Sunday, February 1, 2009

UN warns of massive exodus

RAWALPINDI, The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has projected that the situation in Swat valley and the tribal areas would aggravate during the year, causing a fresh displacement of up to 625,000 people.
“An analysis indicates that there is a significant likelihood of large-scale clashes and intensified military offensives throughout 2009, and possibly into 2010,” the study said.According to the OCHA’s “humanitarian response plan”, the displacement would exacerbate an “already complex humanitarian situation”.Population movements have been fluid and more constant in comparison with August; the conflict continues with no sign of abating.The situation in Swat district was particularly alarming, with areas under militant control receiving very little or no assistance. Large portions of Swat district remain under curfew or inaccessible to aid agencies.
The security situation creates constraints for the adequate delivery of assistance to the entire affected population. The situation in Swat district and Fata remains particularly challenging and off-limits for most humanitarian agencies, as military operations continue with parts of the area under de facto control of non-state actors, the report says.The OCHA has announced that an amount of $127 million will be required to assist newly displaced persons. With $29 million in funding available from original appeal for the Pakistan Humanitarian Response Plan, this leaves an unmet requirement of $98 million for 2009, it explained in a statement.In Swat district, fighting is on the rise with 50 per cent of its 1.8 million inhabitants affected by the conflict and a large number of individuals displaced.Until now, 232,720 displaced people have been registered in nine districts of the NWFP.

CHITRAL: Protest against sale of stale chicken meat

CHITRAL: The residents of Chitral complained that stale and contaminated chicken meat was being sold in the Chitral bazaar in connivance with the food department officials and the local administration.Talking to this scribe on Saturday the residents said that the carcasses of the chicken were displayed in the open air exposed to dust and other contaminations. They expressed their apprehensions that the carcasses might also include the chicken, which had died on the way, while being transported from Afghanistan to Chitral via Arandu border.They said that only live chicken were to be sold in the market and according to the rules of the food department, it was forbidden to sell butchered chicken. They alleged that the food department was totally indifferent to its duties and was letting the vendors sell substandard meat to the people at exorbitant prices.They were of the view that the number of heart patients had increased manifold in the area over the recent time and the consumption of substandard meat was one of the reasons.Meanwhile, District Coordination Officer (DCO) Chitral Mutasim Billah Shah conducted a surprise raid of the Chitral bazaar here on Saturday and recovered thousands of bags of sugar, rice, pulses and urea fertilizers, which were being hoarded.

Hoti quits cabinet, says ANP betrayed Pakhtuns

ISLAMABAD: Minister for Narcotics Control Nawabzada Khawaja Mohammad Khan Hoti alias Toti Khan on Sunday announced to quit the cabinet in protest over the Awami National Party's (ANP) failure to honour its pledges made with the masses and leaving the people at the mercy of terrorists.
Addressing a packed press conference here, Khawaja Hoti said that ANP is responsible for the bloodshed of Pahktuns.
Hoti also complained that the problems of his constituency were not being taken into consideration, adding that even the provincial government did not take him into confidence in any matter of the province.
But Hoti said the decision of resignation was made in protest over poor law and order situation and rampant corruption in NWFP.
"I quit cabinet due to military operation in Swat, Hangu and FATA," he said, adding "Awami National Party has lost its control over the province and the masses are left at the mercy of terrorists."
Reacting to Hoti's allegations, ANP's central spokesperson Zahid Khan alleged that Khawaja Hoti had crossed the party lines so he should also give up the seat in the National Assembly.
Talking to media persons the ANP spokesman said: "We have the option to go to election commission if Hoti does not quit the National Assembly seat."
The spokesman said ANP was a disciplined party and has sufficient rules and regulations to deal with such cases of violation of party discipline.
He said the resigned minister was a member of party's all vital decision-making bodies. He never raised his concerns in party meetings.
Hoti has not yet conveyed the party about his resignation decision - verbally or in writing, Zahid said.
However Hoti denied the charges framed against him and said he never violated party norms and raised his voice against decisions in party he considered incorrect.
Hoti alleged that some elements of the party were hatching conspiracies against him in his constituency.
"False allegations are being levelled against me," he said.
"I am ready to quit National Assembly if someone proves allegations against me", he challenged.
that the problems of his constituency were also not being taken into consideration.
To a question he said: "I asked party chief Asfandyar Wali several times to take notice of the conspiracies against me but to no avail."
Reply to a question, Hoti said although his son Omar Farooq has joined PML-N, however "I can not even think to leave ANP."
"We failed to fulfil pledges which we made with the masses during elections campaign. "I would continue to raise voices for the people of my constituency in the National Assembly", he concluded.

