Sunday, May 3, 2009

Vietnamese defence officials visit US carrier

VietNamNet Bridge – Officials of the Vietnamese Defence Ministry on April 22 paid a first-ever visit to a US aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), one of the biggest US Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, which anchored in East Sea international waters around 250 miles to the south of Vietnam’s Con Dao Island.

Navy Rear Admiral Mark Vance warmly welcomed the Vietnamese guests. The Vietnamese mission toured the carrier’s air traffic room, the observatory, holds for aircrafts, and witnessed the fighter aircraft F/A-18F Super Hornet take off and land on the CVN 74 carrier. They also talked with sailors on the vessel.

Colonel Nguyen Huu Vinh, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Vietnamese Navy, said that the visit strengthened mutual understanding between the two naval forces and paved the way for cooperation for peace in the region and the world.

Also joining the visit, US Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak said he believes that this is a new step in the development of the relationship between the two naval forces.

The USS John C. Stennis carrier was launched in 1995 and is one of the ten-largest carriers of the US Navy. The ship is 333m in length, 78m in width, and can hold 74 fighter aircrafts.

Eighteen killed in attack on Pakistani army outpost

Pakistani forces repelled a mass assault on their outpost near the Afghan border Saturday in a battle that left 18 dead and shook claims by Pakistan's army to have regained control of a critical region.
A separate clash in the nearby Swat Valley piled pressure on a disputed peace deal there, while a Taliban commander suspected in attacks on trucks carrying supplies to NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan surrendered to authorities, officials said.

Under the peace deal, the government agreed to impose Islamic law in Swat and nearby areas to halt two years of bloody fighting. The pact has been likened by the United States to surrender. It heralded a militant push into a neighboring district within 60 miles of Islamabad.

In an interview with CNN, scheduled for broadcast on Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the militants' expanding reach in northwest Pakistan posed an ``existential threat to the democratic government in Pakistan.''

Gates said the United States was willing to provide the training and equipment Pakistan's military needed to combat the growing threat.

''There has been reluctance on their part up to now. They don't like the idea of a significant American military footprint inside Pakistan. I understand that . . . but we are willing to do pretty much whatever we can to help the Pakistanis in this situation,'' he said in the interview. CNN released the transcript to The Associated Press.

The United States has bankrolled Pakistan's government and army with billions of dollars since Pakistan abandoned its support of the former hardline Taliban regime in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. While Pakistan has launched military operations along the frontier since then, security has only deteriorated.

Haifa Wehbe (Lebanese Artist)

Lebanese pop star Haifa Wehbe poses during a ceremony for her new contract with Arab production company Rotana in Jaiyeh resort near Beirut May 2, 2009.

Karzai's Would-Be Competition in Disarray

As Afghan President Heads to Washington, No Challengers Emerge for Election
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post

KABUL-- With less than a week left before candidates must register for Afghanistan's presidential election, opposition forces remain so divided and appear so confused that the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, is looking more and more like a winner as he heads to Washington for a summit with President Obama and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Wednesday and Thursday.

Although more than 60 people have formally expressed interest in the August presidential race, not a single candidate has registered with the Independent Election Commission.

Instead, an array of political strongmen and presidential hopefuls has spent the past week in backroom negotiations with onetime adversaries, either making last-minute attempts to form winning opposition tickets or bartering their presumed vote-getting influence for posts in a future Karzai administration.

"We tried to put together a team with a national agenda, but so far we have failed. As a result, Karzai is growing stronger by the hour," said Ali Jalali, a former interior minister and one of the still-undecided candidates. "The problem is ego. Everyone thinks he has the best chance of winning, so no one is willing to compromise."

Karzai is the unpopular president of a weak government besieged by a brutal Islamist insurgency, but the political disarray appears to leave him in a position to easily win reelection.

Yet if he wins essentially by default, analysts said, Karzai would need to rebuild the confidence of many Afghans who have become increasingly disappointed with his performance over the past seven years. He would also have to mend fences with Washington: The Obama administration has been increasingly skeptical of his abilities even as it continues to send thousands more troops to fight the Taliban insurgency.

