Indonesian President Joko Widodo inaugurated Southeast Asia’s first high-speed railway on Monday as it was set to begin commercial operations, a key project under China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative that will drastically reduce the travel time between two key cities. The project has been beset with delays and increasing costs, and some observers doubt its commercial benefits. But Widodo has championed the 142-kilometer (88-mile) railway, which was issued its official operating license from the Transportation Ministry on Sunday. The $7.3 billion project, largely funded by China, was constructed by PT Kereta Cepat Indonesia-China, known as PT KCIC, a joint venture between an Indonesian consortium of four state-owned companies and China Railway International Co. Ltd. The railway connects Jakarta with Bandung, the heavily populated capital of West Java province, and will cut travel time between the cities from the current three hours to about 40 minutes. Its use of electrical energy is expected to reduce carbon emissions. Widodo in his opening remarks officially named Indonesia's first high-speed railway — the fastest in Southeast Asia, with speeds of up to 350 kph (217 mph) — as “Whoosh,” from “Waktu Hemat, Operasi Optimal, Sistem Handal,” which means “timesaving, optimal operation, reliable system” in Indonesian language. “The Jakarta-Bandung high-speed train marks the modernization of our mass transportation, which is efficient and environmentally friendly,” Widodo said. “Our courage to try new things gives us confidence and the opportunity to learn and will be very useful for the future, making our human resources more advanced and our nation more independent,” he added. Widodo, along with other high-ranking officials, rode Whoosh from its first station, Halim in eastern Jakarta, to Bandung’s Padalarang station, one of the line’s four stations, located about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the central area of Bandung. He took a 25-minute test ride on the train on Sept. 13 and told reporters that he felt comfortable sitting or walking inside the bullet train even at its top speeds. Chinese Premier Li Qiang took a test ride early last month while visiting Jakarta for three days of talks with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations and other countries. Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for maritime and investment, said China Railway has agreed to transfer its technology to Indonesia so that in the future the country’s high-speed trains can be made domestically. For two weeks leading up to the inauguration, PT KCIC has been running a free-of-charge public trial. Indonesia broke ground on the project in 2016. The line was originally expected to begin operations in 2019, but was delayed by disputes over land acquisition, environmental issues and the COVID-19 pandemic. It was planned to cost 66.7 trillion rupiah ($4.3 billion), but the amount ballooned to 113 trillion rupiah ($7.3 billion). The trains have been modified for Indonesia’s tropical climate and are equipped with a safety system that can respond to earthquakes, floods and other emergency conditions. The 209-meter (685-foot) train has a capacity of 601 passengers. Ticket prices had not been finalized as of Monday, but PT KCIC estimated one-way prices per passenger would range from 250,000 rupiah ($16) for second class to 350,000 rupiah ($22.60) for VIP seats. Passengers going to downtown Bandung need to take a feeder train from the Padalarang station that will add a further 20 minutes, with an estimated cost about 50,000 rupiah ($3.20). The rail deal was signed in October 2015 after Indonesia selected China over Japan in fierce bidding. It was financed with a loan from the China Development Bank for 75% of the cost. The remaining 25% came from the consortium’s own funds. The project is part of a planned 750-kilometer (466-mile) high-speed train line that would cut across four provinces on Indonesia’s main island of Java and end in the country’s second-largest city, Surabaya. As a global economic giant, China is one of the largest sources of foreign direct investment in Southeast Asia, a region home to more than 675 million people. Amid crackdowns by the United States and its allies, China is expanding trade with ASEAN countries and infrastructure projects are playing key roles. A semi-high-speed railway — with speeds up to 160 kph (99 mph) — linking China with Laos was inaugurated in December 2021. The $6 billion infrastructure was financed mostly by China under the Belt and Road policy. The 1,035-kilometer (643-mile) route runs through Laos' mountain ranges to connect the southeastern Chinese city of Kunming with Vientiane, the capital of Laos. There are plans for a high-speed train down through Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore.