Swat suffers one of deadliest days: 64 killed


Food shortage hits the valley; hundreds of families migrate; Edhi suspends service as ambulance attacked.
MINGORA: In one of the deadliest days, women and children among 64 people were killed in troops shelling in different areas as security forces accelerated cannon fire against militants in the valley while people's exodus continued as hundreds of people migrated from the restive areas on Sunday.
According to an ISPR press release 16 millitants were killed in the past 24 hours, however Taliban sources confirmed the death of only two militants.
A medical technician and a dispenser were killed and six other hurt including a driver by the firing on unknown persons on the four Edhi ambulances carrying wounded people from Charbagh.
After the incident the Edhi Foundation suspended the aid service in the area which added to the miseries of people.
The security forces, backed by gunship helicopters, pounded suspected militants hideouts in Charbagh on Saturday night till Sunday morning.
However the locals alleged the onslaught mostly targeted the civilian areas.
The security forces have stepped up operations against militants in Swat following the visit of Chief of the Army Staff Ashfaq Pervez Kayani to the valley. The forces targeted the hideouts of the militants with artillery shelling in Charbagh, Matta, Mangalor and Kabal areas, sources in the military told the Statesman.
Two militants were killed in clashes between security forces and militants in Matta.
At lease nine people were killed by the gunship helicopters shelling in Chamaktai, Khwazakhela while five of a family died in Mangalwar.
Five other people were perished in Jokai area due to gunships shelling, locals said.
At least 21 dead bodies, including children and women, were retrieved from houses in Shaikh Pallu area of tehsil Charbagh which was targeted by the security forces on Saturday night.
The dead bodies could not be taken from the area due to imposition of curfew.
A dead body was found in Hazara area of Kabal, while a man was killed in shelling at the hideouts of militants.
A police constable was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Rahimabad.
The security forces are advancing towards Charbagh and upper areas.
Several houses were demolished due to shelling of security forces in Dehri area.
"A total 64 people were reportedly killed across the valley in Sunday's carnage, the deadliest since the operation launched in the valley," people say.
According to officials and people at least 80 percent areas of the district are under curfew for the last nine days due to which people face acute shortage of daily use items.
"People are dying for food in the curfew areas, let aside medical assistance," people who migrated to Mingora said.
Reportedly 300 children, aged between 5 to 8, are trapped in a madrassa in Manglawar, they said.
The exodus continued as dozens of families shifted from Charbagh and thousands of people have been displaced due to operation.
Witnesses said families using mountainous areas to reach Mingora and onward due imposition of curfew in most of the upper areas of the valley.
"Thousands of people have been migrated from the highland valley to other parts of the province in just two days," official sources said.
Official figures show seven lakh people have already left the valley of 17 lakh population.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has projected that the situation in Swat valley and the tribal areas would aggravate during the year, causing a fresh displacement of up to 625,000 people.
According to the OCHA's "humanitarian response plan", the displacement would exacerbate an "already complex humanitarian situation".
Population movements have been fluid and more constant in comparison with August; the conflict continues with no sign of abating.
The situation in Swat district was particularly alarming, with areas under militant control receiving very little or no assistance. Large portions of Swat district remain under curfew or inaccessible to aid agencies.
The OCHA has announced that an amount of $127 million will be required to assist newly displaced persons. With $29 million in funding available from original appeal for the Pakistan Humanitarian Response Plan, this leaves an unmet requirement of $98 million for 2009, it explained in a statement.
In Swat district, fighting is on the rise with 50 per cent of its 1.8 million inhabitants affected by the conflict and a large number of individuals displaced, according to UN report.
Until now, 232,720 displaced people have been registered in nine districts of the NWFP.