"Karzai is in a very strong position now, but even if he is reelected, Afghanistan will badly need better governance and better leadership," said Haroun Mir, director of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies. "We need to look beyond who wins the elections. I am much more worried about the future of Afghan institutions and democracy."

Karzai, a former Afghan tribal leader and diplomat, came to power in early 2002 through a U.N.-brokered agreement after the U.S.-led overthrow of the extremist Taliban government. He was elected president in 2004 for a five-year term. In the past several years, his government, backed by tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops, has struggled to retain power amid a fierce assault from Taliban insurgents.

Despite dwindling public support, Karzai's chances for reelection were bolstered in March when the polling date was postponed and the elections commission ruled that he could remain in office after his term expires later this month, thus allowing him to run as a sitting president. In recent days, he has been further strengthened by the collapse of a major opposition alliance and the erratic or opaque behavior of several of his rivals.

Gul Agha Sherzai, a popular governor from Karzai's home province and ethnic group, had been widely expected to announce his candidacy this week and had been meeting with other politicians about forming a ticket. But on Saturday, Sherzai announced at a news conference that he was dropping out of the race. He said he made the decision after visiting with Karzai and his family.

Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, has long been rumored to be considering a run for the Afghan presidency. Many people here believe he would be in the strongest position to unseat Karzai and view him favorably as the "American candidate," although the Obama administration insists it has no favorites in the race.

But while the Afghan-born Khalilzad, who lives in Maryland, has visited Afghanistan recently and organized an international conference on the country's future, he has remained publicly coy about his ambitions. Like Jalali and several other top potential candidates, he would have to give up his U.S. citizenship to run.

A third U.S.-based contender, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, spent months testing the waters during lengthy visits to Afghanistan and has written a book outlining his vision for the country's future. But many Afghans were disappointed that he chose to launch his book in the United States and has been away from Afghanistan during the crucial weeks before the registration deadline.

Some of the most powerful figures in the country's political equation are not presidential candidates but strongmen from ethnic and regional groups. Political observers said these men have been jostling behind the scenes for influence as vote-delivering kingmakers in return for quotas of power in a future administration. They include ethnic Uzbek militia leader Abdurrashid Dostum, Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq, and former defense minister Mohammed Fahim, who is Tajik.

It has been widely reported that Karzai plans to choose Fahim as his top running mate, a prospect that has alarmed and dismayed many Afghans hoping for political change. Fahim, a former anti-Soviet militia boss, resisted Western-backed military reforms as Karzai's defense minister and has been suspected of illegal business dealings.

"People are shocked that Fahim would be on the ticket," said Nader Nadery, an official with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "All this intense negotiation going on is not about issues or ideas. It is only about people seeking power and about Karzai getting reelected."

Karzai, 51, has not spoken publicly about his ticket and has only casually mentioned in the past week that he plans to run for reelection. His office did not return calls Saturday inquiring about his plans to register as a candidate.

In Washington, Karzai will meet with Obama and Zardari to discuss the growing threat from Islamist insurgents, the need to strengthen democracy in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a bulwark against religious extremism, and the prospects for a widening U.S. economic and military commitment to both governments.

Back home, however, many Afghans are concerned that the flurry of backroom deals between Karzai and a handful of political bosses could undermine the credibility of a crucial wartime election and a new, Western-allied administration.

Condoleezza Rice ...4th-Grader Questions Rice on Waterboarding

Washington Post

Days after telling students at Stanford University that waterboarding was legal "by definition if it was authorized by the president," former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was pressed again on the subject yesterday by a fourth-grader at a Washington school.

Rice, in her first appearance in Washington since leaving government, was at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation's Capital before giving an evening lecture at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue downtown. She held forth amiably before a few dozen students about her love of Israel, travel abroad and the importance of learning languages, then opened the floor to their questions.

The questions had been developed beforehand by students with their teachers and had not been screened by Rice. At first they were innocuous: What was it like growing up in segregated Birmingham? What skill did she want to be best known for?

