Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Taliban threats in Pakistan are heard a world away

Last June, Bakht Bilind Khan, who was living in New York and working at a fast-food restaurant, returned to his village in the volatile Swat Valley of northern Pakistan to visit his wife and seven children for the first time in three years. But during a dinner celebration with his family, his homecoming suddenly turned dark: several heavily armed Taliban fighters wearing masks appeared at the door of their house, accused Khan of being an American spy and kidnapped him.

During two weeks of captivity in a nearby mountain range, Khan says, he was interrogated repeatedly about his wealth, property and "mission" in the United States. He was released in exchange for an $8,000 ransom. His family, threatened with death if they did not leave the region, is now hiding elsewhere in Pakistan.

"Our Swat, our paradise, is burning now," said Khan, 55, who returned to the United States and is working at a fast-food restaurant in Albany, trying to reimburse the friends and relatives who paid his ransom.

Pakistani immigrants from the Swat Valley, where the Taliban have been battling Pakistani security forces since 2007, say some of their families are being singled out for threats, kidnapping and even murder by Taliban forces, who view them as potential American collaborators and lucrative sources of ransom. Some immigrants also say they, too, have been threatened in the United States by the Taliban or its sympathizers, and some immigrants say they have been attacked or kidnapped when they have returned home.

The threats have brought an added dimension of suffering for the immigrants, who say fresh reports of hardship arrive here every day, sometimes several times a day, and spread quickly among the several thousand Swati immigrants in the New York region: families driven from their villages, houses being destroyed, relatives disappearing. The fate of the valley dominates conversation among the exiles.

"It's 24/7," said Zakrya Khan, 30, the owner of two gyro restaurants in New York whose staff of 15 is almost entirely Swati. "This is their only concern now."

Though every community of exiles from a conflict-ridden country suffers when relatives who remain behind are caught in the fight, the immigrants from Swat also bear the burden of believing that their presence in America is endangering their relatives back home, where the Taliban have imposed their authority over vast swaths of the region, about 100 miles northwest of Islamabad.

More than that, Swati immigrants say they have been left with the sense that the more they try to help their families back home, the more harm they may do, an excruciating dilemma that has filled many with a combination of helplessness, fear, sadness and guilt.

If they speak out, they fear, it could lead to retribution for them or their relatives in Pakistan. Some exiles who have participated in anti-Taliban political demonstrations here or agitated in support of Swat residents say that they and their families have come under pressure as a result of these activities.

And few dare leave the United States for fear of losing the single largest income stream their families have.

"To go to their rescue would actually make the situation worse," said Khan, the restaurant owner. "We are the only source of income for these people. If we leave the United States, they'll have no one supporting them."

The Pakistan government announced Monday that it had struck a tentative deal with the Taliban amid a 10-day ceasefire to establish Islamic law in the region and suspend military operations there. But some Swati immigrants said they were skeptical the deal would hold — two other accords in the last six months failed — and they were bracing for a resumption of violence.

Iqbal Ali Khan, 50, the general secretary of the American chapter of the Awami National Party, a dominant secular political party in Swat, said he had received three threatening phone calls in the past two months. The callers, who did not identify themselves, told Khan he was "too active" and ordered him to bring $1 million with him on his next trip to Pakistan.

"Or you know what will happen," one caller said, according to Khan, who is also the owner of a limousine company based in New York. "We know your family."

The most recent call came last Tuesday. "You're still active," Khan quoted the caller as saying. "This is the last warning."

On Wednesday, he received a dire call from his brother, who at that very moment was hiding in a forest on the outskirts of the valley's largest city, Mingora, with their 97-year-old father.

The elder Khan had received a letter from the Taliban earlier in the day warning him that he would be kidnapped unless he handed over $200,000. The note specifically instructed the father to get the money from his son in the United States.

"My 97-year-old father is on the run," exclaimed the younger Khan, his voice choking up in sadness. "Tragedy! Tragedy!"

Before the start of the Taliban's incursion into the region in 2007, Swat was treasured as a vacation spot, particularly among Pashtuns, the ethnic group that dominates the region. Known as "the Switzerland of Pakistan," it has snowy peaks, fruit orchards, lakes and flower-covered meadows.

But the tourism industry has evaporated amid the Taliban's uprising, and by some estimates, hundreds of thousands of residents have abandoned their homes, fleeing for Mingora or other regions of Pakistan. Immigrants have been coming from the Swat Valley for years, well before it became a front in the war between the Taliban and Pakistani government troops. There are an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 people from the Swat Valley in the United States, about half of whom live in the New York metropolitan region, said Taj Akbar Khan, president of the Khyber Society USA, a Pakistani charitable and cultural organization. In New York, Swatis generally live within the larger Pakistani population, which is concentrated in Coney Island, Brooklyn, and Astoria, Queens, among other neighborhoods.

Many Swatis here suspect that the Taliban have spies among them; that insecurity mirrors the rampant mistrust in the valley, where many residents fear the Pakistani security forces almost as much as the Taliban and do not know whom to trust.

