Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Student flees Taliban in 'Pakistan's Switzerland'

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- Hina Khan used to take her life in her hands every morning just to get to school.

When she stepped outside her door, the 14-year-old knew that ahead could be suicide bombings, gunfights, kidnappings and beheadings. Death threats were made against her, other students and teachers every day simply because they went to a girls' school in Pakistan targeted by Taliban militants.

"They said don't send your girls to school," Hina told CNN.

She used to live in the Swat Valley, a scenic mountainous region once popular with tourists and dubbed "Pakistan's Switzerland." But those were the days before militants moved in, "striking the fear of God" into residents with violence as they pushed for compliance with stricter moral and religious standards -- so-called Talibanization.

Now she is safer, 100 miles away in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, but her thoughts are often with her friends in Swat, near the border with Afghanistan.

They do not even go to school now, as authorities gave in to militant demands to shut all girls' schools. As many as 200 schools, mostly for girls, have been destroyed since November 2007 when the Taliban began their campaign to take control of the Swat Valley and surrounding areas.

"They have problems there," Hina said of those left behind. Watch how the Taliban's power has changed the valley »

"How can they leave their land, their home? Why come here? Here it's expensive, and they are all poor. They can't come here. And I feel really bad. All my friends are there. There is no one here."

The targeting of girls' schools shows an anti-women bias by the militants, who advocate an extreme following of a version of Islamic law, according to Islamabad-based human rights activist Tahira Abdullah. She adds it's almost as if the Taliban does not want women to exist.

"And if they do exist, they need to be within the four walls of their house compound; they need to be veiled," she said.

Abdullah is blunt in her assessment of the situation. "Right now, [Swat Valley] is under the control of the Taliban," she said.

"They are knocking on the doors of Peshawar, and I have no doubt they will be knocking on the doors of Islamabad [if] the government continues the complacency they are showing right now."

But the accusation of complacency is rejected by Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, spokesman for the Pakistan military.

"There is success," Abbas said of operations against anti-government forces in the tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan. "The success rate of the army's operation is pretty good in these areas."

He attacked critics of the military operation for failing to recognize the sacrifices of the armed forces. About 1,300 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in operations against militants since 9/11, he said. And he said the fight was made harder because the army lacked modern equipment such as night-vision goggles and unmanned drones.

But the military's continuing fight to secure the area is alienating those it is supposed to help. Some residents said the government is doing more damage than the Taliban ever did.

"If the government doesn't stop this cruelty, finally we will be forced to come here, and this parliament, we will set it on fire, too," said Israr Ali, standing outside the parliament building in Islamabad recently.

Ali had traveled there with hundreds of others from the tribal regions for a protest organized by an Islamic political party in the federal capital.

He said army operations have turned his home into a war zone and that shelling from army helicopters has destroyed buildings and killed his friends and neighbors. The Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies reported that in 2008 at least 7,997 people were killed in terrorist attacks, clashes between security forces and militants, military operations, incidents of political violence, sectarian strife between tribes and border clashes.

More than 230,000 people have fled their homes as a result of fighting in the tribal areas and the Swat Valley, according to a report last month by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Those people include Hina, who fled with her parents and four younger siblings so that they could continue their education.

Hina said she is still scared of the Taliban. But she also is focused on school and her dream to become a doctor. And when she does that, she has another goal -- to help her country "fix problems."

