KABUL: One hundred and sixty-six people have died in a wave of bitterly cold weather sweeping Afghanistan, an official said on Saturday, as extreme conditions heaped misery on the poverty-stricken nation.
Afghanistan has been frozen by temperatures as low as -33 degrees Celsius since Jan 10, combined with widespread snowfall, icy gales and regular electricity outages.
Aid agencies had warned before the cold snap that more than half of Afghanistan’s 38 million people were facing hunger, while nearly four million children were suffering from malnutrition.
The disaster management ministry said on Saturday the death toll had risen by 88 over the past week and now stood at 166, based on data from 24 of the nation’s 34 provinces.
The deaths were caused by floods, fires and leaks from gas heaters that Afghan families use to heat their homes, ministry official Abdul Rahman Zahid said in a video statement. Some 100 homes were destroyed or damaged and nearly 80,000 livestock, a vital commodity for Afghanistan’s poor, also died in the cold.
ISTANBUL: Outrage over a Quran-burning protest in Sweden produced a second day of protests in Turkey, reflecting tensions between the two countries. Some 250 people gathered outside the Swedish Consulate in Istanbul, where a photo of Danish anti-Islam activist Rasmus Paludan was set on fire. Paludan burned Islam’s holy book outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm on Saturday, sparking protests in Istanbul and Ankara that night. Participants in Sunday’s event carried green flags featuring the Islamic proclamation of faith and banner that said “We condemn Sweden’s state-supported Islamophobia.”
People chant slogans during a small protest outside the Swedish consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. Turkey on Saturday canceled a planned visit by Sweden’s defense minister in response to anti-Turkish protests that increased tension between the two countries as Sweden seeks Turkey’s approval to join NATO. (AP)
A sign on a window of the Swedish Consulate read, “We do not share that book-burning idiot’s view.” The protests have renewed concerns about Turkey holding up Sweden and Finland’s bid to join NATO. Turkey has not yet ratified the Nordic nations’ memberships in the military alliance, saying Sweden needs to address Ankara’s security concerns. Turkish officials slammed Sweden for allowing the Quranburning protest but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not comment on it during his weekend speeches.
LONDON: A recently released BBC documentary on Narendra Modi has created a storm in India, where the government has resorted to blocking content discussing the film on social media.
The two-part documentary titled India: The Modi Question was aired on the BBC on January 17, with episode two scheduled for release on Tuesday. Part one tracks the rise of Mr Modi, the prime minister of India, his association with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as well as his controversial role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat, where he served at the time as chief minister. Massive religious riots broke out in 2002 after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set on fire, killing dozens. In the aftermath, more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in the outbreak of violence.
“Seen by the west as an important bulwark against Chinese domination of Asia, he has been courted as a key ally by both the US and the UK. Yet Narendra Modi’s premiership has been dogged by persistent allegations about the attitude of his government towards India’s Muslim population,” reads the intro for the documentary, adding that the film investigates the “truth behind these allegations and examines Modi’s backstory”.
The documentary includes an old clip of Mr Modi giving a rare press interview to a British journalist, who later described him as “charismatic, powerful, [and a] quite menacing figure.” In the archival clip, Mr Modi dismisses the questions asked by the journalist regarding the rights of minorities, and dismisses the questions as “false propaganda”.
New Delhi tells two social media giants to block first episode; next installment to air on Tuesday
Although most of the documentary is based on archival footage and Mr Modi’s own public videos, it includes a startling revelation about a secret British probe held into the Gujarat riots.
The previously unpublished report, obtained by the BBC from the UK Foreign Office, raises questions about Mr Modi’s role during the riots of 2002. The report claims that Mr Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that enabled the violence.
Jack Straw, who was foreign secretary under Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair from 2001 to 2006, talks about the probe and its findings in the film. “I was very worried about it. I was taking a great deal of personal interest, because India is a really important country with whom we have relations. We had to handle it very carefully,” he told the BBC.
