Iranian TV Journalist Stabbed in London in Stable Condition

London — A U.K.-based journalist for independent Iranian media who was attacked outside his London home, prompting a counterterrorism police probe, is “doing very well,” his news channel said Saturday.  

Pouria Zeraati, a presenter for Persian-language outlet Iran International was in stable condition, the channel’s spokesman Adam Baillie said.  

“He’s doing very well actually. He’s in the hospital recovering from the attack,” Baillie told BBC radio, calling Friday’s attack “a shocking, shocking incident whatever the outcome of (the) investigation reveals.”

London’s Metropolitan Police has said its counterterrorism unit is investigating the stabbing, given previous hostile threats by Iran against perceived opponents in Britain.  

The force said the motive was unclear and officers were keeping “an open mind,” but that “the victim’s occupation as a journalist at a Persian-language media organization based in the U.K.” was being considered.

Iran’s charge d’affaires in the U.K., Mehdi Hosseini Matin said Saturday that Tehran “denied any link” to the incident.  

Zeraati, in his 30s, sustained injuries to his leg in the mid-afternoon attack outside his home in Wimbledon, southwest London.  

Announcing the incident on social media, Iran International noted it came after Tehran was implicated in a plot to kill two of its television anchors in 2022.  

Baillie said the channel’s journalists and their families and others had been repeatedly targeted and threatened by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

“Along with our colleagues at BBC Persian, Iran International has been under threat, very heavy threats, for the last 18 months since the IRGC said, ‘We’re coming for you,’” he added.

Baillie said the paramilitary security force gets “in touch through proxies” and its tactics include taking in relatives in Iran for questioning and threatening.  

“The scale of that has increased dramatically over the last few months. And the scale and the type of questioning is more aggressive,” he added.

The Met has disrupted what it has called plots in the U.K. to kidnap or even kill British or Britain-based individuals perceived as enemies of Tehran.

An Austrian national was convicted last December of spying for a group that may have been preparing to attack Iran International.  

The Iranian government has declared the outlet a terrorist organization after it reported on protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

She died in 2022 after her arrest in Tehran for an alleged breach of the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women.   

The U.K. government last year unveiled a tougher sanctions regime against Iran over alleged human rights violations and hostile actions against its opponents on U.K. soil.

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Romania, Bulgaria Partially Join Europe’s Schengen Travel Zone

SOFIA, Bulgaria — Romania and Bulgaria partially joined Europe’s ID-check-free travel zone Sunday, marking a new step in the two countries’ integration with the European Union.

After years of negotiations to join the Schengen area, there is now free access for travelers arriving by air or sea from both countries. However, land border checks will remain in place due to opposition primarily from Austria which has long blocked their bid over illegal migration concerns.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed the change as a “huge success for both countries” and a “historic moment” for what is the world’s largest free travel zone.

The Schengen Area was established in 1985. Before Bulgaria’s and Romania’s admission, it was comprised of 23 of the 27 EU member countries, along with Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Around 3.5 million people cross an internal border each day.

Austria vetoed Romania and Bulgaria’s admission into the Schengen zone at the end of 2022 but allowed Croatia full accession. Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007 and Croatia in 2013.

Siegfried Muresan, a Romanian Member of the European Parliament, told The Associated Press that it is “an important first step” that will benefit millions of travelers annually.

“Bulgaria and Romania have been fulfilling all criteria for joining the Schengen area for years — we are entitled to join with the terrestrial border as well,” he said, adding that it “will offer additional arguments to the last EU member state that has been vetoing the full accession.”

Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu called it a “well-deserved achievement” for Romania that he said will benefit citizens who can travel more easily and will bolster the economy.

“We have a clear and firmly assumed government plan for full accession to the Schengen Area by the end of the year,” he said.

The EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, has said for more than a decade that Romania and Bulgaria both meet the technical criteria for full accession, which requires unanimous support from their partners. Both countries have agreed to implement random security screening at airports and maritime borders to combat illegal migration and cross-border crime.