Jailed former Maldives President Abdulla Yameen was transferred from prison to house arrest on Sunday, fulfilling the campaign promise of his party candidate who won the presidential election runoff. Yameen is serving a prison term for bribery and money laundering during his presidency from 2013 to 2018. His transfer has been ordered by outgoing President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih at the request of President-Elect Mohamed Muiz. Muiz will be taking oath on Nov. 17. The elections commission on Sunday released the formal results of Saturday's runoff, which showed 54.04% of the vote for Muiz with Solih receiving 45.96%. The first round took place earlier in September with none of the eight candidates securing more than 50%. The election was perceived a virtual referendum on which regional power — China or India — would have the biggest influence on the Indian Ocean archipelago state located strategically along a key East-West shipping route. Read: Pakistan considers a new way to boost polio vaccination: prison Muiz, considered pro-China, promised he would remove Indian troops from the Maldives and balance the country’s trade relations, which he said were heavily in India’s favor. India, which is hosting many Maldivians, considers the country to be located in its area of influence while China had included the Maldives as a part of its Belt and Road initiative when Yameen was president. The project is meant to built railroads, ports and highways to expand trade — and China’s influence — across Asia, Africa and Europe. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Muiz on his election victory. Read: India's devastating monsoon season is a sign of things to come, as climate and poor planning combine “India remains committed to strengthening the time-tested India-Maldives bilateral relationship and enhancing our overall co-operation in the Indian Ocean region,” he said on X, formerly known as Twitter. The United States also congratulated Muiz, saying the two countries have a strong relationship based on mutual respect and shared interests.
Authorities in one Pakistan province are turning to a controversial new tactic in the decades-long initiative to wipe out polio: prison. Last month, the government in Sindh introduced a bill that would imprison parents for up to one month if they fail to get their children immunized against polio or eight other common diseases. Experts at the World Health Organization and elsewhere worry the unusual strategy could further undermine trust in the polio vaccines, particularly in a country where many believe false conspiracies about them and where dozens of vaccinators have been shot and killed. New oral polio vaccine creates antibodies in unvaccinated newborns: Study Adding to the problems faced by experts trying to persuade people of the vaccines' safety: The oral vaccines themselves now cause most polio cases worldwide. WHO's polio director in the Eastern Mediterranean warned the new law could backfire. "Coercion is counterproductive," said Dr. Hamid Jafari. 2 dead as bomber hits Pakistan police protecting polio teams He said health workers have typically succeeded in raising immunization rates in vaccine-hesitant areas by figuring out the reasons for people's refusal and addressing those concerns, like bringing in a trusted political or religious leader to talk with people. "My own sense is that Pakistan wants to have this legislation in their back pocket in case they need it," Jafari said. "I would be surprised if there's a willingness to actually enforce these coercive measures." Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan are the only countries where the spread of polio has never been stopped. The potentially fatal, paralyzing disease mostly strikes children up to age 5 and typically spreads in contaminated water. 2 police officers protecting Pakistan polio team shot dead WHO and its partners have administered billions of vaccine doses since they first began trying to eradicate the disease in 1988. The effort costs nearly $1 billion a year and is largely funded by donor countries and private organizations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The immunizations, given to children as drops in the mouth, have reduced polio cases by more than 99%. But in very rare cases, the live virus in the vaccine can cause polio or mutate into a strain that triggers a new outbreak. Gunmen kill 2 policemen escorting polio team in Pakistan So far this year, there have been seven cases of polio caused by the wild virus — all