Then Misha Lerner, a student from Bethesda, asked: What did Rice think about the things President Obama's administration was saying about the methods the Bush administration had used to get information from detainees?

Rice took the question in stride. saying that she was reluctant to criticize Obama, then getting to the heart of the matter.

"Let me just say that President Bush was very clear that he wanted to do everything he could to protect the country. After September 11, we wanted to protect the country," she said. "But he was also very clear that we would do nothing, nothing, that was against the law or against our obligations internationally. So the president was only willing to authorize policies that were legal in order to protect the country."

She added: "I hope you understand that it was a very difficult time. We were all so terrified of another attack on the country. September 11 was the worst day of my life in government, watching 3,000 Americans die. . . . Even under those most difficult circumstances, the president was not prepared to do something illegal, and I hope people understand that we were trying to protect the country."

Misha's mother, Inna Lerner, said that the question her son had initially come up with was even tougher: "If you would work for Obama's administration, would you push for torture?"

"They wanted him to soften it and take out the word 'torture.' But the essence of it was the same," Lerner said.

Rice, who was national security adviser at the time of the September 2001 attacks, touched off a firestorm last week when she told students at Stanford that "we did not torture anyone."

"The president instructed us that nothing we would do would be outside of our obligations, legal obligations, under the Convention Against Torture," Rice said at Stanford, before adding: "And so, by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture."

Critics said the remark bore echoes of former president Richard M. Nixon's notorious statement, "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal."

Rice did not seem to hold Lerner's boldness against him. Because he missed the group photo she took with his classmates, she posed for a couple of solo shots with him -- and chatted briefly with him about Russia, the land where his parents are from and the one that Rice, a Russia expert by training, had told the students was her favorite abroad.

Pakistan's red light district...

Painting prostitutes, Pakistani brushes off religious hard-liners

By Ivan Watson
LAHORE, Pakistan (CNN) -- It's hot and sweaty in a rat-infested room in Lahore's historic red light district, a neighborhood of narrow alleyways lined with brothels.

A barefoot, long-haired woman is gyrating and twirling on the carpet, to the beat of a four-man band whose drummer sweats profusely as he pounds out a furious rhythm.

The dancer, who only gives her first name, Beenish, is performing a kind of Pakistani belly-dance called the mujra.

Her harmonium player, a skinny bald man who squints through coke-bottle glasses, has been performing like this for the past 50 years. But he says the art form is dying out.

"That spark, the way it was in the past, is no more," said Ghulam Sarwar.

Last fall, a judge in Lahore's high court declared the mujra dance "vulgar" and banned it from being performed on stage.

Some here say the government is cracking down on easy, "immoral" targets in an attempt to appease religious hard-liners like the Taliban. Islamist militants are believed to be responsible for a recent wave of bomb attacks in Lahore, targeting cinemas, theaters and cafes where young men and women fraternize together.

"It is a gesture of good will to pacify the mullahs and the Taliban," said Samia Amjad, a lawmaker in the provincial assembly. Though she is a member of an opposition political party, she said she supported the crackdown on vulgarity. "I see it as an essential part of Islam."

Dancers aren't the only targets of the court censors.

In late March, the Lahore high court banned two female singers from recording new albums after ruling that they sang sexually explicit lyrics.

"If the current circumstances persist in Pakistan," said Noora Lal, one of the banned singers, "then singing will die out in this country."

Pakistan is a deeply conservative Muslim nation, where the punishment for blasphemy is the death sentence.

But there is one person in Lahore who openly mocks the conservative establishment: painter and restaurant owner Iqbal Hussain.

Though he said he has received multiple death threats from Islamist fundamentalists, Hussain continues to be Pakistan's most vocal defender of prostitutes. All of the models portrayed in his paintings are sex workers.

"I portray them on canvas, portray them as human beings," Hussain said, "They feel pain. They want their children to be educated."

Hussain knows the industry intimately. He was born to a family of sex workers. His mother, a former prostitute, passed away last month at the age of 98.

