Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rs 600m needed for Swat schools' reconstruction

PESHAWAR (APP): Provincial Education Minister Sardar Hussain Babak has said that Rs.600 million were needed for the reconstruction of damaged infrastructure of schools in the restive Swat valley. In exclusive interview with APP here Thursday, Sardar Babak said that reconstruction of around 200 damaged schools in district Swat would take time besides huge funds were required for the rehabilitation process. He said that the government alone could not provide the huge sum for the reconstruction of damaged school buildings and asked for donors’, civil society and other welfare organizations financial help in this regard. The process of rehabilitation in the restive district of Swat would start once the peace process initiated by the provincial government gets matured, he said. In reply to a question, he admitted that ADP allocation for the education sector was not sufficient to meet the expenditures to be incurred on reconstructions of the schools and as new projects could not be initiated and basic requirements of students could not be met. However, he said that the Provincial government was aware of the significance of the education sector in the development of a nation and to ensure children’s access to schools was part of the ANP manifesto. He said that late Kudai Khidmatgar alias Bacha Khan had made invaluable efforts for spreading the light of education in every nook and corner of the Province and the provincial government would follow his footsteps and ensured transparent education system in NWFP. Referring to the measures taken by the government for strengthening of the education sector, he said that since the new government came into power nepotism has been ended in the appointment of teachers in various public sector schools besides promoting them to higher grades as per rule of the department. Moreover, he went on to add that the government was providing stipends to female and needy students besides giving free books up to the inter level. “We are also working on the syllabus and people would witness remarkable change next year”, he informed, adding that collective efforts were needed to enhance enrollment ratio. Answering a question, Provincial Minister said that strict action would be taken against teachers found guilty of corporal punishment and added that the government would ensure friendly environment to children in schools. He said that the entire Province has been divided in to four zones for streamlining the process of provision of furniture to the schools. Sardar Babak said that the ratio of schools was not increasing according to the needs of the growing population and called for focused efforts to provide education to every child.

Chinese vice president meets with Venezuelan president

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez agreed to boost bilateral cooperation during a meeting on Wednesday.During talks with Chavez, Xi said that this year marks the 35th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Venezuela. He called 2009 a great chance to promote all-round exchanges and cooperation between the two countries.Xi said China and Venezuela should make a joint effort to enhance collaboration in the sectors of energy, finance, agriculture, infrastructure and high technology.For his part, Chavez expressed admiration for China for the achievements it has made in its development.

U.S. envoy calls Pakistan's Zardari over Swat deal

WASHINGTON: The special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan said he called Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari Thursday and expressed U.S. concern over a deal with Islamists in the Swat valley region.Veteran U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke said in an interview with CNN that Zardari assured him the pact with Islamists was an "interim arrangement" to stabilise the restive Swat region north of the capital Islamabad."He (Zardari) does not disagree that the people who are running Swat now are murderous thugs and militants and they pose a danger not only to Pakistan but to the United States," said Holbrooke, who returned to Washington this week after visiting Afghanistan, Pakistan and India as part of his new role coordinating U.S. policy in the region.The Pakistani government's pact with Islamists to introduce Islamic law in the northwestern Swat valley has raised concern among NATO countries with troops in neighbouring Afghanistan that are struggling to quell the Taliban in the border region.Western officials fear the pact will only encourage Islamist militancy in the region at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered an additional 17,000 troops to go to Afghanistan."I am concerned, and I know that Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton is and the president is, that this deal which is portrayed in the press as a truce does not turn into a surrender," said Holbrooke. "President Zardari has assured us this is not the case."

US Study Ranks Bulgaria Second on Strongest Anti-Corruption Index

Bulgaria is among the countries with the strongest index in the fight against corruption, according to the latest report of the US Global Integrity organization, released Wednesday. Photo by Global Integrity

Bulgaria is among the countries with the strongest index in the fight against corruption, according to the latest report of the US Global Integrity organization, released Wednesday.

With a "strong" index of 87 (out of 100) Bulgaria ranks second behind Poland among the 57 countries included in the study, followed by Hungary and Japan. The report includes the first-ever assessments of Iraq and Somalia.

