Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Obama defends right to Nato expansion

WASHINGTON :US President Barack Obama said on Wednesday that he wanted to 'reset' US relations with Russia but argued Nato should still be open to countries which aspire to join the alliance.

"My administration is seeking a reset of the relationship with Russia," Obama said after an Oval Office meeting with Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

But Obama said reinvigorated ties with Moscow must be "consistent with Nato membership and consistent with the need to send a clear signal throughout Europe that we are going to continue to abide by the central belief ... that countries who seek and aspire to join Nato are able to join Nato."

Russia's anger over Nato's eastward expansion near its border has been a frequent irritant in relations between the White House and the Kremlin.

Obama's comments came a week before he is set to hold his first meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit in London.

The US president will also next week make his debut visit to the Nato summit, on the border of France and Germany.

Scheffer attempted to downplay the alliance's differences with Russia.

"We have many things on which we disagree, but Nato needs Russia and Russia needs Nato, so that's one of the things we agree on."

"Let's not hide our disagreements, and let us realize that also this relationship can and might be, should be strengthened."

"As President Obama said a moment ago, Nato's door will stay open for new members if they perform, if they fulfill the criteria."

Under the previous administration of former president George W. Bush, the United States was a strong backer of Georgia's efforts to join Nato, as well as the candidature of Ukraine.

Tensions over the issue flared particularly following Russia's war with Georgia last year.

Obama said the 60th anniversary of the western alliance was "testimony to the effectiveness of Nato in creating stability and peace and prosperity, laying the groundwork for so much that has taken place over the last several years."

US says will continue to work closely with Zardari govt

WASHINGTON: The United States said on Wednesday it is working closely with the democratically elected Pakistani government led by President Asif Ali Zardari in wide-ranging areas of common interest and that American officials maintain contacts with the opposition parties in Pakistan just as they do in other countries.

The State Department also made it clear that Washington would continue to work with the current democratic government until Pakistan has a new government in due course of political process and as a result of elections in the mandated timeframe.

“There is a government in place. We are working with the government. There are opposition parties, we have regular contacts with opposition parties not only in Pakistan but also in all nations.

“We are in a good diplomatic relationship with Pakistan, we will continue to work with the government on the problems that it faces not only those of terrorism but also on institution building and on economics,” State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said when asked if Washington is looking more toward PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif to work with.

The US officials, he added at the daily briefing, will have discussions with opposition parties and their members in order to review with the entire political leadership how they see that Pakistan moves forward.

In answer to another question, the spokesman said he would not analyse recent political developments but emphasised that the US would continue to work closely with the current democratically elected government. “We are right now working with a Pakistani government. And that, you know, as the political process moves forward till such time that Pakistan has new elections, there will be another government, that we would continue to try and maintain our good relationship with.”

Pakistani Taliban take over lapis lazuli mines in Swat

Islamabad: The Pakistani Taliban have taken control of mines producing precious lapis lazuli stones in the insurgency-hit Swat valley and started operating them on their own.The Taliban have confirmed that they took control of the mines two months ago when they arrived in the hilly area of Fiza Ghat, a resort on the outskirts of Mingora, the main city in Swat valley.The militants have appointed hundreds of local labourers to work round the clock to excavate lapis lazuli stones as authorities in the area had left the mines.One-third of the income from the mines is taken by theTaliban while the rest is offered to the labourers, a Taliban militant told BBC.
The Taliban have deployed senior commanders at several mines to monitor the excavation of stones. A Taliban commander said the mines were in a "working condition" when Swat was ruled by a prince in the 1960s but the government had always argued they were being operated at a loss and the business had not been producing any profits.Lapis lazuli stones of international standard have been mined in Swat since they were first discovered in 1962, when the valley was an independent state ruled by a prince called a 'Wali'. Swat joined Pakistan in 1969. The mines are believed to be spread over an area of about six kilometres.A Taliban commander claimed all income from the mines was being transferred into the pockets of corrupt officers and influential people in Swat.After the Taliban took control of the mines, the situation had changed and local residents are now benefiting from the mines, he claimed.
The Taliban did not allow reporters to take photographs of the mines and labourers.
The workers are given cards on which rules for working in the mines are written in the local Pashto language. They are not allowed to work during the time of prayers. The workers have also been warned they would be severely punished if they steal any stones.The workers are searched while entering and leaving the mines. Three to four miners make up a group and income from any precious stone found by them is divided among them equally after the Taliban retain one-third of the proceeds.
A miner said he can earn up to Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 a week in the mines. Another worker said that he and three colleagues started work a few weeks ago and had found one stone within a week. This was enough for meeting their daily requirements, he said.

ANP ministers, MPAs reach Dubai

PESHAWAR: Ministers and members of NWFP assembly belonging to the Awami National Party (ANP) reached Dubai on Wednesday to attend the party’s parliamentary meeting which was called by the president of ANP, Asfandyar Wali. The ANP’s meeting is taking place in Dubai at a time when NWFP is in the grip of several crises ranging from deteriorated law and order situation to financial challenges. In a notification issued by the NWFP government, Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani has sanctioned leave to 15 ministers of the provincial cabinet from March 24 to 31. According to sources, Senior Minister Bashir Ahmed Bilour will not attend the meeting and would be present in city. The opposition parties have termed it a joke with the people who were badly hit by present economic situation.

