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Former Afghan Air Force pilots plead with Canada for rescue after daring escape – CBC.ca

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As darkness fell a week ago Sunday, the Taliban had them totally surrounded.

There was no way out of the Kabul airport the night the Afghan government fell. For a dozen military pilots, there was only one thing left to do — fly.

In the weeks leading up to the government’s capitulation, the Taliban had carried out a brutal assassination campaign that killed several of the pilots’ comrades.

“They will kill us,” one of the NATO-trained pilots, now in hiding in Tajikistan, told CBC News. “We are sure they will kill us because we are fighter pilots.”

Twelve pilots and one aircrew chief tumbled into one of the Afghan Air Force’s single-engine AC-208 Eliminators, known by their crews as a ‘Cessna with Hellfire,’ a reference to its air-to-surface missile.

The plane taxied for takeoff just as the first desperate wave of Afghan civilians fleeing the Taliban reached the edges of the runway — “a lot of people who were just running to the aircraft,” said the pilot.

Roaring into the night sky, they left behind them a dark, chaotic city where sporadic gunfights and tracer fire marked the last gasps of the democratically-elected government they had sworn to defend.

CBC News interviewed three of the pilots via cell phone from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Their identities have been verified through military records, but their names are being withheld to protect their lives and the lives of the families they left behind in Afghanistan.

The group of pilots includes those who have flown AC-208s, MD-530 attack helicopters and the UH-60 Blackhawk. 

An Afghan Air Force MD-530 attack helicopter on a patrol. In the final days before the Taliban takeover, the fledgling air force ran short of ammunition. Twelve pilots and one aircraft crewmember, who fled to Tajikistan, are asking for asylum in Canada. (U.S. Defense Visual Information Distribution Service)

They are still wearing the flight suits they escaped in and say they have no access to the Internet to contact their families.

Authorities in Tajikistan, which shares a 1,350-kilometre border with Afghanistan, said that several Afghan military planes carrying more than 100 aircrew and soldiers have landed at various airports. Separately, a week ago, another Afghan military plane crashed in Uzbekistan. It’s not clear whether it was shot down.

Although they’re not under guard and are free to move around in Dushanbe, the aircrew who spoke to CBC News said they are afraid the authorities in Tajikistan will hand them back to the new Taliban regime — either at the behest of the Russians, who made it clear this weekend they want no part of a refugee crisis, or as a goodwill gesture to the new government in Kabul.

‘They would take their revenge’

One pilot, who was a small boy when the Taliban were last in power, said he remembers their brutal ways and has no illusions about the fate that would await him in Afghanistan.

“I killed them,” he said. “I rocketed them. I shot them. I am sure if I killed someone they would take their revenge and kill us.”

All 13 aircrew are asking for asylum in Canada and the federal government’s help with rescuing their wives, parents and children from the grip of the Taliban regime.

“All of us here … we want to exit to Canada,” said the first pilot, who had flown the AC-208 in combat since 2017. “We need help. We request the Canadian government to help us and to take us out from here.”

Even though some of them trained in the United States, none of the pilots expressed interest in immigrating there after U.S. President Joe Biden claimed that “the Afghan military gave up, sometimes without trying to fight.”

Out of ammo

It’s hard to fight when you have no ammunition. All three pilots said their stock of missiles and other munitions ran out weeks ago and they had been reduced to flying intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) missions, watching in horror from the air as the Taliban advanced.

One pilot, who also flew the light AC-208, said that as the end approached and the Taliban prepared to storm the airport, he and his comrades had to make a choice: wait to be captured and die a futile, meaningless death, or flee in hopes of surviving and eventually seeing their families.

People looking to flee the country wait next to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 24, 2021. (Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

“We didn’t want to die in Kabul,” said the pilot, a five-year air force veteran. “We left our families behind and we are sick about it.”

He said their families do not know whether they are dead or alive.

‘We didn’t have any chance to fight’

There was bitterness in the voice of a third pilot who spoke to CBC News. He said they were helpless in the final days of the fight, as the Taliban encircled Kabul and moved in to finish off the western-backed government.

“We didn’t have any chance to fight with them because there was no rockets,” said the pilot, who flew MD 530 Defender helicopter gunship.

The Afghan Air Force, once the crown jewel of the U.S.-led NATO training mission, was supposed to be the trump card over the Taliban, supporting troops on the ground holding back the militants.

As the U.S. withdrawal accelerated last spring, the Afghan forces’ reliance on American and foreign contractors — to repair, maintain and fuel their aircraft — led to confusion and crippling shortages. It was a void the Pentagon was scrambling to fill as late as June.

