US Announces Additional $10 Million for Flood Victims in Pakistan, Urges Debt Relief from China

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has pledged more funds to help flood-ravaged Pakistan and pressed the South Asian nation to seek debt relief and restructuring from its largest creditor, China, to deal with the catastrophic flooding.

Blinken spoke late on Monday after wide-ranging bilateral talks with Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in Washington, saying he also discussed with his counterpart a “shared stake” in Afghanistan, counterterrorism cooperation and Islamabad’s strained ties with India.

“We’ve marshaled over $56 million in immediate humanitarian assistance. We’ve been able to send about 17 planes full of supplies like food and materials to build shelters, tents, tarps. And today I’m pleased to announce another $10 million in food security assistance,” Blinken told an event at the State Department marking the 75th anniversary of relations between the United States and Pakistan.

Erratic seasonal rainfall, made worse by global climate change, has triggered the floods across Pakistan, killing more than 1,600 people, including nearly 600 children, affecting 33 million others and drenching large parts of the country, especially the southern Sindh province, since mid-June.

The flooding has destroyed more than 1.4 million hectares of arable land, raising fears it will exacerbate food insecurity issues across the country of about 220 million people. Pakistani officials estimate the deluge has inflicted more than $30 billion in damages on national infrastructure, washing away roads, bridges and more than 800,000 houses.

The disaster has hit as Pakistan struggles to address deeply rooted economic challenges and meet external debt repayment commitments amid dwindling foreign exchange cash reserves.

China debt

“We talked about the importance of managing a responsible relationship with India, and I also urged our colleagues to engage China on some of the important issues of debt relief and restructure so that Pakistan can more quickly recover from the floods,” Blinken said.

Pakistani officials say they have already spoken to the Paris Club of wealthy nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank about immediate debt relief in the wake of the devastating floods. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif told New York-based Bloomberg news in an interview last week he plans to take up the debt relief matter with China.

“We have experienced a climate catastrophe of biblical, apocalyptic proportions…And when the rain finally stopped, a hundred-kilometer lake formed in the middle of my country that’s slowly descending to the sea, to the ocean,” Zardari said while speaking alongside Blinken at the event in Washington.

“The irony of this is that Pakistan has contributed 0.8% to the global carbon output, but we are amongst the 10 most climate-stressed countries on the planet. And that’s why we look to you for assistance and support so we can get our people climate justice,” he said.

Dozens of countries have over the past month sent cargo flights, trucks and trains, carrying urgent relief goods, food and medicines for flood victims in Pakistan.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Monday that his government had provided nearly $59 million worth of humanitarian aid to Pakistan since the country was hit by the floods. He told a regular news conference in Beijing that the civil society in China has also raised about $17 million worth of donations and flood-relief supplies.

“China and Pakistan are all-weather strategic cooperative partners and ironclad brothers that have always stood with each other in trying times…We believe that our brotherly Pakistan will surely prevail over the disaster and rebuild their homes at an early date,” Wang said.

The loan Pakistan owes to China, includes $6 billion in balance of payments support. It stems from the bilateral China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship program of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The massive project has built Pakistani roads, power plants and a strategic deep-water port at an overall cost of more than $25 billion in direct Chinese investment and soft long-term loans over the past seven years.

Pakistani officials maintain, however, that the Chinese loan is around 10% of the country’s 130 billion external debt, the bulk of which it owes to Western nations and international finance institutions

Afghanistan

Blinken said while speaking on Monday that the United States and Pakistan “continue to work closely” on counterterrorism challenges and the two sides also discussed a “shared stake” in the future of Afghanistan after two decades of war there.

“We’ve had our differences; that’s no secret. But we share a common objective: a more stable, a more peaceful, and free future for all of Afghanistan and for those across the broader region. We’ll continue to work together toward that end as well as support the basic human rights of the Afghan people, especially women and girls,” stated the chief U.S. diplomat.

A foreign ministry statement issued in Islamabad quoted Zardari as telling Blinken that Afghanistan needed assistance to avert its ongoing humanitarian crisis and underlined Pakistan’s resolve to work with the international community to achieve peace, development, and stability in the war-torn neighboring country.

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‘No Information on Whereabouts’ of Former Afghan Official Detained by Taliban, Says Family Member

The family of a former Afghan official who was allegedly detained by the Taliban in Kabul last month says that they have “no information on his whereabouts.”   

Ahmad Shah Habibi accused the Taliban of detaining his brother Mahmood Shah Habibi, former deputy chief of Afghanistan’s Aviation Authority, in the Shash Darak area of Kabul on August 10.     

“The Taliban, who were wearing civilian clothes, detained Mohammad Shah Habibi in front of his house in the Shash Darak area. … Later, they broke the gate, forced their way into the house, and took some documents, books and a laptop computer.”  

