Friday, April 17, 2009

Taliban intend to grab Islamabad, warns MQM

KARACHI: Reiterating its stance against the Nizam-i-Adl regulation, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement warned on Thursday that after controlling the Swat and Buner areas of the NWFP, the Taliban were marching towards the federal capital to occupy the country.

Speaking at a press conference, MQM leader Dr Farooq Sattar, however, said that his party would resist the Taliban and foil their plan to occupy Pakistan.

Terming the Swat peace deal signed between the Taliban and the NWFP government an agreement of violence and mayhem, he said that through this deal the Taliban were officially allowed to murder, kidnap, loot and torture women and girls.

He asked the Awami National Party-led NWFP government whether it would try in Qazi courts the cases against terrorists involved in blowing up girls’ schools in Swat.

The MQM leader, who is also a federal minister, said the fears expressed by MQM chief Altaf Hussain had proved right when a suicide bomber targeted a police check-post in Charsadda, killing 16 people, including 10 policemen.

He lashed out at Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan for his remarks made in the lower house against the top leadership of the MQM.

He said the system introduced by Altaf Hussain was a guarantee of Pakistan’s solidarity and integrity whereas the system of the Taliban would only bring mayhem and destruction. ‘It is a matter of concern for the people of Punjab as to why Chaudhry Nisar is supporting the system of the Taliban,’ he said.

He said those who favored the so-called Adl regulation in the national assembly not only deceived their voters but also gave a free hand to the Taliban to rule.

Dr Sattar said that instead of criticising the MQM chief, Chaudhry Nisar should take measures to save the people of Punjab from the Taliban. However, he hastily added that the MQM would continue its struggle to save the people of Punjab from Talibanisation.

He said the Swat agreement was an attempt to legalise the tribal culture in the name of Islam and to enforce it not only in the NWFP but in the whole country.

Chaudhry Nisar’s remarks condemned

MQM leaders Babar Khan Ghauri, Hyder Abbas Rizvi, Faisal Subzwari and others lashed out at the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.

Speaking at the press conference, they said that it was against parliamentary traditions to level allegations against the top leadership of any political party and it was highly condemnable that Chaudhry Nisar targeted the MQM chief.

They said the MQM did not want to talk about the top leadership of the PML-N or the ANP, but there would be a limit.

Dr Sattar asked Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan to tender an apology to the MQM chief and his supporters for making a personal attack on Altaf Hussain.

Clinton Scores Points by Admitting Past U.S. Errors

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — It has become a recurring theme of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s early travels as the chief diplomat of the United States: she says that American policy on a given issue has failed, and her foreign listeners fall all over themselves in gratitude.

On Friday, Mrs. Clinton said here that the uncompromising policy of the Bush administration toward Cuba had not worked. That, she said, is why President Obama decided earlier this week to lift restrictions on travel and financial transfers for United States residents with relatives in Cuba.

“We are continuing to look for productive ways forward, because we view the present policy as having failed,” Mrs. Clinton said at a news conference in this sun-dappled capital, hours before flying to join Mr. Obama at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

The contrition tour goes beyond Latin America. In China, Mrs. Clinton told audiences that the United States must accept its responsibility as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. In Indonesia, she said the American-backed policy of sanctions against Myanmar had not been effective. And in the Middle East, she pointed out that ostracizing the Iranian government had not persuaded it to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions.

Like other leaders around the world, Mrs. Clinton’s host, the president of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernández, responded effusively on Friday, hailing the secretary and her boss, Mr. Obama, for their view on Cuban policy, which he said took “great courage” and could utterly transform the political landscape of Latin America.

“President Obama is paving a new road,” he said. “It is recognition of the fact that previous policies have failed. Fifty years of a policy that has not generated the originally sought purposes can be called a failure.”

In fact, Mrs. Clinton’s aides clarified, she was not condemning the half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba, which the Obama administration has not yet agreed to lift. Rather, her reference was to the strict travel and financial restrictions imposed by the Bush administration.

But it hardly seemed to matter. For a senior American official — someone who almost became president — to declare that the United States had erred, makes a major impact on foreign audiences.

Mrs. Clinton drew a similarly gratified response when she said in Mexico recently that the huge American appetite for drugs was fueling the booming narcotics trade in that country and elsewhere in the region.

She repeated that message in the Dominican Republic on Friday, telling a questioner at a town hall meeting here, “We acknowledge we have a responsibility, and we have to act in concert with you.”

Regret is a new role for Mrs. Clinton, but one that she has had plenty of opportunity to observe up close. On a single trip to Africa in 1998 her husband, former President Bill Clinton, apologized for American participation in slavery; American support of brutal African dictators; American “neglect and ignorance” of Africa; American failure to intervene sooner in the Rwandan genocide of 1994; American “complicity” in apartheid; and even for a failure that occurred far from Africa — America’s slow response to the bloodshed in Bosnia.

In most cases, Mrs. Clinton has been simply disavowing a policy of the Bush White House — something she did with zeal as a Democratic candidate. But the words carry much more weight overseas. And there is some evidence that these gestures are starting to register.

On Friday, Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, welcomed the administration’s easing of travel restrictions, saying he was open to dialogue with the United States on a full range of topics, including human rights and the release of political prisoners — something Mrs. Clinton had demanded a day earlier.

“We have seen Raúl Castro’s comments and we welcome this overture,” she said. “We are taking a very serious look at it, and we will consider how we intend to respond.”