The absence of airpower left Afghan troops on the ground alone to face the Taliban.

American and Canadian forces, along with the other western armies that fought in Afghanistan, relied heavily on missile-armed fighters, helicopter gunships and unmanned Predator drones to beat back insurgent attacks.

A full squadron of transport and attack helicopters belonging to the now-former Afghan Air Force. Thirteen flight crew who fled to Tajikistan following the Taliban takeover are now appealing for asylum in Canada. (U.S. Defense Visual Information Distribution Service)

Handicapped by shortages, the Afghan Air Force sustained a final blow in early summer: a Taliban campaign to assassinate pilots which spread terror and confusion within the ranks.

“I believe the Taliban were going after anyone who had a higher military education,” said retired Canadian major-general Denis Thompson. “That resulted in a number of targeted assassinations.”

The Taliban had no airpower, so “if they could neuter the airpower of the Afghan National Security Forces by taking out their pilots, that would be a legitimate — from their perspective — military aim,” Thompson added.

The federal government has announced that — in addition to a special immigration program for former interpreters who worked for the Canadian military and diplomats, along with their families — there would be a targeted refugee program for vulnerable Afghans who face reprisals under the Taliban.

“[The pilots] would fit the program because their lives were in danger, and their families would fit the program,” Thompson said. “I believe the case fits the criteria.”

Getting Canadian consular help will prove to be difficult. Canada has no embassy in Tajikistan and all cases are funnelled through the mission in Kazakhstan.

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What is basic income and which of Canada's main parties support it? – CBC.ca

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When the federal government launched the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) last year, it left some wondering whether it could lead to a lasting framework for a national basic income program — one that would help lift struggling Canadians out of poverty. 

While it was a temporary program, CERB provided a touchstone for many who wondered, if the country can create a standard livable wage during a pandemic, why stop there?

Port Elgin, Ont., resident Mini Jacques was one of many who reached out to Ask CBC to find out where the parties stand on basic income during this election.

“It doesn’t seem like there’s an even playing field for basic living,” she said in an interview.

Mini Jacques, who is legally blind, receives $1,169 monthly from the Ontario Disability Support Program to cover all her expenses. Most of that goes towards her $1,022 rent. (Submitted by Mini Jacques)

“The government is saying that for CERB, people get $2,000 just to exist and yet … [we] haven’t had a raise in disability for some time.”

Jacques is blind and relies on the Ontario Disability Support Program for income. Her rent costs $1,022 monthly and she receives $1,169 through ODSP. That leaves her just $147 a month to cover the remaining necessities. 

She works part-time to supplement those benefits, but if she earns more than $200 monthly, half of her take home earnings over $200 are deducted from her income support.

Her rent is increasing, and she worries that her ODSP cheques won’t increase at the same pace. She’s 61 years old, and for now she said she’s getting by with the help of friends and family.

What Jacques wants is for the government to create a basic income program that sets the same standard income for everyone who needs help — whether you’re unemployed, disabled, or working but not earning enough to stay above the poverty line.

  • This story features a voter, like you, who got in touch with us. Send us your questions about the election. We are listening: ask@cbc.ca.

What is basic income?

What makes basic income different from other programs, such as income assistance or welfare, is that it comes with no strings attached. In the simplest terms, it’s a regular payment without conditions, sent from the government to families and individuals.

In Canada about 3.7 million people live below the poverty line, according to the 2019 Canada Income Survey. Statistics Canada considers people as living below the poverty line if they don’t have enough income to cover the local cost of necessities such as food, clothing, footwear, transportation and shelter.

Right now, struggling Canadians can access help support through a patchwork of federal, provincial and municipal programs.

Health economist Evelyn Forget, a professor in the department of health sciences at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, said that basic income would replace many of those programs, and ideally cut out a lot of the confusing, bureaucratic red tape.

Forget, the author of Basic Income for Canadians: from the COVID-19 emergency to financial security for all, is a firm believer in the benefits of basic income.

She explained there are two types:

  • Universal basic income (UBI) means that everyone in a society — rich or poor — gets a monthly cheque for the same amount. At the end of the year, the government uses the tax system to balance out the scales and recoup that extra cash from the higher income earners who didn’t end up needing it. 

  • Guaranteed basic income (GBI) is the system most people are referring to when they talk about basic income in Canada. It is an income-contingent system, meaning monthly payments only go to families and individuals with lower income.