Gaza desperately short of food after Israel destroys farmland

Gaza's 1.5 million people are facing a food crisis as a result of the destruction of great areas of farmland during the Israeli invasion.According to the World Food Programme, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation and Palestinian officials, between 35% and 60% of the agriculture industry has been wrecked by the three-week Israeli attack, which followed two years of economic siege.Christine van Nieuwenhuyse, the World Food Programme's country director, said: "We are hearing that 60% of the land in the north - where the farming was most intensive - may not be exploitable again. It looks to me like a disaster. It is not just farmland, but poultry as well."When we have given a food ration in Gaza, it was never a full ration but to complement the diet. Now it is going to be almost impossible for Gaza to produce the food it needs for the next six to eight months, assuming that the agriculture can be rehabilitated. We will give people a full ration."The FAO estimates that 13,000 families who depend directly on herding, farming and fishing have suffered significant damage. "Before the blockade and the attack," said Ahmad Sourani, director of the Agricultural Development Association of Gaza, which runs programmes with charities such as Britain's Christian Aid, "Gaza produced half of its own food. Now that has declined by 25%. In addition, a quarter of the population depends on agriculture for income. What we have seen in large areas of farmland is the destruction of all means of life."We have seen a creeping process of farmers being forced out of the buffer zone around Gaza's border. Before 2000 we could approach and farm within 50m of the fence. After Israel's evacuation of the settlements in 2005, the Israeli army imposed a buffer of 300m. Although it is elastic, now there are areas, depending on the situation, where farmers cannot reach their farms in safety within an area of over a kilometre. It is indirect confiscation by fear. My fear is that, if it remains, it will become de facto. Bear in mind that 30% of Gaza's most productive land is within that buffer zone."The wholesale destruction of farms, greenhouses, dairy parlours, livestock, chicken coops and orchards has damaged food production, which was already hit by the blockade.
Buildings heavily damaged during Israel's Operation Cast Lead included much of its agricultural infrastructure. The Ministry of Agriculture was targeted, the agriculture faculty at al-Azhar university in Beit Hanoun largely destroyed, and the offices of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees in Zaitoun - which provides cheap food for the poor - ransacked and vandalised by soldiers who left abusive graffiti.Although international and local officials are still gathering figures, they believe that scores, perhaps hundreds, of wells and water sources have been damaged and several hundred greenhouses have been levelled, as well as severe damage inflicted on 60,000-75,000 dunums of Gaza's 175,000 dunums (44,000 acres) of farmable land.As well as the physical damage done by Israeli bulldozers, bombing and shelling, land has been contaminated by munitions, including white phosphorous, burst sewerage pipes, animal carcasses and even asbestos used in roofing. In many places, the damage is extreme. In Jabal al-Rayas, once a thriving farming community, every building has been knocked down, and even the cattle killed and left to lie rotting in the fields.
In al-Atatra, Ahmad Hassan, 65, the overseer of an orchard that once had hundreds of lemon and orange trees, surveyed an area flattened by bulldozers. "This was the well," he said, showing a pile of bulldozed concrete. "We can clear the ground in two weeks. Then what? The well is gone. The pump has been destroyed. And where will the trees come from to replant the land?"Van Nieuwenhuyse said: "Already, the price of meat has tripled since the Israeli operation began. What is more worrying is the situation over vegetables. Protein we can help with, but before this there were already deficiencies in the diet. Now they will have to rely on Israel."It was a view echoed by Hassan Abu Etah, the deputy agriculture minister in Gaza. "It has all been hugely damaged. And it affects all of Gaza, not simply the farmers. We produced some of what we needed. It makes you wonder whether they wanted to change Gaza from production to consumption."In the heavily damaged village of Khuza'a, near Khan Younis, Salam Najar surveyed the no-go zone that extends from the last houses in the village to the border fence where Israeli farmland begins. "Most of the families here have farmed that side. Now no one feels safe to go there. They have destroyed it all."

Hamas: Israel offered to let in 75% of Gaza aid in exchange for Shalit

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A Hamas official said Tuesday that Israel has offered to allow in 75 percent of the goods it currently bans from entering the Gaza Strip in exchange for the release of abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, according to the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency.The remaining 25 percent are goods Israel says could be used to make weapons.Salah al-Bardawil, a leading Hamas member in the Palestinian parliament, told the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency that his movement would be ready for a prisoner exchange with Israel starting Thursday. He added that Hamas would, as part of a cease-fire, agree to stop firing projectiles into Israel, and said Hamas had asked for Egypt's help in convincing other factions to show restraint."We have no objection to a cease-fire in exchange for lifting the siege and opening crossing points," Ma'an quoted Bardawil as saying. "We don't oppose addressing the Shalit case in tandem with cease-fire negotiations, but we asked for explanations about the nature of the material Israel won't let in."Shalit has been in Palestinian captivity since he was abducted by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid in June 2006.Bardawil told Ma'an that talks with Egypt over a cease-fire with Israel in the Gaza Strip were progressing 'positively.' "Hamas addressed the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire with Israel positively. However, Hamas asked for explanations of some Israeli proposals, especially the objection to allowing certain materials to the Gaza Strip that Israel claims are used to make weapons," Bardawil said.With regard to Israel's demand that Hamas stop smuggling through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, he said Hamas' response is that Hamas is not a state and would need the cooperation of states to clamp down on smuggling. However, he said, "Hamas won't agree to stop smuggling weapons into Gaza because that would mean the end of resistance."Meanwhile, a Hamas spokesman said Tuesday that Egypt is considering opening its border crossing with the Gaza Strip to allow in reconstruction materials blocked by Israel after its 22-day offensive, Hamas said on Tuesday following a round of talks in Cairo.Egypt is trying to broker a longer-term truce in the Gaza Strip under which both Israel and Hamas would hold their fire.Hamas has demanded that Israel lift its blockade of the enclave, but the Jewish state so far has balked at letting in materials like glass, steel and cement needed for reconstruction.Israeli officials assert that these materials could be used by Hamas to build rockets, bunkers and smuggling tunnels. Israel has conditioned fully lifting its blockade on the release of a soldier captured by Gaza militants in a 2006 cross-border raid.Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the Islamist group and Egyptian officials were discussing the possibility that Cairo would open the Rafah crossing on Gaza's southern border to allow in reconstruction materials and vehicles, as well as shelters for those made homeless by the Israeli bombardment.Barhoum said another round of talks over the ceasefire would convene later on Tuesday night.In addition to trying to extend the shaky ceasefire, Egypt hoped to broker a reconciliation deal between Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip and the secular Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Western-backed government is based in the West Bank.Cairo has proposed a meeting of the factions on Feb. 22. But Barhoum said Hamas was demanding that a committee be set up first to free "political prisoners" held by the rival groups to prepare the ground for reconciliation talks.