Last week, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, softened his tone against the United States, suggesting that Iran would make a new offer to the West on its nuclear program.

There are holdouts, of course: North Korea has greeted the Obama administration by testing a missile, ratcheting up its language and threatening to pull out of multiparty talks on its nuclear program. Mrs. Clinton, in turn, has had few warm words for North Korea’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il.

But in many countries, her statements have elicited an almost palpable sense of relief. And she suggested that the Obama administration’s drive for warmer relations with old foes was just getting started.

Asked whether the United States would build bridges to hostile Latin American leaders, like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Mrs. Clinton said, “Let’s put ideology aside; that is so yesterday.”

First dog Bo meets White House press corps

Bo, the Obama family's new dog, makes its debut in front of the cameras.

Obama: 'We can move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction'

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago -- In remarks to be delivered Friday to representatives of 34 countries at the Summit of the Americas here, President Obama says he is seeking "a new beginning" in U.S. relations with Cuba.

"Every one of our nations has a right to follow its own path," a transcript of his prepared remarks reads. "But we all have a responsibility to see that the people of the Americas have the ability to pursue their own dreams in democratic societies.

"Toward that end, the United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba."

Obama arrived in Trinidad and Tobago on Friday evening for the Summit of the Americas, a key meeting of hemispheric powers. Although it was not represented at the talks, the subject of Cuba dominated the president's speech.

In the prepared remarks, Obama adds that "decades of mistrust" must be overcome, but notes that he has already loosened restrictions that limited Americans from traveling to visit relatives in Cuba and from sending money to them.

Obama lifted all restrictions Monday on the ability of individuals to visit relatives in Cuba, as well as to send them remittances.

That may be just the beginning. "I am prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues -- from human rights, free speech and democratic reform to drugs, migration and economic issues," he says.

"Let me be clear: I am not interested in talking for the sake of talking. But I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction."

Obama's comments represent a significant shift in a U.S. policy that has remained largely unchanged since 1962, when the U.S. government imposed a trade embargo with Havana.

They come a day after Cuban President Raul Castro said he was prepared to discuss "everything, everything, everything" with the United States.

Castro told a summit of leftist Latin American leaders gathered in Venezuela, "We are prepared, wherever they want, to discuss everything -- human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners," Castro said Thursday.

Havana plays a major role in Obama's prepared remarks, which reject "stale debates" that have undermined opportunities to forge new partnerships.

"They would have us make the false choice between a rigid, state-run economy and unbridled and unregulated capitalism; between blame for right-wing paramilitaries or left-wing insurgents; between sticking to inflexible policies with regard to Cuba or denying the full human rights that are owed to the Cuban people.

"I didn't come here to debate the past -- I came here to deal with the future. As neighbors, we have a responsibility to each other and to our citizens. And by working together, we can take important steps forward to advance prosperity, security and liberty."

On other matters, Obama, who says he is committed to fighting inequality "and creating prosperity from the bottom up," announces in his remarks a Microfinance Growth Fund for the hemisphere and proposes creating an Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas "to promote renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

He also vows to "take aggressive action" to slash demand for illegal drugs, and to halt the movement of arms and money to Mexico.

PPP veteran calls for a titular president in NA

ISLAMABAD: As the country awaits a parliamentary constitutional reforms committee, a veteran law-maker of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party pleaded in the National Assembly on Friday for having only a titular president who should also not head a political party.

Presidential powers is a key issue that must be resolved through constitutional amendments to be proposed by an all-parties committee of parliament, and the call by Syed Zafar Ali Shah came as the first public expression of the kind that appeared a taboo in recent months after President Asif Ali Zardari was elected to the office with all the powers assumed by his military predecessor General Pervez Musharraf while also leading the ruling party as its co-chairman.

‘The prime minister should be prime minister (with powers) and the president be a titular head of state as is in India,’ the PPP member from Sindh province said while speaking in a debate on President Zadari’s March 28 address to a joint sitting of the National Assembly and Senate.

He said although there was no express ban in the constitution, the spirit of the constitution’s article 41, which says the president ‘shall be the head of state and shall represent the unity of the republic’, was that that a president should not head a party.

National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza is yet to name the all-parties committee she was authorised by the house on April 10 to form to propose amendments to the constitution and other laws to implement the famous Charter of Democracy signed in 2006 by assassinated PPP leader Benazir Bhutto and Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) leader Nawaz Sharif and later supported by most political parties in parliament.

The Charter calls for a return to a titular presidency by clipping its arbitrarily assumed powers to dissolve the National Assembly and appoint armed forces’ chiefs, provincial governors and the Chief Election Commissioner and give them back to the prime minister as was the position in the constitution before General Musharraf seized power in an Oct 12, 1999 coup.

Friday’s poorly attended National Assembly sitting saw some members expressing their reservations about the early outcome of the enforcement of a controversial Sharia regulation in the Malakand division of the North West Frontier Province, although all parties except the boycotting Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) had voted for an April 13 resolution that asked the president to approve the order to implement a peace deal with the militants of Swat valley.

Former interior minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, speaking on a point of order, said that even after the peace deal, Swat militants seemed to be involved in a suicide bomb attack in his constituency in the NWFP’s Charsadda district on Wednesday that killed 16 people because an injured alleged bomber had been traced to Swat district’s Charbagh area.

