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Pakistan election: Imran Khan’s party wants to form government, threatens protests

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(Last Updated On: February 11, 2024)

Candidates backed by the party of jailed Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan plan to form a government, a senior aide to the former prime minister said on Saturday, urging supporters to peacefully protest if final election results are not released.

The nation of 241 million people voted on Thursday in a general election, as the country struggles to recover from an economic crisis and battles militant violence in a deeply polarised political environment, Reuters reported.

Both Khan and his main rival, three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, declared victory on Friday, increasing uncertainty over who will form the next government at a time when swift policy action is needed to address multiple challenges.

Gohar Khan, the chairman of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-Insaf (PTI) party who also acts as the former prime minister’s lawyer, called on “all institutions” in Pakistan to respect his party’s mandate.

At a press conference, he said if complete results of the polls were not released by Saturday night, the party would hold peaceful protests on Sunday outside government offices returning election results around the country.

Hundreds of Khan’s supporters rallied in the northwestern city of Peshawar led by two of his aides who said they had been declared losers despite having won the polls.

“We never expected it would happen to us,” said Taimur Khan Jhagra, one of Khan’s former provincial ministers.

The protesters chanted slogans against what they called a vote fraud.

Sharif said on Friday his party had emerged as the single largest group and would talk to other groups to form a coalition government.

By 5 p.m. (1200 GMT) on Saturday, results were still not in for 10 of the 265 seats contested in the election – 48 hours after the polls closed.

The latest tally, posted on the election commission’s website, showed independent candidates had won 100 seats, with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) taking 72 seats.

At least 90 of the victorious independent candidates were backed by Khan and his party, a Reuters analysis showed – putting them well ahead of Sharif’s party.

Khan’s supporters were running as independents because they had been barred from contesting the polls under his party’s electoral symbol by the election commission for not complying with electoral laws.

Despite the ban and Khan’s imprisonment for convictions on charges ranging from leaking state secrets to corruption to an unlawful marriage, millions of the former cricketer’s supporters came out to vote for him, even though he cannot be part of any government while he remains in prison.

However, under Pakistan’s electoral laws, independent candidates are not eligible to be allocated reserved seats, 70 of which are meant to be distributed according to party strength. Sharif’s party could get up to 20 of these seats.

Khan’s close aide and media adviser, Zulfi Bukhari, told Reuters the party would announce within the next day the party banner they will ask independents to join. In Pakistan, independent candidates cannot form a government on their own and need to join a party.

“And we have no fear of independents going anywhere, because these are the people who have struggled for the last 18 months and endured all kinds of torture and oppression,” Bukhari told Reuters in a WhatsApp voice message.

Whoever seeks to form the next government would need support from other parties with no one close to the seat threshold for a simple majority in parliament.

Beside Khan and Sharif, the Pakistan Peoples Party of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of assassinated premier Benazir Bhutto, remains a major player with at least 53 seats.

The rest were won by small parties and other independents. This sets up a period of intense political negotiations over the next few days before a parliamentary vote to elect a new prime minister and government can take place.

“No one can form a government without us,” Bhutto Zardari told local Geo TV.

‘STABLE HANDS’

Pakistan’s army chief congratulated the country on Saturday for the “successful conduct” of the election, saying the nation needed “stable hands” to move on from the politics of “anarchy and polarisation”.

The military remains the country’s most powerful institution and has for decades had a huge role in making and breaking governments. Khan accuses the military of a crackdown on him and his party. The military denies this.

From jail, Khan released an audio-visual message created with artificial intelligence rather than having a statement read out by his lawyers, as is usually the case, in which he rejected Sharif’s claim to victory.

In the message posted on social media platform X, he called on his supporters to celebrate what he called a win that had been achieved despite a crackdown on his party and alleged poll rigging to limit the success of PTI-backed candidates.

The United States, Britain and the European Union on Friday each expressed concerns about the electoral process, urging a probe into reported irregularities.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron cited “serious concerns” that raised questions “about the fairness and lack of inclusivity of the elections”.

Pakistan’s foreign office responded to the comments on Saturday, saying they ignored the “undeniable fact” that the election had been successfully conducted.

“It is our hope that the process will be concluded effectively and it will reflect the will of the people,” said former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who is leading the Commonwealth team to observe the voting.

Jonathan called on those with grievances over the election to raise them in line with the laws of Pakistan.

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Iran sends Russia hundreds of ballistic missiles

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(Last Updated On: February 22, 2024)

Iran has provided Russia with a large number of powerful surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, six sources told Reuters, deepening the military cooperation between the two U.S.-sanctioned countries, Reuters reported.

Iran’s provision of around 400 missiles includes many from the Fateh-110 family of short-range ballistic weapons, such as the Zolfaghar, three Iranian sources said. This road-mobile missile is capable of striking targets at a distance of between 300 and 700 km (186 and 435 miles), experts say.

Iran’s defence ministry and the Revolutionary Guards – an elite force that oversees Iran’s ballistic missile programme – declined to comment. Russia’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The shipments began in early January after a deal was finalised in meetings late last year between Iranian and Russian military and security officials that took place in Tehran and Moscow, one of the Iranian sources said.