Load-shedding to affect exam results: Parents

Load-shedding to affect exam results: Parents F.P. Report
PESHAWAR: The spate of eight to ten hours power load-shedding continues in the Provincial metropolis causing great problems to the people besides paralyzing the routine life activities. The long hours and unannounced power outages were also adversely affecting the students in Peshawar district and other parts of NWFP as examinations of Matric and other classes are underway. Both the students and their parents have expressed fear that load-shedding could affect the results as their studies were affected due to power outages.Students of Matric exams were also being affected as electricity in the exam centres disappears for hours during their papers’ timings. Prolonged power cuts have become a routine matter in city and other districts of Province. Meanwhile, residents of Peshawar and its adjoining areas are experiencing power outages after every two hour, causing severe difficulties to people to carry on with their routine matters. Besides, there were also complaints of low voltage in some parts which caused damages to electrical appliances. The affected areas include Gulbahar, Rashidabad, Jehangirabad, University Town, Hayatabad, Nishtarabad, Sadder, Cantt., Gulberg, Nothia and others. The frequent hours-long electricity breakdowns have made the life miserable for residents of Peshawar and adjoining areas. Citizens have demanded of the government to take measures to end the load-shedding.

Syria's Economy Stumbling in the Right Direction

DAMASCUS -- With Syria now being viewed as a path through to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, foreign diplomats from states once typically hostile to Damascus have become a common sight here in recent weeks.
Coming back into the limelight has given Syria political clout, and Damascus is now looking to take advantage of positive remarks in the international media to quench its bad image. Taking advantage of these foreign visitors, the Syrian government has stressed the message that it is serious to liberalize its economic system.

Since Bashar Assad became president in 2000, the government has gradually been working to resurrect Syria's economy following 40 years of haphazard socialist practices by announcing dozens of multi-million dollar projects.

In one of several ambitious projects, a 52-story twin tower development of offices and public space for Damascus city center is timetabled to begin in 2014 at a proposed cost of $320 million reported the Syria Report, an independent business newsletter.

Last week the Damascus Securities Exchange opened, albeit belatedly, marking "an important turning point in the Syrian economy," according to one Syrian politician. Five of Syria's largest companies including the Bank of Syria and Overseas, Arab Bank Syria and United Group, a media corporation, have gone public. The market will be open for trading two days a week.

Javier Solana's recent visit to Damascus was preceded by European Commission officials who were in Syria last December to sign off on an updated version of an Association Agreement with the European Union.

One step taken to generate revenue for the government was to eliminate a subsidy on diesel which brought the state $20 million extra for 2008, and also saw it meet a key stipulation set out in World Trade Organization membership rules, an organization Syria is hoping over join in the next 12 to 18 months.

Abdullah Dardari, the deputy prime minister for economic affairs believes reform of Syria's financial sector has been the government's greatest achievement thus far.

"We have put great efforts into banking and insurance operations and it's worked out well so far," he said in an interview.

Banking institutions from Lebanon, Jordan and the Gulf, many with international banking facilities, have sprung up in urban centers across the country and with internet coverage expanding (mobile internet 3G technology has recently been made available in major cities), online banking facilities are being set in motion. Tax exemptions to encourage businesses have been passed into law and 'Shabaab', an initiative to promote entrepreneurship, has been introduced into second-level schools, noted Dardari.

In addition, a range of natural landscapes including deserts dotted with ancient ruins, an untouched Mediterranean coastline and centuries-old castles mean Syria's potential as an inimitable, cheap and off-the-trail tourist destination is evident.

Yet, problems aplenty remain.

Many of Syria's major tourist attractions lack modern infrastructure. By International Labor Organization figures, unemployment stands at 10 percent but even Dardari acknowledges the actual figure is at least double that. The country's dated and crumbling public education system produces too few graduates to match demand in the workplace.

"Most businesses are thirsty for labor. It is not that the economy is not generating enough jobs, it is. But such businesses require a different set of skills and this, providing a competent workforce, is what we must pursue," said Dardari.

Foreign Direct Investment has increased exponentially but still lags behind international standards and in one of many such cases across the country, a project by the Kuwaiti AREF Investment group announced in 2005 has yet to begin.

For Syrians themselves, substantial 'wasta' (influence) is something that elevates a few elite while disheartening many. Last month Hassan Makhlouf, chief of Syria's customs and a distant relation of the ruling family was dismissed from his post, charged with graft and has since had 137 properties belonging to him and his family seized according to Al-Thawra, a state-run newspaper. The detention has been viewed as a symbolic move by the government to prove that in this new drive to reform the Syrian economy, no one is beyond reach.

Tangled bureaucracy is something that may scare off foreign investors. An employee at a business consultancy in Damascus said it ordinarily takes two years for a business to pass all licensing hurdles while for foreign companies, taking cash out of the country is carefully regulated.

Dozens of business-related decrees are issued by the president every year, but actual implementation is a different story and the Association Agreement with the European Union will not allow for Syrian agricultural products to enter the lucrative European market.

Dardari is clear that transforming Syria into a modern and business-friendly country is not something that will happen overnight and Syrians themselves will have little choice but to adapt.

"People will have difficulty in accepting the changing role of the government," Dardari said, "but the time of viewing the state as a mother is over."

