Sunday, January 11, 2009

Six FC troops, 40 miscreants killed in Mohamand clash

PESHAWAR :Forty miscreants and six soldiers of Frontier Corps were killed during an intense exchange of firing in Mohamand Agency between Saturday and Sunday night.

According to Frontier Corps press release issued here on Sunday, the FC troops repulsed a massive attack by militants on its locations in Mohmand Agency.

More than 600 militants, mostly foreigners who came from the direction of border, attacked the Frontier Corps locations at Mamad Gat between Saturday and Sunday night, it said, adding that they were also aided by local militants.

In the intense exchange of fire that continued all night, the Frontier Corps troops threw back the attackers, giving major casualties with 40 miscreants confirmed dead.

Firefight still continues with miscreants in some pockets of resistance, it said, adding that some of the militants have surrendered.

Lately, the population of Mohmand Agency has expressed clear desire for peace and requested the Law Enforcement Agencies (LEA) to remove the menace of terrorism from their area.

Fierce clashes continue in Hangu; 17 dead

KOHAT, Jan 11: The death toll in three days of clashes in Hangu climbed to 43 after another 17 people were killed on Saturday night and Sunday. Several people were injured.

According to sources, several houses were torched or blown up in Ganjiano Kalay.

At least three people, including one militant, were killed and four injured in a clash between rival groups in Ganjiano Kalay late on Sunday night.

Helicopter gunships shelled Ganjiano Kalay and Pass Kalay areas to dislodge combatants from their positions.

A 10-member peace committee, after holding talks with civil and military officials, agreed on Sunday to announce a ceasefire, but faced difficulties in enforcing it.

Non-local militants refused to accept the decision and launched fresh attacks in Ibraheemzai and other areas in the evening.

Security forces attacked positions from where firing and shelling were continuing till late in the evening.

Talks between the militants and elders were being held at an unspecified place. The militants told the elders that they would not vacate their positions unless their amir (Orakzai Agency) Mullah Hakeemullah asked them to do so.

Kohat commissioner Umer Afridi, DIG Qudratullah Marwat and Brig Haneef Khan of Thall Brigade HQs summoned the peace committee members in Hangu and asked them to convey the ceasefire decision to their groups.

Meanwhile, security personnel were being deployed along the Kohat-Hangu border and in city areas to enforce the peace agreement and provide security to local people.

It may be mentioned that security on the Kohat-Hangu highway has been handed over to army. Troops have set up control rooms on the Kohat-Hangu highway, Juzara rest house on the border with Kohat and in Hangu.

In Islamabad, President Asif Ali Zardari condemned the armed clashes in Hangu and expressed grief over the loss of precious lives.

He directed the authorities concerned to take effective steps to end the fighting

School bags for quake-hit children recovered from shops

PESHAWAR: Minister for Education Sardar Hussain Babak conducted raids on shops at Faqirabad Colony and recovered thousands of school bags provided by United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) for the children of earthquake-affectees, sealed a godown and arrested three persons.
Taking action on a news report published by daily Mashriq revealing that school bags meant for children of quake-hit areas are being sold in local shops in the provincial capital openly, the minister along with police raided Sherzada Leather House and shops belonging to Arshad at the colony and recovered thousands of school bags which were provided by UNICEF for the children of Shangla, Kohistan, Batagram, Abbottabad and Mansehra.
The minister was accompanied by Additional Secretary Education Qaiser Alam and Khwaja Saad.
Police have arrested owners of the godown and shops identified as Arshad and an Afghan refugee Wasee besides arresting the purchaser Daud Khan.
Police also conducted raids on other shops and arrested its owners after they were spotted by neighbouring shopkeepers while cases have been registered against the arrested persons.
Police also registered a case against the group involved in selling of the bags and started the hunt.