The Index assesses the existence, effectiveness, and citizen access to key anti-corruption mechanisms at the national level in a country. The authors point out that it does not measure corruption per se or perceptions of corruption, nor does it measure governance "outputs" - statistics of service delivery, crime, or socio-economic development. Instead, the Index is an entry point for understanding the anti-corruption and good governance safeguards in place in a country that should ideally prevent, deter, or punish corruption.

Data from the 2008 Global Integrity Report reveals that unregulated money in politics continues to be greatest corruption threat globally. The study uses Bulgaria as an example, explaining that "legal vagueness" around the enforcement of party financing regulations led to a June 2008 scandal where European Union funds were misappropriated to the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the incumbent president's reelection campaign.

"While the overall anti-corruption architecture for Bulgaria appears strong, the country faces its greatest challenges in the fields of political financing and whistle blowing. A national Ombudsman and smaller institutional mechanisms exist for addressing citizen and civil servant corruption concerns, but the lack of a whistle-blowing culture, or protection measures to bolster that culture, make these agencies largely ineffective. The newly created State Agency for National Security has a mandate to conduct independent investigations into organized crime, but the political nature of its recent activity has "provoked controversy and serious doubts about its effectiveness," the report concludes

The 2008 Grand Corruption Watch List includes: Angola, Belarus, Cambodia, China, Georgia, Iraq, Montenegro, Morocco, Nicaragua, Serbia, Somalia, the West Bank, and Yemen.

U.S. lawmakers make rare visit to Gaza

GAZA (Reuters) - The highest-ranking U.S. delegation to visit the Gaza Strip in years toured bomb-damaged buildings on Thursday and blamed the enclave's Hamas rulers for provoking Israel's wrath with cross-border rocket attacks.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry and two members of the House of Representatives, Brian Baird and Keith Ellison, shunned Hamas during tours one month after Israel ended its 22-day Gaza offensive.
It was the highest-level visit by U.S. legislators to the Gaza Strip since a Palestinian uprising against Israel erupted in 2000, U.S. officials in the region said. Kerry, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for president in 2004, earlier toured the Israeli border town of Sderot, a frequent target of rockets.During his visit to a U.N. compound in Gaza, Kerry was given a letter from Hamas to deliver to President Barack Obama.UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness said the letter had been left for Kerry at the gate of the compound and that he did not know the content. "We don't open other people's mail," Gunness said. Kerry's office had no immediate comment.
Though major fighting has stopped, tensions remain high. Israel bombed smuggling tunnels along Gaza's border with Egypt and militants fired a rocket that landed near Sderot.During his visit to Gaza, Kerry, a member of Obama's Democratic party, toured the bombed-out American School and asked administrators whether Israel was letting in enough supplies for the Gaza Strip's 1.5 million residents.Israel allows humanitarian aid into the impoverished enclave but has ruled out fully opening its border crossings to materials needed for reconstruction until Hamas frees an Israeli soldier captured in a 2006 cross-border raid."I know President Obama is committed to trying to resolve some very, very difficult issues," said Kerry, escorted by U.N. security personnel during his brief tour of the school.Sharhabeel al-Zaeem, a member of the school's board, told Kerry that Israel was supplying only "the minimum" of what was needed and complained that ordinary Palestinians felt isolated because of the Israeli-led and Western-backed blockade of Gaza.As chairman of the Senate committee, Kerry can influence U.S. foreign policy and aid.Hamas won a 2006 Palestinian election and seized control of the Gaza Strip 18 months later after routing Fatah forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The United States and the European Union boycott the Islamist group, which they consider a terrorist organisation, over its refusal to recognise Israel, renounce violence and abide by interim peace deals with the Jewish state.
"Your political leadership needs to make critical decisions and make it clear how it is willing to move to make peace, and those fundamental decisions have not been made," Kerry told Zaeem and others at the school."Secondly, your political leadership needs to understand that any nation that has rockets coming into it over many years, threatening its citizens, is going to respond," Kerry said.Zaeem responded by comparing the plight of Palestinians in Hamas-ruled Gaza to a hostage crisis.
"A police officer won't be able to take a decision to destroy the whole building, killing all the hostages and the kidnappers?" Zaeem asked.Kerry said: "You know, what is important is not to have a debate that goes backwards. It is important to go forwards. There is a clear path forward...Help us find peace."
Kerry did not elaborate on the path forward.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum described Kerry's visit as a "step in the right direction to end the isolation of the Gaza Strip" but described his comments about Hamas as "unfair to the democratic choice of the Palestinian people."
The war in Gaza, which Israel launched with the declared aim of halting militants' rocket fire, killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, destroyed some 5,000 homes and ruined much of Gaza's infrastructure, local officials say.
Kerry said the U.S. policy of shunning Hamas was unchanged.