in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, more than 270 cases have been caused by a virus linked to the vaccine in 21 countries across three continents. In January, roughly 62,000 parents, mostly in Pakistan's Sindh province, refused polio vaccinations for their children, prompting authorities there to propose the new law with penalties. The bill is in the final stages of becoming law after the provincial assembly approved it in August. It would punish parents with up to a month in prison for failing to vaccinate their children against certain diseases; they could also be fined up to 50,000 rupees ($168). Officials said their primary aim was to boost polio immunization rates, though diseases including measles, pneumonia and pertussis are also in the legislation. Rukhsana Bibi, a health worker in Karachi, hopes the new law will reduce vaccine refusal rates and protect health workers. Karachi is considered at high risk for a polio resurgence. Bibi noted that in the past, abusive or threatening parents have been detained by police. They were released on the condition that they have their children immunized, and that they help the polio team with outreach efforts. There are multiple factors fueling vaccine hesitation in Pakistan. Many people are suspicious of the outside entities funding the vaccines and of the Pakistan government itself. Some "fringe elements" believe in a false conspiracy theory — that the vaccines are part of a plot by Western outsiders to sterilize people, Bibi acknowledged. But many parents would prefer that the government provide better health care, food or financial assistance. "Parents believe that's because the government gets grants and donations for such vaccines, so it keeps focusing on (the polio vaccines) instead of providing basic health care," Bibi said. "It makes parents suspicious." The public's already-shaken confidence in vaccine drives also took a dive in 2011, when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency set up a fake hepatitis vaccination program in an attempt to gather intel on former al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. Militants have also gunned down health workers distributing vaccines and sent suicide bombers to blow up the police vehicles protecting them. Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said it was disheartening that people were so mistrustful of the government that they didn't believe the polio vaccine was in their children's best interests. "I don't think in this kind of situation that throwing parents in jail is going to help," she said. "Not only does it not work, but it's likely to ramp up the anger." Larson drew a comparison to COVID-19 vaccine mandates implemented in countries including Australia, Britain, France and the U.S. "It's a challenge because when you're talking about a (vaccine) that comes with a risk, even if it's a very small one, can you force this and make people take it?" Larson asked. In some parts of Sindh province, the refusal rate for the polio vaccine is as high as 15%, according to a government official who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. To eradicate polio, more than 95% of the population needs to be immunized. The Sindh official said parents would be penalized for refusing the vaccine, but doses wouldn't be administered to their children without their consent. Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said it would be extremely challenging to rebuild trust with punitive measures. "The oral polio vaccine is not the best vaccine, but it's still much better than not getting the vaccine at all," Offit said. "It's ultimately the job of governments to stand up for children and we know that if we don't vaccinate a certain percentage of children, that polio will always come back." Last year, the virus was detected in rich countries including Britain, Israel and the U.S. for the first time in nearly a decade. Muhammad Akhtar, the father of three children in Karachi, said he believes in the importance of polio vaccination because his cousin was sickened by the disease. But Akhtar disagrees with the idea of punishing people, saying parents should be able to choose which vaccines their children receive. Another father, Khan Muhammad, of Benaras Town near Karachi, is among those who believe in the false conspiracy theories. He has seven children and argues that polio is just like any other debilitating disease. "Allah blessed us with these children and he alone will protect them," Muhammad said. "At the end of the day, it's God's will."