Russia to increase submarines in Black Sea Fleet

Russian Navy plans to commission new Lada-class vessels to the Black Sea Fleet, which is required to equipped with eight to ten submarines in active service, a senior Navy official said Tuesday. "We are planning to deploy additional submarines with the Black Sea Fleet, including new Lada-class vessels, but our plans are being hampered by Ukraine, which sees this as the deployment of new weaponry rather than an upgrade of the existing fleet," the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Oleg Burtsev, vice admiral and deputy head of the navy general staff, as saying. Based in Crimea, Ukraine, the Black Sea Fleet currently deploys one Project 877 Kilo class diesel-electric submarine, with another Project 641 Foxtrot class sub undergoing a long-term overhaul. The fleet uses some naval facilities in Crimea as part of a 1997 agreement, under which Ukraine agreed to lease the bases to Russia until 2017. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko announced last year that his country would not extend the lease. The port of Novorossiisk would serve as an alternative to deploy additional submarines when the build-up of necessary infrastructure is completed, Burtsev said. the first Lada-lass diesel-electric submarine will be deployed in 2010.

Afghan war rages, the talking starts

From Dubai to the remote villages of the Pashtun people, an uneasy alliance of clerics, generals and terrorist paymasters is edging towards a diplomatic solution to end the insurgency. Jason Burke travels across Afghanistan to trace the complex web of negotiations that some say could end the war.
The red plastic sofas in the living room of Maulvi Mohammed Rahmani in Kabul's Deh Bori quarter are rarely empty these days. The pitted dirt road in front of the home of the tribal elder and former Taliban minister is as busy as the lumber yard behind it.

"For a long time, no one came to see me, then our Arab brothers started coming, then our European friends and now, most recently, the Americans," he said last week.

The cleric owes his sudden popularity to his leadership of a group of former Taliban who are now acting as a channel of communication to the insurgents waging a bitter war against coalition and Afghan forces across the south and east of Afghanistan.

Since Rahmani and several others travelled to Saudi Arabia last year for a first meeting aimed at preparing a dialogue, revealed by the Observer, initiatives to find a negotiated solution to the conflict in Afghanistan have gathered pace - now with the blessing of the new American administration.

Last week, US ambassador Bill Wood said that, although his government opposed anyone "shooting their way to power" and was against any agreement involving "power-sharing or an enclave for the Taliban", there was "room for discussion on the formation of political parties or running candidates for elections".

"Insurgencies are like all wars: they end when there is an agreement," Wood said in an interview in the vast, heavily guarded US embassy in Kabul. "[The Taliban] have said 'no start of negotiations without prior departure of foreign forces'. That's not serious. Let's get serious."

Such talk would have been inconceivable even six months ago. Now, in an astonishing U-turn, Kabul diplomats are privately discussing what concessions could conceivably be made to insurgents.

There is talk of the Afghan government releasing certain prisoners from detention centres in return for a halt to attacks on government buildings and infrastructure such as schools or roads; the removal of key insurgents from United Nations blacklists, which render them diplomatic outlaws; and even changes to the Afghan constitution to allow a "political wing" of the Taliban to integrate disaffected, ultra-conservative, rural Pashtun tribes - the insurgents' key constituency - into the political process.

The process has gathered pace since the meeting in Mecca last year. Dozens of such encounters between possible mediators are taking place.

Nothing involves direct talks - simply exploratory discussions involving trusted intermediaries such as Rahmani. Many meetings are held in Dubai, a two-hour flight from Kabul. Others involve tribal elders representing communities that have sided with the insurgents travelling to Kabul to talk to senior former Taliban figures or President Hamid Karzai's brother, Qayum.

Such trips are not without risk. Recently, a senior elder from the southern province of Helmand was arrested and imprisoned by American forces on his way to Kabul to negotiate, angering the Afghan intermediaries who had arranged the journey.

However, attempts to establish dialogue continue at a frenzied pace. In addition to contacts with the Taliban, overtures to mediate between other key insurgent leaders are being made.

Two weeks ago, the Observer has learnt, a meeting was held in Dubai with representatives of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister and an Islamist warlord who has been fighting in alliance with Mullah Mohammed Omar's Taliban.

Though inconclusive, more such encounters are planned. "We have kept all channels of communication open," said Humayun Hamidzada, Karzai's spokesman, confirming the talks.

Rahmani, the former Taliban minister, said that Jalaluddin Haqqani, a powerful cleric and tribal leader in eastern Afghanistan, has also been approached. And visitors to Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, who spent two years in Guantánamo Bay and who is now based in Kabul, have included scores of ambassadors as well as European Union and Nato officials. Abdullah Anas, a London-based former militant, is another channel of communication.

Despite the sudden enthusiasm for contacts with representatives of the Taliban, seasoned observers are wary about predicting their outcome for a number of reasons.

First, Afghan politicians, including the president, are in election mode. Polls are set for August and only a newly re-elected leader with a strong mandate could make the dramatic gesture necessary to establish a serious dialogue. Until then, no candidate will risk the votes of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities and women by reaching out to the Taliban. Analysts dismiss Karzai's previous loud offers to talk to Mullah Omar in Kabul as grandstanding.