“Bulgaria’s full accession to Schengen will happen by the end of 2024,” Kalin Stoyanov, Bulgaria’s interior minister, told reporters Sunday. “We showed and continue to show to illegal migrants that they should not take the road to Europe through Bulgaria.”

The lifting of border control is expected to facilitate operations at Bulgaria’s four international airports, which in 2023 saw nearly 11 million passengers, according to official data.

The airport in the capital, Sofia, serves as the biggest hub for Schengen flights which constitute 70% of all flights, airport representatives said.

While the eased regulations are expected to positively impact the tourism sector, members of the European Parliament have voiced concerns about long queues at the EU’s land borders and the impact it can have on trade in the bloc’s single market, as well as the health and safety of drivers.

Truck drivers are frequently stuck in kilometers-long (miles-long) queues at the borders of both Romania and Bulgaria. The Union of International Carriers in Bulgaria estimates delays cost the sector tens of millions of euros each year.

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Taliban Confirm 2 Americans Among Foreign Detainees in Afghanistan 

Islamabad — The Taliban government in Afghanistan confirmed Sunday that they had detained “a number of foreign citizens, including two Americans” for allegedly violating their laws.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the chief Taliban spokesperson, told the state-run Afghan radio they had informed the United States about the detention of its citizens. He did not provide any additional details, nor did he reveal the nationalities of the other foreign detainees.

Relatives and U.S. officials have identified one of the Americans in custody as Ryan Corbett, while the identity of the second person was not disclosed.


“Two Americans are currently imprisoned along with other foreign nationals. The reasons for their visit are not clear, but whatever the reasons, anyone who visits Afghanistan must abide by its laws. Anyone obtaining an Afghan visa agrees to follow our laws,” Mujahid said while talking separately to the privately run local TOLO news channel.

This is the first time the Taliban has publicly acknowledged the detention of two American nationals. So far, they had only reported the arrest of Corbett.

He was taken into custody in August 2022, a year after the Islamist group regained power in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S.-led Western troops after nearly 20 years of war with the then-insurgent Taliban.

Corbett’s family has lately stepped-up calls for President Joe Biden’s administration to do more to secure his safe and early release.

According to CNN, Corbett was able to call his wife Anna and their three children last week for the fifth time since his detention.

“It was a disturbing call,” Anna Corbett told the U.S. media outlet Thursday. “It was hard to hear Ryan losing hope. He’s been held now almost 600 days and he had a change in his mindset about it,” she told the U.S. news network.

Anna said that Corbett’s physical health had been deteriorating, “and now that his mental health is going down, it’s just super scary for the kids and I.”

The U.S. State Department spokesperson said Thursday that it was working to secure the release of all American citizens “wrongfully detained” abroad.

Mathew Miller told reporters he “cannot imagine the pain” the families were “going through, and the grief that they’re suffering, and how difficult it must be knowing that their loved one is going through such a tragic hardship.”

He said that U.S. officials in meetings with Taliban representatives had “continually pressed” them to release all American detainees immediately and unconditionally.

“We have made clear to the Taliban that these detentions are a significant obstacle to positive engagement, and we will continue to do that. We are using every lever we can to try to bring Ryan and these other wrongfully detained Americans home from Afghanistan,” he added.

Corbett and his family had lived in Afghanistan for years before being evacuated during the August 2021 Taliban takeover. He ran and supervised humanitarian projects for nongovernmental organizations, focusing on health and education.

Corbett returned to Afghanistan twice in 2022 and was detained by the Taliban on his second trip but has not been charged with any crimes, according to his family.

“The Biden administration has done little to secure Ryan’s release despite continued reports of his deteriorating health while held in deplorable conditions,” U.S. Representative Michael McCaul, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, said in a March 27 statement.

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India’s Opposition Puts Up United Front to Challenge Modi 

New Delhi — At a massive rally held in the Indian capital, top leaders of an opposition alliance accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of undermining democracy by intimidating and arresting political rivals.

The “Save Democracy” rally took place Sunday in New Delhi as India heads into a phased general election set to begin April 19.