An Iranian military official – who, like the other sources, asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information – said there had been at least four shipments of missiles and there would be more in the coming weeks. He declined to provide further details.

Another senior Iranian official said some of the missiles were sent to Russia by ship via the Caspian Sea, while others were transported by plane, read the report.

“There will be more shipments,” the second Iranian official said. “There is no reason to hide it. We are allowed to export weapons to any country that we wish to.”

U.N. Security Council restrictions on Iran’s export of some missiles, drones and other technologies expired in October. However, the United States and European Union retained sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile programme amid concerns over exports of weapons to its proxies in the Middle East and to Russia.

A fourth source, familiar with the matter, confirmed that Russia had received a large number of missiles from Iran recently, without providing further details.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said in early January the United States was concerned that Russia was close to acquiring short-range ballistic weapons from Iran, in addition to missiles already sourced from North Korea.

A U.S. official told Reuters that Washington had seen evidence of talks actively advancing but no indication yet of deliveries having taken place.

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the missile deliveries.

Ukraine’s top prosecutor said on Friday the ballistic missiles supplied by North Korea to Russia had proven unreliable on the battlefield, with only two of 24 hitting their targets. Moscow and Pyongyang have both denied that North Korea has provided Russia with munitions used in Ukraine.

By contrast, Jeffrey Lewis, an expert with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said the Fateh-110 family of missiles and the Zolfaghar were precision weapons.

“They are used to point at things that are high value and need precise damage,” said Lewis, adding that 400 munitions could inflict considerable harm if used in Ukraine. He noted, however, that Russian bombardments were already “pretty brutal”.

A Ukrainian military source told Reuters that Kyiv had not registered any use of Iranian ballistic missiles by Russian forces in the conflict. The Ukrainian defence ministry did not immediately reply to Reuters’ request for comment.

Following the publication of this story, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Air Force told national television that it had no official information on Russia obtaining such missiles. He said that ballistic missiles would pose a serious threat to Ukraine.

Former Ukrainian defence minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk said that Russia wanted to supplement its missile arsenal at a time when delays in approving a major package of U.S. military aid in Congress has left Ukraine short of ammunition and other material.

“The lack of U.S. support means shortages of ground-based air defence in Ukraine. So they want to accumulate a mass of rockets and break through Ukrainian air defence,” said Zagorodnyuk, who chairs the Kyiv-based Centre for Defence Strategies, a security think tank, and advises the government.

Kyiv has repeatedly asked Tehran to stop supplying Shahed drones to Russia, which have become a staple of Moscow’s long-range assaults on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, alongside an array of missiles.

Ukraine’s air force said in December that Russia had launched 3,700 Shahed drones during the war, which can fly hundreds of kilometres and explode on impact. Ukrainians call them “mopeds” because of the distinctive sound of their engines; air defences down dozens of them each week.

Iran initially denied supplying drones to Russia but months later said it had provided a small number before Moscow launched the war on Ukraine in 2022.

“Those who accuse Iran of providing weapons to one of the sides in the Ukraine war are doing so for political purposes,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said on Monday, when asked about Tehran’s delivery of drones to Russia. “We have not given any drones to take part in that war.”

Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank, said a supply of Fateh-100 and Zolfaghar missiles from Iran would hand Russia an even greater advantage on the battlefield.

“They could be used to strike military targets at operational depths, and ballistic missiles are more difficult for Ukrainian air defences to intercept,” Lee said.

Iran’s hardline clerical rulers have steadily sought to deepen ties with Russia and China, betting that would help Tehran to resist U.S. sanctions and to end its political isolation.

Defence cooperation between Iran and Russia has intensified since Moscow sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February 2022.

Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu met the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Aerospace Force, Amirali Hajizadeh, in Tehran in September, when Iran’s drones, missiles and air defence systems were displayed for him, Iranian state media reported.

And last month, Russia’s foreign ministry said it expected President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi to sign a broad new cooperation treaty soon, following talks in Moscow in December.

“This military partnership with Russia has shown the world Iran’s defence capabilities,” said the military official. “It does not mean we are taking sides with Russia in the Ukraine conflict.”

The stakes are high for Iran’s clerical rulers amid the war between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas that erupted after Oct. 7. They also face growing dissent at home over economic woes and social restrictions.

While Tehran tries to avoid a direct confrontation with Israel that could draw in the United States, its Axis of Resistance allies – including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen – have attacked Israeli and U.S. targets.

A Western diplomat briefed on the matter confirmed the delivery of Iranian ballistic missiles to Russia in the recent weeks, without providing more details, Reuters reported.

He said Western nations were concerned that Russia’s reciprocal transfer of weapons to Iran could strengthen its position in any possible conflict with the United States and Israel.

Iran said in November it had finalised arrangements for Russia to provide it with Su-35 fighter jets, Mi-28 attack helicopters and Yak-130 pilot training aircraft.

Analyst Gregory Brew at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said Russia is an ally of convenience for Iran.

“The relationship is transactional: in exchange for drones, Iran expects more security cooperation and advanced weaponry, particularly modern aircraft,” he said.