Equally, the gap between insurgent demands and the government's position is vast. The mantra repeated by the Afghan government and British and Nato officials is that any reconciliation has to be in accordance with the Afghan constitution, ie that the Taliban have to stop fighting. "We are not going to say, 'OK, we will give you half the government," said Hamidzada, the government spokesman. Few expect the insurgents to drop their weapons any time soon.

Second, this is all very new. "The American position on war and peace is still developing," said Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador. "We have to wait and see." A major review of US policy is expected in coming weeks.

Third, the Taliban are an extremely complicated and diverse phenomenon, with fighters with a range of motivations and from different backgrounds in their ranks. Though the former Taliban insist otherwise, it is not certain that they will all necessarily obey Mullah Omar, their nominal leader, if he did decide to accept a deal.

"We do not have a proper party on the other side to deal with," said Hamidzada. "They are a variety of groups with different hierarchies."

The Taliban recognise this. Last week, the Taliban leadership council, after some debate, accepted a request from the family of former president Daoud Khan for a 24-hour ceasefire to mark the reburial of their relatives' remains that were found recently in a communist-era mass grave. Though Taliban guns fell silent for the day in some areas, in others attacks continued.

While, as dozens of interviews with local officials and MPs reveal, the Taliban have made efforts to strengthen discipline over the winter, reshuffling their shadow administration in areas where they are strong and executing commanders who have not obeyed orders, it remains a problem.

The Taliban "governors" of Wardak and Logar provinces, neighbouring Kabul, were recently ordered to exchange posts, but both are resisting the order. Though intelligence sources say that complaints among frontline commanders about the senior leadership, common last year, have died away, the Taliban remain fragmented.

The final reason why the peace bids will probably fail is that the Taliban, whatever their internal problems, give little sign of believing they need to negotiate. "If they win, it is victory; if they are killed, it is victory," said Zaeef. From total defeat in 2001 through the grand offensive of 2006 to today's bloody stalemate, the insurgents have suffered tactical defeats and heavy casualties, but have made significant strategic progress.

Even General David McKiernan, the American who commands the 59,000 Nato troops in Afghanistan and the 14,000 US troops of Operation Enduring Freedom deployed along Afghanistan's frontier with Pakistan, admitted in an interview in his Kabul headquarters that "in some parts of the south and the east... we are not winning", although he points to the relative stability of much of the north and of cities such as Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat as examples of progress.

Nato commanders hope the 17,000 new US troops being "surged" in coming months will make the crucial difference. Equally, the current weakness of the Afghan government - which, despite some islands of honesty and efficiency, remains riddled with corruption and incompetence - encourages the insurgents.

"This government does not have the moral authority needed to negotiate," said opposition MP Daoud Sultanzoy. One Nato officer defined "winning" as simply creating a "viable governance capacity at provincial and district levels". "Then we can think about leaving," he said.

Forty miles east of Kabul and its fevered speculations, 278 French infantrymen, 24 soldiers from the Afghan National Army and seven interpreters cluster in a new base perched high on a cliff above the town of Sorobi. Reached by steep tracks, ringed with barbed wire, the French base, like many Nato positions, is built over trenches and bunkers once occupied by Soviet troops.

The French arrived last summer - a new contribution to the 41-nation coalition decided by France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in the teeth of fierce domestic opposition. Sent to secure the rough mountain valleys and gorges around Sorobi, the troops ran into immediate trouble, losing 10 men in an ambush in the Uzbeen valley to the north.

One consequence, officers at the base said, was that early plans of leaving armoured vehicles in the base and patrolling "à la française" - rather than putting their own security first, "à l'américaine" - were ditched. The political fall-out of further casualties at home would be too damaging.

But the French, like troops elsewhere, have found it difficult to connect with locals. "Security will not be improved if development is not improved at the same time and political dialogue is not promoted," said Colonel Jean-Michel Baillat. 'But... we need deeper tribal knowledge and our reconstruction and development work is probably not on a scale that is meeting the needs."

In fact, the French budget for their zone, in which 140,000 people live, is €400,000 (£375,000). According to Baillat, "the security situation is so bad for three years that there has been no NGO or United Nations presence". However, a school has been restored within the seven-mile perimeter currently considered "secure" by the French, and a thriving cottage industry of honey production created.

The population of the two more prosperous of the three valleys around the French position pose little threat, said Colonel Franck Chatelus, who commands the troops. But Uzbeen is hostile. After a "clearing operation", the French called a shura, or council, to tell the locals that they were there to help and that they did not seek revenge for the previous year's deaths. "There was a muted response," Chatelus said.

Uzbeen is a good measure of the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan and the consequent difficulties of any negotiations or reconciliation process. Since the war against the Soviets, the valley has been a stronghold of commanders loyal to Hekmatyar, the very man to whom the Afghan government is now reaching out.

Hekmatyar's son-in-law, released from US detention in Afghanistan, recently travelled to London and attended at least one of the recent meetings with government intermediaries in Dubai.

But, on the ground, it is a local family, partly protected by a member of parliament who is a relative, who are behind much of the violence. "We see them driving around, but because they are unarmed we cannot touch them. One was locked up, but got out because of his connections," said one officer.

Much of the current thinking is focused on how to win over such lower-ranking commanders. In Helmand, the British are pioneering a new district council system that, even though it is aimed more at "community outreach" than reconciling local Taliban, is one way of establishing a dialogue at a grassroots level.