The small, soft-spoken painter has turned the house he grew up in, an old four-story building with ornate wooden balconies, into a popular restaurant for tourists and wealthy Pakistanis. On one side of the house there is a brothel, on the other side, the 17th century Badshahi Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world.

In his subversive paintings, which Hussain said sell for more than $10,000 each, he highlights the overlap between Lahore's sex industry and its religious community. In one canvas, hundreds of worshippers are depicted prostrating themselves around the mosque, while in the foreground, two women apply lipstick and makeup on a balcony.

Hussain explained that the prostitutes in the painting were preparing to receive new customers as soon as the prayers in the mosque were over.

The painter claimed that on religious festivals, the brothels and dance halls in his neighborhood overflow with customers.

"They come from the northern areas with their turbans," Iqbal said, laughing. "All coming to this area. They're not going to the mosque ... but to the brothels!"

Nevertheless, the rising tide of the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan has some residents of Lahore's red light district worried.

"May Allah keep us safe from them," said Beenish, the mujra dancer. "We are poor, humble people. They should not target this place."

Flu Cases Increase, but There Is Some Optimism

WASHINGTON — Swine flu has become widespread in the United States, with cases in 30 states and more expected to turn up in other states in the next few days, federal health officials reported on Sunday.

Around the world, 19 countries have now been affected, including Colombia, which earlier in the day reported the first confirmed case of swine flu in South America. About 800 people have been infected, predominantly in North America. Spain has 44 confirmed cases, more than any other European country, with Britain, Italy and Germany reporting new cases, The Associated Press reported.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, the interim Deputy Director for Science and Public Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a news conference here that the virus was “circulating all over” the United States.

“The virus has arrived, I would say, in most of the country now,” she added.

By Sunday afternoon, officials reported 226 cases in the United States, an increase of 66 since Saturday, when the presence of the virus had been confirmed in 21 states.

Most cases have been mild, but 30 people have been hospitalized. And the disease, unlike the common types of seasonal flu, appears to strike an unusually high percentage of young people. The median age of people who fall ill is 17.

“Very few confirmed are over 50,” Dr. Schuchat said. “They tend to be younger. Whether it will pan out in the weeks ahead we don’t know, but it is a pattern that looks different from seasonal influenza.”

In Mexico, the hardest-hit country and where the flu was first reported, nine of the 19 confirmed deaths were between the ages of 21 and 39, which is unusually high. But on Sunday its health minister said that the worst had passed in his country.

The course of the disease in Mexico, where many other deaths suspected because of the flu, is now “in its phase of descent,” Health Minister José Ángel Cordova told a news conference, Reuters reported.

The relatively mild nature of the illness in the United States, and the apparent leveling off of cases in Mexico are encouraging, Dr. Schuchat said in Washington, but added, “I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet.”

The worrisome things about this virus, she said, is that it is new, so few people can be expected to have resistance to it, and that it is behaving unusually, flaring up and taking hold at a time when the flu season is normally just about over.

Earlier in the day, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano predicted that the World Health Organization might “very well” elevate its flu alert from Level 5 to Level 6, the highest, this week. Ms. Napolitano emphasized, however, that even the highest-level W.H.O. warning was not in itself a cause for grave concern. It would indicate that the current flu strain has reached pandemic status, but there can be a pandemic of a mild disease, and this strain is looking milder than first thought.

“Level 6, which they very well could go to this week, all that means is that it is widespread around the world,” Ms. Napolitano said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

The W.H.O. said Saturday that there was still no evidence of the flu’s sustained spread outside North America, a requisite condition for raising its alert level.

In Spain, all but four of the cases involved a patient who had recently traveled to Mexico, the Spanish Health Ministry said. Spain is a hub for travel to Mexico, with dozens of flights each day between the two countries.

The ministry, who said all the Spanish patients had responded to treatment, said it would be seeking to tighten controls at airports Monday but did not offer any details about addition measures. Passengers arriving from affected areas this week have been filling questionnaires about possible virus symptoms, and cabin crews have been supplied with gloves and masks in an effort to isolate suspected cases.