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Pakistan’s largest parties strike deal on coalition government

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(Last Updated On: February 21, 2024)

Two major Pakistan political parties said on Tuesday that they had reached a formal agreement to form a coalition government, ending ten days of intense negotiations after an inconclusive national election did not return a clear majority, Reuters reported.

The agreement between Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of three-time Premier Nawaz Sharif ends days of uncertainty and negotiations after the Feb. 8 elections produced a hung national assembly.

Bhutto Zardari confirmed at a late night press conference in Islamabad that former premier Shehbaz Sharif, who was seated beside him, would be the coalition’s candidate for prime minister.

He added that his father Asif Ali Zardari will be the alliance’s candidate for the country’s president.

Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz, said the two parties had the numbers to form government, and also had the support of other smaller parties.

PML-N is the largest party with 79 seats and PPP is second with 54. They, along with four other smaller parties, have a comfortable majority in the legislature of 264 seats.

The delay in forming a government in the nuclear-armed nation of 241 million has caused concern as Pakistan is grappling with an economic crisis amid slow growth and record inflation, rising militant violence, and needs a stable administration with the authority to take tough decisions.

Bhutto Zardari said the parties would push to form government as soon as possible.

According to the country’s constitution, a session of parliament has to be called by Feb. 29 after which a vote for a new prime minister will take place, read the report.

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IAEA chief says Iran’s nuclear enrichment activity remains high

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(Last Updated On: February 20, 2024)

Iran continues to enrich uranium well beyond the needs for commercial nuclear use despite U.N. pressure to stop it, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said on Monday, adding he wanted to visit Tehran next month for the first time in a year to end the “drifting apart”.

Speaking to Reuters after he briefed EU foreign ministers on the subject, the head of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog said that while the pace of uranium enrichment had slowed slightly since the end of last year, Iran was still enriching at an elevated rate of around 7 kg of uranium per month to 60% purity, Reuters reported.

Enrichment to 60% brings uranium close to weapons grade, and is not necessary for commercial use in nuclear power production. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons but no other state has enriched to that level without producing them.

Under a defunct 2015 agreement with world powers, Iran can enrich uranium only to 3.67%. After then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of that deal in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions, Iran breached and moved well beyond the deal’s nuclear restrictions.

Between June and November last year, Iran slowed down the enrichment to 3 kg per month, but jumped back up to a rate of 9 kg at the end of the year, the watchdog, known as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), previously reported.

The increase came soon after Tehran barred a third of the IAEA’s core inspections team, including the most experienced, from taking part in agreed monitoring of the enrichment process, read the report.

“This slowdown, speedup thing is like a cycle that for me does not alter the fundamental trend, which is a trend of constant increase in inventory of highly enriched uranium,” said Grossi.

A spokesperson for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation was not immediately available for comment.

The IAEA warned at the end of 2023 that Tehran already had enough material to make three nuclear bombs if it enriches the material now at 60% to beyond 60%.

“There is a concerning rhetoric, you may have heard high officials in Iran saying they have all the elements for a nuclear weapon lately,” Grossi said.

He said the concern was all the higher because of what he termed current circumstances in the Middle East, a reference to tensions over Israel’s war with Iran-backed Hamas in Gaza.

“We seem to be drifting apart… Iran says they are not getting incentives from the West, but I find this logic very complicated to understand because they should work with us… It should never be contingent on economic or other incentives.”

Before visiting Tehran, Grossi is to fly to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Iran and the Middle East, along with Ukraine.

Russia is a signatory of the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), alongside the U.S., China, France, Britain and Germany. The deal lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear activities.

“Russia has a role to play on Iran. It has played a role in the past as a JCPOA country and in the current circumstances where JCPOA is all but disintegrated, something must fill the void,” he said.

Grossi said he saw a decrease in military operations around the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe, Reuters reported.

Fears of a serious nuclear incident were high when Russian forces took over the facility in 2022 and again following the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam last year.

“There hasn’t been a militarization, any deployment of heavy artillery,” he said, adding that nearby combat zones and recurring blackouts remained a worry.

“The minimum staff required to look after the plant in the current situation is there,” he said.

Grossi said the minimum staffing was still met despite about 100 members refusing to sign a new contract with Russia’s Rosatom that took over operations of the idled plant in 2022.

The EU has so far held back on sanctioning Russia’s state-owned nuclear firm Rosatom or any of its subsidiaries despite numerous calls to target that industry. Europe still relies heavily on Rosatom which supplies nearly 50% of the world’s enriched uranium.

“Many companies in the West depend on Russian supplies – enriched uranium or fuel… The consensus is sanctioning Rosatom would not be realistic and it’s impractical. It would put the nuclear industry at a standstill in many countries,” Grossi said.

Reducing dependence on Russia’s nuclear sector would cost Europe billions, Grossi said, and he saw no immediate shift away. He added that the larger issue was infrastructure and incentives, and projections of rising uranium demand globally.

“Frankly, I see an increased presence of Russian uranium enrichment capabilities in the world rather than a decrease,” he said.

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