ISLAMABAD: As many as 160 Pakistanis out of around 300 stranded in Syria are scheduled to reach home on Monday (today) from Aleppo.

The Pakistani pilgrims were left stranded after the runways of Damascus airport were severely damaged by Israeli air strikes on Friday.

As a result, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) suspended its operation to the Syrian capital. However, following the request of Pakistan’s Ambassador to Syria retired Air Marshal Saeed Mohammad Khan, the airline made arrangements to send a special flight to bring the pilgrims back.

Every year thousands of Pakistani pilgrims visit Syria to pay their respects at the shrine of Hazrat Zainab, the granddaughter of Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), as well as other family members and companions of the holy prophet (PBUH) who are buried there.

According to a statement issued by Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) Central Secretariat, the Pakistani embassy in Syria has arranged transport for the stranded Pakistanis from Damascus to Aleppo.

PIA arranges special flights for evacuation; remaining pilgrims will travel to Iraq

The party issued the statement since its chairman, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, is serving as foreign minister in Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s cabinet.

The statement said as per the instructions of Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the embassy in Syria was in contact with all pilgrims, approximately 300 in total.

It said 160 people were scheduled to travel to Pakistan by PIA from Aleppo airport, which is around 150km from Damascus, on June 13 (today).

“Our embassy is arranging transportation of the passengers from Damascus to Aleppo,” the statement said, adding that the remaining 140 pilgrims would travel to Iraq on their own.

Syria has been embroiled in civil war since 2011 and till now Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes against it, targeting government troops and their allies. Before Friday’s attack, the war-ravaged country had rarely witnessed such a major flight disruption.

Meanwhile, talking to Dawn, Director of Al Harmain Travels based in Karachi Syed Musa Raza said: “My brother is there; we have talked to Mr Saeed, the Pakistani ambassador to Syria, who assured us that all arrangements had been made to evacuate our people from there.”

He said PIA’s flight to Sharjah would proceed to Aleppo airport to bring back 160 passengers.

“All pilgrims have been asked to gather at the shrine of Hazrat Zainab at 5am on Monday,” he added.

Mr Raza said buses would depart from Damascus for Aleppo with the pilgrims and senior embassy officials would accompany them.

Earlier, PIA had suspended its flights to Syria after the Israeli airstrike rendered the runways at Damascus airport unusable.

On Saturday, the national carrier’s spokesperson said: “Both runways are unusable/out of service due to Israeli air strikes at Damascus airport”, therefore the flight operations to Syria had been completely suspended.

However, the Pakistani envoy in Damascus wrote a letter to the PIA chief executive officer as well as the government, requesting them to make necessary arrangements for repatriating Pakistani pilgrims from the Syrian city of Aleppo.

According to the spokesperson, special instructions were issued by Aviation Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique, following which the airline had made arrangements to send a flight to Syria on June 13 (today).

In the first phase, Pakistanis will be transferred from Damascus to Aleppo by bus from where a PIA plane will transport them back home, the spokesman said.

According to the aviation ministry, all visitors/pilgrims will start arriving home on special flights within 24 hours.

- Additional reporting by Mohammad Asghar

Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2022

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