It was held days after the arrest of a key opposition leader, the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, by the federal Enforcement Directorate on corruption charges over granting liquor licenses. Kejriwal is a staunch Modi critic.

Leaders of the INDIA alliance, which has been formed by about two dozen opposition parties, criticized Modi, saying he was decimating the opposition by using federal agencies to target its leaders with corruption probes and crippling their ability to campaign against the BJP.

“Opposition leaders are being intimidated and arrested — this is match-fixing,” the leader of the main opposition party, Rahul Gandhi, said.

“This is not an ordinary election. This election is to save the country, protect our constitution,” Gandhi told the huge crowd. He said if the BJP wins the election, “it will set the country on fire.”

The BJP has said it denies targeting opposition officials.

Before Kejriwal was detained earlier in March, another chief minister was arrested on corruption charges in January. Meanwhile, the Congress Party has accused the government of “tax terrorism,” saying its bank accounts have been frozen by the tax department, leaving it starved of funds to conduct its election campaign.

Opposition leaders also accused the Modi government of undermining democratic institutions.

“The country is headed toward autocracy. This one-man government is taking the country to ruin,” another opposition leader of the Shiv Sena party, Uddhav Thackeray, said.

Sunday’s rally was the first major show of solidarity by the INDIA alliance that was formed last year to jointly fight Modi, who is widely expected to win a third term. Many of the parties in the alliance are regional rivals and have struggled in recent months to come together on a common platform raising questions over their ability to counter the BJP.

Political analysts said the parties did put up a united front at Sunday’s rally. “The rally was fairly successful but it is it is very difficult to say what will be its response on the ground, and whether people will start looking at an alternative that is not driven by the Hindu nationalist ideology of BJP and not so centered around the personality of Modi,” political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay said.

On the same day as the opposition rally, Prime Minister Modi launched his party’s election campaign in Meerut city in Uttar Pradesh, a hugely consequential state that sends 80 lawmakers to parliament.

Accusing previous governments of corruption, he said his fight against graft will continue. “Modi will not be stopped. Action will be taken against every corrupt politician,” he said.

Modi said his government had lifted 250 million people out of poverty and he was fast tracking economic development in the country. “The 2024 election is not only for a new government but for making India a developed country,” he said.

Analysts say Modi has built his appeal on a platform of muscular Hindu nationalism and a raft of welfare programs such as federal funding for construction of toilets and homes for millions of poor people.

“Modi is the clear frontrunner, that is what all the surveys so far show. But at the same time, I will not call the election until the last vote is counted because Indian elections can throw up surprises,” according to Mukhopadhyay.

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King Charles greets well-wishers after Easter Sunday service 

Windsor, England — Britain’s King Charles greeted well-wishers in an impromptu walkabout after an Easter church service in Windsor on Sunday, his first appearance at a public royal event since his cancer diagnosis was announced in February. 

A smiling Charles, 75, accompanied by Queen Camilla, shook hands with scores of people gathered outside St George’s Chapel, the resting place of his late mother Queen Elizabeth. 

Charles had postponed all previous public engagements since Buckingham Palace announced he was to undergo treatment for an unspecified form of cancer. The illness was found in tests after he had a corrective procedure for an enlarged prostate in January. 

While the king attended church on Sunday, his son Prince William and his family did not. William’s wife Kate said earlier this month she was undergoing preventative chemotherapy after cancer was discovered following abdominal surgery in January. 

The king, wearing a dark overcoat, and queen waved to onlookers when they arrived at the chapel by car from their residence at Windsor Castle. 

The queen was wearing a green coat dress and an emerald and diamond brooch that was the late queen’s. 

Some of the onlookers wished Charles good health, while others said “Happy Easter.”  

The king said: “You’re very brave to stand out here in the cold.”  

A woman who spoke to the king said he seemed “very well.” 

Buckingham Palace has not confirmed any future public engagements for the king, but his eagerness to meet people on Sunday will be taken as a positive sign about his health.  

Also attending the annual service were the king’s sister, the Princess Royal, and brother, the Duke of Edinburgh, accompanied by their spouses. 

