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India backs UN-led initiative for ceasefire in Afghanistan: Jaishankar

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BY S VENKAT NARAYAN  

Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI,

March 30: India backs a regional process to be convened under the United Nations to achieve a political settlement and a comprehensive ceasefire in Afghanistan as the situation in the war-torn country continues to cause grave concern, External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said on Tuesday.

Jaishankar made the remarks in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan in Central Asia, while speaking at the ministerial meeting of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process to find a lasting solution to the situation in Afghanistan. It is a regional initiative of 15 countries, including China, Russia, Iran and Central Asian states. This was the first reaction from the Indian side to the UN-led initiative proposed by United States President Joe Biden’s administration.

Addressing a gathering that included Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Jaishankar also said durable peace in Afghanistan requires a “genuine ‘double peace’” or “peace within Afghanistan and peace around Afghanistan”. “It requires harmonising the interests of all, both within and around that country,” he added.

India’s backing for a regional process on Afghanistan convened by the UN came against the backdrop of worries in New Delhi that the country has been kept out of other processes such as Russia’s “extended troika”. It was first suggested by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a letter sent to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in February.

Jaishankar said: “India welcomes any move towards a genuine political settlement and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire in Afghanistan. We appreciate the international recognition of foundational principles that will determine their contours.”

“We support a regional process to be convened under the aegis of the United Nations. UN stewardship would help to take into account all relevant UN resolutions and improve the odds for a lasting outcome,” he added.

In his letter, Blinken had outlined four elements as part of a high-level diplomatic effort involving regional countries and the UN to move quickly toward a settlement in Afghanistan. One of these four elements is a meeting to be convened by the UN of foreign ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the US to forge a unified approach on Afghanistan. The date for this meeting is yet to be finalised.

Jaishankar said the situation in Afghanistan continues to be a “cause for grave concern” as violence and bloodshed are “daily realities and the conflict itself has shown little sign of abatement, whatever may be the promises”.

Noting that the past few months have witnessed an escalation in targeted killings of civil society, he said that “2020 sadly marked a 45% increase in civilian casualties in Afghanistan over 2019”, while “2021 does not look very much better”.

“The continued involvement of foreign fighters in Afghanistan is particularly disturbing. Heart of Asia members and supporting countries should, therefore, make it a priority to press for an immediate reduction in violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” he said.

According to a UN report issued last year, some 6,500 Pakistani fighters, including members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, were active in Afghanistan. Indian and Afghan officials have for long accused Pakistan’s military establishment with deep links with elements of the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network.

Jaishankar said that ensuring Afghanistan is free of terrorism, violent extremism and drug and criminal syndicates is a “collective imperative”. He added: “A stable, sovereign and peaceful Afghanistan is truly the basis for peace and progress in our region.”

India has supported all efforts to accelerate dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban, including intra-Afghan negotiations, and attended the inaugural virtual session of the Doha talks in Qatar last year. “If the peace process is to be successful, then it is necessary to ensure that the negotiating parties continue to engage in good faith, with a serious commitment towards reaching a political solution,” he said.

At the same time, Jaishankar reiterated India’s interest in preserving the gains made over the past two decades in Afghanistan, including the democratic framework under which elections are held through universal suffrage, sovereignty in domestic and foreign policy and protection of the rights of women, children and minorities.

India is also committed to the development partnership with Afghanistan, which involves pledges of $3 billion, including more than 550 community development projects covering all 34 provinces, in order to ensure a self-sustaining nation.

As the lead country on trade, commerce and investment confidence-building measures under the Heart of Asia process, India will continue to work on improving Afghanistan’s connectivity through projects such as Chabahar port in Iran and dedicated air freight corridors between Indian and Afghan cities, Jaishankar said.

A lot of speculation regarding Jaishankar’s visit to Dushanbe has focused on whether he will hold a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Qureshi. However, there was no official word from the Indian or Pakistani side about such a meeting.

Ahead of the ministerial meeting of the Heart of Asia process, Jaishankar held talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Monday night and shared India’s perspectives on the peace process. He also met his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif and discussed bilateral cooperation, including for Chabahar port.

Jaishankar held a separate meeting with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu and discussed “Afghanistan-related developments and our bilateral relations”, he said in a tweet.



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Govt. eases restrictions on foreigners as Covid-19 rips through country

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DGHS, IGP informed of SLTDA decision

By Shamindra Ferdinando

In what many thought was a shocking decision, the Tourism Ministry yesterday (16) declared that tourists would be able to travel across the country despite movement restrictions in force since last Thursday (14) to control the rapid spread of Covid-19.

 Tourism Ministry, in a statement issued yesterday afternoon (16) quoted Director General of Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Dhammika Wijesinhe as having said that the foreigners in the country could travel in what she called a bio bubble. Director General of Health Services (DGHS) Dr Asela Gunawardena and IGP C.D. Wickremaratne had been informed of the arrangements, she said.

The announcement was made as the government struggled to cope with an alarming increase in the number of Covid-19 positive cases as well as deaths. It came close on the heels of Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga declaring that the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) wouldn’t be closed. When The Island sought an explanation from the Tourism Ministry how such a decision was taken regardless of tough quarantine laws and health guidelines in place to control the spread of rampaging Covid-19 epidemic, an authoritative official said that the Ministry issued a statement received from the SLTDA.

DG Wijesinghe said that those individuals and firms responsible for bringing in tourists had been instructed to strictly follow health guidelines or face the consequences.