Ban Ki-moon due in Islamabad

ISLAMABAD: The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is arriving in Pakistan on Wednesday. UN chief will meet President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani during his stay in the country, according to press release issued here by Foreign Office today.Pakistan attaches great importance to the United Nations and highly values the visit by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The Secretary General’s visit provides a good opportunity to exchange views on global and regional issues.

Russia rocked by financial crisis protests

A wave of protests swept across Russia yesterday in one of the first signs of mass discontent with the Kremlin's handling of the financial crisis.

More than 2,500 people attended a demonstration in Vladivostok against the government's decision to raise import tariffs on cars.

In Moscow, about 2,000 gathered at protests uniting civil rights activists, communists and pensioners disgruntled at rising food and utility bills. There were smaller demonstrations in other cities. It was the first time such diverse groups had co-ordinated activities to direct their anger at president Dmitry Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin.

In Moscow, one of the leaders of the Other Russia movement, Eduard Limonov, was surrounded by riot police as he arrived at a central square. As he was arrested, Limonov said: "The government is bailing out its friends in banking corporations but doing nothing to help ordinary Russians survive this crisis."

Iran launches satellite; U.S. expresses concern

TEHRAN - Iran said it had launched a domestically made satellite into orbit for the first time on Tuesday, prompting further concern among Western powers and in Israel over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Iran said the launch of the Omid (Hope) research and telecom satellite was a major step in its space technology timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the U.S.-backed shah.

The long-range ballistic technology used to put satellites into orbit could also be used for launching warheads, although Iran says it has no plans to do so.

"Dear Iranian nation, your children have placed the first indigenous satellite into orbit," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a televised message, adding the launch was successful.

Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said Omid was orbiting earth. The ISNA news agency quoted him as saying: "We have established communications with it and the necessary information has been received."

Sending the Omid into space is a message to the world that Iran is "very powerful and you have to deal with us in the right way," an Iranian political analyst said.

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: "Efforts to develop missile delivery capability, efforts that continue on an illicit nuclear program, or threats that Iran makes toward Israel and its sponsorship of terror are of acute concern to this administration."

Gibbs repeated the words President Barack Obama has used since taking over last month that Washington will "use all elements of our national power to deal with Iran and to help it be a responsible member of the international community."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States would show openness to Iran -- a change from a hard-line isolation policy under former President George W. Bush -- but urged it to respond in kind. "We are reaching out a hand, but the fist has to unclench," Clinton told reporters.

Iran has long said its nuclear program is purely for civilian energy purposes.


Senior officials from six world powers -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and China -- will meet on Wednesday to discuss the nuclear row with Iran. It is their first meeting since Obama took office.

Speaking after meeting separately with British and French foreign ministers, Clinton said Washington would pursue "tough and direct" diplomacy with Tehran and said if Iran did not comply with international demands "there must be consequences.

Iranian state television showed footage of a rocket blasting off from a launchpad and lighting up the night sky as it streaked into space.

"With God's help and the desire for justice and peace, the official presence of the Islamic Republic was registered in space," Ahmadinejad said.

A U.S. security official in Washington said it was unclear what Iran intended to use the satellite for and the United States was still trying to learn more about it.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters during a visit to Ethiopia the satellite had peaceful aims.

But Andrew Brookes of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London said the news would prompt concern in Israel and elsewhere in the region.

"They will think that this civilian capability will soon be transformed to a military reconnaissance and intelligence gathering capability," he said.

Isaac Ben-Israel, a former head of The Israel Space Agency, told Reuters in Jerusalem: "If they managed to fire a satellite into space it means they can also reach Western Europe."


Iran is under U.N. and U.S. sanctions because of suspicions about Tehran's nuclear plans.

The Islamic state, the world's fourth-largest oil producer, says its nuclear work has no military goals but is limited to generating electricity to meet domestic needs.

Ahmadinejad has set tough terms for talks with Obama's administration, saying it must change policy not just tactics toward Tehran and apologize for past "crimes" against Iran.

Last August, Iran said it had put a dummy satellite into orbit with a domestically made rocket for the first time. U.S. officials said that launch had ended in failure.

Tal Inbar, head of the Space Research Center at Israeli think tank the Fisher Brothers Institute, said Iran was only the ninth country in the world capable of both producing a satellite and sending it into space from a domestically made launcher.

"We should regard this satellite as the 'Iranian Sputnik'," he told Israel radio, saying Iran was the first to join this club after Israel in 1988. "The main value is ... propaganda."