Suicide bomber attacks foreign troops in Kabul

KABUL - A suicide bomber in a car attacked a convoy of foreign troops in the Afghan capital Sunday, but there was no immediate word on casualties, a police officer said. Taliban militants claimed responsibility for the attack.The bomber targeted the convoy in Kabul's western outskirts, said Gen. Zulmay Khan Horiyakheil, a regional police commander. It was not clear if the bomber hit the convoy. Representatives for NATO and U.S. troops said they were checking the report.A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahed, claimed responsibility for the blast in a phone call to an Associated Press reporter in Kabul.Insurgent regularly launch suicide attacks on foreign and Afghan troops throughout Afghanistan, but the number of such attacks in the capital has decreased over the past year.There are some 70,000 U.S. and other NATO troops in the country.U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has indicated it is likely to send 30,000 additional troops in hopes of turning the tide of Taliban gains, and extending the control of the central government into the far reaches of the country.

North Korea says two Koreas on path toward war

SEOUL- North Korea warned on Sunday that the downward spiral of relations with the South has pushed the peninsula to the brink of war, two days after it said it was scrapping all pacts with its rich capitalist neighbor.

Analysts say the rhetorical volleys are aimed at changing the hardline policies of the South's president and are meant to grab the attention of new U.S. President Barack Obama.

"The policy of confrontation with the DPRK (North Korea) pursued by the (South Korean) group is ... the very source of military conflicts and war between the North and the South," the North's official KCNA news agency reported a commentary in the communist party newspaper as saying.

"In Korea in the state of armistice confrontation means escalated tension and it may lead to an uncontrollable and unavoidable military conflict and a war," it said.

The states, technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended with a cease fire and not a peace treaty, have more than 1 million troops near their border. There are about 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea to defend the country.

The North's bureaucracy works slowly to form policy and it may still be trying to figure out its approach with the new Obama team, analysts said, making it easier for Pyongyang to direct its anger at Washington's allies, including Seoul.

The North in recent months has repeatedly threatened to destroy the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak, which ended a decade of free-flowing aid to Pyongyang after taking office a year ago.

Lee's government mostly ignores Pyongyang's taunts.

"North Korea's escalating threats do not indicate major hostilities are imminent," said Bruce Klingner, an expert on Korean affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

"However, they could easily presage another round of tactical naval confrontations with South Korea in the Yellow Sea."

The two Koreas fought deadly naval skirmishes in disputed Yellow Sea waters off the west coast in 1999 and 2002.

North Korea has clamped down on it border with the South in recent months and has canceled cooperation deals reached during a period of detente in the past few years before Lee came to power.

The deals included reunions for separated families and running trains across the heavily guarded border.

The latest move follows comments by a U.S. national security official that the secretive state's leader, Kim Jong-il, appeared to have rebounded politically from his recent health scare and is making major decisions.

Kim inspected a military unit and a power plant at the weekend, KCNA said, with Kim noting "the (North) Korean people are ready to flatten even a mountain and empty even a sea at one go when called for by the Party.

Israel hits Hamas targets in Gaza

Israeli aircraft have bombed a Hamas security target in Gaza City and tunnels used by the militant group along the border with Egypt.

There were no reports of casualties after the strikes late on Sunday.

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert earlier vowed a "disproportionate" response to rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza.

He was speaking soon after at least two rockets hit southern Israel. Later three Israelis were injured in a mortar barrage by Palestinian militants.

Late on Sunday, Israeli aircraft carried out a strike on an empty Hamas police station in Gaza City, Palestinian witnesses say.

They say the building had been vacated after an Israeli warning to residents to leave the area.

Palestinians also reported explosions in Rafah on the Gaza-Egypt border, where Hamas operates tunnels to smuggle in weapons and food.

The Israeli army has so far made no comments.

Abbas criticism

Two weeks ago, Israel and Hamas - which controls Gaza - declared separate truces ending a three-week conflict.

Palestinian Authority and Hamas officials are gathering in Cairo for talks aimed at boosting the ceasefires.

An adviser to Ismail Haniya, who heads the Hamas government in Gaza, told AFP news agency the militant group was waiting for Israel's response to a truce offer, transmitted by Egypt, adding that things were "moving in a positive direction".

