Baztab News

Hundreds Of Taliban Prisoners Freed By Afghanistan Under Cease-Fire Deal

28 May 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

Since early April, Afghanistan has freed some 1,100 Taliban detainees as part of a prisoner-swap deal. The exchange is a precursor to peace talks between the Taliban and an Afghan government delegation aimed at ending the two-decade-old war.​ The agreement was struck in February in Qatar between the Taliban and the United States and lays out a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Afghanistan Frees 900 More Taliban Prisoners

28 May 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

Some 900 Taliban members were freed from Afghanistan's largest prison outside Kabul as part of a prisoner swap under a cease-fire deal. Former detainees were given new clothes outside Pul-e Charkhi prison on May 26, as well as cash and transport home. The prisoner swap was part of a deal struck in February in Qatar between the Taliban and the United States.

Afghans Count Losses Amid Respite In Violence 

25 May 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

As Afghans enjoy a brief respite from violence during a rare cease-fire during the Muslim holy festival of Eid al-Fitr, government officials, Taliban, and international diplomats reflect on the human and material toll this impoverished country is enduring because of fighting.

'No Eid In Our Home': Pakistani Families Mourn Crash Victims

25 May 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

As Fazal Rahmaan, 80 and his wife, Wahida Rahmaan, 74, boarded a plane in the Pakistani city of Lahore on May 22, their family's biggest fear was that they might get catch the coronavirus on their way to spend the holiday in Karachi. Instead the couple, who had been married for 54 years, were among the 97 people killed when an Airbus A320, operated by Pakistan International Airlines, crashed into a Karachi neighbourhood in Pakistan's worst air disaster since 2012. "We held many calls deliberating with doctors and family ... Our biggest concern was that they made the trip safely," said their son, Inam Ur Rahmaan, who instead of welcoming his parents for the Eid al-Fitr holiday found himself picking through the wreckage of flight PK8303 praying for a miracle. "I got in my car and followed the smoke and the ambulances," Rahmaan said. "When I saw the area, I realised that it would be a miracle if they had made it." There were two survivors from onboard the aircraft, while no fatalities were reported on the ground in the densely packed neighbourhood of multi-story homes abutting the eastern edge of Jinnah International Airport where the plane came down. More than two dozen homes were damaged as the airliner roared in, leaving a tangle of severed electric cables and exposed rebar - a broken wing rested against the side of a home, an engine on the ground nearby. The jet fuel set the wreckage ablaze, along with homes and vehicles, sending black smoke into the sky, a Reuters witness said. Crowds rushed to the site, relatives searching for loved ones, rescue workers, and the curious. Scores of ambulances and fire engines jammed the narrow, debris-cluttered streets. One rescue worker told Reuters that two bodies were found with oxygen masks on. Many bodies pulled from the wreckage were charred beyond recognition. The airline's chief executive said on May 22 that the last message from the pilot indicated a technical problem. A team from Airbus was due to arrive on May 25 to investigate, a PIA spokesman said. "They'll provide all possible assistance including decoding the black box," the spokesman said, referring to the flight data recorder. Shahid Ahmed, 45, was at the airport waiting for his mother to arrive. When he reached the crash site he saw rescuers retrieving bodies and people taking selfies. "There was no one responsible at the site. People were busy posing for pictures," said a distraught Ahmed, who lost his mother, Dishad Begum, 75, who was also flying to Karachi for Eid. After scouring the site and failing to find his mother, Ahmed went to look for her in hospitals. "There was no list of the dead or injured at any of the hospitals. It was all chaos and mismanagement," said Ahmed, who sobbed as he recounted the ordeal. "Searching for our mother's body was a nightmare." One of the survivors, engineer Muhammad Zubair, told Geo News the pilot came down to land, briefly touched down, then pulled up again. He announced he was going to make to make a second try shortly before the plane crashed, Zubair said from hospital. "I could hear screams from all directions. Kids and adults. All I could see was fire. I couldn't see any people – just hear their screams," he said. Rahmaan said his family was still in shock. "There's no Eid in our home," he said. Rahmaan said he took some comfort from knowing his parents always wanted to be with each other. "Whatever's happened, whatever the reason behind it, they always wanted to be together. At the end, they were together."