Western experts say Iran rarely gives enough details for them to determine the extent of its technological advances, and say that Iranian technology largely consists of modifications of equipment supplied by China, North Korea and others.

The television broadcast said the Omid would return to Earth with data after orbiting for one to three months. Iran already had a satellite in orbit but the Sina-1 was launched by a Russian rocket in 2005, said the television.

Study: U.S. should focus on hitting Taliban

WASHINGTON - A classified Pentagon report urges President Barack Obama to shift U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, de-emphasizing democracy-building and concentrating more on targeting Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuaries inside Pakistan with the aid of Pakistani military forces.U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates has seen the report prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but it has not yet been presented to the White House, officials said Tuesday.The recommendations are one element of a broad policy reassessment under way along with recommendations to be considered by the White House from the commander of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, and other military leaders.A senior defence official said Tuesday that it will likely take several weeks before the Obama administration rolls out its long-term strategy for Afghanistan.The Joint Chiefs' plan reflects growing worries that the U.S. military was taking on more than it could handle in Afghanistan by pursuing the Bush administration's broad goal of nurturing a thriving democratic government.
Instead, the plan calls for a more narrowly focused effort to root out militant strongholds along the Pakistani border and inside the neighbouring country, according to officials who confirmed the essence of the report. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the plan publicly.
The recommendations are broadly cast and provide limited detail, meant to help develop the overarching strategy for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region rather than propose a detailed military action plan.During a news conference Tuesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs noted the ongoing "comprehensive reviews" of Afghan policy, but did not say when they would be made public.The assessments, Gibbs said, are critical for Obama's intent to "evaluate the current direction of our policy and make some corrections as he goes forward."Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman would not comment Tuesday on the details of the Joint Chiefs' report, but acknowledged that the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is a critical component for success in Afghanistan.
"When you talk about Afghanistan, you can't help but also recognize the fact that the border region with Pakistan is obviously a contributing factor to the stability and security of Afghanistan, and the work that Pakistan is doing to try to reduce and eliminate those safe havens, and the ability for people to move across that border that are engaged in hostile intentions," Whitman said.Part of the recommended approach is to search for ways to work more intensively and effectively with the Pakistanis to root out extremist elements in the border area, the senior defence official said.The heightened emphasis on Pakistan reflects a realization that the root of the problem lies in the militant havens inside its border - a concern outlined last week to Congress in grim testimony by Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen.But the report does not imply more incursions by U.S. combat forces inside Pakistan or accelerating other forms of U.S. military involvement, the senior defence official emphasized. Pakistani officials have repeatedly raised alarms after a surge of U.S. Hellfire missile strikes from drone predators in recent months, and renewed those complaints after a new strike killed 19 people inside Pakistan days after Obama took office."The bottom line is we have to look at what the art of the possible is there," said a U.S. military official who has operated in Afghanistan. The official, who has not seen the Joint Chiefs' report, said the challenge is to craft a strategy that achieves U.S. goals of stabilizing the region and constraining al-Qaida, but also takes into account the powerful tribes that resist a strong central government and the ties among ethnic Pashtuns on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan border.The Joint Chiefs' report advises a greater emphasis on U.S. military training of Pakistani forces for counter-terror work. Those contacts are already occurring on a more limited basis.Pakistan's government is well aware of growing U.S. interest in collaborating to improve its military's muscle against al-Qaida and Taliban elements in the border areas. The topic has been broached repeatedly by senior U.S. officials, including Mullen, on numerous visits to Pakistan.The training efforts also would expand and develop the Afghan army and police force, while at the same time work to improve Afghan governance.The report also stresses that Afghan strategy must be driven by what the Afghans want, and that the U.S. cannot impose its own goals on the Afghanistan government.During discussions about a new Afghanistan strategy, military leaders expressed worries that the U.S. ambitions in Afghanistan - to stabilize the country and begin to build a democracy there - were beyond its ability.And as they tried to balance military demands in both Iraq and Afghanistan, some increasingly questioned why the U.S. continued to maintain a war-fighting force in Iraq, even though the mission there has shifted to a more support role for the Iraqi security forces. Those fighting forces, they argued, were needed more urgently in Afghanistan.Military leaders have been signalling for weeks that the focus of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan would change.Gates told armed services committees in Congress last week that the U.S. should keep its sights on one thing: preventing Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists who would harm the U.S. or its allies. He bluntly added that the military could not root out terrorists while also propping up Afghanistan's fledgling democracy.The report's overall conclusions were first reported Saturday by The Associated Press. Politico reported additional details of the report Tuesday.The U.S. is considering doubling its troop presence in Afghanistan this year to roughly 60,000, in response to growing strength by the Islamic militant Taliban, fed by safe havens they and al-Qaida have developed in an increasingly unstable Pakistan.