The Duke of York, who was removed from royal duties in 2022 due to his friendship with the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, was also present. 

Charles has kept up with the bulk of his non-public state duties such as greeting foreign officials and holding regular meetings with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. 

Last week the king did not attend an annual Maundy Thursday service but issued an audio message which aired at the event in which he expressed his sorrow at not being there and wished the public a Happy Easter. 

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India Rescuing Citizens Forced Into Cyber Fraud Schemes in Cambodia

NEW DELHI — The Indian government said it was rescuing its citizens who were lured into employment in Cambodia and were being forced to participate in cyber fraud schemes.

The Indian Embassy in Cambodia is working with Cambodian authorities and has rescued and repatriated about 250 Indians, including 75 in the last three months, India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said in a statement Saturday.

Jaiswal was responding to Indian news reports that stated more than 5,000 Indians are trapped in Cambodia and being forced to carry out cyber frauds on people back home.

“We are also working with Cambodian authorities and with agencies in India to crack down on those responsible for these fraudulent schemes,” Jaiswal said.

The Indian government and its embassy in Cambodia have issued several advisories informing them about such scams, the spokesperson said.

The Cambodian Embassy in India did not respond immediately to a request for comment Sunday. 

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Pope Francis Presides Over Easter Sunday Mass

Vatican City — Pope Francis on Sunday celebrated Easter Mass with tens of thousands of Catholics at Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City before his traditional blessing, as concerns persist over his health.

The 87-year-old arrived in a wheelchair to preside over the Mass from 10 a.m. (0800 GMT) in cloudy and windy weather, with the events broadcast live around the globe.

Francis will pronounce the “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and the World) blessing at midday where he is expected to bring up the international conflicts raging worldwide.

For Christians, Easter Sunday marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ and is the culmination of Holy Week, a major part of the Catholic calendar followed by 1.3 billion people.

The pope on Saturday presided over the Easter Vigil at the Vatican in front of some 6,000 people from around the world, a day after his last-minute cancellation at a major Good Friday procession revived questions about his health.

He delivered a 10-minute homily in Italian, speaking without any undue difficulty and condemning “the walls of selfishness and indifference” in the world.

At the end of the 2½-hour service he showed little sign of fatigue, taking time to greet and bless some of the worshippers.

In a brief statement Friday, the Vatican had said that “to preserve his health ahead of tomorrow’s vigil and the Easter Sunday Mass, Pope Francis will this evening follow the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum from the Santa Marta Residence,” where he lives.

Health concerns

The last-minute decision raised questions about how long Francis can continue to lead the Catholic Church.

A Vatican source told AFP on Friday there was “no particular concern” about his health and the decision to pull out had been “simply a measure of caution.”

The Argentinian Jesuit had also canceled his participation in the “Via Crucis” in 2023, but that followed a three-day hospital stay for bronchitis, and was announced well ahead of time. Weeks later, he underwent a hernia operation.

Up until Friday, the pope had attended his various engagements throughout the week, but he recently appeared tired and has sometimes delegated speaking roles to colleagues.

Francis, who never takes holidays, made his last trip in September, to the southern French city of Marseille. In December, he canceled a much-anticipated attendance at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai.

His next scheduled trip is to Venice on April 28. The Vatican has not yet confirmed a planned trip to Asia and Pacific Ocean nations for this summer.

Francis has previously left the door open to stepping down if he can no longer do the job. That would follow the example of his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, who in 2013 became the first pope since the Middle Ages to voluntarily step aside.

But in a memoir published this month, Francis wrote that he did “not have any cause serious enough to make me think of resigning.” 

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Russia Conducts ‘Counter-Terrorism Operation’ in Southern Dagestan

MOSCOW — Russia has imposed a “counter-terrorism operation” regime in the southern region of Dagestan, detaining three people by Sunday morning, Russian news agencies reported, citing the National Anti-Terrorism Committee.

Russia is on high alert following a mass shooting at a concert hall in Moscow on March 22 — the deadliest attack in the country in 20 years with at least 144 killed.