Mr Straw said, “What we did was to establish an inquiry and have a team go to Gujarat and find out for themselves what had happened. And they produced a very thorough report.” He added, “It was very shocking. These were very serious claims that chief minister Modi had played a pretty active part in pulling back the police and in tacitly encouraging the Hindu extremists.
“That was a particularly egregious example of political involvement, really to prevent the police from doing their job, which was to protect both communities, Hindus and Muslims. The options open to us were fairly limited. We were never going to break diplomatic relations with India. But it is obviously a stain on his reputation. There’s no way out of that.”
The Indian government has slammed the documentary, with Indian foreign ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi saying it “lacked objectivity and was propaganda”.
“We think this is a propaganda piece. This has no objectivity. This is biased. Do note that this hasn’t been screened in India. We don’t want to answer more on this so that this doesn’t get much dignity.”
In addition, India’s Information and Broadcasting Ministry told two social media giants to block the first episode of the BBC documentary, according to Indian media reports.
“The ministry told Twitter to remove over 50 tweets on the documentary by Britain’s national broadcaster, the people said,” NDTV reported.
On Twitter, pro-Modi British citizens and pro-BJP media criticised the documentary and questioned why an “anti-Modi narrative” was being peddled.
But journalists critical of Mr Modi and the BJP regime said the documentary was revealing, and the government’s knee-jerk reaction to block tweets and YouTube videos was “not a good look for India”.
In the UK, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak brushed aside a question asked by Imran Hussain, the Labour MP for Bradford East, who said the documentary showed “the extent of Narendra Modi’s involvement in the Gujarat massacre that paved the way for the persecution of Muslims and other minorities that we see in India today.”
Mr Sunak said, “The UK government’s position on that is clear and longstanding, and it has not changed. Of course, we do not tolerate persecution anywhere, but I am not sure that I agree at all with the characterisation that the Hon. Gentleman has put forward.”
KYIV: Germany faced a strong backlash from allies on Saturday over its refusal to supply Ukraine with its vaunted Leopard tanks to bolster its fighting capacity in the nearly year-long war with Russia.
Some 50 nations on Friday agreed to provide Kyiv with billions of dollars’ worth of military hardware including armoured vehicles and munitions needed to push back Russian forces.
On the sidelines of an event at the US Ramstein Air Base, German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius told reporters that despite heightened expectations, “we still cannot say when a decision will be taken, and what the decision will be, when it comes to the Leopard tank.”
Ukraine, however, denounced the “global indecision” of its allies on providing heavy-duty modern tanks, saying “today’s indecision is killing more of our people”. “Every day of delay is the death of Ukrainians. Think faster,” presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted.
Berlin has been hesitant to send the Leopards or allow other nations to transfer them to Kyiv, with reports earlier in the week saying it would agree to do so only if the US provided its tanks as well. Washington has said providing its Abrams tanks to Ukraine is not feasible, citing difficulties in training and maintenance.
US officials spoke of a possible campaign by Ukraine to retake parts of its territory in coming weeks. US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley pointed to the substantial amount of equipment that Ukraine was being pledged at Ramstein and said, “I do think it’s very much possible for the Ukrainians to run a significant tactical or even operational-level offensive operation to liberate as much Ukrainian territory as possible.”
DAVOS: After extending the term of a $3 billion deposit to boost its foreign-currency reserves late last year, Saudi Arabia’s finance minister has said his country is also discussing with the World Bank and other institutions how can it be “more creative to provide that support” to Pakistan.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Mohammed Al-Jadaan also indicated the kingdom is changing the way it provides assistance to allies, shifting from previously giving direct grants and deposits unconditionally.
“We used to give direct grants and deposits without strings attached and we are changing that. We are working with multilateral institutions to actually say we need to see reforms,” the minister said.
“We are taxing our people, we are expecting also others to do the same, to do their efforts. We want to help but we want you also to do your part.”
Earlier this month, Saudi state media reported the kingdom could boost its investments in cash-strapped Pakistan to $10 billion, from the $1 billion announced in August, as well as increase the ceiling on deposits into the Pakistan central bank to $5 billion.