Canuck helicopter a vital eye in the sky

Two American Chinook helicopters approach a marked landing zone west of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Armed Canadian Griffon helicopters can protect Chinooks like these from attack and watch over ground convoys. "I'd rather not talk about it," the 33-year-old Edmontonian replies when asked about his relative, who is among the 108 Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
"It's personal and kinda tough."
He refuses to say any more, declining to name the soldier or talk about the circumstances of his death. But it's clear that the loss of a relative is a major reason why he takes his job so seriously.Lucas, a 12-year veteran of the Canadian military, is a mechanic with the 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron. It's his job to keep the eight CH-146 Griffons ready to fly on a moment's notice.Speaking from the Canadian base at the Kandahar airfield yesterday, Lucas says the choppers, which have only been in Afghanistan since mid-December, are preventing more Canadian casualties on a daily basis."It certainly makes me want to stay focused," he said."When you're here, you realize how important the job really is."By far, the deadliest place for Canadian soldiers to be is in a vehicle on the treacherous roads in the dusty countryside of Kandahar province.Taliban insurgents target military vehicles with bombs planted along the roadside - or strapped to suicide bombers who then approach checkpoints.
The last 11 Canadians to die in Afghanistan have been killed by roadside bombs. The latest, Sapper Sean Greenfield, 25, of the 2 Combat Engineer Regiment based in Petawawa, died Saturday when the armoured vehicle he was riding in hit a bomb in the Zhari district, 40 km west of Kandahar. In a tragic irony, Greenfield was finishing up a joint mission by Canadian, U.S. and British soldiers to find and root out the makers of the bombs.Canadian soldiers have been particularly vulnerable in convoys of trucks delivering equipment, supplies and troops to forward operating bases throughout Kandahar province.It is precisely that kind of tragedy that the helicopters are helping to avoid.The Griffons, equipped with Gatling guns, armour plating and special sensors, are escort vehicles whose primary purpose is to protect large Chinook transport helicopters, greatly reducing the number of vehicles on the roads.The Griffons can also escort ground convoys and spot roadside bombs from the air.Retired Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie said movies like Black Hawk Down (about an ill-fated U.S. military operation in Somalia in the 1990s) can give the impression that helicopters are flying death traps, easy targets for anyone with a shoulder-mounted grenade launcher.In fact, MacKenzie said, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) are not designed for airborne targets and only have a range of a hundred metres or so. Helicopters can easily fly above that.Real surface-to-air missiles are harder to come by, and so far the Taliban don't appear to have any weapons that sophisticated.
MacKenzie said during one visit to Kandahar, he asked a group of about 30 infantrymen how many of them had been attacked by a so-called improvised explosive device (IED).
"Every hand went up," he said.
It's demonstrations like this that gives Lucas his sense of purpose.
"I'm really proud to be here," says Lucas."My only regret is that I miss my wife and young daughter, but I know it's important that we're here. I look at it this way: when I think about (the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York) I know I would rather take the fight to them here, rather than fight them back home in Canada."He adds: "I think we're serving a purpose and the soldiers that passed away did not die in vain."

Swat mass exodus continues

MINGORA/CHAKDARRA: Thousands of people Tuesday continued to flee all the areas where military has launched the third phase of the Rah-e-Haq operation that has so far claimed dozens of lives of civilians.

The residents of Koza Bandai, Bara Bandai, Ningwalai, Shakardara, Shawar, Ronial, Roringar, Chuperial, Khariri, Biha, Charbagh, Manglawar, Sangota and other areas left their houses in hurry to save their lives. Thousands of people, most of them women and children, were moving out from their respective areas using unfrequented and arduous paths due to continuing curfew.

Aged and ailing persons were being carried on charpoys along with bundles of their belongings. Around 40,000 people have so far migrated to the Mingora city where they don’t have any shelter or facilities as both the provincial and federal governments have been criminally ignorant to their unbearable woes. The operation, in which majority of people killed were civilians, displaced thousands of people but the government left them in the lurch which alienated people from the government.

Some have taken shelter at their relatives’ houses while most of the IDPs were forced to take refuge in mosques and male guests houses of the people. Thousands of fleeing people, locals put their number at 30,000, reached the neighbouring Chakdarra town of the Lower Dir district. They migrated from Shamozo area of the troubled valley. The people said that the forces asked them to leave the area within three days before an impending action against the militants who had attacked a police post. They left their houses at once and covered 20kms to reach the town. Al-Khidmat Foundation had established a relief camp to help the IDPs while there was no camp from the government. Families were also seen sitting on the both sides of the road under open sky.

Commissioner Malakand Division, Fazl Karim Khattak, said that 28,000 people had migrated so far from the troubled areas of the valley. He, however, said that the government had reserved 13 schools for camps adding that food and other facilities would be provided. He said that the IDPs would properly be registered in these camps.

Most of the people, however, preferred to move out from the beleaguered district as they did not feel secured in Mingora or other towns of Swat. The moneyed people had already left the valley and settled in Peshawar, Islamabad, Karachi and even abroad. Some people called The News from abroad and informed that they had moved out their children from the country, as they did not felt protected even in big cities of the country.