He asked the government to seek an explanation from Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi chief Sufi Mohammad who made the deal with the government on behalf of the militants.

‘On the one hand there is peace agreement and on the other there this process (of violence) begun again,’ he said about the deal, which has been supported by most political parties but is seen by many in the civil society as an acquiescence to the power of the gun that would embolden the militants.

Before that, PPP’s Zafar Ali Shah opposed the peace deal’s provision for a gradual withdrawal of troops from Swat and said that even if peace was restored there, ‘we expect the army to play its role’.

ANP member Syed Haider Ali Shah, whose party leads the NWFP coalition government that made the peace deal with the militants, regretted MQM’s opposition to the move, which he said was necessary to restore peace in the province that had been ‘in a state of war’ for 30 years after it became the base for a Western-backed guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Independent member from Balochistan Mohammad Usman Advocate was most critical of the government’s handling of the situation in his troubled province, particularly vis-a-vis the issue of ‘missing persons’ allegedly picked up by intelligence agencies and the recent murder of three Baloch nationalist politicians after they were abducted from the office of a lawyer in Turbat town.

‘Don’t push the Baloch like Bengalis,’ he warned the government and called for halting what he called continuing military operation in Balochistan, registering a first information report for the murder of three Baloch laders, starting dialogue with ‘the real political forces’ of the province and recognising the Baloch people’s right over their natural resources.

PPP chief whip and Labour and Manpower Minister Khurshid Ahmed Shah assured the house that the federal government would seek a report from the PPP-led Balochistan provincial government about people who went missing during years of the previous military-led Musharraf government.

The house was later adjourned until 4pm on Monday.

Govt urged to declare NWFP(Pukhtunkhwa) war affected.

PESHAWAR: The business community of Cantonment Board and Peshawar has demanded the Federal Government to declare NWFP as war affected province, announce a special package for it and exempt cantt board and Peshawar from the sales tax. These demands were made by representatives of business community at a meeting held at Sarhad Chamber of Commerce and Industries (SCCI) Peshawar to discuss the problems of businessmen Thursday. NWFP Minister for Sports, Culture and Tourism Syed Aqil Shah was chief guest on this occasion. President SCCI Sharafat Ali Mubarak, Executive Member Cantt: Board Waris Khan Afridi, Chairman Standing Committee for law and order Shaukat Ali Khan and other businessmen also addressed and apprised the Minister about the problems of dwellers and businessmen of Cantt Board and Peshawar regarding sales tax, electricity, kidnapping incidents. Sharafat Ali Mubarak, president of SCCI, while highlighting the difficulties , being faced by traders and businessmen, said the trader community was not in a position to pay further taxes, adding that law and order situation and insecurity has already disrupted their business in such a situation the expension of tax network to the owners of hotels, restaurants, confectioneries and traders and businessmen was not justified. SCCI chief urged the government to provide security to life and property to trader and business community , which he added was badly effected during the war against terror. The Sports Minister while addressing the meeting said that the provincial government was well aware of the problems of businessmen of cantonment board and Peshawar and it would raise voice in the concerned forums. He said, the only solution to the problems of cantt board was holding the election there so that its own representatives could present and solve the problems of the area more effectively. He assured that Senator Farrah Aqil Shah and other elected representatives of the province would raise the problems of the cantt board in Senate as well as in National Assembly. While referring to the problems presented in the welcome address, Syed Aqil Shah said that in future the ground of Nishtar Hall would be allowed for industrial exhibition through the consultation of business community of cantt board and Peshawar. He said the provincial government was considering the protection of lives and properties of masses as its prime obligation and it would not show any negligence in this regard. He assured the businessmen that he and the businessmen would meet Director General Cantt Board and WAPDA authority and would solve the problems of the people on the spot.

Zardari vows to defeat terrorism and militancy

TOKYO : President Asif Ali Zardari Friday expressed and re-emphasized the commitment of the Government and people of Pakistan to defeat terrorism and militancy. In his address to the Friends of Democratic Pakistan, the President of Pakistan he outlined the steps the Government of Pakistan will take to stem the spread of extremism and to address the political, economic and security challenges confronting the country. He stressed that his Government and the international community will remain firm partners in confronting and eliminating terrorism, militancy and extremism. The President of Pakistan also expressed the commitment of the Government and people of Pakistan to achieve economic reform for further stability of the country. A Ministerial meeting of the Friends of Democratic was held under the chairmanship of President Zardari. The Prime Minister of Japan Taro Aso addressed the meeting. The President of Pakistan and all the participants expressed their appreciation and deep gratitude to Prime Minister Taro Aso and the Government of Japan for the excellent arrangements made for the Ministerial meeting. The President of Pakistan expressed his gratitude on behalf of the people of Pakistan to the Friends of Democratic Pakistan for lending their individual and collective support to Pakistan enabling it to realize the vision of a democratic, progressive, welfare state, committed to the consolidation of democratic institutions, the rule of law, good governance, achieving socio-economic advancement, economic reform, and overcoming the challenges posed by terrorism and extremism. The meeting expressed its full support towards the enhancement of Pakistan’s inherent strength and capacity to meet the above challenges, individually and collectively, and with the support of international financial institutions. The meeting acknowledged the important role of Pakistan and the great sacrifices that Pakistani people had made in confronting the menace of terrorism and extremism as well as Pakistan’s strong commitment to become an anchor of stability and peace in the region as a whole.