In the United States, Ms. Napolitano and other top officials appeared on no fewer than five morning television programs, with a message mixing caution and measured reassurance. They emphasized that since its deadly initial spread in Mexico, the disease had generally shown a milder face.

Dr. Richard Besser, acting head of the C.D.C., pointed to “encouraging signs” that the current strain might end up being no worse than a normal seasonal flu. In New York City, for example, the disease had spread quickly through a private high school in Queens, but the cases were “not that severe, and that’s encouraging,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Kathleen Sebelius, who just last week was confirmed as secretary of health and human services, told Fox that there was cautious optimism in part because “the lethality which initially presented itself as part of the Mexican situation — deaths of an age group you don’t typically see” — was not being seen elsewhere.

But experts were careful to balance their cautious optimism with warnings that the flu might yet get worse.

“These viruses mutate, these viruses change, these viruses can further reassort with other genetic material, with other viruses,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, W.H.O.’s global alert and response director. “So it would be imprudent at this point to take too much reassurance.”

Infectious disease experts say it will be important to watch what this virus does in coming weeks and months, particularly in the Southern hemisphere, which will soon confront its winter flu season. If H1N1 takes hold there, that will be a red flag to scientists.

“This virus could dampen here during the summer per usual, and go to the Southern Hemisphere and pick up steam there and come back to bite us in our winter season next January and February, and it might come back in a more virulent form,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a public health and infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University.

The U.S. health officials, quite indirectly, took exception with advice from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who said last week that he would urge his family to avoid travel if it involved “confined spaces,” such as on an airplane or a subway.

Ms. Sebelius said that she would not discourage travel unless the traveler is sick and suggested that that was what Mr. Biden had meant to say.

Exceptionally strong measures by some countries to stop the spread of the flu have led to backlashes. Egypt ordered all pigs killed, provoking violent weekend clashes between police and angry pig farmers. Scientists say the disease is not spread by consuming properly prepared pork. And Mexico complained of the quarantining of dozens of its nationals in China.

The quarantine of dozens of Mexicans in Singapore, Guangzhou and Hong Kong — as well as other guests and workers in a Hong Kong hotel — brought a pointed complaint from the Mexican foreign minister, Patricia Espinosa.

“Mexican citizens showing no signs at all of being ill have been isolated under unacceptable conditions,” Ms. Espinosa said, according to Reuters. “These are discriminatory measures, without foundation.”

Health professionals were studying a new development in Canada, where a swine herd on a family-run farm in Alberta Province apparently contracted the virus from a worker who had visited Mexico. The man-to-pig transmission appeared to be a first for this strain. Both the man and the swine have recovered; the herd remains quarantined.

There has been heated debate about whether the virus, formally known as H1N1, could infect pigs, even though its genetic makeup clearly points to its having originated in swine at some point.

Talking to Terror Czar Sufi

Dawn Editorial
Its time for Pakistani Army to shoot him
The government must not be tricked into halting a military operation.

A Government emissary who represented the Frontier administration in the first round of talks with the TNSM felt that Friday’s meeting was ‘fruitful’. He went further, adding that it was held in a ‘pleasant atmosphere’. Such woolly descriptions convey little of real import, other than that the parleys were not stillborn and that further rounds may be on the cards.

Given that the two sides may have achieved little else other than break the ice, it would be futile at this point to arrive at any firm conclusions as to what the talks may produce. As such it is necessary to focus instead on what the focal point should be of any further interaction with Sufi Mohammad’s Tehrik Nifaz-i-Shariat Mohammadi, which is acting as a go-between the Swat Taliban and the NWFP government Islamabad and the NWFP authorities came in for a lot of flak both at home and abroad when it was decided by the centre to accept the Taliban’s demand for Nizam-i-Adl, or Sharia law, in Malakand Division. Criticism of the government’s move was valid in more ways than one. But the demerits — and they are many — of the Nizam-i-Adl Ordinance are not under discussion here. The point is that the authorities remained true to their word while Sufi Mohammad did not.