2 schools blown up in Bajaur
KHAR: Unidentified militants blew up two boys’ schools in Salarzai tehsil of the restive Bajaur Agency on Tuesday. Sources said militants blew up the Government High School, Pusht, and a primary school in the Salarzai area with explosives. No loss of life was reported as both schools were closed. The militants have so far destroyed 27 schools in Bajaur Agency.Meanwhile, the security forces targeted hideouts of militants in Mamond tehsil and Nawagai with heavy artillery and mortar guns. The security forces claimed to have dismantled the hideouts of militants in the actions. However, no casualty was reported in the attacks.In the meantime, Bajaur Agency Political Agent Shafirullah Khan along Bajaur Scouts Commandant Colonel Nauman Saeed and Assistant Political Agent Iqbal Khattak visited the far-flung areas of Salarzai tehsil. It was the first visit of the political administration officials since the writ of the state was re-established in the violence-hit areas of the agency.
The officials visited the remote areas of Pusht, Danqul, Ghaghay, Chargu and Nazakai areas where the political agent addressed the local people. He said the government had allocated huge funds for uplift of the tribal people to bring the areas on a par with the developed areas of the country.

Afghanistan: Can Obama succeed in the 'land of the unruly?'

(CNN) -- The ancient Persians called it "the land of the unruly." Historians call it "the graveyard of empires." President Obama calls Afghanistan something else: The "central front" in the battle against terrorism.

Afghanistan has defied armies led by military leaders including Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Now Obama's new administration will attempt to accomplish what few leaders have been able to do: stabilize Afghanistan.

Obama says he wants to start by adding U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Although some believe that a "surge" helped in Iraq, there is no military solution for stabilizing Afghanistan, several military and political experts say.

"Controlling the Afghan people is a losing proposition," says Stephen Tanner, author of "Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the Fall of the Taliban." "No one has ever been able to control the country."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is struggling to control the country now, Tanner says. The landlocked nation, which is roughly the size of Texas, has no strong national police, he says; its citizens are averse to taxes and a strong central government.

Afghans seem to unite only when a foreign army occupies their country, Tanner says.

"The people are so disunited within that they can't resist an invader at the border," Tanner says. "But once you're in, you're surrounded by them."

The resurgence of the Taliban will complicate Obama's plans as well, Tanner says.

The Taliban are making a comeback. Since 2004, the last year of relative calm, annual acts of violence have increased from about 900 to 8,950 in 2007 and roadside bombs from 325 incidents to 1,469, Tanner says.

U.S. and coalition documents, based on NATO statistics, show more than a 30 percent increase in such attacks from January to December 2008. Last year, attacks by Taliban and al Qaeda forces around the country increased 31 percent. Since January 2008, U.S. and NATO troop deaths rose 26 percent, according to the statistics. Afghan security forces deaths rose 64 percent in the same period. Read more about the rising number of attacks

The government has also degenerated. It has become a corrupt "narco state," with opium trade providing nearly half of the country's gross national product, Tanner says.

There are about 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but there are plans to add 15,000 troops. Defense Secretary Robert Gates briefed Obama on Monday about adding U.S. troops to Afghanistan, which would ultimately involve sending two additional combat brigades and a brigade of trainers for Afghan security forces.

It is clear that Obama intends to focus more on Afghanistan. He called it "the central front in our battle against terrorism" in a CBS "Face the Nation" interview.

"I think one of the biggest mistakes we've made strategically after 9/11 was to fail to finish the job. ... We got distracted by Iraq," Obama says.

Said T. Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, says the Afghan people would welcome a temporary increase in U.S. troops to make the country and its borders more secure. But the U.S. military will alienate Afghans if it continues to strike with unmanned Predator drones instead of surgical commando operations to go after the Taliban, Jawad says.

"In the long run, the real security solution is to be found in the capacity of the Afghan police and army," he says.

Should the U.S. negotiate with the Taliban?

Obama's policy toward Afghanistan won't just revolve around force, though, believes Caroline Wadhams, senior national security policy analyst for the Center for American Progress, a progressive Washington think tank.

She says Obama wants to accelerate training of the Afghan police, reduce corruption, increase economic development and possibly negotiate with the Taliban.

"It's never been just about the troops for Obama," Wadhams says. "More troops are part of a bigger strategic shift. The Obama administration wants to engage Afghanistan more deeply than the Bush administration."

President Obama has talked about a "more for more" strategy, which will commit more troops to the effort in Afghanistan, but would be looking for more help from its allies and from the Afghan government.

The U.S. will also increase aid to strengthen the Afghan government, including additional aid for education, infrastructure and human services. It will also help fund alternative livelihoods for farmers who abandon producing opium.

But that aid will be tied to better performance by the government on fighting corruption and establishing rule of law.

Any ultimate solution to Afghanistan's challenges would have to involve political negotiations with two players: Pakistan and the Taliban, some say.