India's devastating monsoon season is a sign of things to come, as climate and poor planning combine
Sanjay Chauhan witnessed monsoon rains lash down over his home and farm in the Indian Himalayas this year with a magnitude and intensity he's never experienced before. "Buildings have collapsed, roads are broken, there were so many landslides including one that has destroyed a large part of my orchard," said the 56-year-old farmer, who lives in the town of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. "I have not seen anything like this." The devastation of this year's monsoon season in India, which runs from June to September, has been significant: Local government estimates say that 428 people have died and Himachal Pradesh suffered over $1.42 billion worth in property damage since June. Human-caused climate change is making rain more extreme in the region and scientists warn Himalayan states should expect more unpredictable and heavy seasons like this one. But the damage is also exacerbated by developers paying little mind to environmental regulations and building codes when building on flood- and earthquake-prone land, local experts and environmentalists say. 173 tonnes of Hilsa exported to India in 3 days through Benapole port Damages to property in Himachal Pradesh this year were more than the last five years combined. Other regions also suffered heavy losses in terms of lives, property and farmland — including the neighboring state of Uttarakhand, Delhi and most northern and western Indian states. In the second week of July, 224.1 millimeters (8.82 inches) of rainfall descended on the state instead of the usual 42.2 millimeters (1.66 inches) for this time of the year — a 431% increase — according to the Indian Meteorological Department. Then for five days in August, 111.9 millimeters (4.41 inches) poured down on Himachal Pradesh, 168% more than the 41.7 millimeters (1.64 inches) it would typically receive in that timeframe. Despite dispute, Canada remains committed to its relationship with India: Trudeau The rainfall spurred hundreds of landslides, with overflowing rivers sweeping vehicles away and collapsing multiple buildings, many of them recently constructed hotels. Key highways were submerged or destroyed and all schools in the region were shut. Around 300 tourists stranded near the high altitude lake of Chandratal had to be airlifted to safety by the Indian Air Force. Jakob Steiner, a climate scientist with the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, said rising global temperatures from human-caused climate change means more water evaporates in the heat which is then dumped in heavy rainfall events. And when all the water pours in one place, it means other regions are starved of rain. India and Canada steer clear, in UN speeches, of their dispute over Sikh separatist leader’s killing In the south of the country, rain was so rare that the region had its driest monsoon season since 1901, the IMD said. The government of Karnataka in southern India declared drought conditions in most of the state. Climate change compounds the phenomenon of weather extremes, said Anjal Prakash, a research director at the Indian School of Business, with both droughts and deluges expected to intensify as the world warms. In the Himalayas, the problem of climate changed-boosted rain is worsened by unregulated development and years of devastation piling up with little time to adapt or fix the damage in between. "Roads, dams and settlements have been built without proper environmental assessments or following building codes," said Prakash. Unregulated development has also led to increased soil erosion and disrupted natural drainage systems, he said. Y.P. Sundarial, a geologist with Uttarakhand-based HNB Garhwal University, agrees. "People here are building six floor buildings on slopes as steep as 45 degrees" in a region that is both flood and earthquake prone, Sundarial said. "We need to make sure development policies keep the sensitiveness of Himalayas in mind to avoid such damage in the future." When these structures almost inevitably topple year after year during monsoon rains, it creates a "cumulative impact" said local environmentalist Mansi Asher, meaning residents are now living with years of unaddressed devastation. Ten years ago, an estimated 6,000 people died in flash floods caused by a cloudburst in Uttarakhand which destroyed hundreds of villages; between 2017 and 2022, around 1,500 people died in Himachal Pradesh from extreme rain-related incidents; and earlier this year at least 240 families were relocated away from the religious town of Joshimath after the ground caved in from over construction despite warnings from scientists. Governments on the state and national level have been looking at how to address the destruction. Himachal Pradesh's government announced a $106 million disaster risk reduction and preparedness program with support from the French Development Agency this year to strengthen its response to extreme rainfall. The state also published a comprehensive climate action plan in 2022 but many of the plan's recommendations, such as creating a fund to research climate challenges or helping farmers in the region adapt to changing weather conditions, have not yet been implemented. The Indian federal government meanwhile has set an ambitious target of producing 500 gigawatts of clean energy by 2030 and has installed 172 gigawatts as of March this year. India is currently one of the world's largest emitters. The country also created a national adaptation fund for climate change, releasing just over $72 million for various projects since 2015. But these initiatives are too little, too late for apple farmer Chauhan and others picking up the pieces after an especially catastrophic monsoon season. Chauhan, who's also the former mayor of Shimla, wants to see a firm plan that addresses climate change in the face of the region's growing population and development needs. "Those in power really need to step up," he said.