The TNSM chief had promised that a large number of militants would lay down arms in a public ceremony following the ordinance’s enactment. This, it was felt, would send a strong signal to the Swat Taliban at large. The government went so far as to accept Sufi’s demand that the militants would surrender their arms to a qazi, not the government or the military. Within hours, however, he addressed a public rally in Swat in which he aired the view that the constitution, the higher judiciary and democracy itself were all un-Islamic.

What he had promised to do was ask militants to come forth and lay down arms. This volte-face suggests that Sufi Mohammad either carries no real clout with the militants, is simply playing politics or is part and parcel of the Taliban, albeit with a softer image.
Sufi’s double-dealing was one the catalysts for the military’s telling offensive in Dir and Buner. Now that they are on the back foot, relatively speaking, the Taliban and the TNSM are ready for talks again. There must be no compromises this time round: halting military operations simply cannot be on the agenda.

The government must focus on one point alone: the Malakand Taliban have to disarm as promised at the earliest. If that doesn’t happen, there ought to be no further discussion of any sort with the militants or their representatives. The government and its security apparatus must not be tricked into halting a military operation that is clearly the need of the hour.

Violence erupts across Mingora

MINGORA: A government-run high school was blown up by suspected militants for the first time since February 16 peace accord was inked between NWFP government and Tehrik Nifaz-i-Shariat Muhammadi in Swat valley on Sunday.

Unidentified militants planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around the 14-room building of government high school for boys in Nengolai area of tehsil Kabal triggering three explosions one after another at 2:00 am on Sunday destroying the whole building of the school.

The school was recently vacated by security force after peace overtures with Taliban.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

ATTACKS: Armed men attacked a grid station and two police stations in Mingora late on Saturday night.

Power supply to Mingora city disrupted after armed men attacked the grid station in Mingora city. The security personnel present at the grid station fired back in retaliation.

A transformer was damaged during the exchange of fire resulting in the disconnection of electricity supply to different areas of Mingora.

Unknown miscreants also attacked police stations in Mingora and Rahimabad. However, there was no report of casualties.

TWO BODIES RECOVERED: Two decapitated bodies were recovered from roadside in Alam Ganj area of Khwazakhela on Sunday morning.

The motive behind the gory incident and names on the deceased are yet to be ascertained. Unidentified persons have slit their throats and threw along roadside.

THREE TRUCKS SET ON FIRE: Unknown persons have set three trucks on fire Babu area of tehsil Khawazakheal on Sunday. All the three unloaded trucks, parked along the roadside, were reduced to ashes.

Security forces also arrested three suspected persons during patrol on Saturday night. They were shifted to an undisclosed location for interrogation.

Taliban violate deal in Swat: Pakistan army

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s military on Sunday accused the Taliban of ‘gross violation’ of the Swat peace accord after several acts of violence over the weekend, AP reports.
The army blamed an attack on the power grid in the main Swat city of Mingora on the militants. It also said militants had partially blown up a bridge in the Khwaza Khela area of Swat.Clashes between security forces and militants left at least one soldier dead and three soldiers and four militants wounded, it added.Also Sunday, two decapitated bodies were found near Khwaza Khela, police officer Umer Rahim Khan said. They have not been identified.A girls high school was blown up by militants in Kabal Tehsil while four trucks were set ablaze by the Taliban in Khwaza Khela, private TV channels added.A Taliban spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment Sunday

TNSM creating hurdles to peace: NWFP minister

Daily Times Monitor
LAHORE: The Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) is placing hurdles in the path to peace by making spurious demands, NWFP Information Minister Iftikhar Hussain said on Sunday.He said the government had fulfilled its promise by establishing the Darul Qaza, and it was now the responsibility of the TNSM to keep its commitments, a private TV channel reported. The qazis appointed to the Darul Qaza would be experts of Islamic jurisprudence, as agreed upon in the Swat agreement, he added.Hussain said that if anyone took up arms and challenged the writ of the state following the establishment of qazi courts, the government would use all its resources to stop them at all costs. According to APP, Hussain said the NWFP government chose speedy establishment of Darul Qaza to ensure a delay in implementation was not blamed for failure of the deal.