“Security agencies detained three bandits who were planning a number of terrorist offenses. During the inspection of the places where they  were detained, automatic weapons, ammunition and an improvised explosive device ready for use were found,” the committee said Sunday.

Earlier the committee said that suspected criminals had been blocked by security services in several flats in residential areas of the regional capital, Makhachkala, and one of the biggest cities in the republic, Kaspiysk.

There were no civilian casualties and no losses among the law enforcement personnel.

The operation continues, the committee said.

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Indian Opposition Protest Arrest of Leader Ahead of Polls

New Delhi — Top leaders of India’s opposition coalition and thousands of supporters rallied in the capital Sunday, decrying “autocracy” in protest at the arrest of a senior colleague ahead of general elections.

Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi and a key leader in an opposition alliance formed to compete against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was detained earlier in March in connection with a long-running corruption probe.

Kejriwal’s government is accused of receiving kickbacks while handing out liquor licenses to private companies. Kejriwal, 55, denies the charges.

“The country is headed towards autocracy,” Shiv Sena party leader Uddhav Thackeray, a former chief minister of Maharashtra state, told cheering crowds on Sunday. “This one-man government is taking the country to ruin.”

Nearly a billion Indians will vote to elect a new government in six-week-long parliamentary elections starting on April 19, the largest democratic exercise in the world.

Many analysts see Modi’s reelection as a foregone conclusion, partly due to the resonance of his assertive Hindu-nationalist politics with members of the country’s majority faith.

Several leaders of the two dozen political parties of the INDIA opposition alliance — the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance — are expected to address the rally.

India’s main financial investigation agency, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which arrested Kejriwal, has launched probes into at least four other state chief ministers or their family members.

While Modi enjoys high levels of support, critics accuse him of using law enforcement agencies to intimidate opposition leaders.

All the investigations involve political opponents of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The flag-waving crowd also held up posters showing Kejriwal behind bars, with large numbers of police watching.

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Ambassadors Lay Flowers at Site of Moscow Concert Hall Massacre

MOSCOW — Foreign diplomats in Russia laid flowers Saturday at the site of last week’s attack on a suburban Moscow concert hall that killed 144 people.

Those in attendance included ambassadors from the United States, EU countries, Africa and Latin America. Russian state news agency RIA Novosti said the “around 130 diplomatic missions” taking part included representatives of “unfriendly states.”

Since the attack, thousands of people have brought bunches of flowers, wreaths and other tokens such as teddy bears, creating a makeshift memorial at the Crocus City Hall.

Russian state news agency Tass reported Saturday that the number of people wounded in the attack was 551, quoting figures from the Moscow regional department of the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry. Previous figures have been much lower and it did not explain the discrepancy.

The death toll rose to 144 on Friday when a severely injured victim died in a hospital, according to Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko.

Russia’s Investigative Committee said Saturday that 134 of the dead had been identified. “Genetic tests are being carried out for other, as yet unidentified, victims,” the committee said in a statement on messaging app Telegram.

An affiliate of the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, the deadliest on Russian soil in years. The Kremlin, however, has insisted that Ukraine and the West had a role, something Kyiv has vehemently denied.

Nine people were detained by Tajikistan’s state security service in relation to the attack, RIA Novosti said Friday.

In Russia, a total of nine suspects have faced court so far and were remanded in pre-trial detention. The latest hearing took place Friday, with a judge in the Basmanny District Court ruling that suspect Lutfulloi Nazrimad should be held in custody until at least May 22. Russian independent news site Mediazona cited Nazrimad as saying in court that he was born in Tajikistan.

Since the attack, Tajikistan’s Ministry of Labor, Migration and Employment has recorded an outflow of migrants workers from Moscow back to Tajikistan.

“There are a lot of calls. These are most likely not so much complaints about harassment, but about our citizens’ fear, panic. Many want to leave. We are now monitoring the situation; more people are coming (to Tajikistan) than leaving,” Deputy Labour Minister Shakhnoza Nodiri told Tass, the news agency said Saturday.

