French teachers strike over ‘chaotic’ COVID-19 strategy for schools

PARIS, Jan 13 (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of French teachers angry with the government’s COVID-19 rules walked off the job on Thursday and took to the streets to demand better protection for pupils and staff against infection.

“Stop your contempt,” and “We’re fed up with tests” teachers proclaimed on banners in rallies across France, calling for the government to provide them with FFP2 face-masks and to stop changing the rules so often.null

Teachers, parents and school directors have struggled to cope with the many twists and turns in COVID rules on schools. New testing requirements announced a day before schools restarted after the Christmas holidays and changed twice since increased the anger.

“We had reached such a level of exasperation, tiredness, and anger that we didn’t have any other option but to organise a strike to send a strong message to the government,” said union leader Elisabeth Allain-Moreno.

Many at the rallies called for the resignation of Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer. A government source said he was unlikely to lose his job so close to April’s presidential election.

Prime Minister Jean Castex will, however, meet teachers’ representatives later on Thursday, his office said, in a sign the government was keen to try and quell their anger.

The government has so far stood by its policy to keep classes open and requiring all pupils in contact with an infected person to get tested three times. Some degree of complication is the price to pay to keep schools open, it said.

“I know it’s tough, but a strike does not solve problems. One does not strike against a virus,” Blanquer told BFM TV earlier this week.

Infections have surged in schools as France has set records with close to 370,000 new daily cases, sending families scrambling to get their children tested.

“My children and I, we’re fed up with getting tested every other day,” said Corinne Courvoisier, the mother of seven-year old twins, who had joined the protest rally in Nice.

“We started testing Nelson and Elsa on Friday because there was a suspicion of a positive COVID-19 test in Nelson’s class, so Friday, then Sunday, then Tuesday, and then yesterday we were sent a letter from the director that there was another suspected case in Elsa’s class … We’re never seeing the end of it.”

Unions said 75% of teachers in primary schools and 62% in high schools walked out, while the Education Ministry said less than half those numbers did. Strike turnout was unusually high in either case.null

Some schools closed due to the strike, others were open only for children of health workers while some operated as normal.

“The pandemic has put the spotlight on a policy of drastic staff reduction in public education,” teacher Laurence Fourteuil said at the Paris rally.

“It’s not against the virus that we’re on strike. We are on strike against policies that are already attempting to squeeze staff.”

Two brothers reunite at Kartarpur after 74 years

NAROWAL: The Kartarpur Corridor reunites two brothers who separated 74 years ago amid chaotic partition.

Muhammad Siddique, 80, and Habib, 78, separated 74 years ago at the time of partition. They hugged and cried and garlanded each other on the happy occasion of reunion.

The Kartarpur administration distributed sweets.

Siddique, a resident of Phugaran village on the outskirts of Faisalabad district, said he had contacted a Sikh social worker from Canada two years ago. He said the social worker had helped reunite the two brothers.

According to Siddique, his brother and sister had gone to his grandparents’ house with his mother in 1947.

“A civil war was raging on and my father and other family members decided to migrate immediately to save lives and we came to Pakistan,” he said.

Habib from Indian Punjab said it was the happiest day of his life.

The corridor is playing an important role in reuniting friends and relatives who separated during partition.null

The two brothers visited Gurdwara Darbar Sahib and the officials also gave them gifts.

TTP confirms senior leader Khurasani’s death, calls it ‘huge loss’

The banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on Wednesday confirmed the death of senior leader Mufti Khalid Balti alias Mohammad Khurasani, whose killing in the eastern Nangarhar province of Afghanistan was revealed this week.

The current TTP spokesman, who also shares the Mohammad Khurasani alias with Balti, confirmed his death in a statement but shared no details of how he had died.

A senior security official from Pakistan had confirmed Balti’s killing on Monday, saying he was the current TTP spokesman. However, TTP had said Balti was not holding any position.

A militant source told Dawn.com that Balti’s funeral was held in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province on Tuesday and he was buried there.null

Meanwhile, the current TTP spokesman said in a statement that the group “lost a religious scholar and expert of political affairs”, deeming it a a “huge loss”.