13 more killed in Hangu

Jirga fails to convince non-local Taliban to vacate pickets
Statesman Report
HANGU: At least 13 more people were killed in fresh violence in Hangu on Sunday as non-local Taliban refused to abide by Jirga's decision demanding militants vacate their pickets.
A grand jirga, convened by Kohat commissioner Umar Khan Afridi, was held on Sunday to iron out differences between the groups.
The jirga was attended by Kohat DIG Qudratullah Marwat, district nazim Khan Afzal, district Khateeb Allama Jawad Ahmed Jawadi, Shabbir Khan and Allama Hussain al Hussaini.
The Jirga failed to achieve anything as the non-local Taliban refused to vacate their pickets and the fighting gained intensity with the passage of time.
"We would not abandon our pickets as the Amir Hakimullah group continues attacking us," non-local Taliban said.
The rival groups are using heavy weapons against each other as death toll in the three-day fighting rose to 30 while 45 others have been injured so far, locals said. "Heavy and automatic weapons like rockets, mortar shells and missiles are being used in the fighting and thirteen more people were killed in different areas of Paskallay, Gungano Kallay and Malikabad. On Sunday, helicopter gunships also shelled the locations of the warring sects, however, the fighting still continued, witnesses said, adding "fighting is more intensified during nighttime while occasional fighting is continued during daytime." All trade centres, bazaars and roads remained closed as 70 percent people have already shifted from the town in the wake of violence. "People had vacated the Hangu city before the start of Moharram and menfolk are staying back to guard their homes," locals said. Locals have demanded of the government to take immediate steps to maintain peace instead of watching the situation as a silent spectator. Reports reaching here said lashkars were being raised to attack populated areas of rival sects as their supporters started reaching the area from Orakzai Agency, Sadda, Kurram Agency and other regions. A complete administrative failure has been witnessed during the three-day fighting as there was no plan to stop the full-fledged war, BBC Urdu said while quoting a witness. People were angry that the administration, including the police and security forces, had taken shelter and were not coming out to talk to the locals or even fire teargas shells at the miscreants, it added. "The authorities knew a month before that rival sects were preparing for war because last year the government had not allowed the Muharram procession to pass through Hangu bazaar. Despite that, they took no strict measures against the miscreants," locals said.

Bus service for women hits snag

PESHAWAR: The much-trumpeted bus service for women that was the first-ever project of its kind in the country proved to be a failed scheme, as the specified buses remained off the road most of the time after less than one month of its launch.

To facilitate woman commuters, who face immense hardships while commuting in the public transport where limited seats are allocated for them, the NWFP Ministry for Social Welfare and Women Development and district government with the help of a local transporter initiated the service purely on self-finance basis.

Three ministers of the provincial cabinet were present on the occasion of launching ceremony of the service on December 15 last. The provincial government largely publicised the project and termed it a major breakthrough for women development. Two China-made buses were introduced to ply the route between Haji Camp and Hayatabad.

However, one bus developed a fault on the second day of the start of the service and has been off the road to date. The second bus develops technical problems off and on and mostly remains at the workshop.

When contacted, Mohammad Naeem, the owner of the buses, told The News that one of the buses went out of order on December 17, and they placed order for the spare parts in China. He said they would fix the fault as soon as the parts were received. He said it was a trial service and such problems might occur in initial phase. He said the buses were in care of a bank for one-and-a-half year because of which could not be maintained properly.

Naeem also said that they agreed to launch the project just as a goodwill gesture. He said they had verbal commitment from the government that their company would get few buses out of a project in which 100 CNG buses would be plied different routes in the city.

Under the said project, the federal government will provide Rs0.7 million per bus as subsidy to the transporters. However, the project is still to materialise despite the fact that provincial government constituted two committees headed separately by Senior Minister Bashir Ahmad Bilour and Minister for Information and Transport Mian Iftikhar Hussain to speed up the process.

Naeem said that presently they were bearing a loss of Rs2,500 per day as the charges were Rs3,500 while they were earning just Rs1,000. He said if the government increased the number of women buses, it would certainly decrease the loss as the time gap would be reduced and woman commuters could wait for their specified buses.

When approached, NWFP Minister for Social Welfare and Women Development Sitara Ayaz said she had taken notice of the situation and given a week to the transporter for rectifying the situation. She said the deadline expired on Sunday. She expressed the resolve that the service would not be abandoned at any cost. “We are not going to stop it anyway. If private owners could not run it, my ministry will take charge of it,” she remarked.

The minister hoped that in the current week both the buses would be plying the city roads. She said the province took the lead in the country to start the compressed natural gas buses for woman commuters and they would strive to make the project a success.

Afghanistan's path to stability is full of challenges for Obama

By Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY
KHOST PROVINCE, Afghanistan — In this isolated part of Afghanistan 10 miles from the Pakistan border, U.S. Army Capt. Joshua Zaruba and his soldiers have a mission they hope will help impoverished peasants from falling under the sway of emboldened insurgents: handing out flour, rice, blankets and toys.
However, the local Afghan police aren't much help. They join in only after cajoling from the U.S. troops, and contribute only three officers in a pickup commanded by an illiterate lieutenant.