The Afghan government has sponsored a separate programme, designed at identifying mid-level commanders who could be brought over from the insurgents. In the eastern province of Nangahar, governor Gul Agha Sherzai, a potential election candidate, called a huge meeting of tribal elders last week and told all his district governors to find, contact and talk to the Taliban commanders.

One programme that most agree functions poorly is the official reconciliation process. Though 7,000 names are on its lists, most are foot-soldiers, of whom the insurgents have an apparently exhaustible supply. The new and controversial Afghan Public Protection Force, in which the young jobless men who constitute most of the recruits for the Taliban will be enrolled as auxiliary policemen, may help. But an increasingly brutal and technically competent Taliban have a power in the villages that is difficult to counter.

With talks unlikely to be fruitful, the current enthusiasm for dialogue may simply be a morale-booster for an international alliance badly in need of a sign that an endpoint - any endpoint - in Afghanistan is visible. Western objectives have been "relooked", General McKiernan said. The west is hoping that the coming election will "re-energise" the project, but Nato officers talk of achieving a "tipping point" in three to five years.

One critical question is how long domestic opinion in the west will back continued - indeed, increasing - expenditure of blood and treasure. Wood, the US ambassador, said that he "couldn't guarantee [US commitment] for the whole life of the sun", but that the US was in Afghanistan "for the long term". Few doubt, however, that international will is fickle at the best of times.

Just round the corner from the house of Maulvi Rahmani, the former Taliban mediator, lives Sediqa Mobariz, a member of parliament from the central region of Bamiyan, which is still peaceful. From the Hazaran minority, who suffered terrible ethnic violence under the Taliban, she has strong views about any dialogue. "As an Afghan woman, I don't think you can negotiate with the Taliban. They cannot forget the past and nor can we."

Rights group: Israel made illegal use of phosphorus shells in Gaza

The Israeli army unlawfully fired white phosphorus shells over densely populated areas of the Gaza Strip during its recent military offensive, needlessly killing and injuring civilians, U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch said Wednesday in a report.

Citing Israel's use of white phosphorus as evidence of war crimes, the group said the army knew the munitions threatened the civilian population but "deliberately or recklessly" continued to use them until the final days of the Dec. 27 - Jan. 18 operation "in violation of the laws of war."

It called on senior Israeli military commanders to be held to account, and urged the United States, which supplied the shells, to conduct its own investigation.

The Israel Defense Forces have announced an internal probe, the results of which have yet to be made public.

White phosphorus ignites on contact with oxygen and continues burning at up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit (816 degrees Celsius) until none is left or the oxygen supply is cut. It is often used to produce smoke screens, but can also be used as a weapon, producing extreme burns if it makes contact with skin.

When used in open areas, white phosphorus munitions are permissible under international law.

But Human Rights Watch said Israel "unlawfully" fired them over populated neighborhoods, killing and wounding civilians and damaging civilian structures, including a school, a market, a humanitarian aid warehouse and a hospital.

In Gaza, the Israeli military didn't just use white phosphorus in open areas as a screen for its troops," said senior Human Rights Watch researcher Fred Abrahams. "It fired white phosphorus repeatedly over densely populated areas, even when its troops weren't in the area and safer smoke shells were available. As a result, civilians needlessly suffered and died."

The group gave no precise casualty figures, citing the difficulty of determining in every case which burn injuries were caused by white phosphorous.

Human Rights Watch researchers found spent shells, canister liners, and dozens of burnt felt wedges containing white phosphorus on city streets, apartment roofs, residential courtyards and at a United Nations school.

The report documented several attacks involving white phosphorus, including one on January 4 that killed five members of Ahmad Abu Halima's family in northern Gaza, saying it found remnants of the substance at their home.

"I was talking with my father when the shell landed. It hit directly on my father and cut his head off," the 22-year-old said.

The rights' group said the army knew that white phosphorus threatened civilians, citing an internal medical report about the risk of "serious injury and death when it comes into contact with the skin, is inhaled or is swallowed."

If the Israeli army intended to use white phosphorus as a smokescreen, Human Rights Watch said it could have used non-lethal smoke shells produced by an Israeli company.

Israel launched the offensive with the declared aim of halting cross-border rocket fire by militants in the Hamas-ruled territory, home to 1.5 million Palestinians.

Over the 22 days of fighting, 1,417 Palestinians were killed, including 926 civilians, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. Israel disputes those figures.

Israel has accused Hamas of putting civilians at risk by using them as "human shields" and by drawing Israeli forces into densely-populated areas.

Human Rights Watch said it found no evidence of Hamas using "human shields" in the cases it documented in the report.

In some areas, Palestinian fighters appeared to have been present, the group said, but added: "This does not justify the indiscriminate use of white phosphorus in a populated area."

Israel said during the war that it only used weapons in accordance with international law.

It is unclear how long the internal army investigation will take. Human Rights Watch said it doubted the probe would be thorough or impartial.

The IDF issued a response to the Human Rights Watch report, saying that at the conclusion of operation Cast Lead, the Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, ordered a number of investigations at the General Staff level, each lead by an officer of the rank of colonel.

The investigations aim to evaluate different aspects of the fighting during the operation, in addition to the operational investigations being conducted at the different command levels.