The Taliban’s representative did not respond to VOA’s request for comment about the alleged disappearance and whether Habibi had been detained.     

“No [Taliban government] agency has given us any information on his whereabouts. They have not let us meet him. And they have not told us why he was taken into custody,” said Ahmad Shah Habibi, who lives in the U.S.  

He added that the armed men who detained Habibi introduced themselves to the family as “Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate,” a name used by the Taliban for their forces.  

Habibi, a U.S. citizen, was working as a consultant for the Asia Consultancy Group (ACG), a Kabul-based telecommunication company.   

A spokesperson for the State Department told VOA that they are “monitoring the situation but have no further comment at this time.”   

“U.S. citizens should not travel to Afghanistan due to civil unrest, armed conflict, crime, terrorism, and kidnapping,” said the spokesperson in an email Monday. 

In August 2021, the United States and its NATO allies completely withdrew from the country after almost two decades of war with the Taliban, paving the way for the resurgent Islamist group to seize power.   

Last week, the Taliban released Mark Frerichs, a U.S. citizen, in exchange for a Taliban drug lord, Bashir Noorzai, who was serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison.   

In a statement, U.S. President Joe Biden said that after being in captivity for 31 months in Afghanistan, Frerichs release was “the culmination of years of tireless work by dedicated public servants across our government and other partner governments.”  

He added that his government “continues to prioritize the safe return of all Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad, and we will not stop until they are reunited with their families.”   

The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan Richard Bennett expressed his concerns earlier this month about the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.    

He added that the U.N. received numerous reports of civilians being subjected to house-to-house searches and what appeared to be collective punishment.   

“I am particularly concerned that former Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and other officials of the former government remain subject to ongoing arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, despite the amnesty declared by the Taliban,” Bennett said.  

Bennett said those committing these crimes appear to be acting with impunity and are creating an atmosphere of terror. 

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Influential Egyptian Cleric Al-Qaradawi Dies at 96

Prominent Egyptian Islamist cleric Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, a major force behind the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions across the Middle East, died Monday in Qatar at age 96, leaving Islamists across the region without a spiritual mentor.

Known to many as a prominent force in the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions thata toppled veteran Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali and Libyan leader Moammar al Gaddafi, Sheikh al-Qaradawi is remembered for calling on those leaders to “step down” on Al Jazeera TV.

Al-Qaradawi, who was a top figure in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood group, lived in exile in Qatar for the latter part of his life, where he headed an association of world Islamic clerics and hosted a religious program on Qatar’s Al Jazeera network.

The often jovial and avuncular Egyptian cleric could also spew tirades of vitriol and hatred against “despotic Arab leaders” making him persona non grata in his native Egypt and a number of European countries, where he was often not allowed to address conferences of fellow Islamists.

Al-Qaradawi is remembered by many for his angry and bitter sermons where he justified the killing of Jews, calling Israel an evil state and urging that it be destroyed.

Al-Qaradawi also spoke frequently on his Islamic religious TV show, where he answered questions on Islamic law, justifying things like the killing of gays and lesbians and the beating of wives by their husbands.

After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the civil war that broke out in Syria in 2011, al-Qaradawi told viewers of his TV program that suicide bombings were permitted in Islam, despite verses in the Quran that prohibit individuals from killing themselves.

Numerous Islamic clerics opposed al-Qaradawi’s views, posting YouTube videos to criticize or condemn his positions on a variety of issues. Al-Qaradawi’s support for the setup of Islamic regimes in the Middle East met bitter opposition in his homeland of Egypt, as well as parts of the Gulf and North Africa.

Egyptian professor of political sociology Said Sadek tells VOA that he thinks that al-Qaradawi was mistakenly credited with the downfall of Egyptian President Mubarak, as well as Tunisian President Ben Ali — who he says were “toppled after 16 days of street protests.”

“What made [al] Qaradawi famous in the Arab world, more than his books, was his weekly program on Jazeera TV that promoted him and presented him like the [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini of the Sunni world and that he is the one who should guide the Muslim world,” Sadek said. “But in Sunni Islam it is different from Shia Islam. We had many others who were competing for this post.”

Sadek added that al-Qaradawi died at a time “when Islamic projects in the area were collapsing in places like Egypt, in Tunisia, in Morocco, and now fighting for survival in Iran.” He said secularists “don’t generally gloat about the demise of Islamists, but many see his death as part of a general decline of the Islamist wave which hit the region after 1967 and began declining after 2013 (following a street revolt against Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood).