The CERB program was not, in fact, basic income, because there were conditions to qualify: Canadians were only eligible if they had earned at least $5,000 in the last year.

Because the cost of living varies across Canada, there’s no single income level that defines poverty. But Forget said generally, advocates have talked about setting guaranteed basic income at around $20,000 a year for a single person between the ages of 18 to 64. 

Where has it been tested and how well did it work? 

Manitoba’s “Mincome” experiment in an annual guaranteed income

36 years ago

In the 1970s, the province tested an annual age for the working poor. What happened? 2:09

Countries around the world, including Spain, Namibia, Brazil and Iran, have experimented with basic income, mostly through pilot projects and trial runs. 

In Canada, Manitoba ran a pilot project called Mincome from 1974 to 1978 in the rural community of Dauphin.

The idea was to test whether a no-strings attached wage would actually help the working poor by supplementing their income, or end up deterring them from working altogether.

Forget studied the outcomes of that project and found that participants were less likely to be hospitalized and more likely to continue their education.

She said for the most part, basic income did not discourage people from working. One of the groups who worked less were new mothers who, in the 1970s in Manitoba, would have only been entitled to a few weeks of parental leave.

The other group that was disincentivized to work by basic income was young, unattached males. Forget discovered the reason those young men, often in their teens, were less likely to work was because basic income meant their families could afford to let them stay in school. Instead of dropping out to earn wages, they were able to get their high school diplomas. 

“The fundamental idea behind basic income, I think, is solid,” she said.

“Unconditional money available to people allows them to make choices about their own lives, allows them to make better decisions about how to live their lives, and leads to better outcomes.”

More recently, Ontario introduced a basic income pilot project in 2017. Close to 4,000 people were enrolled and it was supposed to last three years, but was cancelled early following the election of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government. They said the program was too expensive. 

A 2021 report by Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer found that, if the federal government created a national basic income program similar to Ontario’s, it would cost around $85 billion in 2021-2022 and cut poverty rates by almost half.

“It costs a lot, no question about it,” Forget said. 

However, she added that a lot of that cost would be balanced out by eliminating the programs basic income would replace, which might include income assistance or various refundable tax credits.

“A simplified process is always cheaper. It’s always more efficient,” she said.

What are the disadvantages? 

In 2018, the government of British Columbia asked a panel of experts to study the feasibility of a basic income for the province. The resulting report found that “the needs of people in this society are too diverse to be effectively answered simply with a cheque from the government.”

Panel chair David Green, a labour economist and a professor at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of B.C., said the better solution is to reform the programs that already exist.

“If our problem is really, the full heterogeneous, complex issue of poverty — how do we make a more just society — then, in many cases, sending people a cheque and hoping they will do better is not going to answer the problem,” Green said.

  • Have an election question for CBC News? Email ask@cbc.ca. Your input helps inform our coverage.

Green said it would be better to tackle issues head-on, targeting poor working conditions and low wages, reforming the disability assistance program and boosting rent assistance.

Still, others believe basic income is the right solution for Canada. 

Two of the calls for justice in the final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls said Canada should establish a guaranteed livable income for all.

Where do the main parties stand? 

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, top left, Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O’Toole, top centre, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, top right, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, bottom left, Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, bottom centre, and People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier. (CBC, Erin O’Toole/Creative Commons, CBC, CBC, Chris Young/The Canadian Press, CBC)

Like economists, Canada’s main parties are also divided on basic income, though none are promising universal basic income. Here’s where they stand:

The Green Party:  

  • Platform commits to establishing a guaranteed livable income program.

  • “The federal government would provide an initial base-level subsidy across the country, and an intergovernmental body would determine and administer the necessary supplemental amounts.”

The NDP: 

  • Platform commits to a guaranteed livable basic income.  

  • “New Democrats will work to expand all income security programs to ensure everyone in Canada has access to a guaranteed livable basic income.” 

  • Would start by lifting seniors and people with disabilities out of poverty, and build on that to establish a basic income for all. 

The Liberal Party: 

  • No platform commitment to basic income.

  • Strong support from within the party for a basic income program.

  • Liberal MP for Davenport, Julie Dzerowicz, tabled a bill calling for a national basic income strategy in 2021. The bill died at the dissolution of parliament when the election was called.

The Conservatives:

The Bloc Québécois: 

The People’s Party of Canada: 

Do you have a question about the federal election? Send it to ask@cbc.ca, fill out this form or leave it in the comments. We’re answering as many as we can leading up to election day. You can read our answers to other election-related questions here.