Perhaps with the help of stateside sympathizers, the Taliban have been adept at tracking the flow of money from the United states, and have turned increasingly to kidnapping recipients of the money with the goal of securing hefty ransoms, the exiles say.

Ajab, the owner of a fried chicken shop in Paterson, New Jersey, said the Taliban kidnapped a brother-in-law last year near the family's village in the Swat Valley.

During 75 days of captivity, the Taliban fighters told the brother-in-law that one of the reasons they had kidnapped him was that he had relatives in the United States, including Ajab. The fighters released him after the family paid a $20,000 ransom.

"We are sad that because of us, our relatives are getting into trouble," said Ajab, 51, who spoke only on the condition that his last name not be published, to protect his family's identity.

Not all of the violence visited upon the families of exiles has been due to the exiles' presence here. But the difficulty of watching it at such a remove has been no less agonizing.

Leaving behind his family in Swat, Jihanzada came to the United States in 2001 to earn money to build his dream house back home and to pay for the future weddings of his five children. He worked numerous menial jobs in Boston and New York.

"Everything I earned I sent back home," he said in an interview last week at a fast-food restaurant in Brooklyn where he works.

He, too, spoke on the condition that he not be fully identified for fear of alerting the Taliban to his presence in the United States. "If they knew I was here, they would definitely harm my family," he said. "If they got information that I talked to you, they can come and target me."

The house was completed early last year; Jihanzada still has not seen it: he has not returned to Pakistan since he left eight years ago.

But during fighting last summer between the Taliban and the Pakistani security forces, a bomb dropped by Pakistani military aircraft demolished the house. Jihanzada's family had evacuated before the fighting began and are now living in Mingora. His eldest daughter's wedding, scheduled for next month, was postponed.

Jihanzada, who said he could not return to Pakistan because he had an asylum petition pending, received photographs of the destruction soon after the attack. Asked how he felt when he first saw the photographs, he dropped his head, concealing his face behind the brim of his brown restaurant cap and trying to stem a surge of sadness. He stayed like that for a full minute, saying nothing.

Finally, he continued: "This is every Pashtun's dream: You earn, you build a home, your children grow up in it and when you get old you go and sit at home and enjoy life. I'm sad because my struggles start again."

Chávez Promises Continuation of Project to Create Socialist Democracy in Venezuela

Mérida,(venezuelanalysis.com)-- After it was officially announced that the “yes” vote had won the constitutional amendment with 54.4% of the vote, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez delivered a speech from the balcony of the Miraflores Presidential Palace, his two daughters beside him. He spent most of the speech talking about what problems need to be struggled against and what needs to be done next.

Celebrating, Chavez said, “Truth has won against lies, and the dignity of the people against those who disown the homeland … those who try to return Venezuela to … the Fourth Republic, have failed today and will always fail.”

However, he included the opposition in the victory, saying the day was historical, as for the first time the people were consulted about such an issue. “It’s a victory for Venezuela and they are part of Venezuela.”

Chavez also saw the result as a boost for the socialist project and invited the people to strengthen their effort towards the construction of true socialism.

“This path doesn’t have any other name, this path is called socialism, I want to ratify my commitment to socialism and I want to invite everyone to strengthen the march towards the construction of … socialist democracy.”

The president encouraged supporters to again go on a push with the “3R” campaign of “Revision, Rectification, and Revolutionary Re-launch.”

Chavez announced 2008 to be a year of the 3Rs at the start of last year. He had emphasized the need to review and re-evaluate everything in order to improve general administration and day-to-day governing.

“Government, party and people, I’d like us to re-take, with all our strength, in all areas of the government, that policy of the 3Rs…from this exact moment.”

He said he thought such a policy would enable the government to achieve, in the upcoming “four years that remain, of this constitutional period of the government, the highest amount of efficiency in public management and the push for the National Simon Bolivar Project.”

The National Simon Bolivar Project is the government’s overall plan for the rest of this presidential term, which lasts until early 2013.

He also committed himself and the government to a “battle that needs to be done with more intensity and effort and above all with more results that combat the insecurity in the streets of the people, the barrios, the suburbs, in the cities.”

He highlighted other issues against which the struggle needs to be intensified, “the struggle against corruption and its vile ways, the struggle against insecurity, the struggle against wastefulness, the struggle against bureaucracy and inefficiency.”

“I want us to dedicate ourselves completely in the struggle against all these problems that are so harmful to the health of the people, to the health of the government and to the health of the Republic.”

Chavez said the republic needs truly new institutions, with truly new men and women, and that it was also necessary to strengthen the five branches of the state: the executive branch, the legislative branch, judicial branch, citizen (or prosecutorial) branch, and electoral branch.

He then congratulated the people for their participation in the campaign and said it was “a big effort and a big victory.”

“Unless god stipulates something else, unless the people stipulate something else, this soldier will be a candidate for the presidency of the Republic for 2013-2019,” he said.

Chavez declared his life at the service of the people, saying, “On this road now, from today, we’ll continue … constructing the homeland. On this road I devote myself and I will be consumed in this for the rest of what remains of my life, I swear it, I promise it, in front of the people and in front of my children and grandchildren.”