At the camp, strips of meat, mostly bone and sinew, hang from the tents' ropes and dry in the sun. Barefoot children in filthy clothes grin at Zaruba and his men, snatch the toys and scamper back to their tents. The Afghan police mostly stand in the background, clutching their AK-47 rifles.

For most Afghans, the local police are the main representatives of a government the United States and its allies are trying to prop up in what President-elect Barack Obama calls the key front in the war on terrorism. In the eyes of the local villagers, the government is losing the fight.

"The government doesn't do anything for us," says Mustafa, a village elder. Like many Afghans, he goes by one name.

Such scenes illustrate the enormous challenge Obama faces in Afghanistan at a time when his administration will face a series of them, from the hoped-for reduction of troops in Iraq to the struggling economy at home and a new war in the Middle East.

Seven years ago, the war in Afghanistan seemed over. Allied forces invaded in October 2001, a month after the 9/11 attacks masterminded by Afghanistan-based Osama bin Laden, and ousted the Taliban that had harbored the al-Qaeda leader.

But the March 2003 invasion of Iraq took the Bush administration's attention away from Afghanistan, according to Obama and other critics, including the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in 2006. Now, the Taliban and other insurgents have a permanent presence in at least 72% of Afghanistan, according to a report released last month by the International Council on Security and Development, a global think tank. That's up from 54% in 2007.

Stopping the Taliban requires more U.S. troops in Afghanistan and fewer in Iraq, Obama and U.S. military officials say. Gen. David McKiernan, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces here, wants a force of 60,000 — about double the number of U.S. troops here now — in Afghanistan for up to four years.

Only a capable Afghan government can push back the insurgents, McKiernan says. To succeed, the Afghan government must overcome many challenges, including:

• Corruption. Police make about $3 a day, not enough to support their families, Zaruba says, so many take bribes and steal from people they're supposed to protect. Police corruption weakens the government's influence and its ability to target Taliban insurgents, says Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Corruption among officials, including the police, "is a huge concern and will continue to be," Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview with USA TODAY. "We've got to root corruption out if we're going to have a successful government."

• Inexperience. Few Afghan leaders have run a government office or a military unit, McKiernan says. "Where is the human capital to occupy governmental positions, to be leaders, to be mayors, to run budgets, to contract labor, to be the civil administration of the country?" he asks. "It takes a long time to develop."

• A drug-based economy. Afghanistan's farm-based economy is dominated by opium farming, which feeds the world's heroin trade.

In 2007, Afghanistan supplied 93% of the world's opium, the State Department said. Government revenue last year was $715 million, according to the CIA. Illicit poppy production, meanwhile, brings in $4 billion.

• Poor security. There currently aren't enough troops to secure large parts of Afghanistan, particularly in the south, McKiernan says. Afghanistan's army has only 76,000 troops, and is trying to boost its army to 134,000 troops over the next five years. There are also about 30,000 NATO troops.

The stakes for the incoming Obama administration are high, McKiernan says, although he thinks Afghanistan is "headed in the right direction. The Afghan people are a wonderful people. They are worth the commitment of the international community."

Mullen said that in September he said U.S. forces weren't winning in Afghanistan. "But we can," he said. "I still hold to that."

A 'dangerous' enemy

Not all Afghan insurgents are part of the fundamentalist Taliban, McKiernan says. In an interview with USA TODAY at the NATO headquarters in Kabul, he said Taliban militants control the south, while several other terror organizations linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban hold the east.

Among them is the Haqqani network. It takes its name from Jalaluddin Haqqani, the militant who fought the Soviets in the 1980s and became a top aide to Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader.

Combined Joint Task Force-101, the U.S.-led military effort in eastern Afghanistan, calls the Haqqani network "the most dangerous and challenging foe for the coalition forces." Haqqani's home province is Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, near Pakistan.

Attacks in eastern Afghanistan increased 11% in 2008 compared with 2007, says Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, a spokeswoman for the task force. More soldiers will arrive early in 2009, bolstering the force of 23,000, including 19,000 Americans.

In eastern Afghanistan, insurgents slip across its porous border with Pakistan. There may be hundreds of passes that can be traversed by insurgents on horseback and thousands more by foot, Nielson-Green says. Militants can attack and return to safety in Pakistan.

Securing the border requires more coalition troops, says Said Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States.

Harsh weather arrives in October, and the snow drives insurgents out from their mountain caves and into Khost, where milder weather lasts through winter. "It's their Florida, if you will. There is no off-time here," says Lt. Col. David Ell, commander of the 4th Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost.