Russian officials previously said that 11 suspects had been arrested, including four who allegedly carried out the attack. Those four, identified as Tajik nationals, appeared in a Moscow court on Sunday on terrorism charges and showed signs of severe beatings. One appeared to be barely conscious during the hearing.

Russia’s Investigative Committee additionally said Thursday it had detained another suspect in relation to the raid on Crocus City Hall, on suspicion of being involved in financing the attack. It did not give further details of the suspect’s identity or alleged actions.

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Pope Presides Over Easter Vigil, Delivers 10-Minute Homily

ROME — Pope Francis presided over the Vatican’s somber Easter Vigil service on Saturday night, delivering a 10-minute homily and baptizing eight people, a day after suddenly skipping the Good Friday procession at the Colosseum as a health precaution.

Francis entered the darkened, silent St. Peter’s Basilica in his wheelchair, took his place in a chair and offered an opening prayer. Sounding somewhat congested and out of breath, he blessed an elaborately decorated Easter candle, the flame of which was then shared with other candles until the whole basilica twinkled.

Over an hour later, Francis delivered a 10-minute homily in a strong voice, clearing his throat occasionally.

The evening service, one of the most solemn and important moments in the Catholic liturgical calendar, commemorates the resurrection of Jesus. The Vatican had said Francis skipped the Good Friday procession to ensure his participation in both the vigil service Saturday night, which usually lasts about two hours, and Easter Sunday Mass a few hours later.

The 87-year-old Francis, who had part of one lung removed as a young man, has been battling respiratory problems all winter that have made it difficult for him to speak at length. He and the Vatican have said he has had bronchitis, a cold or the flu.

He has canceled some audiences and often asked an aide to read aloud some of his speeches. But the alarm was raised when he ditched his Palm Sunday homily altogether last week at the last minute and then decided suddenly Friday to stay home rather than preside over the Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum reenacting Christ’s crucifixion.

The Vatican said in a brief explanation that the decision was made to “conserve his health.”

The decision appeared to have paid off Saturday night, as Francis was able to recite the prayers of the lengthy vigil service and perform the sacrament of baptism for the eight adults. The baptism is a traditional feature of the Vatican’s Easter Vigil service.

In his homily Francis referred to the stone that the faithful believe was removed from Christ’s tomb after his death. Francis urged Catholics to remove the stones in their lives that “block the door of our hearts, stifling life, extinguishing hope, imprisoning us in the tomb of our fears and regrets.”

“Let us lift our eyes to him and ask that the power of his resurrection may roll away the heavy stones that weigh down our souls,” he said.

Holy Week is trying for a pope under any circumstance, given four days of liturgies, rites, fasting and prayer. But that is especially true for Francis, who canceled a trip to Dubai late last year, just days prior, on doctor’s orders because of his respiratory problems.

In addition to his respiratory problems, Francis had a chunk of his large intestine removed in 2021 and was hospitalized twice last year, including once to remove intestinal scar tissue from previous surgeries to address diverticulosis, or bulges in his intestinal wall. He has been using a wheelchair or cane for nearly two years because of bad knee ligaments.

In his recently published memoirs, Life: My Story Through History, Francis said he isn’t suffering from any health problems that would require him to resign and that he still has ” many projects to bring to fruition.”

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Deforestation in Indonesia Intensifies Severe Weather, Climate Change Disasters

Jakarta, indonesia — Roads turned into murky brown rivers, homes were swept away by strong currents and bodies were pulled from mud during deadly flash floods and landslides after torrential rains hit West Sumatra in early March, marking one of the latest deadly natural disasters in Indonesia. 

Government officials blamed the floods on heavy rainfall, but environmental groups have cited the disaster as the latest example of deforestation and environmental degradation intensifying the effects of severe weather across Indonesia. 

“This disaster occurred not only because of extreme weather factors, but because of the ecological crisis,” Indonesian environmental rights group Indonesian Forum for the Environment wrote in a statement. “If the environment continues to be ignored, then we will continue to reap ecological disasters.” 

