Bus Falls Into Deep Ravine in Pakistan, Killing 19

QUETTA, Pakistan — A passenger bus slid off a mountain road and fell into a deep ravine in heavy rain in southwest Pakistan on Sunday, killing 19 people and injuring 12 others, a government official said.

Mahtab Shah, assistant administrator for the district of Shirani in Baluchistan province, said about 35 passengers were traveling in the bus. He said rescue workers were searching for survivors in the wreckage of the destroyed vehicle and the surrounding countryside.

Shah said apparently the bus slid on the wet road amid heavy rain and the driver lost control of the vehicle, which fell about 200 feet (61 meters) into the ravine.

Deadly road accidents are common in Pakistan due to poor road infrastructure and disregard for traffic laws, as well as poorly maintained vehicles. Last month, 22 people were killed in a similar accident when a bus fell into a ravine in Qila Saifullah district.

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Minister: Sri Lanka Struggling to Pay for Fuel Shipments

Sri Lanka is struggling to raise $587 million to pay for about half a dozen fuel shipments, a top minister said Sunday as the cash-strapped country tries to cope with its worst financial crisis in decades.

The country of 22 million people is unable to pay for essential imports of food items, fertilizer, medicines and fuel — due to a severe dollar crunch.

Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said new fuel shipments were being lined up, but the country is struggling to raise enough funds to pay as the central bank can supply only about $125 million.

Sri Lanka only has 12,774 tons of diesel and 4,061 tons of petrol left in its government reserves, he told reporters in Colombo, the commercial center of the island nation.

“This week we will need $316 million to pay for new shipments. If we add two crude oil shipments this amount shoots up to $587 million,” Wijesekera said.

The first shipment of 40,000 tons of diesel from Coral Energy is expected to arrive around July 9 and partial payment of $49 million must be made for a second one from Vitol by Thursday.

Faced with severely limited diesel and petrol stocks Sri Lanka last week closed schools, asked public employees to work from home and restricted government fuel supplies to essential services.

The minister said the country will have to attempt to raise funds from the open market and seek more flexible payment options from suppliers.

Plans to settle the $800 million owed to seven suppliers for purchases made this year were being discussed, he said.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) officials will continue to hold talks with Sri Lanka for a possible $3 billion bailout package, the global lender said last week after wrapping up a 10-day visit to Colombo.

However, the immediate release of funds from the IMF is unlikely because the country has first to get its debt on to a sustainable path.  

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Afghan Clerics’ Assembly Urges Recognition of Taliban Govt

A three-day assembly of Islamic clerics and tribal elders in the Afghan capital concluded Saturday with pledges of support for the Taliban and calls on the international community to recognize the country’s Taliban-led government.

The meeting in Kabul was tailored along the lines of Afghanistan’s traditional Loya Jirgas — regular councils of elders, leaders and prominent figures meant to deliberate Afghan policy issues.

But the overwhelming majority of attendees were Taliban officials and supporters, mostly Islamic clerics. Women were not allowed to attend, unlike the last Loya Jirga that was held under the previous, U.S.-backed government.

The former insurgents, who have kept a complete lock on decision-making since taking over the country last August, touted the gathering as a forum on issues facing Afghanistan.

According to Mujib-ul Rahman Ansari, a cleric who attended the gathering, an 11-point statement released at the end urges countries in the region and the world, the United Nations, Islamic organizations and others to recognize a Taliban-led Afghanistan, remove all sanctions imposed since the Taliban takeover and unfreeze Afghan assets abroad.

Ansari said that more than 4,500 Islamic clerics and elders who attended renewed their allegiance and loyalty to the Taliban’s supreme leader and spiritual chief, Haibatullah Akhundzada.

In a surprise development, the reclusive Akhundzada came to Kabul from his base in southern Kandahar province and addressed the gathering Friday. It was believed to be his first visit to the Afghan capital since the Taliban seized power.

In his hourlong speech carried by state radio, Akhundzada called the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan a “victory for the Muslim world.”

His appearance added symbolic heft to the gathering. The Taliban are under international pressure to be more inclusive as they struggle with Afghanistan’s humanitarian crises.

The international community has been wary of any recognition or cooperation with the Taliban, especially after they restricted the rights of women and minorities — measures that hark back to their harsh rule when they were last in power in the late 1990s.

Saturday’s 11-point resolution called on the Taliban government to pay “special attention and to ensure justice, religious and modern education, health, agriculture, industry, the rights of minorities, children, women and the entire nation, according to Islamic holy law.” The Taliban adhere to their own strict interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia.

On Friday, Akhundzada, who rose from a low-profile member of the Islamic insurgent movement to the leader of the Taliban in a swift transition of power after a 2016 U.S. drone strike killed his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, also offered prayers for Afghanistan’s earthquake victims.

