A Kashmiri villager faked his death and travelled more than a hundred miles in an ambulance with four others in a desperate bid to circumvent India’s virus lockdown and return home, police said Wednesday.
Hakim Din was being treated for a minor head injury at a hospital in Jammu when an ambulance driver suggested the 70-year-old fake his death to get past checkpoints, police said.
Din and three other men wanted to return to Poonch, a far-flung region in Indian-administered Kashmir close to the de facto border with Pakistan.
The region’s Superintendent of Police, Ramesh Angral, said the four men and the driver travelled more than 160 kilometres (100 miles) in the ambulance, passing many checkpoints using a fake death certificate from the hospital.
“The ambulance was stopped at the last checkpoint before they could reach home,” Angral told AFP.
“A policeman there immediately figured out that the man lying covered inside the ambulance could not be dead.”
“Most of the people have returned to their homes but still tens of thousands of people are here. They will return today,” one of the event’s organisers Ehsanullah, who goes by one name, told AFP on Friday.
Pakistan has only recorded 21 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and no deaths, but officials have tested fewer than 500 potential cases in the country of about 215 million, where health care is frequently inadequate.
Many countries are advising against large gatherings in a bid to slow the spread of the highly communicable virus. Some nations — like France and Italy — have banned them altogether.
The federal government has yet to enforce nationwide measures to contain a possible outbreak, leaving provinces to act independently. Organisers of the Tablighi Ijtema were free to ignore government advice to postpone.
“The government asked us to cancel the gathering because of the coronavirus, but our elders and organisers decided that the gathering will proceed as planned,” Ehsanullah said.
The movement was founded by religious scholars more than five decades ago and focuses exclusively on preaching Islam.
It usually sees hundreds of camps and sub-camps set up on a dusty site outside Lahore to accommodate people from across Pakistan, giving the gathering a festival feel.
Schools in three of Pakistan’s four provinces are closed for March and authorities are conducting basic screenings of passengers arriving by air from overseas.
Prime Minister Imran Khan was set to meet with his national security team later Friday to discuss the global coronavirus crisis.
Pakistan is closing one of its two border crossings with Afghanistan for a week to prevent the spread of coronavirus, officials said Sunday.
The announcement comes a day after Pakistan detected two new cases of the virus bringing the total number of infected patients to four.
Officials said the Chaman/Spinboldak crossing point would close from Monday, but the second point at Torkhum in the northwest would remain open.
Pakistan is sandwiched between China and Iran — which are both fighting major outbreaks — sparking fears about the country’s ability to cope with an epidemic of its own.
The country has suspended all flights to Iran and closed land borders.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are divided by the “Durand Line”, a 2,400-kilometre (1,500-mile) frontier with Villages straddling the border and mosques and houses having one door in Pakistan and another in Afghanistan.
The virus has now killed more than 2,900 people and infected over 83,000 worldwide, with an increasing number of new cases being reported each day.
With porous borders, creaking hospitals and large illiterate populations, Afghanistan and Pakistan face a potentially devastating health crisis after the new coronavirus erupted in neighbouring Iran.
Islamabad has closed official border crossings while Kabul has suspended all travel to the Islamic republic, which has reported 15 deaths out of nearly 100 infections — making it one of the hardest hit countries outside the virus epicentre China.
But experts fear the measures could prove ineffective with thousands of people — refugees fleeing violence, Shiite pilgrims, smugglers and migrants looking for work — likely crossing the long, poorly patrolled frontiers every day.
The virus has spread to more than 25 countries, killing over 2,700 and infecting 80,000, mostly in China. But new outbreaks in Europe, the Middle East and in Asia have fanned fears of the contagion taking hold in poor nations which lack the healthcare infrastructure to cope.
Afghanistan announced Monday its first virus infection involving a patient who had recently been in Iran where millions of Afghans live.
Afghan television and radio broadcasts have begun advising people on how to prevent transmission of the virus, while residents have rushed to buy face masks — straining supplies and sparking a tenfold increase in the cost of a single mask at some pharmacies in the capital Kabul.