Armed Taliban back on Mingora roads

MINGORA: Swat cleric Sufi Muhammad’s banned Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) – which had promised to ensure peace in the restive valley in return for the establishment of sharia courts – on Sunday rejected the Darul Qaza appellate court set up by the NWFP government.

Ameer Izzat Khan, the chief spokesman for Sufi Muhammad, said that the government had acted unilaterally in establishing the Darul Qaza and had violated the peace agreement.

He said it had been decided in a May 1 meeting between the provincial government and the TNSM in Timergara that the government would first announce an end to the operations in Malakand following which the Taliban would declare a ceasefire.

Meanwhile, armed Taliban were out on Mingora streets on Sunday in what the ISPR called gross violation of the peace deal. “Militants are involved in various criminal activities threatening the lives of the civilian population, the civil administration as well as security forces personnel,” it said.

Early on Sunday, the Taliban blew up a girls’ high school in Ningolai area of Kabal tehsil. The building was completely razed.

Late on Sunday, a mechanic was held from Watakai Chowk when he was preparing a vehicle for a suicide attack.

Another vehicle prepared for a suicide attack was on its way to Saidu Sharif Swat when the troops spotted it. The vehicle was destroyed after a gunfight.

Three Taliban were arrested along with a suicide vehicle in Mingora, the ISPR said.

The Taliban attacked a grid station with rockets, destroying the facility and disrupting power supply to Mingora. They also attacked a police station in Rahimabad late on Saturday. The ensuing gunfight continued until Sunday morning.

The Taliban also attempted to blow up the Chamtalai Bridge in Khawazakhela. The key bridge was partially damaged. Four Taliban were reportedly injured in a clash after they attacked the security forces in Sambat Ridge area. The Taliban abducted the Mingora town municipal officer and his son from Sharifabad. They released the two later but seized their vehicle.

In Madyan, the Taliban fired at security forces killing one soldier.

Three other soldiers were injured in various clashes with the Taliban in Swat.

A civilian was killed as security forces and the Taliban clashed in the Madyan summer resort. Two beheaded bodies were found in the Alam Ganj area of Khwazakhela. Witnesses said both were FC personnel. The Taliban also robbed a bank in Chakdara bazaar. Reports said they took away Rs 600,000 from Habib Bank.

U.S. fully backing Pakistan government: Holbrooke

ISLAMABAD: Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has stepped in to smooth ruffled feathers over the impression that the Obama administration is building up the Pakistan military to secure the future of the country and the region rather than the elected civilian government.

Speaking to a Pakistani journalist — Dawn newspaper described it as a “hastily arranged interview” held at the Pakistan embassy in Washington — Mr. Holbrooke said the U.S. had full confidence in President Asif Ali Zardari and the elected government of Pakistan.

“Of course the government in Islamabad is capable of running the country. They are democratically elected, a fine group of people,” he remarked.

This is quite the opposite of what President Barack Obama had to say at his press conference last week. He said the Pakistan government lacked the capacity to deliver essentials such as food, health services, education and justice to the people, and that this was the main source of concern to him.

Mr. Holbrooke described media interpretation here of President Obama’s remarks as a devastating put-down of the government as “journalistic gobbledygook.”

He was emphatic that the U.S. was giving its full backing to the civilian government in Pakistan. “It’s as simple as that. Who has President Obama invited to Washington next week? President Zardari.”

Frequent meetings between Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, and Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the special envoy said, were aimed at offering assistance to Pakistan.

“[General Kayani] has pledged support for the democratic and civilian government of Pakistan. We take him at his word,” he said.

President Zardari is in London on a brief non-official stopover on his way to the U.S., where he, President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will hold a joint meeting on Wednesday to discuss ways of enhancing co-operation in the region in line with the new U.S. strategy for “Afpak.”