Raúl Castro: I'm willing to talk to U.S.

President Barack Obama asked Havana to make the next move to improve U.S.-Cuba relations, saying Thursday that he needs to see signs of changes on the island before he makes any more overtures.
President Raúl Castro responded hours later that his government is willing to discuss any issue with Washington, as along as it's a conversation between equals and Washington respects ``the Cuban people's right to self-determination.''

''We have sent word to the U.S. government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything -- human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything,'' Castro told leaders at a summit in Venezuela.

Earlier this week, Obama lifted restrictions on visits and money sent to Cuba by Americans with families there -- steps he called ''extraordinarily significant'' for those families, and a show of good faith by the U.S. government that it wants to recast the relationship.

But he reiterated that the United States won't unilaterally end its trade embargo against Cuba, even though the policy is widely seen as a failure that has complicated U.S. relations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Obama said a relationship frozen for 50 years ''won't thaw overnight,'' and that Cuba can show it wants to move forward by lifting its own restrictions on Cubans' ability to travel and to voice their opinions.

He spoke at a news conference after meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who called the U.S. embargo a failed strategy.

Asked what the United States should do on Cuba to improve its image across Latin America, Calderón said ``we do not believe that the embargo or the isolation of Cuba is a good measure for things to change.''

But Obama says Cuba needs to reciprocate to his overtures with actions ``grounded in respect for human rights.''

Castro, who took over the presidency last year from his older brother Fidel, did not mention Obama's comments specifically -- and stopped short of promising any action.

''We're willing to sit down to talk as it should be done, whenever,'' said Castro, who also condemned decades of efforts by Washington to undermine the Cuban government.

``What's going on is that now . . . whoever says anything, they immediately start [talking about] democracy, freedom, prisoners.''

Castro called for the release of five Cubans imprisoned in the United States after being convicted of espionage, and denounced U.S. funding for opponents of his government.

``I'm confirming it here today: If they want the freedom of those political prisoners, who include some confessed terrorists, Guatemalans and Salvadorans who were tried and sentenced . . . free our prisoners and we'll send them to you with their families and whatever they want -- those so-called dissidents and patriots.''

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez hosted Castro and other close allies for talks to show a united front in their first encounter with Obama on Friday at the Summit of the Americas. Chávez called the U.S. position a ``show of disrespect.''

''If that's the way it is, what more can we expect from the rest? Nothing,'' Chávez said. ``I hope we're wrong, but they'll be the ones who will have to show us -- not with tales and speeches.''

Before Obama spoke, a similar message was sent by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Haiti.

''We stand ready to discuss with Cuba additional steps that could be taken,'' she said. ``But we do expect Cuba to reciprocate.''

''We would like to see Cuba open up its society, release political prisoners, open up to outside opinions and media, have the kind of society that we all know that would improve the opportunities for the Cuban people and for their nation,'' she said.

Cuba a hot summit topic

The lone country in the hemisphere that's not a member of the Organization of American States -- Cuba -- promises to take center stage here, as more and more Latin American nations insist that the days of the communist country's isolation should be numbered.
The Fifth Summit of the Americas appears to be just the forum hemispheric leaders have chosen to raise the contentious issue. The summit was first held in Miami 15 years ago, but this is the first time pressure has been so strong to bring Cuba back into the regional alliance.

''I want to be clear: I want Cuba back in the Interamerican system,'' OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza said. ``I think it was a bad idea in the first place. . . . Cuba is a member of the OAS. Its flag is there.''

Insulza has supported Cuba's reincorporation into the group before, but experts say he often ''played footsie'' with the divisive topic and failed to outline a clear position.

In an interview Thursday with The Miami Herald, the organization's chief said he unequivocally supports Cuba's renewed membership in the OAS -- despite a democracy clause adopted by the group in 2001.

Thirty-four heads of government will arrive in Trinidad for a three-day summit that starts Friday, ostensibly to discuss issues such as energy, security and climate change. Two elephants in the room -- Cuba and the global economic crisis -- promise to dominate the agenda.

Insulza stressed he hoped the Cuba issue would be pushed back to the OAS General Assembly to be held in Honduras in June, and not be taken up here.

Cuba was suspended from the OAS at Washington's behest in 1962. The reason: its alliance with the Soviet Union.


Insulza said that since the grounds for Cuba's suspension are outdated and were a ''bad idea in the first place,'' the hemisphere's last remaining communist nation should be welcomed back, despite an OAS clause that says the people of the Americas ``have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.''

Insulza said he was ``concerned that we still have standing a resolution that punishes a country for being a member of the Soviet-Chinese axis, for being Marxist-Leninist and several other things from the cold war.''

The secretary general's position will be difficult for some member states to accept, particularly since the organization adopted the democratic charter with much fanfare. Insulza acknowledged that the democratic charter would be hard for Cuba to swallow.

''Since Obama's election, Insulza has openly joined the ranks of Latin American leaders calling for Cuba to be included in the Inter-American system, although Cuba's full membership in the OAS would need to be reconciled with the Inter-American Democratic Charter signed in 2001,'' said Cuba expert Daniel P. Erikson, author of the recent book The Cuba Wars.

'If Cuba became a full member without accepting democratic standards and norms, it would badly weaken the OAS' credibility as a defender of democracy in the hemisphere.''

Retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro has already rejected the notion of reintegration into the organization.

''Insulza claims that, to enter the OAS, Cuba first has to be accepted by that institution,'' Castro wrote in a recent news column. ``He knows that we don't even want to hear the infamous name of that institution. It has not provided a single service to our people; it is the incarnation of betrayal. If you add up all the aggressive actions in which it was an accomplice, they amount to hundreds of lives and tens of bloody years.''

Castro's brother Raúl, who replaced him as president 14 months ago, spent the day Thursday in Venezuela with President Hugo Chávez, who held his own pre-summit meeting with his closest allies. Late Thursday, Castro indicated he would be open to talks with the United States but did not promise any action.

Chávez has said the region's more leftist governments are ''preparing their artillery'' to take up Cuba's cause at the summit.


''We're going to Trinidad and Tobago to put that issue on the table,'' Chávez said.

Chávez said he would veto the final declaration due to be issued by this weekend's summit. The declaration is essentially an agreement signed by the 34 member nations of the OAS to outline necessary actions needed to advance common causes in the hemisphere.

A statement from Chávez said the document, on which the conference is based, was completely out of context as if ``no time had passed.''

Meanwhile the ''Ladies in White'' dissident group of spouses and moms of political prisoners in Cuba sent a letter to summit presidents, urging them to commit themselves to democracy and seek the release of political prisoners.

''We are not ghosts,'' the letter said.

Participants at the Fifth Summit of the Americas agreed that Washington was going to find itself cornered.

''You are seeing the whole international community pushing for this thing,'' said Khafra Kambon, a Trinidadian who runs a cultural organization. ``The thing Obama did allowing travel could ease the pressure that's building up by making a concession -- and it could also give people the sensation: This thing is moving.''

Obama's move was widely applauded.

''For Guatemala, every action Obama takes to get closer to Cuba, and every action that gets closer to ending the blockade has our support,'' said Fernando Barillas, spokesman for Guatemala's president, Alvaro Colom. ``Cuba has the support of Guatemala -- and the rest of Latin America.''

The United States is the only country in the hemisphere that does not maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba.

The last holdouts, Costa Rica and El Salvador, recently renewed ties with Havana.

''It's an important step forward, small but important,'' Colin Granderson, assistant secretary general for the regional Caribbean Community bloc, said of Obama's new travel measures. ``It will open the way to dialogue between the United States and Cuba, because Cuba has said it is willing to dialogue and the U.S. has said it is willing to dialogue.

``There needs to be dialogue -- Things can't go forward between the two without it.''

Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.

Taliban moving on Mardan

The Taliban continue their advance in northwestern Pakistan. The district of Mardan in the Northwest Frontier Province may be the next region to fall to the Taliban as the terror group has stepped up its attacks in the area.

The Taliban murdered two women in Mardan yesterday, signaling the district is marked for takeover. A female aid worker for the non-governmental organization National Rural Support Program was killed in a bombing at her office. A local Taliban commander named Habibur Rehman claimed credit for the attack. "He accused NGOs of propagating obscenity and vulgarity and threatened further attacks," Dawn reported. The Taliban also gunned down a female councilor for a local union.

The murders were the latest in a series of attacks in Mardan that signal the Taliban is setting its sights on the district.

Since early March, in Mardan the Taliban have bombed two girls' schools, dozens of CD and video shops, and an electrical tower. The Taliban have forced the closure of more than a hundred CD shops after issuing threatening night letters and ordered barbers to stop shaving men's beards. The Taliban conducts attacks like these to intimidate the local population while setting the precedent for the establishment and enforcement of its brutal version of sharia, or Islamic law.

Attacks such as these preceded the Taliban takeover of Tank, Bannu, Hangu, Lakki Marwat, Swat, Shangla, Arakzai, and Bajaur.

Mardan was also one of the districts chosen by the Swat Taliban to parade through after its near-effortless takeover of Buner, a district just 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad. Earlier this week, a Taliban convoy of 10 trucks filled with fighters brandishing heavy weapons drove from Buner, through the district center in Swabi, and through Mardan before passing into Malakand, Dawn reported.

The Taliban convoy was untouched by Pakistani security forces. "They drove through a district HQ of a district they have not yet occupied ... on the federally policed motorway; through an army cantonment – as a matter of fact right past the Punjab Regimental Centre’s shopping plaza containing the usual bakery and pastry-shop run by serving soldiers – and thence through the rest of the crowded city of Mardan which is also the home of the chief minister of the province," Dawn reported.

Taliban nearing encirclement of Peshawar

The takeover of Mardan would put the Taliban one step closer to completing an encirclement of Peshawar, the provincial capital of the Northwest Frontier Province.

The Taliban have taken control of vast swaths of tribal agencies Arakzai, Khyber, and Mohmand, and maintain a strong presence in Charsadda and neighboring Mardan.

Charsadda is still contested, but the Taliban have launched some of the largest suicide strikes in this district in an effort to break the security forces. In the latest suicide attack on April 15, nine policemen were among 18 Pakistanis killed in a suicide attack on a police checkpoint.

The district of Nowshera to the east of Peshawar has been spared some of the heavier violence that has plagued the Northwest Frontier Province, but the Taliban are showing signs of advancing there as well. Over the past month, the Taliban assaulted two police checkpoints and bombed 20 CD shops.