“We are providing even oil and derivatives to support their energy needs,” Al Jadaan said. “So there is a lot of efforts, but we wanted this to be conducted.”
Separately, the minister also indicated that Saudi Arabia is open to discussions about trade in currencies other than the US dollar.
“There are no issues with discussing how we settle our trade arrangements, whether it is in the US dollar, whether it is the euro, whether it is the Saudi riyal,” Al-Jadaan told Bloomberg TV on Tuesday.
“I don’t think we are waving away or ruling out any discussion that will help improve the trade around the world,” he said.
The world’s largest oil exporter, which has maintained a currency peg to the dollar for decades, is seeking to strengthen its relations with crucial trade partners including China. The kingdom is a pillar of the petrodollar system established in the 1970s that relies on pricing crude exports in the US currency.
Asked about Saudi ties with major trade partner China, Jadaan said Riyadh was taking a “wider approach” in which relations with both Beijing and Washington were important as well as building ties with other countries.
“We are looking to enhance our relationship with Europe. We are actually advancing our relationship with Latin America, with Asia,” he said.
During President Xi Jinping’s visit to Riyadh last year, the two countries agreed to boost coordination on energy policy and exploration. During that trip Xi said that China would make efforts to buy more oil from the Middle East and also wanted to settle that trade in the yuan.
“We enjoy a very strategic relationship with China and we enjoy that same strategic relationship with other nations including the US and we want to develop that with Europe and other countries who are willing and able to work with us,” Al-Jadaan said.
US President Joe Biden’s counsel said on Saturday that five additional pages with classified markings were discovered at the president’s Wilmington, Delaware, home on Thursday, and were immediately handed to Justice Department (DOJ) officials.
Biden’s special counsel, Richard Sauber, said he travelled to Biden’s Wilmington home on Thursday to facilitate the handover to the Justice Department of a document with classified markings that was found there earlier.
“While I was transferring it to the DOJ officials who accompanied me, five additional pages with classification markings were discovered among the material with it, for a total of six pages. The DOJ officials with me immediately took possession of them,” Sauber said in a statement.
Biden’s legal team acknowledged this week it had found classified documents relating to his time as vice president in the Obama administration at his Delaware home, including some in his garage.
Aides previously found another batch of classified documents at his residence, and at a Washington think tank he was associated with. US Attorney General Merrick Garland named a special counsel on Thursday to probe the matter.
“How many more classified documents will they find at Joe Biden’s house?” the Republican House Judiciary Committee said in a Twitter post on Saturday.
Sauber said Biden’s lawyers have acted “immediately and voluntarily” to hand all the documents found to the proper authorities.
“We have now publicly released specific details about the documents identified, how they were identified, and where they were found. The appointment of the special counsel in this matter this week means we will now refer specific questions to the special counsel’s office moving forward. As I said on Thursday, the White House will cooperate with the newly appointed special counsel,” he said.
Biden is spending the weekend in Wilmington with his wife, Jill Biden, who underwent surgery on Wednesday to remove skin lesions from her face and chest.
Biden was asked by a reporter on Thursday about the wisdom of storing important material next to his Corvette. The self-declared “car guy” president said both were in a locked garage.
“It’s not like they’re sitting out in the street,” he said. “People know I take classified documents and classified material seriously.”
Republicans in the US House of Representatives launched an investigation on Friday into the Justice Department’s handling of improperly stored classified documents possessed by Biden, and questioned whether his son, Hunter, had access to any.
In a letter to Garland, top Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee demanded all relevant documents and communications between the Justice Department, the FBI, the White House and Biden’s attorneys.
On Saturday, James Comer, Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee, described the matter as alarming and said the National Archives, Justice Department and White House had not been transparent. Comer said his panel would also review the case.
Republicans have sought to compare the investigation to the ongoing probe into how former President Donald Trump handled classified documents after his presidency.
The White House says the two cases are different because Biden’s team has cooperated with authorities in their probe and had turned over those documents. Trump had resisted doing so until an FBI search in August at his Florida resort.
