Power was gradually being restored to major cities across Pakistan Sunday after it was hit by a massive electricity blackout, officials said.
The electricity distribution system in the nation of more than 210 million people is a complex and delicate web, and a problem in one section of the grid can lead to cascading breakdowns countrywide.
The latest blackout was caused by “an engineering fault” in southern Pakistan at 11:41 pm local time on Saturday (1841 GMT), which tripped the system and caused power plants to shut down, power minister Omar Ayub Khan told a press conference in Islamabad.
“Our experts are trying to determine the exact location of the fault.”
Khan said that will take “another few hours as the area is still covered in dense fog”, but that power had been partially restored in most areas of Punjab, the most populous province, as well as the economic hub Karachi in the south.
“We hope to bring the system back to its full capacity by this evening, but it will take some time for nuclear and thermal power plants to get operational,” Khan tweeted.
People were cracking jokes and exchanging memes on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, mostly ridiculing Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government and its performance after the breakdown.
“Power breakdown in Pakistan is blackmailing Imran Khan,” tweeted Musarrat Ahmedzeb in reference to the premier’s recent statement accusing Shiite protesters of blackmailing him after killing of 10 miners.
“What a start for the new year… let us seek Allah the Almighty’s mercy,” read another tweet, while a message on WhatsApp said: “new Pakistan sleeps in a night mode”.
There were no immediate reports of disruption at hospitals, which often rely on back-up generators.
Netblocks, which monitors internet outages, said web connectivity in the country “collapsed” as a result of the blackout.
Connectivity was at “62 percent of ordinary levels”, it said in a tweet.
This was Pakistan’s second major power breakdown in less than three years. In May 2018, power was partially disrupted for more than nine hours.
In 2015, an apparent rebel attack on a key power line plunged around 80 percent of Pakistan into darkness.
That blackout, one of the worst in Pakistan’s history, caused electricity to be cut in major cities nationwide, including Islamabad, and even affected one of the country’s international airports.
Our weekly roundup of offbeat yarns from around the world:
The “world’s loneliest elephant” has finally found a friend. Kaavan, who was rescued by the American singer Cher from a grim zoo in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, has found a company in a Cambodian sanctuary.
But the male Asian elephant is already finding that relationships with females of the species come with complications.
“One girl came and met him this morning. There was a brief curiosity and then she ran away,” sanctuary manager Darrick Thomson told AFP.
A mysterious shiny monolith found in the Utah desert that sparked wild rumours of alien visitations has disappeared. “All that was left was a message written in the dirt that said ‘Bye bitch’ with a fresh pee stain next to it,” said Riccardo Marino, who trekked to the remote spot to see it.
Days later a spookily similar monolith popped up in the Carpathian mountains near the Romanian city of Piatra Neamt. It too disappeared as suddenly and as mysteriously as it had appeared, only for another to pop up on a California hilltop on Wednesday.
An Australia family returned home to find a koala up their artificial Christmas tree, tangled in the lights and trying to eat its plastic leaves.
“I thought one of my kids put a soft toy in there, but it was a live one,” said Amanda McCormick.
The koala, dubbed Daphne, was released into the nearby bush by a rescue team seemingly unfazed by her experience.
Lockdown home haircuts hold no fear for “Gorgeous” George Clooney. The silver fox Hollywood star revealed that he has cut his own hair for the past 25 years with a quirky gadget that attaches to a vacuum cleaner.
The $50 Flowbee has been the butt of jokes since it appeared on late-night television ads in the late 1980s, but Clooney swears by it. “Listen, man, it works,” he told reporters.
German police are searching for a two-metre (seven-foot) phallic sculpture classified as a “cultural monument” that disappeared from the top of a Bavarian mountain.
All that is left of the impressive wood carving of male genitalia atop the 1,738-metre (5,702-foot) Grunten mountain is a pile of sawdust.
Pork barrel politics
Taiwanese MPs pelted each other with pig innards in a row over US pork imports. The offal scenes ended with a brawl as opposition MPs emptied bags innards on their opponents’ heads or lashed out at them with pig intestines.
Rings go full circle
The wedding rings of an Algerian couple who were shipwrecked when their migrant boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa have been returned to them.