The Egyptians have been leading efforts to broker a permanent ceasefire by holding separate talks with officials from Israel and Hamas.

But Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas told journalists in Cairo that talks were impossible with anyone who rejected the supremacy of the Palestine Liberation Organisation - in an apparent reference to Hamas's leadership.

He also accused Hamas of having "taken risks with the blood of Palestinians, with their fate, and dreams and aspirations for an independent Palestinian state".

Civilian casualty

Israel wants the rocket attacks to end and wants to prevent militants in Gaza from being able to rearm.

Hamas wants the border crossings into Gaza to be fully opened to end a 18-month blockade of Gaza.

Speaking at the weekly Israeli cabinet meeting, Mr Olmert warned Israel would respond forcefully to renewed rocket fire.

"We've said that if there is rocket fire against the south of the country, there will be a disproportionate Israeli responce to the fire on the citizens of Israel and its security forces," he said.

"The response will come at the time, the place and the manner that we choose."

His strong stance was echoed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

Soon afterwards, militants fired mortars at an Israeli village near the Gaza border, injuring two soldiers and a civilian.

The civilian casualty is the first since the 18 January ceasefires which ended Israel's three-week assault on Gaza, which it said was aimed at stopping rocket attacks.

Earlier, a rocket landed between two nursery schools in Eshkol region of southern Israel, media reports said.

On Saturday, a rocket fired from Gaza exploded near the Israeli city of Ashkelon, with no casualties reported, and at least two were fired in the days before.

The ceasefires, independently declared by each side, have been violated several times.

An Israeli soldier was killed in a bomb attack on the Gaza border last Tuesday. Israel responded with air raids and a brief ground incursion by soldiers and tanks.

About 1,300 Palestinians and 10 Israeli soldiers were killed in Israel's devastating three-week assault on Gaza. Three Israeli citizens died in rocket attacks.

Curtain going down on cinema culture in Peshawar

PESHAWAR: Curtains seems to be coming down on the cinema culture in the provincial metropolis, as the number of cine-goers has dropped by nearly 50 percent due to the surging militancy and other problems, a survey conducted by Daily Times showed on Sunday.Earlier, the city had around 14 cinemas; however their number has now come down to 10, as the cinema owners are razing their buildings and constructing commercial plazas.The remaining cinemas are attracting few visitors, as incidents of bombing, suicide attacks, torching and bombing of CD shops and threats to art related activities have scared the general public across the province.At present, most of the cinemas in the city are screening Pashto films, while some are showing English and Urdu films.Sabrina and Arshad Cinemas, Khyber Bazaar, are screening Pashto films but the visitors were thin in presence on Sunday showing lack of public interest in movies.Palwasha Cinema was demolished a few years ago and a multi-storey commercial complex is nearing completion in its place.Cinema Road that runs on the backside of Khyber Bazaar got its name due to location of three cinemas on its stretch. Novelty Cinema was closed down for construction of a commercial plaza, while Tasveer Mahal and Picture House are still operating, but the numbers of visitors has declined.Naz Cinema, Hospital Road, was closed on Sunday, while Firdous Cinema, Grand Trunk (GT) Road; and Capital Cinema, Sadder; were screening a Pushto and Urdu film respectively on Sunday.The buildings of these cinemas are ramshackle lacking proper paint and other facilities for the visitors.Shama Cinema, Pajjagi Road, and PAF Cinema are also screening films. The latter is mostly visited by the armed forces personnel.Adeeb, an employee of Picture House, told Daily Times that the number of visitors had dropped by 50 percent over the past few years due to militancy, computer CDs and rising inflation. He was of the view that most of the cine-goers were labourers or those who had no other source of entertainment.He said cable TC and computer CDs had played havoc with the cinema houses. He said screening of Indian films by some cinemas had also failed to attract people.Home of some of the greatest Bollywood stars including Dilip Kumar, Kapoor family and Shahrukh Khan, Peshawar got its first cinema after World War-I which is nowadays known as PAF Cinema.Later, Cinema de Paris and Deluxe followed. Novelty came into being in 1930 and Capital and Lansdowne (later Falaksair) in 1934. Falaksair was demolished in 2007.