A vast tropical archipelago stretching across the equator, Indonesia is home to the world’s third-largest rainforest, with a variety of endangered wildlife and plants, including orangutans, elephants, giant and blooming forest flowers. Some live nowhere else. 

For generations the forests have also provided livelihoods, food, and medicine while playing a central role in cultural practices for millions of Indigenous residents in Indonesia. 

Since 1950, more than 74 million hectares (285,715 square miles) of Indonesian rainforest — an area twice the size of Germany — have been logged, burned or degraded for development of palm oil, paper and rubber plantations, mining and other commodities according to Global Forest Watch. 

Indonesia is the biggest producer of palm oil, one of the largest exporters of coal and a top producer of pulp for paper. It also exports oil and gas, rubber, tin and other resources. And it also has the world’s largest reserves of nickel — a critical material for electric vehicles, solar panels and other goods needed for the green energy transition. 

Vulnerable to climate change

Indonesia has consistently ranked as one of the largest global emitters of plant-warming greenhouse gases, with its emissions stemming from the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and peatland fires, according to the Global Carbon Project. 

It’s also highly vulnerable to climate change impacts, including extreme events such as floods and droughts, long-term changes from sea level rise, shifts in rainfall patterns and increasing temperatures, according to the World Bank. In recent decades, the country has already seen the effects of climate change: More intense rains, landslides and floods during rainy season, and more fires during a longer dry season. 

But forests can help play a vital role in reducing the impact of some extreme weather events, said Aida Greenbury, a sustainability expert focusing on Indonesia. 

Flooding can be slowed by trees and vegetation soaking up rainwater and reducing erosion. In dry season, forests release moisture that helps mitigate the effects of droughts, including fires. 

But when forests diminish, those benefits do as well. 

A 2017 study reported that forest conversion and deforestation expose bare soil to rainfall, causing soil erosion. Frequent harvesting activities — such as done on palm oil plantations — and the removal of ground vegetation leads to further soil compaction, causing rain to run off the surface instead of entering groundwater reservoirs. Downstream erosion also increases sediment in rivers, making rivers shallower and increasing flood risks, according to the research. 

After the deadly floods in Sumatra in early March, West Sumatra Governor Mahyeldi Ansharullah said there were strong indications of illegal logging around locations affected by floods and landslides. That, coupled with extreme rainfall, inadequate drainage systems and improper housing development contributed to the disaster, he said. 

Experts and environmental activists have pointed to deforestation worsening disasters in other regions of Indonesia as well: In 2021, environmental activists partially blamed deadly floods in Kalimantan on environmental degradation caused by large-scale mining and palm oil operations. In Papua, deforestation was partially blamed for floods and landslides that killed more than 100 people in 2019. 

There have been some signs of change: In 2018 Indonesian President Joko Widodo put a three-year freeze on new permits for palm oil plantations. And the rate of deforestation slowed between 2021-2022, according to government data. 

But experts warn that it’s unlikely deforestation in Indonesia will stop anytime soon as the government continues to move forward with new mining and infrastructure projects such as new nickel smelters and cement factories. 

“A lot of land use and land-based investment permits have already been given to businesses, and a lot of these areas are already prone to disasters,” said Arie Rompas, an Indonesia-based forestry expert at Greenpeace. 

President-elect Prabowo Subianto, who is scheduled to take office in October, has promised to continue Widodo’s policy of development, including large-scale food estates, mining and other infrastructure development that are all linked to deforestation. 

Watchdogs say protections weakening

Environmental watchdogs also warn that environmental protections in Indonesia are weakening, including the passing of the controversial Omnibus Law, which eliminated an article of the Forestry Law regarding the minimum area of forest that must be maintained at development projects. 

“The removal of that article makes us very worried (about deforestation) for the years to come,” said Rompas. 

While experts and activists recognize that development is essential for Indonesia’s economy to continue to go, they argue that it should be done in a way that considers the environment and incorporates better land planning. 

“We can’t continue down the same path we’ve been on,” said sustainability expert Greenbury. “We need to make sure that the soil, the land in the forest doesn’t become extinct.” 