“We are worried, we don’t have a proper functioning health system and the borders are open. All we can do is take some preventive measures and pray to God to help us,” said Ihsanul Haq, a government employee.
Afghanistan’s healthcare system is in tatters after more than four decades of war, with the few available hospitals focused mainly on basic care and trauma. They lack the expertise to deal with infectious diseases.
“It could be a disaster if the virus really spreads all over the country. There aren’t that many health centres,” said Wali, a Kabul-based physician, who specialises in viral infectious diseases.
“The government is doing what they can to contain the spread of the virus. But it is very difficult.”
Adding to the challenge of limiting the spread of the virus is the Afghan tradition of greeting family and friends with handshakes, hugs and kisses.
A largely illiterate population also makes it difficult to educate people about ways to stop the transmission.
“People are illiterate, you can’t get the message through to them,” Wali said.
– Unprepared –
Across the border in Pakistan there are growing fears over how the country would deal with a potential outbreak.
Islamabad has a history of failing to contain infectious diseases such as polio, tuberculosis and hepatitis.
Adding to the challenge, hundreds of thousands of quack doctors are thought to be working across the country and scandals involving the use of dirty needles in healthcare settings have eroded public trust in the system.
“If such a contagious illness were to enter the country, one can only imagine the toll it would take on the already overburdened and under-resourced healthcare system,” read an editorial in the English daily Dawn.
Indeed, some Pakistani students trapped in the Chinese city of Wuhan — where the virus was first detected in December — told AFP recently they were nervous about returning to their country if authorities were to evacuate them.
“We are worried about how the authorities are going to treat us when we go back to Pakistan — some students who went back told us the officials treated them very badly,” Ruqia Shaikh said.
While Pakistan has closed land borders with Iran, it has maintained air travel to and from China — increasingly a source of trade and commerce for the country.
“There is a limited concept of prevention unfortunately. I fear it’s not well prepared at all for any health emergency,” Pakistani public health expert Arshad Altaf told AFP.
Pakistan this week moved quickly to quarantine at least 270 people near the Iranian border after a group of pilgrims returned and briefly mixed with other residents.
That came hours after Pakistan sealed off its frontier with Iran in southwestern Balochistan province, which remains vulnerable to a public health emergency.
Decades of fighting a separatist insurgency and militant violence, along with neglect from the central government, have left the impoverished area with little infrastructure.
Ziaullah Langove, Balochistan’s home minister, said there were nearly 10,000 Pakistanis still in Iran, mostly students and pilgrims that Iranian officials were planning to send back in small groups.
At the Taftan border crossing long queues of trucks waited in hope of being allowed into Iran, as residents and officials donned surgical masks.
“There is no information sharing whatsoever,” said resident Khuda Baksh, chiding officials for failing to keep locals informed about the situation.
“There is fear and panic among the public, our business and lives are at risk.”
The United States on Wednesday praised Pakistan’s jailing of the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attack, a step long sought by Washington as well as India.
The conviction “of Hafiz Saeed and his associate is an important step forward — both toward holding LeT accountable for its crimes, and for Pakistan in meeting its international commitments to combat terrorist financing,” tweeted Alice Wells, the top US diplomat for South Asia.
She was referring to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group that both Washington and New Delhi hold responsible for the siege of the Indian financial capital that killed 166 people.
LeT is the militant wing of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa Islamist charity led by Saeed.
Avalanches, flooding and harsh winter weather has killed more than 110 people across Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent days, officials said Tuesday, as authorities struggled to reach people stranded by heavy snowfall.
At least 75 people died and 64 were injured across Pakistan, with several still missing, while a further 39 people were killed in Afghanistan, according to officials in both countries.
Forecasts suggest more harsh weather is on the way.
Pakistani Kashmir was the worst-hit area, with 55 people killed and 10 others missing, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) said in a statement.
In the picturesque but conflict-riven Neelum Valley in Kashmir, heavy snowfall triggered several avalanches, including one that killed at least 19 people.