He said Balti joined the TTP when he migrated in 2011 and had remained active since. He was arrested in 2015 and remained imprisoned until last year before being killed on Jan 9 (Sunday).

Earlier, the Pakistani security official said Balti, aged around 50, was involved in several attacks on the people and security forces of Pakistan.

Balti had been visiting Kabul frequently since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August last year, the official added.null

He had been making efforts for uniting various TTP factions and planning terrorist attacks with TTP chief Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, the official said, adding that Balti had recently hinted at carrying out terrorist attacks inside Pakistan.

Despite confirmations from Pakistan and TTP itself, a spokesman for the Afghan government had denied the killing of the senior TTP member and said that no such incident had taken place.

“I do not confirm these reports. They are not true. No such incident has taken place on this (Afghan) side,” Afghan government spokesperson Bilal Karimi had told Dawn.com when asked for a comment on Balti’s killing.

Hailing from Gilgit-Baltistan, Balti had been an operational commander of the TTP for the past several years.

In 2007, he joined the banned Tehreek Nifaz Shariat-i-Muhammadi in Swat and established close ties with Mullah Fazlullah, a former head of the TTP. He had cordial and close relations with TTP members of all tiers, officials said, adding that Balti played a vital role in the TTP’s propaganda campaign.

Officials said Balti ran a terrorist hideout in Khyber Pakthunkhwa’s Miramshah town and had fled to Afghanistan in the aftermath of operation Zarb-i-Azab. In 2014, he served as the head of the TTP media committee.

He was arrested in 2015 in Nangarhar by Afghan forces and remained at Bagram and Pul-i-Charkhi jails, according to a former TTP member, who was aware of Balti’s activities.

Balti, and other TTP militants, were freed last year in August when the Afghan Taliban resorted to releasing prisoners during their military offensive.

He was also the person who had called the media in Pakistan and Afghanistan to claim the 2014 terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar.

FO says ‘real possibility’ of India staging another false flag operation

The Foreign Office (FO) on Thursday warned that there was a “real possibility” that neighbouring India might stage “another false flag operation”.

FO spokesperson Asim Iftikhar Ahmad made the comments during his weekly media briefing, where he touched upon several topics, including Indian human rights violations in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK).

In his opening statement, the FO spokesperson said that Kashmir’s Right to Self-Determination Day was observed earlier this month on Jan 5.

“On this day in 1949, the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan in its resolution guaranteed the Kashmiri people the right to self-determination through a free and impartial plebiscite under the auspices of the United Nations,” he said.null

He noted that in messages marking the occasion, President Dr Arif Alvi, Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi highlighted the grave human rights violations in IIOJK and urged the international community to ensure accountability for the crimes against humanity and to play their role in resolving the Jammu and Kashmir dispute in accordance with UNSC resolutions and the wishes of the Kashmiri people.

“Pakistan reaffirmed its steadfast support for the Kashmiris till the realisation of their inalienable right to self-determination,” he said, adding that it was “reprehensible” that Indian occupation forces were continuing the killing spree in IIOJK.

“Since the start of this year, at least 15 Kashmiris have fallen victim to extra-judicial killings in fake encounters and so-called cordon-and-search operations. At least 210 Kashmiris were martyred in 2021. India is also shamelessly targeting journalists and human rights defenders,” the spokesperson said.

“We are also concerned and we are continuing to alert the international community about India’s track record. There is a real possibility that India might stage another false flag operation to complicate the current situation. So we continue to alert our friends in the international community about this prospect,” he added.

Ahmad also called on the international community to take immediate notice of Indian state-terrorism in IIOJK and to hold New Delhi accountable for the egregious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

“India must allow unhindered access to international human rights and humanitarian organisations and UN Special Mandate Holders to conduct independent investigations in IIOJK,” he said.

Relations with India

According to Radio Pakistan, Ahmad also said that Pakistan remained committed to peaceful relations with all its neighbours, including India.

“However, the onus is on India to create an enabling environment for dialogue,” he said while responding to question from a reporter.