Afghan Embassy in Delhi closing due to 'lack of diplomatic support' and absence of a recognized govt in Kabul
The Afghan Embassy said it is closing in New Delhi from Sunday due to a lack of diplomatic support in India and the absence of a recognized government in Kabul. But it will continue to provide emergency consular services to Afghan nationals, it said in a statement. "There has been a significant reduction in both personnel and resources available to us, making it increasingly challenging to continue operations,” the statement said. India has not recognized the Taliban government, which seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021. It evacuated its own staff from Kabul ahead of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan two years ago and no longer has a diplomatic presence there. Read: As mental health worsens among Afghanistan’s women, the UN is asked to declare ‘gender apartheid’ The Afghan Embassy in New Delhi has been run by staff appointed by the previous government of ousted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, with permission from the Indian authorities. There was no immediate comment by India’s External Affairs Ministry, but an official said last week that the Afghan ambassador left India several months ago and other Afghan diplomats have departed for third countries reportedly after receiving asylum. India has said it will follow the lead of the United Nations in deciding whether to recognize the Taliban government. Read: Two-year timeline of events in Afghanistan since 2021 Taliban takeover The Afghan Embassy statement said that it wanted to reach an agreement with the Indian government to ensure that the interests of Afghans living, working, studying and doing business in India are safeguarded. Afghans account for around one-third of the nearly 40,000 refugees registered in India, according to the U.N. refugee agency. But that figure excludes those who are not registered with the U.N. Last year, India sent relief materials, including wheat, medicine, COVID-19 vaccines and winter clothes to Afghanistan to help with shortages there. In June last year, India sent a team of officials to its embassy in Kabul. Read more: The Taliban are entrenched in Afghanistan after 2 years of rule. Women and girls pay the price
Opposition candidate Mohamed Muiz won the Maldives presidential runoff on Saturday, securing more than 53% of the vote, local media reported. The election has turned into a virtual referendum on which regional power — India or China — will have the biggest influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation. Mihaaru News reported that incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had received 46% of the vote and that Muiz had won by more than 18,000 votes. Official results were expected Sunday. “With today’s result we have got the opportunity to build the country's future. The strength to ensure the freedom of Maldives,” Muiz said in a statement after his victory. “It’s time we put our differences aside and come together. We need to be a peaceful society.” Muiz also requested that Solih transfer former president Abdulla Yameen to house arrest from prison. It was a surprise win for Muiz, who entered the fray as an underdog. He was named only as a fallback candidate closer to the nomination deadline after the Supreme Court prevented Yameen from running because he his serving a prison sentence for money laundering and corruption. Yameen’s supporters say he’s been jailed for political reasons. “Today’s result is a reflection of the patriotism of our people. A call on all our neighbours and bilateral partners to fully respect our independence and sovereignty,” said Mohamed Shareef, a top official of Muiz's party. He told The Associated Press that it was also a mandate for Muiz to resurrect the economy and for Yameen's release. Neither Muiz nor Solih got more than 50% in the first round of voting earlier in September. Solih, who was elected president in 2018, was battling allegations by Muiz that he had allowed India an unchecked presence in the country. Muiz's party, the People’s National Congress, is viewed as heavily pro-China. Read: Maldivians vote in a runoff presidential election that will decide whether India or China holds sway Solih has insisted that the Indian military's presence in the Maldives was only to build a dockyard under an agreement between the two governments and that his country’s sovereignty won't be violated. Muiz promised that if he won the presidency, he would remove Indian troops from the Maldives and balance the country’s trade relations, which he said were heavily in India’s favor. Ahmed Shaheed, a former foreign minister of Maldives, termed the election verdict as a public