Children take a dangerous climb for online school in Sri Lanka

BOHITIYAWA: Getting online school lessons for residents of a remote Sri Lankan village requires a trek through dense bushes sometimes visited by leopards and elephants.

The teachers and 45 schoolchildren in Bohitiwaya then climb more than three kilometres to the top of a rock to find an internet signal.

Information technology teacher Nimali Anuruddhika uses the signal to upload lessons for her students who haven’t been able to go to school because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The students who also live in the village make the same climb to download online lessons sent to them by their teachers.

Not all have mobile devices or laptops, with four or five children sharing one device.

Their parents, most of whom are farmers, often accompany their children. H.M. Pathmini Kumari, who accompanies his sixth-grade son, said the children climb the rock twice a day and their safety is a big concern for parents.

The village in the central-eastern part of the island country lacks basic amenities, and its children had been studying in a government school, now closed, that is about 16 kilometres away.

In the village of Lunugala, about 60 kilometres away, adults escort schoolchildren to a mountaintop treehouse in a forest reserve. It’s about 10 metres high and has internet access. They take turns uploading their homework and downloading lesson plans.

Schools in Sri Lanka have been closed for the most part since March 2020.

Authorities say they make every effort to provide all children access to education, but Joseph Stalin, who heads the Ceylon Teachers Union, says at most 40pc of the country’s 4.3 million students can participate in online classes. The majority lack access to devices or connectivity.

Sri Lanka’s government on Monday began a campaign to vaccinate all teachers with a view to reopening schools soon.

Afghan leaders to hold last-ditch talks with Taliban in Doha

KABUL: Senior Afghan leaders will fly to Doha for talks with the Taliban this week, as the insurgent group takes a hard stance on negotiations, even warning Turkey against plans to keep some troops in Afghanistan to run and guard Kabul’s main airport.

The eight-member delegation will include senior Afg­han peace official Abdullah Abdullah and former president Hamid Karzai, and is expected to discuss the speeding up of peace talks, a government official said.

The Taliban did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the talks, which are separate from the stalled intra-Afghan negotiations taking place between Taliban and Afghan government negotiators in the Qatari capital of Doha.

Taliban warn Turkey

The news of the delegation’s visit came hours after the Taliban warned of “consequences” of plans to keep some Turkish troops in Afghanistan to run and guard Kabul airport after foreign forces pull out.

It was not immediately clear if the Kabul airport matter would be discussed between the Taliban and the senior Afghan delegation, expected to fly to Doha on Friday.

Ankara, which has offered to run and guard the airport in the capital after Nato withdraws, has been in talks with the United States on financial, political and logistical support.

Turkey has repeated that the airport must stay open to preserve diplomatic missions in Afghanistan, where a blast rocked Kabul on Tuesday and clashes have intensified across the country.

“If Turkish officials fail to reconsider their decision and continue the occupation of our country, the Islamic Emirate… will take a stand against them,” the Taliban said in a statement, referring to Turkey’s plan.

The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist from 1996 to 2001, have been fighting for 20 years to topple the Western-backed government in Kabul.

Emboldened by the departure of foreign forces by a September target, they are making a fresh push to surround cities and gain territory.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar told reporters after a cabinet meeting on Monday evening that Turkey agreed to some points with US counterparts on running the airport and work towards a deal continues.

“The airport needs to remain open, be operated. All countries say this. If the airport does not operate, the countries will have to withdraw their diplomatic missions there,” he said.

Talks now involving ministries should be complete by the time US forces leave, a senior Turkish official said. “We still think there will be an agreement on the airport. We want to side with the Afghan people,” the official said.

France calls on its citizens to leave Afghanistan

The deteriorating situation across Afghanistan led France’s Embassy in Kabul to call on French citizens to leave Afghanistan on a free flight scheduled for Saturday.

“The French Embassy info­rms its compatriots who would remain in Afghanistan after July 17 that it will no longer be able to ensure the safety of their departure,” a statement on the embassy’s website said on Tuesday.

The senior Afghan delegation is expected to talk to the Taliban about a ceasefire as violence rises across Afghanistan.

Four killed in Kabul blast

Police said a blast rocked a busy area of Kabul on Tuesday, killing four people and wounding five. It was not clear who was behind the explosion or the target.

Clashes were continuing in the southern province of Kandahar, said Attaullah Atta, a provincial council member, with the Taliban being pushed back after a bid to break into a city prison. Hundreds of families had fled the violence, he added.

Mohammad Daoud Far­had, director of Kandahar’s provincial hospital, said it had received eight dead and more than 30 people, mostly civilians, wounded in clashes in the past 24 hours.

Early on Tuesday, Afghan security forces had retreated from the district of Alingar in the eastern province of Laghman, a local government official said on condition of anonymity.

A ceasefire pact with the Taliban in the district fell through in May.

Gene editing used to ‘chop up’ Covid virus in human cells

PARIS: Scientists have used CRISPR gene-editing technology to successfully block the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in infected human cells, according to research released on Tuesday that could pave the way for Covid-19 treatments.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, researchers in Australia said the tool was effective against viral transmissions in lab tests, adding that they hoped to begin animal trials soon.

CRISPR, which allows scientists to alter DNA sequences and modify gene function, has already shown promise in eliminating the genetic coding that drives the development of children’s cancer.