Pakistan's dicey deal

An agreement with Taliban leaders to impose Islamic law in the Swat Valley region carries many risks.
The Pakistani government's announcement this week that it has cut a deal with Taliban leaders to trade peace for the imposition of Islamic law in the bucolic Swat Valley region is a worrisome development. The government appears to be ceding control over part of the North-West Frontier Province less than 100 miles from the capital of Islamabad. This would diminish the state's authority and legitimize militants who have been torching girls schools, beheading police and assassinating civilian members of the ruling Awami National Party, driving out hundreds of thousands of terrified residents in a little more than a year.On the militants' side, the deal was crafted by Muslim cleric Maulana Sufi Mohammed, but the gunmen led by his more radical son-in-law have yet to sign on. Government officials argue that the accord will bring peace to the region without violating the constitution, which already requires that all laws comply with Islamic law, and that it will free up the military to focus on other areas, such as the contested region under tribal rule along the border with Afghanistan. Furthermore, they say it is a way to drive a wedge between the Taliban in Swat and groups in the tribal areas that also serve as sanctuary for the Taliban from Afghanistan and Al Qaeda.In principle, the government is right to pursue negotiations with combatants and to distinguish between different insurgent groups. Unfortunately, the Pakistani government is negotiating from a position of weakness. The army lacks counterinsurgency capability and has not been able to beat back the Taliban's Swat offensive, launched in November 2007. The provincial government is shaky and, therefore, lacks strong backing from a population trying to navigate between the warring sides. Rather than draw moderate insurgents away from their radical brethren and into the country's established political system, this deal will allow the radicals to control Swat under a separate legal system, which threatens the integrity of the state. It does not demand that the militants disarm or formally denounce other insurgent groups, and it does not hold them accountable for the unlawful killings and other abuses.Meanwhile, there are many risks. The calm would allow the insurgents time to rearm and regroup. What happens if they start shooting again -- who will enforce the cease-fire? With U.S. air attacks putting pressure on the tribal areas and President Obama sending 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, other insurgent groups could seek sanctuary in the newly quiet Swat region. Moreover, this deal sends a message to them that there's no cost for serious human rights violations. Rather, they might keep fighting for a similar deal and control over more Pakistani territory.