revolt against the government's failure to meet economic and governance expectations rather than concerns over Indian influence. “I don't think India was at all in the people's minds,” Saheed said. An engineer, Muiz had served as the housing minister for seven years. He was mayor of Male, the capital, when he was chosen to run for president. Solih suffered a setback closer to the election when Mohamed Nasheed, a charismatic former president, broke away from his Maldivian Democratic Party and fielded his own candidate in the first round. He decided to remain neutral in the second round. “Nasheed's departure took the motherboard away from the MDP,” Shaheed said. Read: Incumbent Erdogan claims victory in Turkey’s presidential runoff Yameen, leader of the People’s National Congress, made the Maldives a part of China’s Belt and Road initiative during his presidency from 2013 to 2018. The initiative is meant to build railroads, ports and highways to expand trade — and China’s influence — across Asia, Africa and Europe. Despite the rhetoric, Muiz is unlikely to change the foreign policy of affording an important place to India — rather, opposition to Chinese projects is likely to lessen, evening power balances out, Shaheed said. The Maldives is made up of 1,200 coral islands in the Indian Ocean located by the main shipping route between the East and the West. “These five years have been the most peaceful and prosperous five years we’ve ever seen. We have had political peace, opposition candidates are not jailed every day,” said Abdul Muhusin, who said he voted for Solih in the runoff on Saturday. Another voter, Saeedh Hussein, said he chose Muiz because “I want the Indian military to leave Maldives." Read more: Voters in Turkey choose between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu in presidential runoff “I don’t believe the Maldivian military has any control. Only Muiz can change these things and make the Indian military leave Maldives,” he said. There were more than 282,000 eligible voters and turnout was 78% an hour before the polling stations closed.
The United States, the United Kingdom, and Bangladesh were the top three source nations for foreign tourist arrivals (FTAs) in India in 2022, according to official data. The Indian Ministry of Tourism released the information in a statement on World Tourism Day, according to PTI. Also read: How to get an Indian Tourist Visa from Bangladesh India recorded 6.19 million foreign tourist arrivals in 2022, up from 1.52 million in 2021, it said. During the pre-pandemic year 2019, India had 10.93 million FTAs. The tourism industry has shown promising indications of recovery following the pandemic, according to Union Minister of Tourism G Kishan Reddy, who stated this in a written response to a question in Rajya Sabha in April. Also read: Mumbai Travel Guide: Must-visit Places and Fun Activities The Ministry of Tourism further stated that India got Rs 1,34,543 crore (USD 16.93 billion) in foreign exchange revenues, a "remarkable increase" from Rs 65,070 crore in 2021. In addition, India's share of foreign tourist receipts in US dollars is 2.08 percent. According to the report, India ranks 14th in the world in terms of tourist receipts. Also read: With G20 event, India seeks to project normalcy in disputed Kashmir The Delhi airport formed 31.21 percent of the top eight ports for FTAs in India in 2022, the report also said.
Maldivians vote in a runoff presidential election that will decide whether India or China holds sway
Maldivians were voting Saturday in the runoff presidential election which has turned into a virtual referendum on which regional power — India or China — will have the biggest influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation. Neither main opposition candidate Mohamed Muiz nor incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih got more than 50% in the first round of voting earlier in September, triggering a runoff election. Solih, who was first elected president in 2018, is battling allegations by Muiz that he had allowed India an unchecked presence in the country. Muiz's party, the People’s National Congress, is viewed as heavily pro-China. Read: Sri Lankan leader leaves Maldives, protesters leave offices Muiz secured a surprise lead with more than 46% of votes in the first round, while Solih secured 39% votes. Abdullah Yameen, leader of the People’s National Congress, made the Maldives a part of China’s Belt and Road initiative during his presidency 2013 to 2018. The initiative is meant to build railroads, ports and highways to expand trade — and China’s influence — across Asia, Africa and Europe. The Maldives is made up of 1,200 coral islands in the Indian Ocean located by the main shipping route between the East and the West. Read: Illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Maldives 'must collect visas' Muiz promised that if he won the presidency, he would remove Indian troops stationed in the Maldives and balance the country’s trade relations, which he said were heavily in India’s favor. There are more than 282,000 eligible voters and the runoff result is expected Sunday. Read more: Indian Foreign Minister to leave for Maldives & Sri Lanka today