The team in Tuesday’s study used an enzyme, CRISPR-Cas13b, that binds to relevant RNA sequences on the novel coronavirus and degrades the genome it needs to replicate inside human cells.

Lead author Sharon Lewin from Australia’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity told AFP that the team had designed the CRISPR tool to recognise SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsibly for Covid-19.

“Once the virus is recognised, the CRISPR enzyme is activated and chops up the virus,” she said.

“We targeted several parts of the virus — parts that are very stable and don’t change and parts that are highly changeable — and all worked very well in chopping up the virus.” The technique also succeeded in stopping viral replication in samples of so-called “variants of concern” such as Alpha.

Although there are several Covid-19 vaccines already on the market, available treatment options are still relatively scarce and only partially effective.

Lewin said that using the CRISPR technique in widely available medicine was probably “years, not months” away.

But she insisted that the tool could still prove useful in tackling Covid-19.

“We still need better treatments for people who are hospitalised for Covid,” said Lewin.

“Our current choices here are limited and at best they reduce the risk of death by 30 percent.” Lewin said the ideal treatment would be a simple antiviral, taken orally, that patients are given as soon as they test positive for Covid-19.

This would prevent them getting seriously ill, and in turn alleviate pressure on hospitals and care systems.

“This approach — test and treat — would only be feasible if we have a cheap, oral and non-toxic antiviral. That’s what we hope to achieve one day with this gene scissors approach,” said Lewin.

Co-author Mohamed Fareh from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre said that another benefit of the research was its potential to be applied to other viral diseases.

“Unlike conventional anti-viral drugs, the power of this tool lies in its design-flexibility and adaptability, which make it a suitable drug against a multitude of pathogenic viruses including influenza, Ebola, and possibly HIV,” he said.

PM to launch work on two mega road projects today

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan is likely to perform the groundbreaking of 7th Avenue Interchange and rehabilitation of I.J.P Road projects on Wednesday.

Both the projects will be executed by the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) of the Ministry of Defence, which also has another construction firm, the National Logistics Cell (NLC).

“The prime minister is going to perform the groundbreaking of both the projects on Wednesday,” said a board member of the CDA. He said the civic agency had completed arrangements for the function to be held at Pak-China Friendship Centre.

Following a recent decision of the federal government to amend procurement rules allowing government organisations to award contracts to state enterprises without floating tenders, the CDA on Friday decided to get these two projects along with the construction of the district courts executed through state organisations.

Construction of 7th Avenue Interchange and I.J.P Road will be carried out by FWO

The 7th Avenue Interchange worth Rs1.5 billion will be constructed at the junction of 7th Avenue and Srinagar Highway near Aabpara.

Sources said the project falls in a sensitive area due to which the CDA decided to engage the FWO for its smooth and speedy completion.

They said the interchange will be a cloverleaf with four left and right loops at the junction of 7th Avenue, Srinagar Highway, Khayaban-i-Soharwardi and Garden Avenue.

There will be an underpass to link both the portions of Khyaban-i-Soharwardi. This project was proposed in 2008 but faced delays in the start of work.

In the absence of an interchange, motorists face traffic congestion.

Under the second project worth over Rs6 billion, the I.J.P Road will be rehabilitated besides construction of two additional rigid lanes and three flyovers.

According to the master plans of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the CDA was supposed to develop the “I” sector and Rawalpindi a “J” sector. However, the authorities in Rawalpindi could not develop the “J” sector. The major road dividing the “I” and proposed “J” sectors is known as I.J. Principal Road.

The CDA’s Development Working Party last year had approved the PC-I which says the project will be completed in 18 months.

Before finalising the PC-1, the CDA had hired a consultant to carry out a feasibility study. The consultant suggested two additional rigid lanes and three flyovers in additional to the rehabilitation of the road.

Nadeem Nusrat survives ‘assassination attempt’ in US

KARACHI: Former Muttahida Qaumi Movement convener and head of US-based advocacy group Voice of Karachi Nadeem Nusrat has survived an “assassination attempt” in Houston, his party said.

A statement received here stated that Mr Nusrat hosted an event in Houston on Sunday afternoon and left with VOK leader Shahid Farhad in a car.

It said that while travelling on Highway 59 South, Mr Farhad spotted a black SUV suspiciously trying to get closer to his vehicle and then he noticed “a hand coming out of the backseat window of the suspicious vehicle with a handgun”.

He instinctively pulled the brake resulting in misfire from the assailants. Multiple shots were fired. Mr Nusrat also witnessed empty bullet shells flying in the air and hitting the front portion of his vehicle, the statement said, adding that the attackers escaped on the highway.

“Mr Nusrat and Mr Farhad have lodged the official report at the local police station and informed pertinent authorities, who have started an investigation into the incident,” it said. Mr Nusrat was then the London-based convener of the unified MQM when party founder Altaf Hussain made an incendiary speech on Aug 22, 2016. Later, the party in Pakistan sacked him replacing him with Dr Farooq Sattar as the convener of the coordination committee of the MQM-Pakistan.

He then led the London faction of the MQM as its convener and later parted ways with Mr Hussain and moved back to the US, where he first launched a ‘Free Karachi’ campaign and then turned it into the Voice of Karachi advocacy group.