“An avalanche hit their village, 10 people are still missing,” the NDMA said.
Frequent avalanches and landslides occur in Kashmir during the winter, often blocking roads and leaving communities isolated.
Authorities have shuttered schools, while several highways and roads were closed across the country’s northern mountainous areas, according to officials.
To the southeast in Balochistan province, at least 20 people had been killed in separate weather-related incidents.
“Most of those who died were women and children,” said Mohammad Younus, an official with the provincial disaster management authority, adding that hundreds remained stranded.
Across the border in Afghanistan, more than 300 houses were either destroyed or partially damaged throughout the country, said Ahmad Tamim Azimi a spokesman for the Natural Disaster Management Authority.
“A cold snap, heavy snowfall and rains that started two weeks ago have caused damage,” he said, adding that most casualties were caused after roofs collapsed under thick snow.
Hardest hit were southern Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and western Herat provinces.
In Herat, seven people — all members of the same family and including children — died when their roof caved in, Azimi added.
Harsh winters often take a heavy toll in mountainous Afghanistan, and the country remains poor despite billions of dollars in aid from the international community.
A suicide bomber targeted a mosque in southwestern Pakistan during evening prayers Friday, killing at least 15 people and wounding 19 others, officials said.
The blast took place in a satellite town of Quetta, the province’s main city. Debris and shattered glass littered the scene.
Fida Mohammad, who was attending evening prayers, said about 60 people were present at the time of the attack on the mosque, which is located in a densely populated area.
The explosion ripped through the front row of worshippers seconds after the prayer began, he told AFP.
“It was a powerful blast, people were screaming and running here and there — many people were injured because of the stampede,” Mohammad said.
Mohammad Waseem, a doctor at Quetta’s Sandeman hospital, confirmed that 15 victims had died.
The police chief of Balochistan province, Mohsin Hassan Butt, also confirmed the death toll, telling AFP: “Nineteen people are still taking medical treatment, the condition of three to four is critical.”
A police officer was among the dead, he added.
Provincial home minister Zia Ullah Langu told reporters that investigations by bomb disposal officers indicated that a suicide bomber carried out the attack.
A spokesman for the provincial government, Liaqat Shahwani, confirmed a suicide bomber was to blame.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the SITE intelligence group.
A Pakistani military spokesman said on Twitter that paramilitary personnel has reached the mosque and cordoned off the area.
“A joint search operation with police is in progress, injured being evacuated to hospitals,” said the spokesman, Asif Ghafoor.
The attack comes two days after a motorcycle bomb targeting a paramilitary force vehicle killed two people and wounded 14 others at a busy market in Quetta.
– Volatile area –
Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest and poorest province, bordering Afghanistan and Iran.
It is rife with Islamist, separatist and sectarian insurgencies and attacks are frequent, even as the number of violent incidents has significantly dropped elsewhere in Pakistan.
Militants still retain the ability to carry out attacks, including on major urban centres and tightly-guarded targets, and analysts have long warned that Pakistan has not yet tackled the root causes of extremism.
Balochistan is key to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), part of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative.
CPEC seeks to connect China’s restive western Xinjiang region with the Pakistani port of Gwadar, giving the world’s second-largest economy access to the Arabian Sea.
Two Indian soldiers were killed Wednesday in a gunfight with suspected militants along the border that divides the disputed territory of Kashmir between archrivals India and Pakistan, officials said.
The two were killed during an operation to intercept Pakistani infiltrators who were attempting to cross the heavily-militarised border into India, the Press Trust of India news agency reported officials as saying.
The operation was still in progress, army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Devender Anand said in a statement.
An armed rebellion against Indian rule has raged for decades in Kashmir, and has left tens of thousands dead, mainly civilians.
A Pakistani court on Saturday sentenced a university professor to death for blasphemy under a law that critics say is often used to target minorities and liberal activists.
Junaid Hafeez, 33, was arrested in March 2013 for allegedly posting derogatory remarks against Prophet Mohammed on social media.