Ell's goals are to pursue insurgents through the winter, help complete a road from Gardez to Khost and provide security for those registering to vote in the 2009 presidential and provincial council elections.

There are many reasons why Afghanistan hasn't progressed since 2001, McKiernan says. Forty percent of the people are unemployed, and life expectancy is 44 years. That's compared with 78 years in the USA.

"There's no such thing as an easy counterinsurgency," McKiernan says. "But when you put the problem with the insurgency on top of the physical environment in Afghanistan, it's a very, very difficult environment."

Shades of Iraq

As in the war in Iraq, the main threat to U.S. troops is the roadside bomb, also known as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), McKiernan says.

Their use has risen in Afghanistan, McKiernan says. "It's part of a change in tactics by the insurgency to go into more complex, smaller scale, more asymmetric ambushes that attack softer targets," he says.

Vince Martinez, a blunt Navy captain, is deputy commander for Task Force Paladin, the military's counter-IED effort. He works at Bagram Air Base, about 30 miles north of Kabul. Martinez refers to the "tyranny of troops, time and terrain" in explaining how difficult it is to fight insurgents and beat IEDs in Afghanistan.

Coalition troops are spread too thin, the country's so big — a bit smaller than Texas — that it takes too long to reach them when they need medical evacuation after a bomb attack, he says, adding that mountains reaching 20,000 feet limit mobility.

"It's extremely difficult to support the government of Afghanistan with the limited number of troops we have," Martinez says.

Drive the roads here and it's plain why insurgents attack vehicles with IEDs. Pavement is rare in rural areas, and rough, rutted roads easily conceal bombs. IED attacks have increased each year since 2005, according to Pentagon data. There were 315 IED attacks in November compared with 188 in November 2007, according to the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization.

Martinez says he's confident that his task force can counter the IED threat by dismantling bomb-making networks, defusing bombs that have been planted and training Afghan bomb squads. More intelligence collection equipment, such as drones that provide imagery of insurgents at work, and devices that intercept communication, is the top need, Martinez says.

"My job is to reduce casualties from IEDs and to remove them from the battlefield," Martinez says. "That's my job, not diplomacy. Whatever it takes that's legal and moral."

Zaruba's men have firsthand experience with IEDs. On July 6, a bomb made up of two anti-tank mines and 40 pounds of homemade explosives blew up beneath an armored vehicle.

It lifted the 35,000-pound Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle off the ground, shot its wheels 150 feet in the air and left a waist-deep crater.

The three soldiers and their interpreter inside survived, the worst injury a broken arm.

"It felt like we hit a wall at 25 mph," Staff Sgt. Daniel Smith, 27, of Champaign, Ill., said of the blast. "MRAPs are amazing. If it had been a Humvee, I'd have been one of four KIAs."

The insurgents, he says, "are kind of like ghosts. They grab their wounded and dead and leave before we get there."

Afzal Khan Lala vows to stay in Swat despite fresh attack

Seeks arms for village militias to fight militants.

PESHAWAR: Despite one more attack by militants on his house on Saturday, elderly politician Mohammad Afzal Khan is determined to stay put in his native Swat and organise resistance against the Maulana Fazlullah-led Taliban.

“I have asked the Governor of NWFP, Owais Ghani, to provide arms and support to the people of Swat to enable them to fight back and protect themselves against the militants. I want to convey the same message to the Chief Minister but have been unable to reach him on phone,” he told The News from his village, Bara Drushkhela, in Swat’s Taliban-infested Matta tehsil.

The 82-year-old Afzal Khan Lala, as he is commonly known, belongs to the Awami National Party (ANP), which is also the party of NWFP Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti. He is a veteran nationalist leader and has served as both federal and provincial minister.

In the latest attack on his house, the militants reportedly fired from the home of a goldsmith, Ahmad Jan, belonging to Bara Drushkhela. It was the first time that someone from Afzal Khan Lala’s village was involved in an attack on his home.

It was learnt that Afzal Khan Lala’s young relatives and supporters subsequently raided Ahmad Jan’s home and got hold of him and his three sons. They were handed over to the security forces, which drove them away to their camp. Later, news reached the village that Ahmad Jan and one of his sons had died. The circumstances of their death are unclear and it isn’t known if they were shot dead while trying to escape. Ahmad Jan’s two other sons were still stated to be in the custody of the security forces.