Hundreds protest Pakistan reporter killing

MINGORA, Pakistan — Hundreds of Pakistanis on Thursday protested against the killing of a TV reporter in the insurgency-torn Swat valley, where an elderly cleric made peace overtures to a firebrand commander.
Unknown gunmen shot Musa Khan Khel, 28, in the head and body Wednesday near the town of Matta in the former ski resort, where Islamist hardliners led by Maulana Fazlullah have waged a nearly two-year campaign to enforce sharia law.
He was buried in Mingora, the main town of Swat, on Thursday when around 600 people, mostly journalists, attended his funeral and angrily called on the government to bring his assassins to justice.
Khel, correspondent for the private Geo channel in Swat, had been reporting on Soofi Mohammad, the pro-Taliban cleric who was marching for peace after signing a deal with the Pakistan government to impose strict Islamic law in the area.
There has been no claim of responsibility for his killing, the fourth of a journalist in Swat in the last year.
The murder underscored the rampant dangers in the valley, where thousands of Fazlullah's followers have beheaded opponents, bombed schools, outlawed entertainment and bitterly fought government troops.
More than 500 people, including journalists and lawyers, marched from the press club to the governor's house in the main northwest city of Peshawar, asking the government to protect media personnel, an AFP correspondent said.
Protesters outside the governor's house, wearing black bands on their arms and foreheads, chanted: "We want justice", "We want Musa Khan Khel's killers arrested" and "We salute Musa Khan Khel's courage".
"Our government should provide full protection to journalists, who are becoming victims in the war on terror," the president of the Khyber Union of Journalists, Mohammad Riaz, told the rally.
More than 500 media workers staged a rally in the eastern city of Lahore. Chanting "Down with Taliban", they too demanded protection for journalists.
Members of several political parties, including the opposition parties of former cricket hero Imran Khan and ex-premier Nawaz Sharif, also participated.
"Musa Khan Khel's murder is an attack on freedom of press," said Rana Aziz, secretary general of the Punjab Union of Journalists.
Witnesses said protests were also held in Karachi and Multan; in Bannu, Nowshera and Mansehra in the North West Frontier Province; Quetta, where a UN official was kidnapped this month; and Bajaur, North Waziristan and Khyber, in the country's semi-autonomous tribal areas.
"We condemn the ghastly assassination and urge the government to investigate the killing and bring those responsible for committing the crime to justice," Mazhar Abbas, the head of Pakistan's Federal Union of Journalists, told AFP.
Soofi Mohammad, who is considered a relative moderate by the government despite being jailed in Pakistan for six years, on Thursday met the firebrand Fazlullah for talks that a Taliban spokesman said centred on peace.
"Both the leaders held a meeting early Thursday," said the spokesman, Muslim Khan.
"They discussed the agreement signed by Soofi Mohammad and the government, and peace in the region," said Khan, giving no further details.
Analysts have speculated about how much influence Mohammad holds over Fazlullah, his son-in-law, charging that the deal will embolden militants.
But the Taliban spokesman condemned Khel's killing.
"It is the work of those who do not want peace in the region and are opposed to the deal signed between Soofi Mohammad and the government," he said.
Monday's agreement accepts Islamic law as the only system of justice in the Malakand district, home to three million people and of which Swat is part.
Pakistan has hailed the agreement as a chance to quell the insurgency, which has seen thousands of people flee, but it has provoked alarm in Europe, Afghanistan and India.

Obama arrives in Ottawa

OTTAWA — For the first time in his young presidency, Barack Obama has touched down on foreign soil.

After departing at around 9:30 a.m. from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, the iconic Air Force One touched down at the snowy, damp airport in Canada's capital.

Obama, America's first black president, was greeted upon his arrival by Michaelle Jean, Canada's first black Governor General.

Obama is in Ottawa for just a few hours, to talk trade, energy, climate change and Afghanistan with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, hold a brief news conference, shake hands with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and then head home.

Although there are no public events scheduled for the U.S. president, hundreds of people from across the country and from the northern United States gathered on the snow-covered lawn on Parliament Hill hoping to get a glimpse of Obama as he emerges from his heavily armoured limousine and enters the Centre Block, the building on Parliament Hill that contains the House of Commons, the Senate, and the Library of Parliament.

Vahid Saadati travelled from his home in Brampton, Ont., to Parliament Hill, hoping to unfurl what he says is the world's largest needlepoint, an eight metre by five metre creation that has the word "welcome" stitched upon it in 103 different languages.

"I hope they can at least let him know that he's being welcomed by so much of the world," said Saadati.

Three McGill University students were among the media waiting for the plane to land.

The trio drove up to Ottawa from Montreal on Wednesday night through a snow storm hoping to get a glimpse of Obama and do a report for the campus online TV station.

They knew it was farfetched, but they contacted the White House and Canadian officials weeks ago to get accreditation.

"We're all in midterms," said Charly Feldman, 20, "but by some miracle, we got (press) credentials (to cover event)."

Along the historic Rideau Canal, which parallels the 14-kilometre motorcade route Obama will take from the Ottawa International Airport to Parliament Hill, beavertails vendors hawked "Obamatails," special versions of the popular treat with a whip cream "O" topped with maple syrup and chocolate sauce. With temperatures in Ottawa hovering around zero, curious onlookers lined the motorcade route or skated on the frozen canal.

"We just want to give him a warm welcome," said Denis O'Dette, who drove 45 minutes with his wife and daughter to see Obama. "He's the most powerful man in the world."

The itinerary for Obama's visit is a tightly scripted affair.