The powerful quake in June killed more than 1,000 people in eastern Afghanistan, igniting yet another crisis for the struggling country. Overstretched aid groups already keeping millions of Afghans alive rushed supplies to the quake victims, but most countries responded tepidly to Taliban calls for international help.

The gathering in Kabul also touched on the Taliban’s chief rivals, the militant Islamic State group, and appealed on Afghans across the country, saying that “any kind of cooperation” with IS was prohibited.

On Thursday, at the start of the gathering, gunfire was heard near the heavily guarded assembly venue, the Loya Jirga Hall of Kabul’s Polytechnic University. Later, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters that security forces fired on someone suspected to have a hand grenade, but that “there is nothing of concern.”

However, IS claimed responsibility for the attack. It said in a statement that three of its fighters climbed onto the roof of a building near the gathering and posted a video showing a group of heavily armed men, their faces masked, who say they have “taken positions very close to the gathering” and are awaiting orders to attack.

The IS affiliate in Afghanistan, known as Islamic State in Khorasan Province or IS-K, has been operating since 2014. Since the Taliban takeover, IS militants have staged numerous assaults on Afghanistan’s new rulers and the Taliban have launched a sweeping crackdown against IS in the country’s stronghold in eastern Afghanistan.

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Protests Break Out in Uzbek Autonomous Region Over Constitution Reform Plan

A rare public protest took place in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan autonomous republic over a planned constitutional reform that would change its status, Uzbek authorities said Saturday.

Karakalpakstan, located in northwestern Uzbekistan, is home to Karakalpaks, a distinct ethnic minority group with its own language, and the current Uzbek constitution describes it as a sovereign republic within Uzbekistan that has the right to secede by holding a referendum.

The new version of the constitution – on which Uzbekistan plans to hold a referendum in the coming months – would no longer mention Karakalpakstan’s sovereignty or right for secession.

According to Uzbekistan’s Interior Ministry, “as a result of misunderstanding the constitutional reforms” a group of Karakalpakstan residents marched through its capital Nukus and held a rally Friday at the city’s central market.

Separately, the government of Karakalpakstan said in a statement that protesters had tried to take over government buildings, prompting police to intervene and detain their leaders and those who put up active resistance.

Order has now been restored in the province, which has a population of 2 million people, said the authorities in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that has close ties with Russia.

Changes concerning Karakalpakstan are just one part of the broad constitutional reform proposed by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, which also includes strengthening civil rights and extending the presidential term to seven years from five.

If the referendum endorses the reform, it will reset Mirziyoyev’s term count and allow him to run for two more terms.

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US May Resume Fulbright Program for Afghanistan 

With the collapse of the former Afghan republic in August 2021, Azizullah Jahish suffered two losses.  

The new Taliban leadership fired him from his job as a civil engineer at the Ministry of Urban Development. Around the same time, he was informed that a U.S. Fulbright scholarship he was expecting to start in 2022 had been canceled.  

Because of “significant barriers,” an email sent to Jahish from Fulbright administrators said, the “selection process for 2022-2023 academic year will not go forward.”  

Jahish was among the 140 semifinalists, some of them females, who were expecting to start their graduate programs at U.S. universities in 2022.  

Now, the U.S. State Department says it is considering resuming the flagship educational scholarship program for Afghanistan for the next academic year.

“We continue to work toward the safe resumption of the Fulbright program for Afghan students. While conditions on the ground have not changed, we are making plans for the 2023-2024 academic year of the Afghanistan Fulbright program,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA.  

“For that cohort, we are considering the 2022-2023 semifinalist applicants.”  

The semifinalists have already gone through most of the eligibility and testing procedures, including an English language requirement, which all applicants must pass to be considered for the scholarship.  

“This is the best news,” Jahish told VOA, adding that he had selected Texas A&M University for his master’s degree in water resource management.  

Some applicants evacuated  

The U.S. evacuated more than 124,000 individuals from Afghanistan last year.  

Fearing Taliban retaliation or loss of jobs and rights under new leaders, many Afghans have also migrated from their country in the past 10 months.  

One Fulbright semifinalist who did not want to be named because of security concerns said many of her cohorts had already left Afghanistan.

To remain in touch and exchange information, the semifinalists have created a WhatsApp group.  

“Some contacts in the WhatsApp group have changed their numbers and the country codes,” said Jahish, adding that most were still inside Afghanistan.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which used to manage the Fulbright program, remains closed and Afghans who seek to travel to the U.S. must submit visa applications in a third country.  

Unlike students who receive scholarships from U.S. academic institutions and have to pay visa fees, Fulbright applicants do not pay for visa or flight tickets.

No new applications  

About 4,000 foreign students from dozens of countries receive Fulbright scholarships annually. Since its inception in 1946, more than 400,000 students and academics from 160 countries have participated in the program.  

The State Department said it does not accept new applications from Afghans for the 2023-2024 cycle. It is also uncertain whether Afghans will be able to apply for the 2024-2025 academic year.  

From 2003 to 2021, more than 950 Afghans received Fulbright scholarships, mostly for two-year master’s degree programs.