Pakistan gives the Taliban financial and logistical support, along with sanctuary, says Jawad, Afghanistan's U.S. ambassador.

"The reason we have not been able to establish sustainable peace and stability has been Pakistan," Jawad says. "We were able to push the Taliban out of power, but we pushed them out into the countryside and Pakistan, where they were able to reorganize."

Richard Holbrooke, who was just appointed as an envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, will be making a first trip to the region next week. He wants Karzai to crack down on corruption and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to crack down on extremists on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

Tanner, the military historian, says just cracking down on the Taliban is a mistake -- some would be open to negotiations.

"The Taliban are no longer all hardcore fanatics," Tanner says. "There are a lot of moderate elements. You have to bring the Taliban into the Afghan government, not to take it over but to at least participate."

Afghanistan's bloody history

Afghans are filled with a fierce nationalism that goes back centuries.

Milton Bearden, a former CIA station chief who worked in Afghanistan, once called the country a "graveyard of empires" in a Foreign Affairs magazine essay. He says its tribesmen almost killed Alexander the Great when he invaded and bloodied Genghis Khan's armies so much that the Mongol leader gained control "only after reaching painful accommodations with the Afghans."

Afghanistan's history is so steeped in violence that some historians say the ancient Persians called it the "land of the unruly" (others say the term was coined by an Afghan king).

Joel Hafvenstein, author of "Opium Season," is an American who spent years working in Afghanistan among the people. He went there to help reduce the country's opium harvest.

He says Afghans are a lot like Americans: They're filled with a powerful national pride.

"Even broadly pro-Western friends of mine still don't really consider their country 'free' as long as foreign soldiers are here, and each airstrike that kills civilians reduces tolerance for foreign military forces around the country," he says.

The Taliban are seen as a foreign force by many Afghans, Hafvenstein says.

"Many Afghans saw the Taliban as an occupation army funded by Pakistan and various Arab countries, and were willing to tolerate a U.S./NATO military presence in Afghanistan as a lesser evil," he says.

Hafvenstein says he saw something else in the Afghan people that Obama -- and U.S. troops -- would be happy to see more of in the coming years.

"I've been surprised by the gentleness of most Afghans I know," he says. "You come here laboring under these stereotypes of the ferocious Afghan, and you find instead that most people are extremely gentle and compassionate -- and extremely determined with a knack for survival."

Kidnapped American U.N. Official in Pakistan Loves to Help Refugees, Friend Says

When John Solecki, the American U.N. worker kidnapped Monday in Pakistan, started working for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, he told friends that he had found his calling, according to an opinion piece written by one of his former Columbia College professors."He soothes the feelings of people in distress," Richard Bulliet wrote in the International Herald Tribune Tuesday. "They know without his having to say it that he is doing his best to help them. And he does help them."
Bulliet wrote that the calm attitude could be helping Solecki, who serves as head of the U.N. refugee office in the city of Quetta."My guess is that he is already trying to talk to them in his direct and unflappable manner. And he is probably aware that people in many governments and agencies are working to secure his release. I'm sure he is calmer than I or anyone else I know would be under similar circumstances."
Gunmen seized Solecki as he traveled to work Monday morning, and shot and killed his driver, U.N. and Pakistani officials said. While the government there called the abduction a "dastardly terrorist act," police said it was not clear whether Islamist militants, criminals seeking a ransom payment or members of a regional separatist group were responsible.Bulliet, who did not immediately respond to an interview request by FOXNews.com, openly questioned why this happened to his dear friend."Why would anyone kidnap a man who has spent his entire career serving the needs of people in distress under the auspices of the United Nations?," he wrote. "He is an American citizen, but he doesn't work for or represent the United States government."Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan province, which partly borders Afghanistan. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has worked for three decades in the region helping hundreds of thousands of Afghans fleeing violence in their homeland.While a violent region, it has largely been spared the Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgency wracking much of northwestern Pakistan, where several foreigners have been attacked or kidnapped in recent months.Quetta has been mentioned by Afghan officials as a likely hiding place for Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders who are thought to have fled Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001.