Doudou, 20, and Ahmed, 25, were among 15 survivors of the tragedy in October. But their rings were recovered from a backpack found floating in the sea a fortnight later and traced to the couple, now in a camp in Sicily. “It’s incredible,” said Ahmed, “but we are still mourning our friends who didn’t make it.”
Pakistan authorities sealed off a major road into the capital Islamabad for a second day Monday as a far-right religious party held fresh anti-France protests.
A rally in the neighbouring city of Rawalpindi which attracted up to 5,000 people on Sunday spilled over into Monday, with around a thousand protesters gathered at the roadblock preventing them from entering the capital.
Commuters faced lengthy delays on alternative routes into the city.
Mobile phone services were restored around lunchtime on Monday, after being suspended for more than 24 hours to prevent rally organisers from coordinating with each other.
Pakistan has seen small and scattered protests over the past few weeks in response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent remarks on Islam.
The French president spoke out after an extremist beheaded a teacher near Paris after he showed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed during a class on free speech. All depictions of the Prophet are forbidden by Islam.
The president said the teacher “was killed because Islamists want our future”.
Macron’s comments triggered anger across the Muslim world, with tens of thousands in Pakistan, neighbouring Iran and other Muslim countries in South Asia flooding the streets and organising anti-French boycotts.
Pakistan has lodged a complaint with France over what it called a “systematic Islamophobic campaign” in the European nation.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has accused the French president of attacking the Muslim faith and urged Islamic countries to work together to counter what he called growing repression in Europe.
Blasphemy is a particularly contentious issue in ultra-conservative Pakistan, where anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or Islamic figures can face the death penalty.
Rights groups have urged the country to reform its blasphemy legislation because it is often abused to settle personal vendettas.
Sunday’s march was organised by hardline cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, whose party, Tehreek-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), is known for violent protests over the issue.
In 2017, the country was paralysed by TLP rallies following the acquittal of Christian woman Asia Bibi, who had been accused of disrespecting the Prophet Mohammed.
Authorities in Pakistan’s most populous province on Saturday banned an outdated medical procedure in which rape victims are subjected to an invasive physical examination.
The move comes after critics of the “two-finger test” this year sued the government of Punjab province, home to about 110 million people, in a bid to stop the practice dating back to the time of British colonial rule.
Proponents of the internal examination claim it can assess a woman’s sexual promiscuity and her “honour”, and whether she had been “habituated to sexual intercourse”.
Backlash to the test has been growing in recent years, with critics saying it provides zero useful information and is traumatic for rape victims.
Punjab health authorities in September admitted the test held “limited evidentiary value” but the practice continued.
Saturday’s ban, which takes immediate effect across Punjab, effectively preempts the ongoing court case.
A similar case is also underway in the southern province of Sindh with momentum growing for a nationwide ban.
Welcoming Punjab’s ban, Sidra Humayun, a case manager for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, told AFP it would be a challenge to ensure compliance by medical workers.
The mentality that still “links the reliability of a rape victim’s claims to her virtue and honour” in legal cases also must be addressed, she added.
The World Health Organization has declared the test “unscientific, medically unnecessary and unreliable”.
Neighbouring India banned the two-finger test in 2013 and Bangladesh followed suit in 2018.
Sameer Khosa, the lawyer behind Punjab’s court petition, welcomed the ban but said other problematic practices such as virginity testing through the examination of the hymen are still being performed.
Pakistan is a deeply conservative and patriarchal nation where victims of sexual abuse often are too afraid to speak out, or where police frequently fail to investigate cases seriously.
Indian and Pakistani forces on Friday waged their biggest artillery battle in several months leaving more than 10 dead and dozens wounded either side of their disputed Kashmir frontier, officials said.
At least five separate clashes — involving shelling and gunfire — were reported along the 740-kilometre (460-mile) ceasefire line that has separated the nuclear-armed rivals for the past seven decades, officials from the two sides said.
Hundreds of villagers were moved away from the so-called Line of Control (LoC) in Indian-controlled territory, while Pakistani officials said dozens of homes were set ablaze by Indian shelling on their side.
The new peak in tensions came only five days after three Indian soldiers and three militants were killed in an exchange along the LoC. India is also involved in a border showdown with the Chinese army in the Himalayas.