The IDF spokesperson announced during the operation that an investigative committee headed by a colonel would investigate allegations with regard to the use of ammunition containing elements of phosphorous.

This particular investigation is dealing with the use of ammunition containing elements of phosphorous, including, amongst others, the 155mm smoke shells which were referred to in the Human Rights Watch report. This type of ammunition disperses in the atmosphere and creates an effective smoke screen. It is used by many western armies, the IDF statement said.

The investigation is nearing its conclusion, and based on the findings at this stage, it is already possible to conclude that the IDF's use of smoke shells was in accordance with international law. These shells were used for specific operational needs only and in accord with international humanitarian law. The claim that smoke shells were used indiscriminately, or to threaten the civilian population, is baseless.

It should be noted that contrary to the claims in the report, the IDF statement continued, smoke shells are not an incendiary weapon. The third protocol of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) ? which defines particular limitations on incendiary weapons ? makes it clear that weapons intended for screening are not classified as incendiary weapons.

Palestinian children sing for Holocaust survivors

The Palestinian youths from a tough West Bank refugee camp stood facing the elderly Holocaust survivors on Wednesday, appearing somewhat defiant in a teenage sort of way. Then they began to sing.

The choir burst into songs for peace, bringing surprised smiles from the audience. But the event had another twist: Most of the Holocaust survivors did not know the youths were Palestinians from the West Bank, a rare sight in Israel these days. And the youths had no idea they were performing for people who lived through Nazi genocide - or even what the Holocaust was.

"I feel sympathy for them," said Ali Zeid, an 18-year-old keyboard player, who added that he was shocked by what he learned about the Holocaust, in which the Nazis killed 6 million Jews in their campaign to wipe out European Jewry.

"Only people who have been through suffering understand each other," said Zeid, who said his grandparents were Palestinian refugees forced to flee the northern city of Haifa during the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948.

The 13 musicians, aged 11 to 18, belong to Strings of Freedom, a modest orchestra from the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank, the scene of a deadly 2002 battle between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers.

The event, held at the Holocaust Survivors Center in this tree-lined central Israeli town, was part of Good Deeds Day, an annual event run by an organization connected to billionaire Shari Arison, Israel's richest woman.

The two-hour meeting starkly highlighted how distant Palestinians and Israelis have become after more than eight years of bloody Palestinian militant attacks and deadly Israeli military reprisals.

Most of the Palestinian youths had not seen an Israeli civilian before - only gun-toting soldiers in military uniforms manning checkpoints, conducting arrest raids of wanted Palestinians or during army operations.

"They don't look like us," said Ahed Salameh, 12, who wore a black head scarf woven with silver.

Most of the elderly Israelis wore pants and T-shirts, with women sporting a smear of lipstick.

"Old people look different where we come from," Salameh said.

She said she was shocked to hear about the Nazi genocide against Jews. Ignorance and even denial of the Holocaust is widespread in Palestinian society.

Amnon Beeri of the Abraham Fund, which supports coexistence between Jews and Arabs, said most of the region's residents have no real idea about the other.

The youths said their feisty conductor, Wafa Younis, 50, tried to explain to them who the elderly people were, but chaos on the bus prevented them from listening.

The elderly audience said they assumed Arab children were from a nearby village - not from the refugee camp where 23 Israeli soldiers were killed, alongside 53 Palestinian militants and civilians, in several days of battle in April 2002.

Some 30 elderly survivors gathered in the center's hall as teenage boys and girls filed in 30 minutes late - delayed at an Israeli military checkpoint outside their town, they later explained.

Some of the young women wore Muslim head scarves - but also sunglasses and school ties.

As a host announced in Hebrew that the youths were from the Jenin refugee camp, there were gasps and muttering from the crowd. "Jenin?" one woman asked in jaw-dropped surprise.

Younis, from the Arab village of Ara in Israel, then explained in fluent Hebrew that the youths would sing for peace, prompting the audience to burst into applause.

"Inshallah," said Sarah Glickman, 68, using the Arabic term for God willing.

The encounter began with an Arabic song, "We sing for peace," and was followed by two musical pieces with violins and Arabic drums, as well as an impromptu song in Hebrew by two in the audience.

Glickman, whose family moved to the newly created Jewish state in 1949 after fleeing to Siberia to escape the Nazis, said she had no illusions the encounter would make the children understand the Holocaust. But she said it might make a small difference.

"They think we are strangers, because we came from abroad," Glickman said. "I agree: It's their land, also. But there was no other option for us after the Holocaust."

Later, she tapped her feet in tune as the teenagers played a catchy Mideast drum beat. After the event, some of the elderly Israelis chatted with students and took pictures together.

The encounter was not absent of politics. Younis dedicated a song to an Israeli soldier held captive by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip - and also criticized Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

But she said the main mission of the orchestra, formed seven years ago to help Palestinian children overcome war trauma, was to bring people together.

"I'm here to raise spirits," Younis said. "These are poor, old people."