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Coronavirus: What's happening in Canada and around the world on Sunday – CBC.ca

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The latest:

Union leaders representing thousands of medical workers in Alberta have asked Premier Jason Kenney to deploy the military and Red Cross to shore up a health-care system they say is “collapsing right in front of our eyes,” due to rapidly rising COVID-19 cases.

“It’s time to call in the military to help our overwhelmed hospitals,’ says a letter issued Saturday and addressed to the premier, with a warning that hospitals have “run out of staff” to treat severe cases.

It was signed by the presidents of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, United Nurses of Alberta, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, as well as the head of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

The letter notes that military units were deployed in April to support Ontario’s long-term care facilities. Also in April, the Canadian Armed Forces sent dozens of service members to help out at COVID-19 testing centres in Nova Scotia.

WATCH | Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau discusses COVID-19 situation in Alberta, Sask.: 

‘We’re seeing right now what the wrong choices made in Alberta and Saskatchewan have led to:’ Trudeau

7 hours ago

Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau cautions Canadians against voting for the ‘wrong choices’ and to consider how that could affect how we end the pandemic. 0:39

Dr. James Talbot, a former chief medical health officer for Alberta and co-chair of Alberta’s Strategic COVID-19 Pandemic Committee, issued his own dire warnings last week.

“We’re in crisis, Surgeries are being cancelled … ICUs are more than 50 per cent above normal capacity,” he said.

As of Thursday, there were 911 people in Alberta’s hospitals with COVID-19, including 215 in intensive care beds.

Between 18 and 20 severely ill Albertans — most of them unvaccinated — are being admitted to ICU every day, said Alberta Health Services president and CEO Dr. Verna Yiu.

Alberta Health Services has commandeered beds in operating rooms, recovery wards and observation spaces to create more ICU capacity and is prepared to transfer Albertans to Ontario for care if needed.


What’s happening across Canada

WATCH | Doctor holds counter-protest against demonstrators targeting hospitals: 

Doctor holds counter-protest against demonstrators targeting hospitals

Dr. Raghu Venugopal, an emergency room doctor in Toronto, held a counter-protest against demonstrators targeting Toronto General Hospital in opposition to COVID-19 measures and vaccine mandates. He says the protests are ‘unacceptable’ and ‘un-Canadian’ and that the government needs to legislate against demonstrations outside hospitals. 6:54


What’s happening around the world

White flags are displayed on the National Mall near the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., on Sunday. The project, by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, uses more than 600,000 miniature white flags to symbolize the lives lost to COVID-19 in the U.S. (Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images)

As of Sunday, more than 228.4 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 4.6 million.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Premier Daniel Andrews unveiled a roadmap to easing restrictions in Australia’s Victoria state on Sunday. He said the state’s weeks-long lockdown will end once 70 per cent of those 16 and older are fully vaccinated, no matter if there are new cases.

Victoria is expected to meet that vaccination threshold on Oct. 26, Andrews said.

As of the weekend, just under 43 per cent of people in the state and just over 46 per cent of people nationwide had been fully vaccinated.

Australia reported 1,607 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, while Victoria state registered 507 new cases.

A police officer interacts with a man at a park in Sydney, Australia, on Saturday, following calls for an anti-lockdown protest rally amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

In Asia, tens of thousands of devotees packed the old palace courtyard in the heart of Nepal’s capital on Sunday to celebrate the feast of Indra Jatra, marking the return of the festival season in the Himalayan nation after it was scaled down because of the pandemic.

The week-long Indra Jatra precedes months of other festivals in the predominantly Hindu nation.

Armed police guarded the alleys and roads leading to the main courtyard in the capital, Kathmandu, while volunteers sprayed sanitizers and distributed masks to the devotees.

People gather to watch the annual Indra Jatra festival in Kathmandu, Nepal, on Sunday. The festival, observed by Nepalese Hindus and Buddhists, marks the end of monsoon rains and the beginning of autumn. It also celebrates the end of the rice farming season. (Niranjan Shrestha/The Associated Press)

Nepal has imposed several lockdowns and other restrictions since the pandemic hit. According to the country’s Health Ministry, there have been 784,000 confirmed cases with more than 11,000 deaths. Only 19 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated.

In the Americas, the director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health says a government advisory panel’s decision to limit Pfizer COVID-19 booster shots to Americans 65 and older, as well as those at high risk of severe disease, is a preliminary step, and he predicts broader approval for most Americans “in the next few weeks.”