Coronavirus Overshadows Holiday Prayers In Pakistan

25 May 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

Fewer worshippers than in previous years came to Faisal Mosque in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, to pray on the Eid al-Fitr holiday on May 24. Face masks were obligatory to enter the mosque amid the coronavirus outbreak. In Quetta, in Pakistan's province of Balochistan, the main holiday prayers took place outdoors. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

Extreme Weather, More People Drive Pakistan Toward A Wheat Crisis

24 May 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

PIRA FATEHAL, Pakistan -- Gul Muhammad was expecting a decent wheat harvest this year until torrential rains and freak hailstorms in March destroyed the crops on his farm, leaving him with no income and no way to feed his family of 10. "I've never seen such a hailstorm before. I had only heard about such calamities from my forefathers," said Muhammad, 55, as he stood among the crushed stalks in his 2-hectare (5-acre) field in Pira Fatehal, a village in Pakistan's Punjab Province. With the crop their only source of income, "I don't know how we will get by now," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. A pattern of unusually heavy rain, hail, and wind are driving Pakistan toward a food security crisis, climate experts say, with growing wheat shortages causing flour prices to skyrocket as a booming population pushes up demand. Last year, storms late in the growing season left the national wheat harvest more than 1 million tonnes below the government's target of 25.5 million tonnes, according to a report by the country's Senate Standing Committee on National Food Security. Storms have both damaged crops in their path and created ideal conditions for plant-killing diseases, such as humidity-linked wheat rust, said Muhammad Riaz, director general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department. Surveying a devastated field near Muhammad's farm in Pira Fatehal, Abdul Basit, a field assistant with Punjab's agriculture department, said recent storms had ruined more than half of the crops in the village. "This is an arid area where farmers wait a whole year to harvest a single crop, and if that is destroyed they have no alternative to feed their families," Basit told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Less Wheat, More People More than a third of Pakistan's population of more than 200 million faces food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme. Rapid population growth is exacerbating stress on the country's wheat supply, said Syed Muzafar Hussain Shah, chairman of the senate committee on food security. "The country's wheat consumption is rising every year with the population increase, but the crop's per-hectare yield has not increased over the years," he noted. Pakistan's population growth rate of 2.4 percent is the highest in South Asia and almost double the rate of other countries in the region, according to data from the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP). By 2028, the country's demand for wheat is expected to shoot up by about 7 million tonnes to more than 34 million tonnes, Shah said. A government report published in April said the country's looming wheat crisis was the result of a range of factors, including more erratic weather and mismanagement of exports. The Ministry of National Food Security allowed large wheat exports in 2018 and early 2019, based on an expected bumper crop in 2019, the report found. But that crop damaged by rain and hailstorms, the country was left without the surplus it had counted on, the report said. To try to grow the 27 million tonnes of wheat Pakistanis are estimated to need in 2020-21, the government plans to provide farmers with high-yielding seeds, said Javed Humayun, a spokesman for the food ministry. Riaz at the meteorological department agreed hardier seeds are the best way to help farmers adapt to Pakistan's rapid climate shifts. "There is a need to introduce climate-resilient seeds which give more yield in low temperatures and in a shorter time," he said. Bitter Chaff But Mian Umair Masood, secretary general of Pakistan Kissan Ittehad, a farmers' organisation, said the priority should be paying farmers for the crops they have lost in the storms. "The government so far has no policy to compensate those farmers whose wheat fields have been destroyed," he said, adding that the group has made repeated demands for compensation. Farmers said the Punjab provincial government has not addressed the issue of compensation for crops ruined earlier this year. Muhammad Khalid, assistant director of Punjab's agriculture department in Chakwal district, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he had recommended the provincial government pay local farmers to cover their losses. Economist Kaiser Bengali said Punjab province produces over 75 percent of the country's wheat, and low production there could create serious shortages in the country's other provinces. The worry, he said, is that Punjab will hold onto whatever wheat its farmers can grow to make sure its own people are fed. "This will (send) the message that other provinces have to arrange the food staple on their own," he said, adding that none of the other provinces had the resources to grow enough wheat for themselves or the cash to import it. In Pira Fatehal, farmer Muhammad said he had only 160 kilograms (350 pounds) of wheat in his grain silo -- enough to last two months. He already had taken a loan from a friend to buy wheat to feed his family, he lamented. The storms caused so much damage, he said, that he would not even be able to save the husks from his battered crops to use as fodder for the goat, cows, and calves. "Now this chaff will be bitter," Muhammad said, as he looked over his field of ruined, rain-soaked wheat. "My animals won't even eat it." --Thomson Reuters Foundation