Hillary Clinton admits US blame for Mexico drug violence

America's "insatiable demand" for illegal drugs is to blame for much of the violence engulfing Mexico, Hillary Clinton has said.The US secretary of state also acknowledged America's "inability" to stop weapons being smuggled across the border from the US and being used by the drug cartels in a bloody turf war.Mrs Clinton made her candid remarks as she flew to Mexico City for a two-day visit where she will discuss US plans to ramp up border security with President Felipe Calderon. "Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade. Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the death of police officers, soldiers and civilians," she said during her flight to Mexico City."I feel very strongly we have a co-responsibility."She said US efforts to ban drugs such as cocaine and heroine had clearly not worked and it was unfair to blame Mexico for its drug cartel problem.Although Barack Obama has pledged to devote an additional 360 federal agents to border security, the US Congress this month trimmed the amount of drug aid money it will set aside this fiscal year to $300 million from $400 million last year.By contrast, President Felipe Calderon has spent more than $6.4 billion, assigning 45,000 troops and federal police, on fighting the cartels he tookd office in December 2006.Mexico has repeatedly said it cannot contain the increasingly brutal cartels, now armed with grenades and rocket launchers, if America does not do more to stop the drugs gangs buying guns in the US, where they are much easier to obtain."It's not only guns. It's night vision goggles. It's body armour," said Mrs Clinton. "These criminals are outgunning the law enforcement officials." More than 8,000 people have been killed in drug-related fighting since January 2008.

US offers cash rewards for Baitullah Mehsud

WASHINGTON: The United States on Wednesday offered $ 5 million each for information leading to Baitullah Mehsud and for Sirajuddin Haqqani and $1 million for Abu Yahya al-Libi.The offer, announced two days before the unveiling of the new US strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, indicates hardening of Washington’s stance against the militants hiding along the Pak-Afghan border.But reports attributed to senior US officials also indicate a willingness to include ‘reconcilable’ militants in the new peace process to be announced by President Barak Obama on Friday.While the United States has previously offered large cash rewards for terrorism suspects in the past as well, until recently they regarded Mehsud mainly as a threat to Pakistan.
Previous US drone attacks had avoided targeting Mehsud’s hideouts but this changed earlier this month when US drones also began to target Mehsud and his men.
The change reflects a US desire to work closely with Pakistan for eradicating all extremists, whether they target Pakistan or the United States.
On Wednesday afternoon, the US Department of State issued three brief statements, saying that it’s offering lucrative cash awards for information about the three suspects under its Rewards for Justice Programme. The programme offers cash rewards for information leading to the arrest, and/or conviction of dangerous criminals.
The State Department identified Baitullah Mehsud as the senior leader of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan. The statement noted that Mehsud is regarded as a key al Qaeda facilitator in South Waziristan. ‘Pakistani authorities believe that the January 2007 suicide attack against the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad was staged by militants loyal to Mehsud,’ the statement said.

‘Press reports also have linked Mehsud to the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the deaths of other innocent civilians,’ the State Department noted.

The US government pointed out that Mehsud has also stated his intention to attack the United States. He has conducted cross-border attacks against US forces in Afghanistan, and poses a clear threat to American persons and interests in the region.

‘The United States is determined to bring Baitullah Mehsud to justice. We encourage anyone with information on Mehsud’s location to contact the nearest US embassy or consulate, any US military commander, or the Rewards for Justice staff,’ the department said.

Another statement, announced a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the location, arrest, and/or conviction of Sirajuddin Haqqani. Sirajuddin Haqqani is a senior leader of ‘the Haqqani terrorist network’ founded by his father Jalaladin Haqqani. He maintains close ties to al Qaeda.

During an interview with an American news organisation, Haqqani admitted planning the Jan. 14, 2008 attack against the Serena Hotel in Kabul that killed six people, including American citizen Thor David Hesla.

Haqqani also admitted planning the April 2008 assassination attempt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He has coordinated and participated in cross-border attacks against US and Coalition forces in Afghanistan.

‘Sirajuddin Haqqani is believed to be located in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan,’ the State Department said.

The US government also authorised a reward of up to $1 million for information leading to Abu Yahya al-Libi, a prominent member of al Qaeda.

The State Department identified al-Libi as an Islamic scholar and a Libyan citizen who was captured by authorities in 2002 and imprisoned at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.

Al-Libi escaped in July 2005, and has since appeared in a number of propaganda videos, using his religious training to influence people and legitimise the actions of al Qaeda.

The State Department noted that al-Libi was a key motivator in the global jihadi movement and his messages ‘convey a clear threat to US persons or property worldwide.’ Al-Libi is believed to be in hiding in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Since its inception in 1984, the Rewards for Justice Programme has paid more than $80 million to more than 50 persons who provided credible information that has resulted in the capture or death of terrorists or prevented acts of international terrorism.