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in conservative Muslim-majority Pakistan, where laws against it carry a potential death sentence. Even unproven allegations have led to mob lynchings and vigilante murders.
Hafeez’s sentence was announced in central city of Multan, where he was a university professor at the time of his arrest, and his counsel Asad Jamal slammed the decision as “most unfortunate”.
“We will appeal against this verdict,” Jamal tolP.
“Junaid Hafeez’s death sentence is a gross miscarriage of justice and the verdict… is extremely disappointing and surprising,” Amnesty International’s Rabia Mehmood said.
“The government must immediately release him and drop all charges against him,” she added. “The authorities must also guarantee his safety and that of his family and legal representatives.”
Hafeez’s lawyer was killed in 2014 after receiving death threats during a hearing.
About 40 people convicted of blasphemy are on death row in Pakistan, according to a 2018 estimate by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The acquittal last October of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had spent more than eight years on death row for blasphemy, provoked violent protests across Pakistan, leaving large swathes of the country paralysed.
Bibi now lives in Canada with her family.
While many cases involve Muslims accusing Muslims, rights activists have warned that religious minorities — particularly Christians — are often caught in the crossfire, with blasphemy charges used to settle personal scores.
A Pakistan court Tuesday sentenced former military ruler Pervez Musharraf in absentia to death for treason, state media reported an unprecedented move in a country where the armed forces are often considered immune from prosecution.
“Special Court Islamabad has awarded death sentence to former President Pervez Musharraf in a high treason case,” Radio Pakistan tweeted.
The case centres around Musharraf’s decision to suspend the constitution and impose emergency rule in 2007, according to his lawyer Akhtar Shah.
The controversial move ultimately sparked protests against Musharraf, leading to his resignation in the face of impeachment proceedings.
Musharraf has been in self-imposed exile ever since a travel ban was lifted in 2016 that allowed him to seek medical treatment abroad.
The 76-year-old has since spent most of his time between Dubai and London.
“Musharraf wanted to record his statement and was ready to visit Pakistan but he wanted foolproof security which was not provided,” lawyer Shah said.
“He is still in Dubai and sick.”
Musharraf, who was born in India’s capital New Delhi but moved with his family to Pakistan at partition, took power after ousting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup in 1999.
A cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking moderate, the general became a key US ally in the “war on terror” and escaped at least three Al-Qaeda assassination attempts during his nine years in office.
His rule faced no serious challenges until he tried to sack the chief justice in March 2007, sparking nationwide protests and months of turmoil that led to the imposition of a state of emergency.
After the December 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the national mood soured further and he was left isolated by the crushing losses suffered by his allies in February 2008 elections.
Following the court’s decision Tuesday, Bhutto’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari tweeted: “Democracy is the best revenge”.
Musharraf finally resigned in August 2008 in the face of impeachment proceedings by the new governing coalition and went into exile.
He returned in 2013 in an attempt to contest elections but was barred from taking part in the polls and from leaving the country while facing a barrage of legal cases.
Tuesday’s ruling is the latest court decision to target Musharraf.
In 2017, a Pakistani court pronounced Musharraf a fugitive in the murder trial of Bhutto — the first woman prime minister of a Muslim country.
The anti-terrorism court has branded Musharraf an absconder and ordered the confiscation of his property.
Musharraf is alleged to have been part of a broad conspiracy to have his political rival killed before elections. He has denied the allegation.
Thirteen Pakistanis including eight children died early Monday when a blaze tore through their corrugated metal home in a rural area of western Jordan, authorities said.
Rescue services said “13 people died and three others were injured when fire broke out in a corrugated metal house” on a farm in South Shona, around 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Amman.
The makeshift building was home to two Pakistani families working as agricultural labourers, they said in a statement.
Fire service spokesman Iyad al-Omari told state television channel Al-Mamlaka that eight children, four women and a man had died in the blaze at around 2:00 am, which was likely caused by an electrical fault.
Jordan is home to thousands of Pakistanis, many of them agricultural labourers.
House fires in Jordan are often caused by the use of cheap but dangerous forms of heating while the occupants are asleep.