Peshawar itself is under Taliban siege. The city has been described as a fortress as the Taliban maraud through the countryside. The Taliban have conducted dozens of assaults on trucking terminals that handle supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan. Since late 2008, the Taliban have destroyed more than 500 trucks and containers destined for Kabul in an effort to strangle NATO's primary supply route.

The military has launched multiple offensives to clear the Taliban from Peshawar, Khyber, Arakazai, Mohmand, and Charsadda. The Taliban typically lay low during the operations and return after the government calls them off and withdraws troops.

The Taliban are nearing their takeover of the Northwest Frontier Province. The Pakistani government recently ceded the northern third of the province to the Taliban after agreeing to implement sharia in a large region known as the Malakand Division. The seven western tribal agencies and most of the bordering districts are under Taliban control or under strong Taliban influence.

PAF to base first JF-17 fighter squadron in Peshawar

Pakistan Air Force's first-ever squadron of multi-role JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft, built in collaboration with China, will be raised and based in Peshawar by end of this year, it was announced today.

"The first ever Fighter Squadron of JF-17 Thunder aircraft will be raised and stationed at Pakistan Air Force Base, Peshawar," Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman, Chief of PAF said during a visit to the air base.

"By the end of year 2009, full strength of JF-17 Thunder aircraft squadron, which will also be the first ever squadron in the world, will be operational at PAF Base, Peshawar," the newly-appointed PAF chief was quoted as saying by APP.

Suleman was named as PAF chief last month.

The JF-17 Thunder, also known in China as the Chengdu FC-1 Fierce Dragon, is a light-weight multi-role combat aircraft jointly developed by Chengdu Aircraft Corporation of China and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex of Pakistan.

China delivered the first two aircraft to PAF in March 2007. The JF-17 is designed to be a cost-effective fighter which can meet the tactical and strategic needs of air forces of developing countries.

In January 2008, Pakistan started limited serial production of JF-17 at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Kamra. Full-fledged production of JF-17 is expected to start this year, reports said.

Afghan Cabinet Minister Survives Suicide Bombing

An Afghan Cabinet minister has survived an apparent suicide bombing attack in southern Afghanistan's Nimroz province that killed three civilians.

Nimroz Governor Ghulam Dastagir Azad said two suicide bombers on Friday attempted to enter a compound in the provincial capital Zaranj where the minister of refugees, Karim Brahawi, was staying.

Officials said police recognized the attackers' hostile intentions and stopped them from entering the residence. Police shot one attacker dead. The second attacker detonated his explosives in a crowd of civilians, killing three and wounding three others.

The minister was unharmed.

In northern Afghanistan, a Norwegian intelligence officer was killed Friday by a roadside bomb near the city of Mayama. He was flown to a German field hospital in Mazar-i-Sharif, where he died.

A separate report said two NATO soldiers were wounded in a suicide car bomb attack also near Mazar-i-Sharif. It was not immediately clear if the reports referred to the same incident.

In other news, the U.S. military said it killed six militants during an overnight raid northwest of Kandahar city in Maywand district in southern Afghanistan.

On Thursday, NATO forces said one of their troops was killed in a bomb blast. No further details were released.

A top U.S. military official, Admiral Mike Mullen, has said violence is expected to rise in Afghanistan in coming months as the United States increases its troop presence.

Search on for More Quake Victims in East Afghanistan

Villagers in eastern Afghanistan are digging through the rubble of collapsed homes, searching for more victims of two deadly earthquakes that struck early Friday.

Officials say at least 21 people were confirmed dead after the tremors in the Hindu Kush region, in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistan border, but local villagers say the death toll could be as high as 40.

Grieving relatives held funerals for several victims Friday afternoon, even as people continued to search the ruins of crumbled mud-walled houses for more bodies.

The U.S. Geological Survey says a 5.5 magnitude earthquake struck first at around two in the morning local time. It was followed by a slightly less powerful (5.1 magnitude) tremor two hours later.

At least 100 homes were reportedly destroyed in the quakes.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai sent condolences to the victims and ordered his government to rush emergency aid to region.

Northern Afghanistan and Pakistan are often hit by earthquakes, especially around the Hindu Kush mountain range, where the geological formations known as the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates meet.

Greenhouse gases a threat to public health

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue the ruling today, paving the way for federal limits on carbon dioxide emissions.
The Obama administration will declare greenhouse gases a threat to public health today, sources said, marking a major step -- both practically and symbolically -- toward federal limits on the carbon dioxide emissions scientists blame for global warming.
The move by the Environmental Protection Agency is prompted by a two-year-old Supreme Court decision. It paves the way for the White House to regulate emissions from vehicles and effectively force the U.S. auto fleet to be cleaner and more efficient - a plan the administration is expected to put in place soon.
It also opens the door to broad emissions limits in all other parts of the economy, including power plants and construction sites, which critics say could further chill an already recessionary economy. Administration officials insist they'd prefer to let Congress set those limits, and that they will help spur millions of clean-energy jobs in the years to come.Environmentalists are celebrating the so-called "endangerment finding" as the biggest statement yet that the federal government, after years of downplaying the dangers of climate change under the Bush administration, is now preparing to act boldly to combat it.The is a "landmark moment in environmental history," Frank O'Donnell, president of the environmental group Clean Air Watch, said in a press release anticipating the decision.
"Where the Bush administration lagged, the Obama administration is now leading," said David Bookbinder, Sierra Club chief climate counsel. "There is no longer a question of if or even when the U.S. will act on global warming. We are doing so now."
Critics warn that the policy could cripple small businesses and kill economic growth.
"An endangerment finding would lead to destructive regulatory schemes that Congress never authorized," a group of eight leading conservative and free-market activists -- including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform -- warned the EPA in a letter this week, adding later: "The administration will bear responsibility for any increase in consumer energy costs, unemployment, and GDP losses" that result.