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Somalia Military Makes Gains in Large-scale Offensive Against Al-Shabab

Somalia’s state media on Monday said the military has pushed al-Shabab terrorists out of large parts of the country’s central area in the latest gains in a large-scale offensive. 

An offensive by the Somali tribal militia backed by the Somali government was launched in the Hiran region a few weeks ago against al-Shabab militants, liberating several key townships before moving on to Galgaduud and then the Bay region in the south.  

There has been significant progress in the liberation of 40 settlements in the Hiran region alone, with the support of the Somali government’s military commandos trained by the United States. 

However, the actual fight is taken up by the clan-based, state-supported independent Macawisley militia as part of the popular uprising against militants. 

Local militia members formally linked to the southwest administration of Somalia captured four settlements on the outskirts of Baidoa in the Bay region from militants with the support of the Somali national army forces Monday, proving that the uprising against the group has now expanded to the south. 

State-run media reported Monday that Busley, Bulo-Jadid, Matani and Usli were among the newly liberated villages. 

In an appearance on a talk show hosted by a local TV station Sunday, Ahmed Moallim Fiqi, the interior minister of the Somalia government, said the Somali army and local militia tribes had defeated militants in central Somalia after liberating much of the Hiran and Galgaduud regions. 

He noted that 40 settlements in Hiran and six more in Galgaduud had been liberated in less than three weeks, deeming this work commendable. 

“Our forces seized territory from militants which stretches over 40 settlements including villages, places where fewer people live and others where more people live,” he said. “These 40 settlements are located only in the Hiran region and a new operation has been launched in the Galgaduud region to liberate more territories, and you can imagine what happened yesterday and today when militants fled their dead comrades and ammunition, and so far, six villages have been liberated, and this only started yesterday.” 

VOA has not independently verified the Somali government claims. 

The Somali military gains come just one day after al-Qaida-linked militants attacked a training camp, killing one soldier and wounding six others. 

The Somali government’s campaign to regain control of the country comes at a time when the country is experiencing a raging drought, which U.N. officials warn will lead to famine within months. 

 

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Kenya’s ‘Marathon King’ Inspires Runners After Beating World Record

Kenyan marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge is spurring young athletes to follow in his footsteps after breaking his own world record Sunday in Berlin. 

Cheers erupted from the crowd Sunday at Nairobi’s Karura Forest as they watched Kipchoge race on TV. The watch party followed an amateur marathon organized by the Friends of Karura Forest to celebrate their 25th anniversary.  

Karanja Njoroge, a past chairman of the conservation group who serves on its board, called Kipchoge’s win “absolutely magnificent.”  

“Everybody went wild,” Njoroge said of the crowd at the watch party. “Seeing the guy was way ahead. Everybody felt so elated by the efforts of our king of athletics, Eliud Kipchoge.” 

Kipchoge’s new record, 30 seconds faster than his previous world record set in Berlin in 2018, is now two hours, one minute and nine seconds. Njoroge called it an inspiration. 

“I think it encourages people. Gives people hope. And even those who would never compete begin to believe, because this guy is 37 years old and he’s breaking world records,” Njoroge said. 

Barnabas Korir, an executive member of Athletics Kenya, the governing body for track and field sports, agreed.    

“He’s inspired the youth, but not only the youth but particularly all the athletes from Kenya,” Korir said. “You know Kipchoge is one of the few athletes who is completely determined. He’s also very focused.” 

Korir, who is also chairman of youth development at Athletics Kenya, said camps have been set up nationwide to encourage sports.   

“We got the support from the government to do that and in the last 3 years, Eliud Kipchoge talk to the athletes when they were in the camps,” Korir said. “So, this is an opportunity for us now to give our athletes a symbol that they can do well if they remain focused, if they work hard.” 

Kipchoge has won 15 out of his 17 career marathons, including two Olympic gold medals.  

Daniel Schearf contributed to this report.

 

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Protesters Block Part of South Africa’s Longest Highway 

South African protesters angry over water shortages shut down part of the country’s longest highway with rock barricades and burning tires.

Police described the situation in Ventersburg in the Free State province as volatile. The rural town is a popular refueling and resting place for motorists and truckers travelling on the N1 highway, which stretches from Cape Town in the south to the Beit Bridge border post with Zimbabwe in the north.

Warrant Officer Loraine Earle says the Welkom Public Order Policing Unit is on the ground monitoring the situation. She says they have spoken to some of the protesters and asked about their demands.

“They started this morning to protest. It’s because of the water situation in town. It’s now for the past few weeks that they don’t have water,” she said. “Members are on the scene. They’re monitoring the situation and nobody was arrested as yet.”

She says they have had water problems in Ventersburg on-and-off for the past seven weeks with no water for the past three weeks.

Those using the highway at Ventersburg have been advised to take alternative routes.

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