The FO spokesperson regretted that there was no visible change in India’s “hostile attitude and negative behaviour,” the state broadcaster quoted him as saying.

Minorities in India

During the media briefing, the FO spokesperson also said that the “despicable harassment and insult of Muslim women in India through purpose-built online application” was rightly and widely condemned.

“This obnoxious and repugnant act is the newest low in the violent streak of hate attacks and targeting of minorities with impunity overseen by the BJP-RSS extremist dispensation under which space for minorities is continuously shrinking in India,” he said.

He added that the “deafening silence” of the BJP leadership and the absence of discernible action against Hindutva proponents openly calling for genocide of Muslims should “send alarm bells across the international community”.

As the prime minister had said, it is high time the global community takes note and acts to stop this dangerous slide and ensure the safety, security and well being of minorities in India, he added.

PM Imran to pay three-day visit to China

The Radio Pakistan report also quoted the FO spokesperson as saying that the premier would embark on a three-day visit to China on February 3 to attend the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics at the invitation of Chinese leadership.

During his visit, the premier will also interact with the Chinese leadership to further strengthen the all-weather strategic cooperative partnership between the two countries and to exchange views on regional and international issues, he said.

Petrol, diesel prices likely to rise by over Rs5 per litre

ISLAMABAD: The prices of key petroleum products are estimated to jump by up to Rs6.30 per litre on Jan 15 for the next fortnight, mainly because of higher international oil prices.

Informed sources said the prices of petrol (motor gasoline) and high-speed diesel (HSD) had been worked out to go up by about Rs5.30 and Rs5.80 per litre, respectively, based on the existing tax rates, import parity price and exchange rate.

Likewise, the prices of kerosene and light diesel oil (LDO) are also estimated to go up by Rs5.80 and Rs6.30 per litre, respectively.

An official said the government could slightly reduce sales tax on petroleum products if it decides to minimise inflationary pressures on the public, but it would largely depend on its engagements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the revival of a $6bn programme.

Increase mainly driven by higher international rates

In recent months, the government has been increasing petroleum levy and general sales tax (GST) on an alternate fortnight basis as part of its negotiations with the IMF. The levy would keep going up by Rs4 on the first of every month until it reached a maximum of Rs30 per litre and GST adjustments would take place on the 15th of every month depending on the price cushion.

At present, the government has been charging a tax of about Rs35 per litre on petrol and about Rs30.50 per litre on HSD.

The taxes on a litre of petrol include Rs17.13 petroleum levy, Rs7.31 (5.45pc) GST and Rs10 customs duty. The per-litre HSD price includes Rs17.62 petroleum levy, Rs3.53 (2.5pc) GST and Rs9.26 customs duty.

The ex-depot price — the final cost after applying the sales tax — of petrol currently stands at Rs144.82 per litre and HSD at Rs141.62.null

Petrol is mostly used in private transport, small vehicles, rickshaws and two-wheelers and has a direct bearing on the budget of middle- and lower-middle classes while HSD’s price is considered highly inflationary as it is mostly used in heavy transport vehicles, trains and agricultural engines like trucks, buses, tractors, tube-wells and threshers.

The ex-depot price of LDO at present is Rs111.06 per litre and that of kerosene is Rs113.53 per litre.

LDO is consumed by flour mills and a couple of power plants while kerosene is mostly used by unscrupulous elements for mixing it with petrol and for lighting in some remote areas of the country.

Until last year, the government used to charge up to Rs30 per litre petroleum levy on HSD and petrol and Rs6-8 per litre on kerosene and light diesel.

Petrol and HSD are two major products that generate most of revenue for the government because of their massive and yet growing consumption in the country.

The sale of petrol is touching 750,000 tonnes per month on average against monthly consumption of around 800,000 tonnes of HSD. The monthly sale of kerosene and LDO generally stands at fewer than 11,000 and 2000 tonnes.

Under the new mechanism, the government now sets oil prices every fortnight to pass on the impact of international prices published in the Standard & Poor’s energy publication Platts Oilgram instead of the previous mechanism of monthly calculations based on Pakistan State Oil’s import cost.