A powerful bomb exploded near a mosque at a rally celebrating the birthday of Islam's Prophet Muhammad in southwestern Pakistan on Friday, killing at least 52 people and injuring nearly 70 others, police and a government official said. The bombing occurred in Mastung, a district in Baluchistan province, where around 500 people had gathered for a procession to celebrate the birth anniversary of the prophet. Muslims hold rallies and distribute free meals to people on the occasion, which is known as Mawlid an-Nabi. TV footage and videos on the social media showed an open area near a mosque strewn with the shoes of the dead and wounded after the bombing. Some of the bodies had been covered with bedsheets, and residents and rescuers were seen rushing the wounded to hospitals, where a state of emergency had been declared and appeals were being issued for blood donations. Suicide blast in southern Pakistan kills 3 Chinese, driver Baluchistan has witnessed scores of attacks by insurgents and militants, but they usually target security forces. The Pakistan Taliban have also repeatedly said that they do not target worship places and civilians. Those injured in the blast were taken to nearby hospitals and some were in critical condition, government administrator Atta Ullah said. Abdul Rasheed, the District Health Officer in Mastung, said 30 bodies were taken to one hospital and 22 others were counted at a second hospital. A senior police officer, Mohammad Nawaz, was among the dead, Ullah said. Officers were investigating to determine whether the bombing was a suicide attack, he added. Friday's bombing came days after authorities asked police to remain on maximum alert, saying militants could target rallies making the birthday of Islam's prophet. Also Friday, a blast ripped through a mosque located on the premises of a police station in Hangu, a district in the northwester Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, wounding seven people, said Shah Raz Khan, a local police officer. A bomb at a political rally in northwest Pakistan kills at least 40 people and wounds more than 150 He said the mud-brick mosque collapsed because of the impact of the blast and rescuers were removing the debris to pull out worshippers from the rubble. Police say it was not immediately clear what caused the blast. No one claimed responsibility, and it was unclear what caused the blast when around 40 people were praying at the mosque. Most of the worshippers were police officers,Pakistan's President Arif Alvi condemned the attack and asked authorities to provide all possible assistance to the wounded and the victims' families. In a statement, caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti denounced the bombing and expressed sorrow and grief over the loss of lives. He said it was a "heinous act" to target people in the Mawlid an-Nabi procession. The government had declared a national holiday for the birth anniversary of Prophet Muhammad, and President Alvi and caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul-haq-Kakar in separate messages had called for unity and for people to adhere to the teachings of Islam's prophet. No one immediately claimed responsibility for Friday's bombing, but Pakistani Taliban quickly distanced themselves from it. The Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, is a separate group but a close ally of the Afghan Taliban, which seized power in neighboring Afghanistan in August 2021 as U.S. and NATO troops were in the final stages of their pullout from the country after 20 years of war. Bombing in crowded bazaar in southwestern Pakistan kills 5 The Islamic State group has claimed previous deadly attacks in Baluchistan and elsewhere.Also Friday, the military said two soldiers were killed in a shootout with Pakistani Taliban after insurgents tried to sneak into southwestern district of Zhob in Baluchistan province. Three militants were killed in the exchange, a military statement said. The gas-rich southwestern Baluchistan province at the border of Afghanistan and Iran has been the site of a low-level insurgency by Baluch nationalists for more than two decades. Baluch nationalists initially wanted a share of provincial resources, but they later launched an insurgency calling for independence.