Pakistan Goes Wild For Blockbuster Turkish Drama

23 May 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

Dubbed the Muslim Game of Thrones, a drama about the makings of the Ottoman Empire has sent Pakistan wild this Ramadan, smashing television records but exposing the country's lack of original content. The Turkish-made series has earned praise for its focus on historical figures from the Muslim world who have been framed as role models for Pakistani youths, and the Urdu-language version of the show has racked up more than 240 million views on YouTube alone. "I prefer to watch it with kids, so they can have real-life superheroes instead of fictional ones," said Hassam Mustafa as he settled down at his Islamabad home to watch the series with his nieces and nephews after breaking his fast. Resurrection: Ertugrul has gripped audiences with its daring protagonist, cliffhangers and high production values since it began broadcasting on the first day of the Islamic holy month, which is due to end Sunday or Monday. Usually state broadcaster PTV fills its Ramadan programming with live charity fundraisers, quiz shows and religious content. But with the virus stifling television studios, Prime Minister Imran Khan issued special instructions to the broadcaster to air the series in a bid to boost Islamic culture and values among young people. "Over here, we go to Hollywood then Bollywood and back again -- third-hand culture gets promoted this way," Khan told a group of YouTubers recently, referring to the influence of foreign shows. The five-season series tells the story of Ertugrul, the father of Osman I who founded the Ottoman Empire, which ruled parts of Europe, Western Asia and North Africa for more than 600 years. "The response has been incredible, it's really great to see how the show is resonating with Urdu speakers around the world," said Riyaad Minty, digital director of TRT, which produced the series. PTV said viewership has been unprecedented, with the drama fetching ratings five times higher than average. 'Cheap Re-run' Featuring heartthrob heroes, westernised heroines, and picturesque scenery, dozens of Turkish soap operas have made it onto Pakistani television channels since 2012. But a dependence on imported content is a source of frustration for some Pakistani artists, producers and directors who bemoan prime-time slots being given to a foreign show. PTV once used to produce the subcontinent's best soap operas but has suffered in the face of rising competition from private channels. "It is a good opportunity for PTV management to look at themselves, shake their conscience and wonder how they are unable to produce a prime-time drama," Aehsun Talish, a Pakistani drama producer, told AFP. The channel has profited from advertising breaks during the broadcasts but experts warn it is on shaky ground. "It's a cheap re-run, a temporary filling. If we truly want PTV's revival we will have to bank on local talent," Samina Ahmad, a veteran television actress, told AFP. - Turkish soft power - Turkish television has become a major vehicle of soft power, with viewers in the Muslim world becoming voracious consumers of the country's soaps. Resurrection: Ertugrul is another strategic asset for Turkey, said South Asia analyst Michael Kugelman from the Wilson Center think tank. "There's strong backing among many in Pakistan for pan-Muslim solidarity, which translates in many cases to support for strong Muslim leaders from Malaysia to Turkey and many places in between," he said. Turkey has backed Pakistan on the international stage, particularly in the dispute with New Delhi over Kashmir, and the two nations have enjoyed strong relations. Egypt, however, fearing Turkey holds a desire to revive the Ottoman Empire and rule the Arab Muslim world, quickly issued an Islamic legal ruling against the hit show. Saudi Arabia stopped its state broadcaster from airing all Turkish soap operas in 2018. But Pakistan is set for more Turkish dramas, with the prime minister already lining up another show for screening. At Mustafa's home, his nieces and nephews follow the Turk leader's sword battles with excitement in Resurrection: Ertugrul. "This historical Turkish drama has provided us with a nice escape from stereotypical Pakistani dramas, which always centre on the affairs of 'saas-bahu'," he said, referring to relationships between controlling mothers and their daughters-in-law.