The U.S. also spent more than $145 billion on other reconstruction and humanitarian and development projects in Afghanistan during the same period.  

When the U.S.-backed Afghan government collapsed last year, the U.S. government ceased all development assistance, including the Fulbright program, to Afghanistan. The U.S., however, has remained the largest humanitarian donor to the country and has pledged more than $750 million in humanitarian aid over the last year.  

“The United States has an enduring commitment to the people of Afghanistan,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Tuesday while announcing $55 million in funding for an earthquake response in Afghanistan.

“It’s imperative to build a people-to-people relationship, especially after the U.S.’s exit from Afghanistan. Such cultural, academic and human connections are more important than ever before,” Mohsin Amin, a former Fulbright scholar from Afghanistan, told VOA.  

Despite profound disagreements between the Taliban and the U.S. government and the widespread accusations that the Taliban target Afghans who have had affiliations with U.S. programs in Afghanistan, Mohsin said Afghan Fulbright scholars would still be able to work in the country.  

“I believe some of the Fulbright scholars are in the nonprofit and the private sector in Afghanistan, and some are retained by the Taliban in their government positions,” Mohsin said, adding that the Taliban must also respect the technical expertise U.S.-educated Afghans bring to Afghanistan.

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Taliban Chief Slams Foreign ‘Interference’ in His ‘Islamic’ Governance

The Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader Friday ruled out any talks or compromise on his “Islamic system” of governance in Afghanistan in an apparent rebuke to international calls for his hardline ruling group to ease restrictions on women’s rights to work and education.

“I am not here to fulfill your [foreigners’] wishes, nor are they acceptable to me. I cannot compromise on Shariah [Islamic law] to work with you or even move a step forward,” Hibatullah Akhundzada told a men-only closed-door gathering of around 3,500 mostly religious clerics in Kabul.

He made the rare public appearance and speech amid tight security. Audio of his speech was aired live by Afghan state-run social media.

Akhundzada hailed last year’s Taliban takeover of war-shattered, impoverished Afghanistan and the subsequent enforcement of the “Islamic system” there.

The insurgent-turned-ruling group seized power in August, when the United States and NATO partners withdrew their final troops from Afghanistan after almost two decades of military intervention.

“The success of the Afghan jihad is not only a source of pride for Afghans but also for Muslims all over the world,” Akhundzada told the audience.

“Mujahedeen [holy warriors] have established peace and order throughout Afghanistan in the last 10 months. It is a great achievement but its survival depends on us all being united,” he said.

Men only

The Taliban have installed a men-only administration, restricting women’s access to public life and preventing most teenage girls from returning to secondary school education. Women have been ordered to wear face coverings in public and have been barred from traveling beyond 70 kilometers without a close male relative.

The harsh treatment of women and girls and a lack of political inclusivity in governance have kept the global community from granting diplomatic recognition to Taliban rule.

Akhundzada, in an apparent response to the criticism, said that Afghanistan “is now a sovereign” country and did not need orders or interference in its affairs.

“They want to run Afghanistan on their whims,” the Taliban chief told the clerics. “They say, ‘Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?’ Why do you even interfere in my work, my country and my principles?

“You have used the mother of all bombs and you are welcome to use even the atomic bomb against us because nothing can scare us into taking any step that is against Islam or Shariah,” the Taliban chief added.

Akhundzada referred to the U.S. dropping what was described as the “mother of all bombs,” or the most powerful conventional bomb in the American arsenal, in 2017 on an Islamic State terror base in eastern Afghanistan.

First such session since takeover

The three-day Kabul huddle began Thursday under tight security in and around the venue in the wake of a recent wave of deadly Islamic State attacks.

The meeting is the first of its kind since the Taliban takeover of the country. Critics saw the event as an attempt by the hardline group to demonstrate its hold on power and domestic legitimacy.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters after the inaugural session of the three-day Kabul meeting that women were not invited to the event because it was organized at the request of independent participating scholars and that the government had nothing to do with attendees nor the agenda.

Critics questioned the effectiveness and legitimacy of the grand scholars’ meeting in the absence of women, almost 50% of the country’s estimated 40 million population.

The Taliban takeover prompted Washington and other Western countries to immediately cut financial assistance to largely aid-dependent Afghanistan, seize its foreign assets worth billions of dollars, mostly held by the U.S., and isolate the Afghan banking system.

The action and long-running terrorism-related sanctions on senior Taliban leaders have thrown the cash-strapped country into a severe economic upheaval, worsening an already bad humanitarian crisis blamed on years of war and persistent drought.

Taliban and U.S. officials concluded a two-day meeting Wednesday in Doha, Qatar, where the issue of unlocking the frozen Afghan funds also came under discussion. The talks were the first in person since March, when the Taliban abruptly decided against allowing teenage Afghan girls to resume secondary school education, prompting Washington to suspend the dialogue.

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