Significantly, Gen. Kayani will not travel to Washington even though it was expected that he would be a key participant in the discussions this week. The News said the Obama administration was keen to have the Pakistan Army chief present at the talks, but Gen. Kayani has decided to stay back in view of the security situation in the country.

The newspaper said that it had been “informally” conveyed to Washington that it was not necessary for the top military leader to be present at the talks, when the top civilian leader was heading the delegation.

Instead, the military delegation will be led by ISI chief Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha and the Director-General Military Operations.

Aside from the stir over President Obama’s explicit expression of his lack of confidence in the Pakistan government just days ahead of President Zardari’s visit, the New York Times reported that the U.S. is reaching out to Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif in a bid to strengthen what Mr. Obama described as a “very fragile” government in Islamabad.

Pakistan Says It Is Meeting Terms of Peace Deal
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani government announced the creation of a new Islamic appeals court over the weekend, saying that it was meeting the terms of a February peace agreement with the Taliban and that the militants should now cease their armed struggle.

But the Taliban said Sunday that they had not agreed to the two judges appointed to the provincial court.

“The government has fulfilled its part of the agreement,” Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister for North-West Frontier Province, told reporters on Saturday evening. “Now anyone carrying arms would be treated as a rebel and would be prosecuted in the Qazi courts,” he said. A Qazi is a judge trained in Islamic law.

The peace deal has been strongly criticized in Pakistan and abroad, in particular since militants, rather than disarming, have expanded their presence into neighboring areas in recent weeks. The Pakistani Army mounted an operation against them in the districts of Dir and Buner last week.

Under the February accord, the provincial government of the North-West Frontier Province agreed to impose Shariah law in the Malakand division, a region that covers the valley of Swat where the Taliban have de facto rule, and surrounding districts. In return, the militants agreed to disperse and disarm and hand over their heavy weapons.

The agreement achieved a cease-fire in the Swat valley but little else. Around the main town of Mingora, the Taliban remain armed and in control. The military has ceased operations but has maintained its bases and gun positions all along the east side of the valley, said Anees Jillani, a lawyer who works at the Supreme Court and who visited the Swat valley two weeks ago.

The Taliban continue to demolish schools in the valley because the military has often used them as bases during operations. Meanwhile, fighting has shifted to the adjoining districts of Dir and Buner, which are also covered by the agreement, after Taliban incursions there.

A spokesman for the pro-Taliban negotiator, Maulana Sufi Muhammad, said Sunday that the Taliban had not agreed to the judges appointed to the new court, but that they would talk further with the government about it.

A spokesman for the militants in Swat, Muslim Khan, said the Taliban beheaded two government officials abducted Saturday in revenge for the killing of two Taliban commanders in Buner, Reuters reported. He was also reported by local news media as saying the militants would not disarm, since weapons were the “ornaments of Islam.”

The provincial government, which is led by the Awami National Party, a secular Pashtun party with a strong local following, has persisted with negotiations with the militants to implement the agreement in the interests of peace. Party leaders have insisted that they have to win the people to their side, and that the only way to do that was to show that they were prepared to go the extra mile for peace and that military force, which has caused high civilian casualties, was used only as a last resort.

The Pakistani military also backs the peace deal, and has been reluctant to fight the militants without strong political and public backing.

Both sides have complained that the other has not kept to the deal. The militants and their supporters contend that the government has been slow to organize the Islamic courts. The government says Maulana Muhammad has repeatedly changed the militants’ demands. The provincial government created the Islamic appeals court after Maulana Muhammad refused to recognize Pakistan’s higher courts of appeal.

Meanwhile, the military announced progress in its operations against militants in the district of Buner. The operational commander, Brig. Gen. Fayyez Mehmood, told local journalists that 80 militants had been killed in the weeklong operation. Three Pakistani servicemen had been killed and six wounded, he said.

Pakistani forces have secured the roads into the district from the west and the south and were now moving on the last base of militants in the north part of the district around the shrine of Pir Baba and Asambar, he said.