Shocking extent of terrorism in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan was rocked by 1,842 incidents of terrorism during a fourteen month period from January 2008 to March 2009.The interior ministry revealed these shocking figures to the National Assembly during its question hour.According to the figures, an average of five terrorist incidents took place in the country every day during the last fourteen months. The highest number of 1,122 terrorist incidents took place in Balochistan. NWFP was rocked by 692 terrorist incidents, followed by 12 in Punjab, 09 in Sindh and 7 in Islamabad.However, National Assembly was informed that the government did not present a single inquiry report about terrorist incidents to the parliament.In response to another question, the interior ministry informed the National Assembly that at least 6,169 foreigners, including 162 women, were imprisoned in Pakistani jails during 2008-2009.The highest number of 5,087 illegal foreigners are imprisoned in Balochistan.Also in the National Assebly, the government assured the house it will not allow the Taliban to collect Islamic tax or Jaziya from minorities in Buner and Orakzai agency.Federal Minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, told the National Assembly that the government condemns the harassment of Sikh families by Taliban militants in Buner and Orakzai tribal agency.
Raising the issue of harassment of minorities on a point of order, the legislators told the House that Taliban had demanded Rs5 million from a Sikh family in Buner.
Sources say leaders of Sikh community have written letters to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and prime Minister Yousaf raza Gillani, apprising them of their plight.
The National Assembly was later adjourned to meet again on Monday to discuss President Asif Zardari’s address to the parliament.

Pakistan shocked: ICC snatch away hosting of World Cup 2011

DUBAI:International Cricket Council (ICC) has announced that Pakistan will not host any of World Cup matches to be held in 2011, Aaj TV reported on Friday.According to the channel, ICC official said that we will not allow Pakistan to host any of World Cup matches because of security concerns over there. Pakistan was the co-host of 2011 World Cup including India, SriLanka and Bangladesh.

U.S., Japan Pledge $2 Billion to Pakistan

TOKYO -- The U.S. and Japan pledged $1 billion each to help Pakistan battle extremist violence and bolster its economy, kicking off an international donors conference Friday for the critical U.S. ally in the war on terror.

"Without stability in Pakistan, there is no stability in Afghanistan either," Japan's Prime Minister Taro Aso said in a speech opening the one-day donors conference in Tokyo. "Stability in border areas is a key and I want to stress that the international community supports comprehensive strategies by the two nations."

Aso announced Thursday that Japan would provide up to $1 billion in aid to support Pakistan's economic reforms and its fight against terrorism, while the U.S. issued a statement Friday that it will chip in $1 billion. Both countries will make their contributions over the next two years, and neither represented a dramatic change in their current pattern of donations.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari went to the conference hoping for as much as $6 billion in pledges, but the meeting's Japanese hosts have said they expect the figure to be closer to $4 billion.

"There is an appetite. There is a desire to help Pakistan," Zardari said. "But I feared, I still fear, that the understanding of the danger what Pakistan faces still does not register fully in the minds of the world."

"If we lose, you lose," he added. "If we lose, the world loses."

Japan has stressed that the conference will try not to get too involved in issues that are more closely associated with Afghanistan, but has noted a growing awareness that the two often overlap and can be hard to deal with separately.

"Presidential elections in August in Afghanistan should be carried out smoothly, freely and fairly. This is vital for stability in Afghanistan, and the international community needs to support it," Aso said. "Japan supports the elections and will give assistance, including paying the salaries for 80,000 Afghan police for a half year."

The conference, supported by the World Bank, is being attended by about 25 backers, including the United States, China and Saudi Arabia. A full tally of pledges is expected to be announced at the end of the meeting.

Japan's announcement of $1 billion over two years was in line with its current level of aid it provided Pakistan with 48 billion yen ($480 million) in development assistance in 2008.

The U.S. contribution was seen as a down payment that will go toward Washington's previously announced plans to give Pakistan $1.5 billion in aid each year for the next five years. Separately, a $7.6 billion bailout has been granted by the International Monetary Fund to avert the country's most recent balance-of-payments crisis.

As part of the IMF deal, Pakistan has been asked to reduce its fiscal deficit and to tighten its monetary policy.

Pakistan's leaders have said they do not want the international community to "micromanage" its economy.

But the central bank forecast this month that economic growth for the year through June will slump to between 2.5% and 3.5 percent, far below the 5.5% the government has projected and too slow to create enough jobs for its fast-growing population of about 170 million people.

In response, the government has had to slash its development budget but is resisting calls to tax the narrow landowning elite that dominates its politics. Industry is also hampered by severe power shortages that are not expected to ease until next year at the earliest.

Economic improvement in Pakistan is seen as a key not only to preventing the expansion of poverty, but also to slowing the growth of terrorism, which depends on the poor to fill its ranks.