The latest fighting erupted on Friday morning and shells were still being fired into the night, according to residents.
The two sides each accused the other of launching “unprovoked” attacks.
“Pakistan used mortars and other weapons” and “deliberately targeted civilian areas”, said an Indian army statement.
Three Indian soldiers were killed and three wounded in the Keran sector of the frontier. Kashmir police said three civilians were killed and at least three suffered serious injuries, with one man losing both legs.
On the other side of the border, Raja Farooq Haider, senior minister in Pakistani Kashmir, said five people were killed and 31 wounded in the intense shelling on the Neelum and Jhelum valleys.
“For how long we have to bear such colossal losses?” he said in a Twitter message directed at Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.
A senior local official in Neelum, Raja Shahid Mehmood, confirmed the casualties and said the shelling was continuing late Friday.
Indian officers said the fighting was sparked when militants tried to cross into Indian-controlled territory at the northern end of the LoC.
Indian troops “retaliated strongly causing substantial damage to the Pakistan army’s infrastructure and casualties,” said the military statement adding that ammunition dumps and forward bases had been hit.
The two sides regularly stage artillery duels across the LoC, and invariably blame each other for the clashes.
Kashmir has been divided between the two countries since their angry separation in 1947. It has been a cause of two of their three wars since then.
Both countries claim the whole of the Himalayan region, where India is also fighting an insurgency that has left tens of thousands dead since 1989.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to visit troops in a border area on Saturday for Diwali, the biggest Hindu holiday of the year, according to media reports. Modi, who portrays himself as tough on security, has spent every Diwali with the military since becoming the country’s leader in 2014.
Modi launched what he called “surgical strikes” inside Pakistani Kashmir in 2016 after militants attacked an Indian base killing 19 soldiers. The neighbours staged air strikes against each other last year after a suicide bomb attack in which more than 45 Indian troops were killed.
The United Nation voiced alarm Tuesday at growing attacks on journalists and activists in Pakistan, often amid cries of blasphemy, urging Islamabad to protect those facing threats and probe any violence.
The UN rights office said it was growing increasingly concerned at numerous instances of incitement to violence, both online and off, particularly against women and minority journalists and activists, as well as physical attacks.
It pointed to the case of journalist Shaheena Shaheen, who was shot dead last Saturday by unidentified men in Balochistan’s Kech district.
And last year, four journalists and bloggers were killed in Pakistan in connection with their reporting, including Arooj Iqbal, a woman who was shot dead in Lahore as she tried to launch her own local newspaper.
“In the vast majority of such cases, those responsible have not been investigated, prosecuted and held to account,” rights office spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva.
He pointed out that women journalists in Pakistan last month had warned of a “coordinated campaign” of social media attacks against anyone who was critical of government policies.
He stressed that accusations of blasphemy were “especially worrying”, pointing out that they “can put accused individuals at imminent risk of violence”.
Colville said the rights office had raised its concerns directly with the Pakistani government and had urged it to take “immediate, concrete steps to ensure the protection of journalists and human rights defenders who have been subjected to threats.”
“We also stress the need for prompt, effective, thorough and impartial investigations with a view to ensuring accountability in cases of violence and killings,” he said.
The UN rights office had also called on the Pakistani leadership to “unequivocally condemn incitement to violence against religious minorities”, he said, as well as “what appears to be an increase in the use of blasphemy laws for personal or political score-settling”.
Baloch separatists opened fire and hurled a grenade at the Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi Monday, authorities said, killing four people including a policeman.
Three security guards were killed in the melee, while local police chief Ghulam Nabi Memon said all four assailants were shot dead.
“Police have recovered modern automatic weapons and explosive materials from the terrorists,” Karachi police said in a statement.
The city’s police force had earlier said six people died in the firefight but later revised the figure. A Karachi hospital where the bodies were taken confirmed the new death toll.
Pakistan’s military praised the swift response of the city’s security forces, while the Karachi police released a video of one member from a provincial security unit describing the firefight.
“I shot one of them dead…. The second guy saw me and… he took out a grenade. I shot him twice in his hand and his weapon fell down. I then shot him in the head as he tried to pull out the grenade pin,” said Mohammad Rafiq, a member of an elite provincial rapid response team.