Declaring that tourism has been categorized as an export industry, DG Wijesinghe said that the SLTDA stepped in the wake of complaints that foreigners experienced difficulties as a result of travel restrictions imposed in the wake of the latest Covid-19 eruption.

The Tourism Ministry further quoted the official as having stressed that arrangements were now in place to ensure tourists could travel in a bio bubble without hindrance.

Police headquarters said that after the lifting of ‘lockdown’ on Monday at 4 am, travel restrictions from 11 pm to 4 am on a daily basis during May would continue.

GMOF (Government Medical Officers’ Forum) spokesperson Dr. Rukshan Bellana said that the government seemed hell-bent on causing further chaos. Having allowed influential parties to bring in foreigners for quarantine in the country, the government caused the deterioration and now restrictions were done away at the risk of further intensification of the spread of the virus.

Dr. Bellana recalled how the government permitted the England cricket tour of Sri Lanka to go ahead in January this year at a time the UK was in a grave crisis over a new deadlier variant of Covid-19 spreading there and also allowed groups of Ukrainians in when Ukraine was in lockdown.

Responding to another query, Dr. Bellana pointed out that the shocking declaration that restrictions would not apply to foreigners meant that the government was yet to comprehend the gravity of the situation.

Dr. Bellana said that the government seemed to be blind to the fact that the death toll was on the verge of passing 1,000 and the cases nearing 150,000. If those at the helm of administration really believed tourists could move across the country safely in bio bubbles let them create the same for others, Dr. Bellana said.

According to the GMOF, the government was pulling in different directions in the absence of a cohesive strategy to meet the daunting Covid-19 challenge. The failure to understand the need to apply the same set of quarantine laws and health guidelines to all was one of the primary reasons for the deterioration of the problem.  Dr. Bellana asked how the government did away with restrictions while the doctors reported the detection of at least six Covid-19 variants.

Dr. Bellana said that he expected experts would oppose the government’s short-sighted policies.

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Gaza conflict: Parliament calls for truce; govt. silent yet

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

SLPP National List MP Dr. Suren Raghavan, on behalf of the Sri Lanka-Palestinian Parliament Friendship Association has urged the government and the Opposition to join the international community in calling for an immediate cessation of violence in the latest conflict involving Israel and Hamas.

The recently formed Association in a statement issued on May 13 called for cessation of hostilities in Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Association represents both government and the Opposition.

Citing international media reports, the Association expressed concerns over suffering of civilians on both sides due to military action during the month of Ramazan. Dr. Raghavan, the only SLFPer accommodated on the SLPP National List made reference to indiscriminate rocket attacks carried out by Hamas and Israeli air strikes.

The Foreign Ministry yesterday (16) acknowledged the government was yet to issue a statement on the situation in Gaza.

According to international media reports, an Israeli airstrike on Saturday destroyed a high-rise building that housed The Associated Press offices in the Gaza Strip. The airstrike came about an hour after the Israeli military ordered people to leave the building. The building houses the Associated Press, Al Jazeera and a number of offices and apartments.

Meanwhile, Israel Solidarity Movement (ISM) strongly condemned Hamas for attacking civilian targets in Israel. Calling Hamas a terrorist organization, the ISM pointed out that terrorists used Palestinians as a human shield while attacking Israeli civilians.  Pointing out that Hamas actions had placed the Palestinian community in peril, the IMS recalled how Sri Lanka suffered during the war against the LTTE. Making reference to sufferings caused by 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, the ISM stood solidly with those who backed whatever Israeli action taken to neutralize the Hamas challenge.

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Central Bank: No immediate threat of inflation rise from monetary expansion

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By Sanath Nanayakkare

Sri Lanka was currently experiencing high monetary expansion, but the Central Bank did not expect an acceleration of inflation in the near future, Economic Research Director at the Central Bank Dr. Chandranath Amarasekara told The Island yesterday.

Answering a query on the broad money growth and its wider implications, Dr. Amarasekera said, “At the end of 2020, broad money expanded by 23.4% compared to the end 2019. The extraordinary circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic required increased credit to the government from Sri Lanka’s banking system, and the historically low interest rate structure also resulted in a pickup in the growth of credit to the private sector in the second half of the year. This policy driven expansion in broad money supply was essential for the country to dampen the effects of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.”

“As the Sri Lankan economy is operating below its potential, we do not project a demand-driven acceleration in inflation in the near term. Even the relatively high economic growth projected for 2021 will be partly driven by the low base in the previous year, and therefore, it is unlikely that there will be an overheating of the economy in 2021 as well, although we envisage a monetary expansion of 21%.”

“However, as the authority responsible for the money stock of the country, the Central Bank remains cautious about any excessive expansion in money growth. Nevertheless, the close relationship between money and inflation that we used to see in the past is no longer in existence. For example, during the most part of a period of single digit inflation that Sri Lanka experienced since 2009, broad money growth has remained above 15%. The breakdown of the close relationship between money growth and inflation is also one reason for the Central Bank to move away from a monetary targeting framework towards a flexible inflation targeting framework to conduct monetary policy. Anchoring of inflation expectations has also helped curb the inflationary effects of exchange rate movements as well. Many other countries have also experienced similar situations.”

“When the economy recovers and demand conditions improve, the Central Bank will take appropriate action to make necessary policy adjustments to ensure the continuation of inflation at the desirable levels of mid-single digits without disrupting the growth process,” Dr. Amarasekara said.

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