Bob Bauer, Biden’s personal lawyer, said in a statement that Biden had directed his attorneys to be “forthcoming and fully cooperative with the National Archives and Records Administration and the Justice Department regarding the documents.
“In addition, the president’s personal attorneys have attempted to balance the importance of public transparency where appropriate with the established norms and limitations necessary to protect the investigation’s integrity. These considerations require avoiding the public release of detail relevant to the investigation while it is ongoing,” he said.
At least 68 people were killed on Sunday when a domestic flight crashed in Pokhara in Nepal, the country’s Civil Aviation Authority said, in the worst air crash in three decades in the small Himalayan nation.
Hundreds of rescue workers were scouring the hillside where the Yeti Airlines flight, carrying 72 people from the capital Kathmandu, went down.
Local TV showed rescue workers scrambling around broken sections of the aircraft. Some of the ground near the crash site was scorched, with licks of flames visible.
Police official Ajay K.C. said rescue workers were having difficulty reaching the site in a gorge between two hills near the tourist town’s airport.
The crash is Nepal’s deadliest since 1992, the Aviation Safety Network database showed, when a Pakistan International Airlines Airbus A300 crashed into a hillside upon approach to Kathmandu, killing all 167 people on board.
The craft made contact with the airport from Seti Gorge at 10:50am (05:05am GMT), the aviation authority said in a statement. “Then it crashed.”
Those on the twin-engine ATR 72 aircraft included three infants and three children, the Civil Aviation Authority’s statement said.
Passengers included five Indians, four Russians and one Irish, two South Korean, one Australian, one French and one Argentine national.
“Half of the plane is on the hillside,” said Arun Tamu, a local resident, who told Reuters he reached the site minutes after the plane went down.“ “The other half has fallen into the gorge of the Seti river.”
Khum Bahadur Chhetri said he watched from the roof of his house as the flight approached.
“I saw the plane trembling, moving left and right, and then suddenly it nose-dived and it went into the gorge,” Chhetri told Reuters, adding that local residents took two passengers to a hospital.
Pokhara Airport spokesman Anup Joshi said the aircraft crashed as it approached the airport, adding that the “plane cruised at 12,500 feet and was on a normal descent.” The weather on Sunday was clear.
The government has set up a panel to investigate the cause of the crash and it is expected to report within 45 days, the finance minister, Bishnu Paudel, told reporters.
Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has called an emergency cabinet meeting after the plane crash.
The journey to Pokhara — Nepal’s second largest city tucked under the picturesque Annapurna mountain range — from the capital Kathmandu is one of the Himalayan country’s most popular tourist routes, with many preferring a short flight instead of a six-hour-long drive through hilly roads.
‘15 years old’ aircraft
Flight tracking website FlightRadar24 said on Twitter the Yeti Airlines aircraft was 15 years old and equipped with an old transponder with unreliable data.
It added that the last signal from the transponder was received at 05:12am GMT at an altitude of 2,875 feet above mean sea level. Pokhara Airport is located at about 2,700-2,800 feet above mean sea level, according to FlightRadar24.
The ATR72 is a widely used twin-engine turboprop plane manufactured by a joint venture of Airbus and Italy’s Leonardo. Yeti Airlines has a fleet of six ATR72-500 planes, according to its website.
“ATR specialists are fully engaged to support both the investigation and the customer,” the company said on Twitter, adding that its first thoughts were for those affected, after having been informed of the accident.
Airbus and Leonardo did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Series of crashes
At least 309 people have died since 2000 in plane or helicopter crashes in Nepal — home to eight of the world’s 14th highest mountains, including Everest — where the weather can change suddenly and make for hazardous conditions.
The European Union has banned Nepali airlines from its airspace since 2013, citing safety concerns.
On its website, Yeti describes itself as a leading domestic carrier. Its fleet consists of six ATR 72-500s, including the one that crashed. It also owns Tara Air, and the two together offer the “widest network” in Nepal, the company says.