However, he also suggested that the following week be a “week of love”, that everyone enjoy it with happiness and moderation, as a deserved rest after all the political activity. It will be a week free of political themes, and to make up for the Day of Love (Valentine’s Day) on February 14, which most would have spent in electoral campaign.

Celebrations and messages of congratulations

Chavez announced from the balcony that the first message he had received was from Fidel Castro, revolutionary leader of Cuba, just 10 minutes after the official results were broadcast.

“Dear Hugo, congratulations to you and your people for a victory that for its magnitude is impossible to measure,” Fidel had written.

Later, Evo Morales, president of Bolivia and the government of Spain also congratulated Chavez for the results.

Outside the presidential palace, along Avenue Urdenata, and filling up multiple other roads across Caracas, on hearing the news, people came out into the streets to listen to Chavez and to celebrate.

Likewise, around the country in main and local plazas, people waved red flags, danced, played drums, chanted political slogans and set off fireworks. Spontaneous motorcades of honking cars and motorbikes paraded through the streets.

Chinese vice president arrives in Venezuela for official visit

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping arrived midday on Tuesday in Caracas for an official visit to Venezuela. In a written speech issued at Simon Bolivar International Airport, Xi said that he came to strengthen friendship, amplify consensus, deepen cooperation and to promote development. He said that with his visit the China-Venezuela strategic partnership for common development is expected to obtain further advance. Venezuelan Vice President Ramon Carrizales, Minister of Foreign Affairs Nicolas Maduro, Chinese Ambassador in Caracas Zhang Tuo and representatives of local Chinese community welcomed Xi at the airport.

Pakistan takes risk letting Islamists have their law

ISLAMABAD- Pakistan has gambled that an offer to introduce Islamic law to parts of the northwest will bring peace to the troubled Swat valley, but analysts fear any lull won't last long and appeasement will embolden the Taliban.Western officials fear Pakistan is taking a slippery road that will only benefit al Qaeda and the Taliban, but Pakistani authorities believe the alternative of using overwhelming force on people who are, afterall, Pakistani posed a greater danger.The central government has said the Sharia Nizam-e-Adl, or the judicial system governed by Islamic sharia law, won't be implemented in the Malakand division of North West Frontier Province, which includes Swat, unless the guns fall silent.The Taliban announced a 10-day ceasefire on Sunday, while the NWFP government has said that while the military will remain deployed in Swat, there won't be any offensives, only reactive actions.Amnesty International estimates that between 250,000 and 500,000 people have fled their homes since late 2007, when the Taliban revolt began in Swat, an alpine region 130 km (80 miles northwest of Islamabad.Tens of thousands have fled since August last year after an earlier peace deal broke down.
Known as Pakistan's "Switzerland" and once a popular tourist destination, Swat has become associated with sickening sights.People in the scenic valley witnessed public beheadings and summary executions by Taliban fighters administering their brand of justice.Bombs have targeted security forces, schools have been torched as part of a campaign against female education, and aid workers running immunization programs for children have been chased away by Islamists."If peace comes through this agreement, then we wholeheartedly accept it. Afterall, we're Muslims and want Islamic system," said Mohammad Naeem, a teacher in Mingora, the main town in Swat, whose own school was destroyed.Analysts, however, see the pact as little more than a tactic to buy time, as the government seeks a firmer foothold in a region over which it had lost control.They fear reluctance to permanently deal with reactionary forces will lead to greater problems later on. That has certainly been Swat's history in the last two decades."I think this is going to be another blunder by the government," said Khadim Hussain of the private Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy."There may be a lull for awhile, but I think the government will again be trapped in more fighting. There will be more violence."Monday's agreement was the third such pact signed by Pakistani authorities with Maulana Sufi Mohammad, a radical cleric who began a violent campaign for the enforcement of Islamic sharia law in the region in the 1990s.The first agreement provided for the appointment of a Qazi, or an Islamic jurist, to assist a judge in deciding disputes in line with Islamic injunctions, though the jurist's advice was non-binding.In the second pact signed in 1999, the advice of the jurist was made binding though it was never enforced.The latest accord, sets time limits on how long a court can take to decide a case, and establishes a designated appellate bench, meeting two key desires by the people for better justice.
Analysts say the government may be trying to drive a wedge between hardline followers of the elderly Mohammad and even more radical militants led by his young son-in-law, Fazlullah.
It is a risk.
Even if the laws being brought are far softer interpretation of sharia than the harsh Taliban version, giving ground to the Islamists would set a "bad precedent," analysts said.It could convince the most irreconcilable militants that their violent campaign was working."The present Talibanization is not just a movement for enforcement of sharia," Asad Munir, a former military intelligence official who served in NWFP and adjoining tribal areas in the wrote in The News daily."The mullahs want power, authority and a defined role in decision-making in the social system of Pashtun society." Pakistani authorities have struck a number of deals in the past with militants in the tribal areas, known sanctuaries for al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Generally, the violence dies down for awhile and then flares again. Analysts didn't foresee Fazlullah and his fighters staying quiet for long."The militants are not going to give up their control... They will be getting more capability to launch more strikes, more violence if the agreement does not work," Hussain said.