Clinton, Miliband Discuss Afghanistan, Iran, Middle East

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says Iran has an opportunity to break out of its isolation over its nuclear program and become what she described as a "productive member" of the world community. She spoke on the eve of a meeting in Germany at which world powers will review diplomatic efforts to get Iran to stop enriching uranium.The Obama administration has expressed a readiness to drop preconditions for dialogue with Iran, and Secretary Clinton is depicting the current White House policy review as a chance for Tehran to break out of its self-imposed international isolation.
The secretary of state spoke to reporters with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband as senior diplomats from the five permanent U.N. Security Council member countries and Germany, the P5+1, prepared to convene Wednesday in Wiesbaden, Germany for their first meeting on the Iran nuclear issue since the new U.S. administration took office.Clinton alluded to interview remarks by President Obama last week that he would pursue diplomacy with Iran if that government "unclenched its fist.""Iran has an opportunity to step up and become a productive member of the international community. As President Obama said, we are reaching out a hand, but the fist has to unclench. And we will see how we proceed together toward a policy that we believe represents objectives that we share vis-à-vis Iran," she said.Miliband, the first senior foreign official to meet Clinton at the State Department in her new capacity had similar comments. Though Iran has ignored three U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions to press on with its enrichment drive, the British Foreign Secretary said it is not too late for Tehran to chart a different course."We have talked also about the importance of the Iranian nuclear issue and your commitment to engage with other countries in making clear to Iran the costs of its conduct. But also making clear to Iran that if it is willing to accept its responsibilities in the international community, it will be a welcome member of the international community, exercising its rights as well as its responsibilities I think is a very important message," he said.
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns will represent the United States at the policy meeting in Germany.Within the P5+1, Russia, and China have resisted pressure from the United States, Britain, France and Germany for tighter sanctions against Iran, but they did support a new Security Council resolution in October reaffirming international demands that Iran stop its enrichment drive.Iran has maintained a defiant stand in advance of the Weisbaden meeting. Its parliament speaker and former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said Monday those who expect Iran to give up nuclear technology are "talking nonsense."And Iran claimed the launch of its first space satellite, action that drew an expression of concern from Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell."It is certainly a reason for us to be concerned about Iran and its continued attempts to develop a ballistic-missile program, increasingly long-range. Although this would appear just to be the launch of a satellite, their first, obviously there are dual-use capabilities in the technology here which could be applied toward the development of a long-range ballistic missile. And that is a cause of concern to us and I think to certainly everybody in the region, Israel and their Arab neighbors as well as to our allies in Europe," the spokesman said.The State Department said Iran's missile efforts are of deep concern and noted that U.N. member states are obligated under a 2006 Security Council resolution to prevent sales to Iran of technology or hardware that could advance its nuclear and missile programs.

Pakistan militant attack halts US, NATO supplies

PESHAWAR, Pakistan— Islamist militants blew up a bridge in northwest Pakistan on Tuesday, cutting a major supply line for Western troops in Afghanistan, a government official and a NATO spokesman said.
The attack was the latest in a series on the Khyber Pass by insurgents seeking to hamper the U.S.-led mission against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
A NATO spokesman in Afghanistan confirmed that supplies along the route had been halted "for the time being," but stressed the alliance was in no danger of running out of food, equipment or fuel.
The attack will add urgency to NATO and U.S. efforts to find alternative supply routes to landlocked Afghanistan, an already vital task given American plans to double its troop numbers in the country.
Meanwhile, authorities said they were questioning 15 people in connection with the abduction Monday of an American U.N. worker in the southwest of the country.
They said the men, among them several Afghans, were not considered suspects in the attack in which American John Solecki was kidnapped and his driver was shot and killed. The assault underscored the threats to foreigners in Pakistan as it battles al-Qaida militants.
Hidayat Ullah, a government official in the Khyber tribal area, said the bridge was about 15 miles (25 kilometers) northwest of the main city of Peshawar. He said trucks carrying NATO and U.S. supplies were unable to cross it.
It was not immediately clear whether supply convoys could reach Afghanistan through alternative routes in the region, nor how long it would take to rebuild it.
Up to 75 percent of the fuel and supplies destined for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan travel through Pakistan after being unloaded at the port of Karachi. Most are driven along the Khyber Pass.
Pakistan has dispatched paramilitary escorts for supply convoys and cracked down on militants in Khyber, but attacks have persisted in an area that up to three years ago was largely free of violence.
Solecki was kidnapped as he traveled to work in Quetta city in Baluchistan, a province that partly borders Afghanistan but has largely been spared the al-Qaida and Taliban insurgency in the northwest.
The government called the abduction a "dastardly terrorist act." But police said it was not clear whether Islamist militants, criminals seeking a ransom payment or members of a regional separatist group were responsible.
"We have opened investigations, and our various teams are working on this case and the effort is to safely recover the man," said senior police officer Wazir Khan.
Solecki headed the Quetta office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which has worked for three decades in the region helping hundreds of thousands of Afghans fleeing violence in their homeland.
Suspected militants have attacked or kidnapped several foreigners in recent months.
In August, Lynne Tracy, the top U.S. diplomat in the northwest, narrowly survived an attack on her vehicle in Peshawar by suspected militants. In November, also in Peshawar, gunmen shot and killed American aid worker Stephen Vance.
Quetta has been mentioned by Afghan officials as a likely hiding place for Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders thought to have fled Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001.
Baluchistan is also the scene of a low-level insurgency driven by nationalist groups wanting more regional autonomy. They are not known to target foreigners.
Meanwhile, at least 35 Islamist militants were killed in an overnight operation in Swat Valley, an area in the northwest which has been increasingly overrun with insurgents, Pakistan's military said in a statement.