The exodus of ethnic Armenians this week from the region known as Nagorno-Karabakh has been a vivid and shocking tableau of fear and misery. Roads are jammed with cars lumbering with heavy loads, waiting for hours in traffic jams. People sit amid mounds of hastily packed luggage. As of Thursday, more than 78,300 people had left the breakaway region for Armenia. That's a huge number — more than half of the population of the region that is located entirely within Azerbaijan. Still, it's not the largest displacement of civilians in three decades of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Also read: At least 20 dead in gas station explosion as Nagorno-Karabakh residents flee to Armenia After ethnic Armenian forces secured control of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories in 1994, refugee organizations estimated that some 900,000 people had fled to Azerbaijan and 300,000 to Armenia. When war broke out again in 2020 and Azerbaijan seized more territory, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said 90,000 had gone to Armenia and 40,000 to Azerbaijan. Those figures underline the fierce animosity between the two countries, and they raise questions about the region's future. WHAT IS THE REGION? Nagorno-Karabakh, with a population of about 120,000, is a mountainous, ethnic Armenian region inside Azerbaijan in the southern Caucasus Mountains. When both Azerbaijan and Armenia were part of the Soviet Union, the region was designated as an autonomous republic, but as Moscow's central control of far-flung regions deteriorated, a movement arose in Nagorno-Karabakh for incorporation into Armenia. Also read: Fighting to end as Armenia, Azerbaijan agree on cease-fire Tensions burst into violence in 1988 when more than 30 — some say as many as 200 — ethnic Armenians were killed in a pogrom in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. Armenians fled, as did many ethnic Azeris who lived in Armenia. When a full-scale war broke out, the numbers soared. That first war lasted until 1994. Azerbaijan regained control of parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and large swaths of adjacent territory held by Armenians in a six-week war in 2020, driving out tens of thousands of Armenians that the government in Baku declared to have settled illegally. WHAT HAPPENED IN RECENT DAYS? Last week, Azerbaijan launched a blitz that forced the capitulation of Nagorno-Karabakh's separatist forces and government. On Thursday, the separatist authorities agreed to disband by the end of this year. The events put the region's ethnic Armenians on the move out of the territory. Nagorno-Karabakh and the territory around it have deep cultural and religious significance for Christian Armenians and predominantly Muslim Azeris, and each group denounces the other for alleged efforts to destroy or desecrate monuments and relics. Armenians were deeply angered by recent video that purportedly showed an Azerbaijani soldier firing at a monastery in the region. Azeris have seethed with resentment at Armenians' wholesale pillaging of the once-sizable city of Aghdam and the use of its mosque as a cattle barn. WHY HAVE THE SEPARATISTS QUICKLY GIVEN UP? A Russian peacekeeping force of about 2,000 was deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh under an armistice that ended the 2020 war. But its inaction in the latest Azerbaijani offensive probably was a key factor in the separatists' quick decision to give in. In December, Azerbaijan began blocking the only road leading from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Also read: Armenia, Azerbaijan report 99 troops killed in border clash Armenians bitterly criticized the peacekeepers for failing to follow their mandate to keep the road open. The blockade caused severe food and medicine shortages in Nagorno-Karabakh. International organizations and governments called repeatedly for Baku to lift the blockade. Russia, which is fighting a war in Ukraine, seems to be unable or unwilling to take action to keep the road open. That appears to have persuaded the separatists that they would get no support when Azerbaijan launched its blitz. Nagorno-Karabakh's forces were small and poorly supplied in comparison with those of Azerbaijan, thanks to the country's surging oil revenues and support from Turkey. WHAT WILL THE FUTURE HOLD? Under last week's cease-fire, Azerbaijan will "reintegrate" Nagorno-Karabakh, but the terms for that are unclear. Baku repeatedly has promised that the rights of ethnic Armenians will be observed if they stay in the region as Azerbaijani citizens. That promise appears to have reassured almost no one. Although Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said last week that he saw no immediate need for Armenians to leave, on Thursday he said he expected that none would be left in Nagorno-Karabakh within a few days. Ethnic Armenians in the region do not trust Azerbaijan to treat them fairly and humanely or grant them their language, religion and culture. Without an international peacekeeping or police force in the region, ethnic violence would be almost certain to flare.