The video of the officer was shared widely online, with social media users calling Rafiq a hero.
The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility in a message sent to AFP, saying an elite unit of fighters had carried out the assault.
The separatists have launched a string of high-profile attacks across the country in recent years — including in the southern port city.
The BLA is one of several insurgent groups fighting primarily in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, which has been rocked by separatist, Islamist and sectarian violence for years.
The group has targeted infrastructure projects and Chinese workers in Pakistan multiple times in recent years, including a brazen daylight attack on Bejing’s consulate in Karachi that killed four people in 2018.
In May last year, the BLA attacked a luxury hotel near the Afghan border at Gwadar, where a port development is the flagship project of a multi-billion dollar national infrastructure project funded by China.
Last year, the US State Department designated the BLA as a global terrorist group, making it a crime for anyone in the United States to assist the militants and freezing any US assets they may have.
Following Monday’s attack Pakistani authorities vowed to strike back against any group found responsible for the onslaught, promising to dismantle their networks and destroy their bases.
“An investigation has been launched and very soon we will reach their masterminds,” interior minister Ijaz Ahmad Shah said in a video message posted after the attack.
Business continued as usual at the Karachi stock exchange after the attack.
“Trading is smooth and continuing. PSX benchmark index one of the Best Performer in Asia today so far,” tweeted Mohammed Sohail, a broker at the exchange.
For a while after the attack the bodies of at least two gunmen could be seen in a pool of blood near the exchange’s entrance.
Karachi was once a hotspot for crime and violence, with heavily armed groups linked to politicians frequently gunning down opponents and launching attacks on residential areas.
But the situation has largely stabilised in recent years following operations by security agencies against armed political outfits and Islamist militants.
Militant groups still retain the ability to launch periodic attacks in many rural areas and occasionally in urban centres.
Monday’s attack comes more than a week after a grenade was thrown at a line of people waiting outside a government welfare office in the city, killing one and injuring eight others, according to a statement from municipal authorities.
India told Pakistan on Tuesday to slash its embassy staff in New Delhi by half — saying it would do the same in Islamabad — as a diplomatic spat continued between the nuclear-armed rivals.
The fractious relationship between the neighbours has worsened since New Delhi expelled two Pakistan embassy officials over spying claims in late May.
After that, New Delhi accused Islamabad of torturing two Indian diplomats arrested following an alleged hit-and-run in the Pakistani capital.
The men returned to India on Monday, where they “provided graphic details of the barbaric treatment that they experienced”, the foreign ministry claimed.
“The behaviour of Pakistan and its officials is not in conformity with the Vienna Convention and bilateral agreements on the treatment of diplomatic and consular officials,” the ministry said in a statement.
“Therefore, the government of India has taken the decision to reduce the staff strength in the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi by 50 per cent.”
The ministry said it would also “reciprocally reduce its own presence in Islamabad to the same proportion”.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry said it “completely dismisses” allegations its staff in New Delhi had violated any diplomatic conventions.
“Pakistan also rejects the insinuations of intimidation of Indian High Commission officials in Islamabad,” a Pakistan ministry statement read.
“The Indian government’s smear campaign against Pakistan cannot obfuscate the illegal activities in which the Indian High Commission officials were found involved in,” the statement added — an apparent reference to a June 16 traffic incident in Islamabad that two Indian officials allegedly fled.
The Pakistan statement said it was Islamabad — and not New Delhi — that had ordered the reciprocal 50 per cent reduction to the Indian diplomatic presence in the Pakistan capital.
Both countries said the staffing cuts must be made within seven days.
The Pakistan high commission in New Delhi was allowed up to have up to 106 personnel, but in recent months Islamabad reduced staff levels to about 80, diplomatic sources told AFP.
Tensions were already high after India in August scrapped Muslim-majority region Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and imposed a major security clampdown.
Kashmir was split between India and Pakistan in 1947 when they gained independence from Britain but is claimed by both.
Indian government forces have also been conducting numerous counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir since a nationwide virus lockdown was imposed in late March, killing dozens of alleged militants.
New Delhi regularly blames Islamabad for arming and training rebels before sending them across the border into Indian-administered Kashmir. Pakistan denies the charges.