Afghan Opium Poppy Production Expected to Fall

The United Nations says that production of opium poppies in Afghanistan is likely to decrease this year. The country remains the world's largest producer of opium. The drug trade is a major source of revenue for Taliban insurgents and is also increasing official corruption in Afghanistan.

U.N and Afghan officials say that low prices of opium and high prices of wheat flour along with drought and pressure from the government have brought down poppy cultivation in most of Afghanistan in 2008.

Releasing findings of an annual winter survey at a news conference in Kabul, top U.N representative for Afghanistan Kai Eide anticipated a further decrease in opium cultivation this year. He says that out of 34 Afghan provinces the number of opium-free provinces could rise from 18 to 22 because of the effected anti-drugs campaign.

UN envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide (file photo)
"That means that poppy production is no longer in Afghanistan wide problem but it is a problem that is mainly limited to a small number of provinces in the South," said Kai Eide. "And also in the South there are prospects for a significant reduction, which will be a major blow to those who are behind the opium industry."

The top U.N representative urged international donors to bring in additional resources that will help the Afghan government to ensure that reduction in poppy cultivation leads to development in Afghanistan. He says that poppy production has increased in Afghanistan every year since 2002 but now a major reduction is within reach and this year could be a turning point.

"This prognosis must be seen as opening a window of opportunity to deal the poppy industry a significant blow," he said. "But that window of opportunity must be really used effectively by the government and by the donors. And if we do not make full use of that opportunity we could face a backlash soon rather than further progress."

The U.N report says that the price of opium has fallen by about 20 percent over the last year mainly due to overproduction during the past three years. It says that the high price of wheat was the main reason farmers cited for not growing poppies this year.

In the wake of increased insurgent attacks around the country, NATO defense ministers at a meeting in October authorized troops in Afghanistan to launch direct attacks on the drugs trade. But so far there have been no public reports of this order being implemented.

Afghan anti-narcotics minister, General Khodaided, while addressing Sunday's news conference, reiterated that assistance from foreign forces in anti-drugs efforts could be of vital importance.

"NATO forces or coalition forces must take part in interdiction," said Khodaided. "They must hit the convoys of the enemy because drug dealers, drug traffickers, terrorism and al-Qaida; they are the same, they are the enemies of Afghanistan"

Afghanistan's seven key drug producing provinces in the south and southwest produced 98 percent of the country's total output in 2008. The Taliban-led insurgency is most active in these areas.

The United Nations estimates the total export value of last year's poppy crop to have been nearly $3.5 billion. It says that taxes on farmers and traffickers might have helped Taliban insurgents collect up to $500 million.

Pakistan: 43 civilians die in Taliban crossfire

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- At least 43 civilians were killed Sunday when they were caught in the crossfire between Pakistani forces and Taliban militants, a Pakistani military official said.

The official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the incident happened in Charbagh, a district of Swat Valley in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.

The mountainous Swat Valley region used to be a popular destination for tourists and skiers, but today it is a Taliban stronghold.

The Pakistani government and the army have come under criticism in recent weeks for allowing the security situation in Swat to deteriorate in the past few months. Islamabad has said there are plans for a new strategy to fight the Taliban, but they have yet to offer details.

The Taliban are imposing their strict brand of Islamic law in the region -- banning music, forbidding men from shaving, and not allowing teenage girls to attend school.

Government officials say the Taliban have torched and destroyed more than 180 schools in the Swat region. Many families have fled the area, and have been followed by many Pakistani police officers who are too scared to take on Taliban forces, a Pakistani army spokesman told CNN last week.

The Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 1996 -- harboring al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden -- and ruled it until they were ousted from power in 2001 after the September 11 attacks on the United States. Since then, the Taliban have regrouped and are currently battling U.S. and NATO-led forces.

U.S. President Barack Obama has called Afghanistan the "central front" in the war on terror and has promised to make fighting extremism there, and in neighboring Pakistan, a foreign policy priority. He is expected to send as many as 30,000 additional U.S. troops to battle Taliban forces.

Richard Holbrooke, the administration's new envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is scheduled to make his first trip to the region this week.