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Heavy Rains in Northwestern Pakistan Kill 8 People, Injure 12

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Heavy rains killed eight people, mostly children, and injured 12 in Pakistan’s northwest, an official said Saturday.

Downpours in different districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province caused rooms to collapse, crushing the people inside, according to Anwar Shahzad, a spokesperson for the local disaster management authority.

Shahzad said that three of the dead were siblings aged between 3 and 7 years old, from the same family. The casualties occurred in the past 24 hours, he added.

This year, Pakistan has experienced a delay in winter rains, which started in February instead of November. Monsoon and winter rains cause damage in Pakistan every year.

Earlier this month, about 30 people died in rain-related incidents in the northwest.

Across the border in Afghanistan, heavy rainfall on March 29 and 30 destroyed more than 1,500 acres of agricultural land, causing severe damage to hundreds of homes and critical infrastructure such as bridges and roads in seven provinces, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Saturday.

The provinces most affected are northern Faryab, eastern Nangarhar, and central Daikundi.

It’s the third time that the northern region has experienced flooding in less than a month, with seven people killed and 384 families affected by heavy rains, the U.N. agency said.

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Canada to Train Troops From Caribbean Nations for Haiti Mission

ottowa, canada — OTTAWA – Canada has sent about 70 soldiers to Jamaica to train troops from Caribbean nations who are set to take part in a United Nations-authorized mission to Haiti, the Canadian defense ministry said Saturday. 

Kenya announced last year it would lead the force, which is designed to help national police fight powerful gangs in Haiti where spiraling violence has fueled a humanitarian disaster. The initiative has been tied up in Kenyan court challenges ever since, effectively putting the mission on hold. 

The Canadian troops, from the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, will provide training on core peacekeeping skills and combat first aid, the defense ministry said in a statement. French is one of Haiti’s two official languages. 

The troops are scheduled to stay in Jamaica for an initial period of a month and will train about 330 troops from Jamaica, Belize and the Bahamas. 

Canada said last month it would give $59.6 1illion to support the deployment of the Kenyan-led mission.

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Zelenskyy Fires More Aides as Russia Launches Drones, Missiles Across Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dismissed a longtime aide and several advisers Saturday in a continuing reshuffle while Russia unleashed fresh attacks overnight. 

Zelenskyy dismissed top aide Serhiy Shefir from his post of first assistant, where he had served since 2019. The Ukrainian president also let go three advisers, and two presidential representatives overseeing volunteer activities and soldiers’ rights. 

No explanation was given immediately for the latest changes in a wide-reaching personnel shakeup over recent months. It included the dismissal Tuesday of Oleksii Danilov, who served as secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, and Valerii Zaluzhnyi as head of the armed forces on February 8. Zaluzhnyi was appointed Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Kingdom earlier this month. 

Ukraine’s air force said Saturday that Russia launched 12 Shahed drones overnight, nine of which were shot down, and fired four missiles into eastern Ukraine. 

Russia unleashed a barrage of 38 missiles, 75 airstrikes and 98 attacks from multiple rocket launchers over the last 24 hours, Ukraine’s armed forces said in social media posts. 

Two people were killed and one wounded in Russian shelling in Ukraine’s partially occupied Donetsk province, regional Governor Vadym Filashkin said Saturday. 

Ukrainian energy company Centrenergo announced Saturday that the Zmiiv Thermal Power Plant, one of the largest thermal power plants in the eastern Kharkiv region, was destroyed following Russian shelling last week. Power outage schedules were still in place for around 120,000 people in the region, where 700,000 people had lost electricity after the plant was hit on March 22. 

Russia has escalated its attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure in recent days, causing significant damage in several regions. 

Officials in the Poltava region said Saturday there had been “several hits” to an infrastructure facility, without specifying whether it was an energy facility. 

Meanwhile, the toll of Friday’s mass barrage of 99 drones and missiles hitting regions across Ukraine came to light Saturday, with local officials in the Kherson region announcing the death of one civilian. A resident of the Dnipropetrovsk region died in a hospital from shell wounds, according to regional Gov. Serhiy Lisak. 

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