the system was comparable with what other major cities utilize and that it would be operated in line with Islamic Sharia law, which prevents recording in private spaces.

The plan faces practical challenges, security analysts say.

Intermittent daily power cuts in Afghanistan mean cameras connected to the central grid are unlikely to provide consistent feeds. Only 40 percent of Afghans have access to electricity, according to the state-owned power provider.

The Taliban also have to find funding after a massive economic contraction and the withdrawal of much aid following their takeover.

The administration said in 2022 that it has an annual budget of over $2 billion, of which defense spending is the largest component, according to the Taliban army chief.


The discussion with Huawei occurred several months after China met with Pakistan and the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, after which the parties stressed cooperation on counter-terrorism. Tackling militancy is also a key aspect of the 2020 troop-withdrawal deal the United States struck with the Taliban.

China has publicly declared its concern over the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an armed separatist organization in its western Xinjiang region. Security officials and UN reports say ETIM likely has a small number of fighters in Afghanistan. ETIM couldn’t be reached for comment.

Daesh has also threatened foreigners in Afghanistan. Its fighters attacked a hotel popular with Chinese businesspeople last year, which left several Chinese citizens wounded. A Russian diplomat was also killed in one of its attacks.

The Taliban denies that militancy threatens their rule and say Afghan soil will not be used to launch attacks elsewhere. They have publicly announced raids on Daesh cells in Kabul.

“Since early 2023, Taliban raids in Afghanistan have removed at least eight key (Islamic State in Afghanistan) leaders, some responsible for external plotting,” said US Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West at a Sept. 12 public seminar.

A July UN monitoring report said there were up to 6,000 Daesh fighters and their family members in Afghanistan. Analysts say urban surveillance will not fully address their presence.

The Afghan “home base” locations of Daesh fighters are in the eastern mountainous areas, said Schroden. “So, while cameras in the cities may help prevent attacks ... they’re unlikely to contribute much to their ultimate defeat.”

Russia puts ICC president on wanted list

Updated 25 September 2023

Russia puts ICC president on wanted list

  • The ICC also issued a warrant against Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights, on similar charges
MOSCOW: Russia said Monday it had placed Piotr Hofmanski, the president of the International Criminal Court, which is seeking the arrest of President Vladimir Putin, on its wanted list.
“Hofmanski Piotr Jozef, Polish. Wanted under an article of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation,” said a notice in the Russian interior ministry database.
The ministry did not provide details of the allegations against Hofmanski.
In March the Hague-based court announced an arrest warrant for Putin on the war crime accusation of unlawfully deporting Ukrainian children.
The ICC also issued a warrant against Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights, on similar charges.
Russia has earlier issued arrest warrants for ICC prosecutor Karim Khan and several judges.
Russia, which is not a member of the ICC, insists the warrant against Putin is “void”.
In September, the ICC opened a field office in Ukraine, as part of efforts to hold Russian forces accountable for Moscow’s offensive in the Western-backed country.