When told that the security forces were denying any attack on his house, Afzal Khan Lala laughed and said he knew it because he was experiencing such assaults. “This isn’t the first time that I have been attacked. The fact that the latest attack took place from inside my village is a worrying development. It shows that the Taliban militants were gaining strength and this was emboldening their supporters to take side in the conflict,” he explained.

Afzal Khan Lala, it may be recalled, has been attacked four to five times. He survived an ambush in the past when militants fired at his car. His two bodyguards were killed in the attack and he and his nephew, Abdul Jabbar Khan, Nazim for Matta tehsil, were wounded. Even then, he refused to shift to Peshawar for medical treatment.

Instead, he drove back to his village and entrenched himself in his home. Unlike other politicians and Khans, he hasn’t run away from Swat and is refusing to abandon his people. Appeals by relations, friends, party activists and admirers have failed to convince him to move out of Swat due to the ever-present threat to his life.

Members of Afzal Khan Lala’s extended family remain armed all the time to guard his home and also their own houses. His nephews are in the forefront in accepting the challenge from the militants and waiting to fight back. The government has deployed personnel of the security forces to protect the senior ANP politician.

Afzal Khan Lala pointed out that the security forces had become active in carrying out military operations with the change of command in Swat. However, he said the military could not be expected to secure every village and street after having conducted action.

“For this reason, I asked the government eight months ago to arm the people of Swat so that village militias could be set up to defend villages against the militants. The Swatis due to the peculiar situation in our valley during the rule of the Wali of Swat were peaceful and largely unarmed. Now they have been terrorised by the Taliban. They need help to gather courage and fight back,” he argued.

Clashes as Afghan Militants Pour Over Border Into Pakistan

ISLAMABAD — Hundreds of Afghan militants poured into northwestern Pakistan in an attack on a paramilitary base in the Mohmand district late Saturday and Sunday that left six Pakistani soldiers and at least 40 militants dead, according to Pakistani security officials.

At the same time, an equally bloody fight played out just sixty miles to the south: Gangs of Shiites and Sunnis rampaged through the villages of Hangu district, killing at least 40 members of rival sects, according to reports from authorities carried on Pakistani channels as well as the accounts of local residents.

The violent weekend demonstrated anew the lawlessness of the tribal areas along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan. The area is controlled by Taliban militants and other warlords, and there is little effective civil authority. When Pakistani troops start offensives, the militants typically pull back to other areas only to return later. The region provides sanctuary for guerrillas who routinely carry out attacks inside Afghanistan, an acute problem for American and NATO forces fighting the resurgent Taliban in that country.

But this time, the majority of the estimated 600 guerrillas who attacked the Mahmud Gatt base came from inside Afghanistan, according to officials with the Frontier Corps, Pakistan’s paramilitary force. It was thought to be the largest attack on Pakistani troops in months.

The estimate of 40 dead militants could not independently confirmed, and according to some reports a number of Pakistani soldiers were also captured, in addition of the six killed and seven wounded.

Armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns, the militants swarmed the fort Saturday night and fought heavily through the morning, according to one Frontier Corps officer, who declined to use his name because he was not authorized to release information. By Sunday afternoon, he said, most of the remaining militants had left, though there were still scattered skirmishes.

The battle took place in a district formally known as the Mohmand Agency, one of seven semi-autonomous agencies along the border. Mohmand is just northwest of Peshawar, the frontier hub city of three million that has come under increasing pressure from Taliban encroachment.

South of Peshawar, a sectarian fight consumed an area known as Hangu this weekend, after Shiites protested that a curfew forbade them from turning out for an important religious procession commemorating the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, at the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D.

According to some local residents, after a large number of Shiites who live on the road from Hangu to Kohat marched toward Hangu to confront authorities about the curfew, a fight erupted with Sunnis who live in the area. A bitter skirmish followed, with both sides using R.P.G.s and other weapons.

Taliban from the neighboring Orakzai Agency under the command of Hakimullah Mehsud, a lieutenant of warlord Baitullah Mehsud, rushed to help the Sunnis, according to Abdul Rehman, a resident in Hangu. He said the Shiites got help from members of the Turi tribe from another adjoining district, Kurram Agency.

Pakistani news media said as many as 40 people were killed, but Mr. Rehman estimated that 60 people had died so far. According to some reports, a council of tribal elders met Sunday and declared a truce, but each group continued to prepare for more fighting.

"Both sides are trying to overrun each other’s villages," Mr. Rehman said. Many people have fled to Kohat and Peshawar, he said, and there has been no electricity and water and little food for several days.