Obama talks guns, immigration in Mexico

President Obama struck a realistic tone in his first-ever visit to Mexico, pledging cooperation on key issues such as drug violence and immigration, but warning that nothing he or his Mexican counterpart could do would solve the problems completely.

In what has been scaled back to a less-than-24-hour visit, Mr. Obama also announced a few initiatives. He said he would push the United States Senate to ratify a treaty aimed at regulating the trafficking of certain types of guns in the Americas – a measure that was signed by President Clinton in 1997 but never ratified. In addition, he said that the US and Mexico, in tandem with other countries in the hemisphere, will pursue a clean-energy partnership.

The president sought to stress that the two countries were not linked solely by the challenges they share. “Our relationship is not defined only by these problems,” he said in an afternoon press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderón. “It is also defined by our opportunities.”

During the press conference, Mr. Obama directly addressed controversial issues such as immigration and the violence sparked by drug wars here. In previsit interviews, Mr. Calderón told US media that he would ask for a reinstatement of the lapsed assault-weapons ban. Obama acknowledged that as a candidate he supported reinstating the ban that lapsed in 2004, but that it would be wiser turn to more realistic pursuits, like better enforcement of existing laws.

“I haven’t changed my opinion. [The ban] would make sense, I continue believing that,” he said. “[But] none of us is under the illusion that reinstating the ban would be easy.”

The goal, both Obama and Calderón emphasized, is not a utopian elimination of drugs and related violence, but a reduction to a more manageable level.

“Are we going to eliminate all drug flows? Are we going to eliminate all guns over the border? That’s not a not realistic objective,” Obama said. “What is a realistic objective is to reduce it so significantly – so drastically that it becomes once again a localized criminal problem as opposed to a major structural problem.”

Calderón seconded Obama’s more modest aims. A medium-term goal for Mexico is a full reform of its police, cutting corruption and boosting efficiency and capability, he said. “What we want is a technically and technologically advanced police force, and the help of the US will be fundamental in accomplishing that,” he added.

Yet he tweaked the US for its high level of drug use, which feeds Mexico’s drug-trafficking gangs. “Of course drug trafficking cannot be ended by decree,” he said. “As long as there is a high demand, there will be high supply.”

Calderón asserted that during his two years and four months in office, more than 16,000 assault weapons have been seized in Mexico – and that 90 percent of them have come from the US.

A report released Thursday by the Violence Policy Center (VPC) in Washington appeared to back such assertions. US court records from southwestern states show that illegal gun traffickers smuggling firearms to Mexico are seeking a variety of weapons from US gun shops, the report concluded. These include semiautomatic assault weapons, armor-piercing handguns, and .50 caliber antiarmor sniper rifles.

The VPC obtained records filed in 21 federal firearms-smuggling prosecutions in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Texas between February 2006 and February 2009.

On Immigration, Obama reiterated his determination to pass reform legislation this year. But he also said the US has “a legitimate concern” over the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who arrive from dozens of countries every year “without anyone knowing who they are.”

Part of his goal, he said, is to provide those people with a path to legal status: “They need to come out of the shadows.”

Calderón said that the only way to stop the migration “is to provide opportunities for our citizens” in Mexico. In the meantime, he added, the only option is to proceed with the kind of fair and just immigration reform Obama said he will seek this year.

Dozens killed in Afghanistan as earthquakes strike Nangarhar province

Dozens of people are feared killed by two strong earthquakes that struck eastern Afghanistan early today, officials said.

The quakes destroyed around 100 houses in the villages of Sargad Kheil and Khodi Kheil, in the Sherzad district of Nangarhar province, according to the regional governor's spokesman.

Mohammad Tahir Zahir, deputy head of the provincial council of Nangarhar province, told Reuters that 40 people were known to have died.

That figure was backed by villagers in the Sherzad district, about 50 miles east of Kabul.

Residents of the village of Mir Gadkhel, about 45 km west of Jalalabad, told Reuters they thought dozens had been killed there.

"Three of my family members were killed and seven are injured," Gul Mohammad told the agency. "I think about 40 people have died. Hundreds of houses have been destroyed."

A boy called Amrullah added: "I was sleeping when the earthquake happened. We went out for a bit and went back into the house. Then there was another tremor which was very strong. The roof came down and killed my brother and his two children."

In Sar Kot, another village in the district, women gathered around the dead bodies of children, crying and slapping their heads in grief. A Reuters cameraman counted about 10 dead bodies in the village and about 12 houses destroyed there.

Abdul Mateen Edraak, head of Afghanistan's National Disaster and Preparedness Centre, told Reuters that 18 people had been confirmed dead so far but the toll would rise as more bodies were recovered.

The US Geological Survey said Nangarhar province was hit by two earthquakes – a 5.5 magnitude tremor at about 2am (21.30 BST yesterday), and a 5.1 magnitude aftershock two hours later.

Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountain range is struck by many minor earthquakes each year. As homes are often made of dried mud, even moderate quakes can cause many deaths and severe damage.

Afghanistan quakes kill 22: local authorities

KABUL :Two earthquakes jolted eastern Afghanistan, killing at least 22 people and destroying scores of homes when they struck two hours apart overnight, local authorities said on Friday.The quakes hit the district of Khogyani in Nangarhar province near the Pakistan border."Four villages were heavily damaged by the two earthquakes. Overall, 22 people have been killed and 30 injured. More than 200 homes have been destroyed," Khogyani district governor Haji Said Rahman told AFP.