Our Children Are Dying, Displaced Pakistanis Say

Their food, they say, is inedible. Their medicine has run out. And their children are dying.And so the thousands of Pakistanis living in tents in the Jelozai refugee camp just outside of Peshawar did the only thing they felt they could today, six months after they first started begging the government for help.
One protester was killed and another was injured in clashes that followed, the Northwest Frontier Province police chief, Malik Naveed Khan, told ABC News. His men used tear gas and live ammunition to suppress the crowds."Even animals won't eat what we are being given to eat here," Wali Gul, 35, told an ABC News reporter who visited the camp this evening. His anger was visible. "There is no medicine and we have lost our children because of lack of medical facilities.""They think they are doing us a favor by giving us food like beggars," Saeed Muhammad, 50, said, referring to the government. "They have received [hundreds of thousands] and [millions] of rupees from other countries to look after us. If they fail to deliver, it won't be good for them. May Allah's wrath fall on those who are subjecting us to this treatment."It was about 10 a.m. when thousands of internally displaced people in the Jalozai poured onto the main road leading to Peshawar, northwest Pakistan's largest city. They are a fraction of the half-million residents of Pakistan's tribal areas who have fled their homes in the last year as the Pakistani military launched military campaigns along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.These internally displaced people were from Bajaur, the northernmost tribal area, where Pakistani army and paramilitary forces have fought their single largest battle against the Taliban since Sept. 11. The battle began last August and was supposed to last four weeks. Hundreds of thousands of residents are still unable to return, even though last month the military announced the Taliban had "lost."Bajaur has been a touchstone for a Pakistani military trying to prove to the U.S. it is willing and able to defeat the Taliban -- just a few miles and across a porous border from thousands of American troops. The U.S. has lavished praise on the commander of the operation, Frontier Corps Inspector General Tariq Khan.But if the fight has been a touchstone for the army, the peace will be a touchstone for the government. The Pakistani military's counterinsurgency tactics are in their infancy, and during three separate trips to Bajaur, we clearly saw the only way they could fight an entrenched Taliban was with scorched-earth tactics. Where they fought, at least 80 percent of the mud homes that once stood have disappeared back into the ground, destroyed by American Cobra helicopters or even F-16s.As the "clear, hold, build" counterinsurgency doctrine suggests, army destruction must be followed by government construction. If it doesn't happen soon enough, the army warns the area could become a Taliban haven once again, militants praying on a population disappointed by a lack of government response.There were a few thousand people today who wanted to tell the government its response has been inadequate. One of them died doing so.

US missile strike kills six in Waziristan: officials

ISLAMABAD--A suspected US missile strike killed six in South Waziristan on Wednesday, security officials said.The missile struck a compound in the Makeen area, the officials said. There were also intelligence reports of an al Qaeda presence in the area."A predator strike was carried out in Makeen area, 12 kilometres (eight miles) northwest of Ladha. As a result, six have been killed," said a security official.

Pakistan govt in crisis after a year in office

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's government marks one year in office Wednesday still battling to contain the political and security meltdown threatening to engulf the frontline state in the US-led "war on terror."
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was sworn in on March 25, 2008 amid hopes democracy would rise from the ashes of military rule and the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
A year on and insurgents are still fighting government forces, the economy has needed an international bailout and the nation's political leaders are at loggerheads.
"Upon coming into power, the government was faced with enormous political, economical and security challenges," Gilani acknowledged Wednesday.
"The high expectations held by the nation, having been through nearly a decade of military rule coupled with difficult times, meant the government was always going to be in for a fair amount of criticism."
Gilani's government, sworn in on March 31, 2008, hopes to secure a record aid package from the United States, which is desperate to stabilise a country whose border with Afghanistan is a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Money and military hardware are the only way the weak administration can counter Pakistan's deepening troubles, officials say, in a country where bomb blasts and suicide attacks have killed 645 people over the past 12 months.
"Democratic institutions are functioning in the country but... the leadership gives no indication that they can handle economic, political and law and order issues effectively," said political analyst Hasan Askari.
Dreams of a national unity government vanished when Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N walked out in August over the government's refusal to restore chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, sacked under emergency rule in 2007.
Gilani's flagship achievement -- reinstating Chaudhry -- amounted to little more than a dramatic U-turn designed to pull the nation back from the brink of chaos.
Although Gilani announced the decision, army chief of staff Ashfaq Kayani and US pressure were widely credited as the decisive factors.
"There would have been major confrontation on the deposed judge issue had Kayani and leaders of friendly countries not intervened -- which shows the leadership has poor capacity for crisis management," said Askari.
Despite repeated protests, US drone attacks on Taliban and Al-Qaeda safe havens have also continued in the northwest, killing more than 340 people and fanning hostility against the government and the United States.
Military offensives have beaten back extremists in some parts of the rugged tribal areas, but Afghan and US officials say that is not enough.
Only 160 kilometres (100 miles) from Islamabad, the Swat valley has gone from ski resort to a Taliban stronghold where the government in Islamabad has controversially agreed to Islamic law as the only justice system.
In the east, ties with rival India deteriorated in the wake of the November attacks on Mumbai that killed 165 people and which Pakistan admitted were at least partly plotted on its territory.
Hammering the nail in the coffin, a commando-style assault on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier this month sentenced Pakistan to international sporting isolation.
"As far as law and order and the growing insurgency is concerned, the government does not have full freedom to handle it," said A.H. Nayyar from the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, alluding to the army.
In the southwest, a regional Baluch insurgency has gone unchecked and efforts to find American UN official John Solecki, the highest-profile foreign kidnapping in seven years, have come to nothing.
On the economic front, the International Monetary Fund was forced to bail out Pakistan, to stop the country defaulting on its debts, and last November approved a stand-by loan of 7.6 billion dollars.
Inflation stands at 20 percent and gross domestic product is estimated at 2.5 percent this fiscal year, down from 5.8 percent last year, according to official statistics.
"We should be prepared for the impact of global recession on our economy, just round the corner... The government's main achievement was its success in getting the IMF loan," said economist Kaiser Bengali.