Dr. Francis Collins told Fox News Sunday that the panel’s recommendation on Friday was correct based on a “snapshot” of available data on the effectiveness of Pfizer’s two-shot regimen over time. But he said real-time data from the U.S. and Israel continues to come in showing waning efficacy among broader groups of people that will need to be addressed soon.

In Europe, Pope Francis on Sunday expressed his closeness to the victims of a flood in Mexico, which led to the deaths of at least 17 people, most of whom had COVID-19, at a hospital in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo. The pontiff was speaking to faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City for his weekly Angelus prayer.

Flooded rooms and damaged beds and equipment are seen in the public hospital in Tula, Hidalgo state, Mexico, on Sept. 7. Torrential rains in central Mexico suddenly flooded the hospital, killing more than a dozen patients. (Marco Ugarte/The Associated Press)

Torrential rains caused Mexico’s River Tula to burst its banks on Sept. 7, and more than 40 other patients in the public hospital in the town of Tula were transported away by emergency service workers. An initial assessment showed about 2,000 houses had flood damage, the Mexican government said in a statement.

Hidalgo Gov. Omar Fayad told local media that 15 or 16 out of the 17 fatalities were COVID-19 patients. The media said the deaths occurred when flooding caused by days of rain knocked out electricity at the hospital.

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Trudeau warns Canadians against splitting vote in dead heat federal election – Global News

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With the Canadian election in a dead heat two days before the Sept. 20 vote, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and his Conservative rival implored supporters to stay the course and avoid vote splitting that could hand their opponent victory.

Both men campaigned in the same seat-rich Toronto region on Saturday as they tried to fend off voter defections to the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) and the populist People’s Party of Canada (PPC), both of which are rising in polls.

The latest Sondage Leger poll conducted for the Journal de Montreal and the National Post newspapers put the Conservatives one percentage point ahead of Trudeau’s Liberals, with 33 per cent over 32 per cent. The NDP was at 19 per cent while the PPC was at 6 per cent.

Read more:
Trudeau open to electoral reform, says he is a fan of ranked ballots

Trudeau, 49, called an early election, seeking to convert approval for his government’s handling of the pandemic into a parliamentary majority. But he is now scrambling to save his job, with Canadians questioning the need for an early election amid a fourth pandemic wave.

“Despite what the NDP likes to say, the choice is between a Conservative or a Liberal government right now,” Trudeau said in Aurora, Ontario. “And it does make a difference to Canadians whether we have or not a progressive government.”

Trudeau has spent two of the final three days of his campaign in Ontario where polls show the NDP could gain seats, or split the progressive vote.

A tight race could result in another minority government, with the NDP, led by Jagmeet Singh, playing kingmaker. It has also put a focus on turnout, with low turnout historically favouring the Conservatives.


Click to play video: 'Liberals trying to get supporters to vote'



1:51
Liberals trying to get supporters to vote


Liberals trying to get supporters to vote

With polls suggesting a Liberal minority may be the most likely result on Monday, Trudeau was pressed on whether this could be his last election. He responded: “There is lots of work still to do, and I’m nowhere near done yet.”

If voters give Trudeau a third term, everything they dislike about him “will only get worse,” Conservative leader Erin O’Toole told supporters on Saturday, saying his party was the only option for anyone dissatisfied with the Liberals, in a dig at the PPC.

The PPC, which has channeled anger against mandatory vaccines into surprising support, could draw votes away from the Conservatives in close district races, helping the Liberals eke out a win.

On Saturday, the Liberals announced they would drop a candidate over a 2019 sexual assault charge that the party said was not disclosed to them. Kevin Vuong, a naval reservist running in an open Liberal seat in downtown Toronto, denied the allegations on Friday, noting the charge was withdrawn.

Read more:
Canada Election: Black, Indigenous voters lament leaders shying away from race-based issues

“Mr. Vuong will no longer be a Liberal candidate, and should he be elected, he will not be a member of the Liberal caucus,” the party said in a statement on Saturday.

Earlier this month, Liberal member of parliament Raj Saini ended his re-election campaign amid allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards female staffers.

O’Toole, 48, campaigned in Saini’s district on Saturday, one of three Liberal ridings he is hoping to swing his way. Earlier, he appeared in a Conservative-held riding west of Toronto that was closely fought during the 2019 election.

The area’s member of Parliament, who is not running again, came under fire last spring for saying COVID-19 lockdowns were the “single greatest breach of our civil liberties since the internment camps during WW2.”

O’Toole, who said he wants to get 90 per cent of Canadians vaccinated, has refused to say who among Conservative Party candidates were.

© 2021 Reuters

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