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More than 100 Afghans from music school flown out of country

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BEIRUT (AP) — More than 100 students, alumni and faculty members of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music have been flown out of Kabul on their way to Portugal, where the government has agreed to grant them asylum, the institute’s director said Monday.

They were on board a flight carrying 235 people out of Kabul’s international airport to Qatar on Sunday. It was the largest airlift of Afghan nationals since Taliban fighters seized Afghanistan in mid-August, two weeks before the U.S. and NATO withdrew their forces from the country after a 20-year military presence.

“You cannot imagine how happy I am. Yesterday I was crying for hours,” the school’s founder and director, Ahmad Sarmast, said from his home in Melbourne, Australia.

The musicians join tens of thousands of Afghans, including many from the country’s sports and arts scene, who have fled since August. Among the recent evacuees are Afghanistan’s female robotics team, known as the “Afghan Dreamers,” and a girls soccer team who resettled in Mexico and Portugal, respectively.

The last time the Taliban ruled the country, in the late 1990s, they outright banned music. So far, the new Taliban government hasn’t taken that step officially. But musicians are afraid a formal ban will come. Some Taliban fighters have started enforcing rules on their own, harassing musicians and music venues.

Afghanistan has a strong musical tradition, influenced by Iranian and Indian classical music, and a thriving pop music scene flourished in the past 20 years.

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded by Sarmast in 2010, was once famous for its inclusiveness and emerged as the face of a new Afghanistan, performing to packed audiences in the U.S. and Europe.

Now its classrooms are empty, its campus guarded by fighters from the Haqqani network, an ally of the Taliban considered a terrorist group by the United States. The teachers and 350 students haven’t come back to the school since the Taliban takeover.

Around 50 students were on the flight out Sunday, including most members of the all-female Zohra orchestra, in addition to former students, faculty and relatives. The group of 101 is about one-third of the ANIM community.

Sarmast is now planning to recreate the school in Portugal, so that the students can continue their education with minimal interruption, and is already looking for ways to secure musical instruments for them as soon as possible. He hopes remaining students and faculty members will be leaving on another flight out later this month.

“We want to preserve the musical tradition of Afghanistan outside of Afghanistan, so that we can be sure that one day when there are better conditions in the country, hundreds of professional musicians would be ready to return and relight the music,” he said.

“The mission is not complete, it just began.”

Zeina Karam, The Associated Press

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CP NewsAlert: CFL, CFL Players' Association reach tentative collective agreement

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TORONTO — The second strike in CFL history is over.

Two sources told The Canadian Press that the CFL and CFL Players’ Association reached a tentative seven-year collective bargaining agreement Wednesday night.

The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity as neither side immediately offered confirmation.

The contract must still be ratified by both the CFL board of governors as well as the CFLPA membership but the expectation is players will report to their teams Thursday and go through an opening-day walkthrough.

More coming.

The Canadian Press

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Alberta premier Jason Kenney steps down as UCP leader

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has stepped down as leader of the United Conservative Party after narrowly winning the party’s leadership vote.

Kenney received 51.4 per cent support in voting results released tonight in Calgary.

He told supporters that the number is not what he hoped for and is not enough for him to continue on as leader.

If Kenney had received less than 50 per cent plus one, he would have had to quit as per party rules and a leadership contest would have been called.

Normally, leaders consider 75 to 80 per cent — or higher — the minimum credible mandate to continue leading their party.

Kenney had earlier said he would accept a slim majority, because the voting pool was skewed by last-minute members interested only in scuttling his big-tent conservative party.

“While 51 per cent of the vote passes the constitutional threshold of a majority, it clearly is not adequate support to continue on as leader,” Kenney said.

“I’ve informed the president of the party of my intention to step down as leader of the United Conservative Party,” he said to gasps in the audience.

“We need to move forward united. We need to put the past behind us. And a large number of our members have asked for an opportunity to clear the air through a leadership election.”

The leadership review took on heightened importance over the past year as Kenney was buffeted by poor polling numbers, sluggish fundraising and open dissent from some in his party and caucus.

It was also punctuated by controversy. It had already been delayed by a year when it was set for an in-person ballot on April 9 in Red Deer, Alta.

When 15,000 members signed up — five times more than expected — the party said it couldn’t handle the logistics and moved to a mail-in ballot open to all 59,000 members.

Critics said the change was made to give Kenney the edge as it appeared he was going to lose the in-person vote.

Elections Alberta is also investigating allegations of illegal bulk buying of memberships in the review. And the party remains under investigation by the RCMP over allegations of criminal identity fraud in the 2017 contest that saw Kenney elected leader.

Kenney had made it clear that the vote and open dissent had become a “soap opera” distracting the party facing a provincial election next May.

He also said that if he got the required support, he would expect dissenters in his caucus to rally behind him or face unnamed consequences.

Two backbenchers who openly criticized Kenney last year — Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes — were voted out of caucus and sit as Independents.

Backbenchers Jason Stephan, Peter Guthrie and Brian Jean — who helped Kenney found the UCP — have been the most vocal. They openly urged the premier to resign for the good of the party.

Kenney has tried to downplay the dissent by tying it directly to unhappiness over COVID-19 restrictions his government bought in to try to stop the spread of the virus.

Opponents in caucus say the dissatisfaction is also over Kenney’s policies and management style, which they deem to be top-down, dismissive and undemocratic. They say Kenney has not done enough to gain a better deal for Alberta with the federal government on shared programs.

Conservative leaders in Alberta have not fared well after middling votes in leadership reviews.

Former Progressive Conservative premier Ralph Klein left after getting 55 per cent of the vote in 2006. Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford received 77 per cent in their reviews, but stepped down from the top job when the party pushed back.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 18, 2022.

The Canadian Press

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