Obama and Harper will spend 10 minutes alone with each other — the idea of meeting with no aides present has raised some diplomatic eyebrows here — before they bring other officials into Harper's Centre Block office for a longer series of meeting. As if to emphasize the working nature of the visit — the leaders are expected to talk about the economy, climate change and Afghanistan — no gifts will be exchanged.

Obama and his officials will then join Harper, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Environment Minister Jim Prentice for lunch. The meal, featuring Pacific Coast tuna, applewood smoked plains bison and a dessert of Acadian buckwheat honey and wild blueberries, will be served in the Senate dining room.

After that, at about 2:45 pm Thursday, Obama and Harper will hold a short joint news conference. Only 80 of the 680 journalists accredited for the event will be allowed into the press conference room and officials with the Prime Minister's Office will allow a total of four questions from those reporters, two each from the Canadian press and the American press.

Obama heads back to the airport after that where he will meet Ignatieff before departing by about 4:30 pm.

The entire affair will take place amid one of the heaviest security deployments the nation's capital has seen.

Snipers are perched on rooftops around the parliamentary precinct and along the route Obama's heavily armoured limousine will take between the airport and Parliament Hill — a drive of about 15 kilometres — and those who live along that route have been warned to stay off their roofs and balconies.

On Parliament Hill's Centre Block, security staff have ordered the second and third floors of the building be cleared while Obama's is present, an order which will mean some senators and MPs could have trouble accessing their own offices.

Both the House of Commons and the Senate are on a break week which means most MPs are back in their ridings.

Obama has no ceremonial or public events scheduled during his visit. Security officials say the only chance the public may have to see the president is when he emerges from his limo at the Centre Block. Even then, a specially built plexiglass shield around that entrance may obscure even that brief glimpse.

Pakistan Says It Needs Marshall Plan to Fight Taliban (Update1)

Feb. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Pakistan needs a modern day “Marshall Plan” to help it fight Taliban militants through economic development, President Asif Ali Zardari said, referring to the U.S. aid plan for Europe after World War II.

The northwestern tribal areas bordering Afghanistan need a “massive program” to boost education and employment, the official Associated Press of Pakistan cited Zardari as saying yesterday in Islamabad.

About half of the country’s more than 170 million people are under the age of 25 and their frustration with the current economic situation is a breeding ground for social unrest and militancy, APP cited him as saying.

Zardari is facing pressure from the Obama administration to step up the fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters that U.S. intelligence agencies say are sheltering in Pakistan’s tribal zone. The government in Islamabad says it is doing all it can to combat the guerrillas through selective military force and political and economic programs.

Authorities this week signed a peace accord that will see Islamic law declared in the Swat Valley, 250 kilometers (155 miles) northeast of Islamabad, in return for militants laying down their arms.

A pro-Taliban party that agreed to the truce held a march in the valley yesterday as it tried to persuade militants to accept the agreement. A Pakistani television journalist was shot dead after covering the march and Zardari pledged to bring the assailants to justice, APP reported.

Talks With Karzai

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was scheduled to hold talks today with Zardari in Islamabad, postponed the visit due to bad weather, the Foreign Ministry in Kabul said. No new date has been fixed, ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Baheen said.

The nations are trying to improve ties strained by the Karzai administration’s accusations that Pakistani security agencies under former president and army chief Pervez Musharraf backed the Taliban insurgency. Pakistan denies the allegations.

Karzai attended Zardari’s swearing-in ceremony in September after Musharraf’s resignation.

The Pakistani president’s call for increased international aid came after his government this week said it is seeking a $4.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, taking its borrowing from the IMF to more than $12 billion since November.

Economic Growth

Inflation in South Asia’s second-biggest economy stood at 20.52 percent in January and the benchmark interest rate stands at 15 percent. Higher borrowing costs have dented growth in the $144 billion economy, which is forecast by the government to expand at the slowest pace in seven years after growing an average 6.8 percent in the past five years.

The Bush administration, which regarded Musharraf as a key ally in its “war on terror,” pledged $3 billion in economic and military aid to Pakistan for 2005-2009.

President Barack Obama is reviewing U.S. strategy for combating the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and is pressing Pakistan to do more to root out militants.

The European Commission has allocated 200 million euros ($251 million) to boost rural development and education, largely in North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan province, for 2007 to 2010.