Monday, May 4, 2009

WHO reports over 1,000 cases in 21 countries

World Health Organisation chief Margaret Chan has warned against complacency regarding H1N1 influenza. She said a second wave of the virus would "be the biggest of all outbreaks... in the 21st century." Portugal reported its first confirmed case.
AFP - The World Health Organisation chief warned Monday that swine flu could return with a vengeance despite Mexico's President Felipe Calderon insisting his country has contained the epidemic.WHO chief Margaret Chan said that a second wave of the virus "would be the biggest of all outbreaks the world has faced in the 21st century", puncturing optimism emanating from the outbreak's epicentre.

Diplomatic damage from the epidemic also reverberated with China denying it had discriminated against Mexican nationals after dozens were placed under quarantine over the weekend despite showing no signs of the flu.

Twenty-five people have died from swine flu, according to the WHO, all but one of them in Mexico. Twenty-one countries have confirmed cases of the virus which has affected around 900 people.

Calderon said Mexico had managed "to contain the epidemic" and was now "in a position to overcome" the A(H1N1) virus.

Mexico's Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said the epidemic peaked between April 23 and 28 and was "in its phase of decline".

But Chan said the end of the flu season in the northern hemisphere meant that while any initial outbreak could be milder, a second wave could be more lethal, reflecting a pattern seen with the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed up to 50 million people.

"We hope the virus fizzles out, because if it doesn't we are heading for a big outbreak," Chan told the Financial Times in an interview, adding it could re-emerge in the months ahead "with a vengeance".

"I'm not predicting the pandemic will blow up, but if I miss it and we don't prepare, I fail. I'd rather over-prepare than not prepare."

The UN agency last week raised its alert level to five, one a scale of one to six, indicating a global pandemic is imminent.

In an interview with Spain's El Pais newspaper, Chan said it was important to avoid a "wave of panic" if the alert level was raised to the maximum six, adding that such a move would not mean "the end of the world".

More countries are confirming cases every day with Portugal the latest to join the list, while France announced two new confirmed cases as did Italy, doubling its previous caseload.

Japan tripled the number of quarantine officers at Tokyo's Narita airport to try to detect cases at the start of a holiday week.

In the United States, the only other country to have recorded a death from the virus, officials said 30 of the 50 states had now confirmed cases.

US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius echoed Chan's warning that the real test would come when the winter flu season hits.

"Even if this current situation seems to be lessening, if we are cautiously optimistic, we really don't know what's going to happen when real flu season hits (together) with H1N1 virus," she told CBS television.

In China, centre of the 2003 SARS outbreak, authorities have been accused of discriminating against Mexicans in a bid to keep out the virus.

Although no case of swine flu has been reported on mainland China, one Mexican who stayed in a hotel in Hong Kong has tested positive.

A Mexican embassy official in Beijing said nearly 70 Mexicans had been quarantined across China including in Beijing, Shanghai and the southern city of Guangzhou even though they had no flu symptoms.

China's foreign ministry said in a statement: "The relevant measures are not directed at Mexican citizens and are not discriminatory."

Russia's food safety agency meanwhile extended a ban on all meat imports to a fourth US state and banned pork products from Spain and parts of Canada.

The veterinary and food safety agency announced the extension despite an appeal by the United States, Canada, Mexico that there was no scientfic justification.

Egypt also pushed ahead with a mass slaughter of the country's quarter of a million pigs, a day after clashes erupted with protesting pig farmers.

Police were deployed in force around the Cairo slum district of Manshiyet Nasr where hundreds of residents, mostly Coptic Christian rubbish recyclers, on Sunday fought running battles with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

China vows to keep killer flu out of border while sending chartered plane to Mexico

Chinese health inspectors wait at the entrance to an AeroMexico aircraft, identified as the aircraft which carried a man infected with the influenza H1N1 virus or swine flu at Pudong International airport, Shanghai.
China vows to keep killer flu out of border while sending chartered plane to Mexico
Chinese Vice-Premier Li Keqiang on Monday vowed to keep the worsening global epidemic of influenza A/H1N1 out of China's border, while the same day the government sent a chartered plane to Mexico to pick up around stranded 200 Chinese nationals.

"The most important work at present was to strictly check on border entry" as the killer disease has been mainly reported overseas, Li gave the direction during a visit to the Ministry of Health.

China could not rule out the possibility of the virus' spreading into its border although no confirmed case had been reported yet on its mainland, Li warned.

"We must be fully prepared and strive for the best outcome through orderly and effective work," he said. He ordered government bodies to step up technical equipment and material storage, arrange designated hospitals and be well prepared for emergencies.

Information transparency was of key importance to the scientific epidemic prevention and control, he said, calling for further improvement in information publicity.

"Infections within our border must be immediately publicized, and the prevention and control work must be transparent," he said.


In light of the plight of around 200 Chinese citizens still stranded in Mexico, center of the flu outbreak, the government sent a chartered flight late Monday to pick them up.

The plane left Guangzhou for Mexico City and Tijuana at 10 p.m. and is expected to return to Shanghai at 9 a.m. Wednesday, China Southern Airlines said.

The 17-strong crew have been trained on precautions against the flu and dealing with any health emergencies.

A quarantine expert from the Ministry of Health and doctors from the airline would closely monitor the health conditions of the passengers.

If any passengers developed symptoms like fever, all the passengers and flight crew would probably be quarantined after returning to China, sources with the airline told Xinhua.

China suspended flights from Mexico to Shanghai starting Saturday after a 25-year-old Mexican man, who arrived in Shanghai Thursday aboard flight Aeromexico 098, was later diagnosed with influenza A/H1N1 in Hong Kong.

The Mexican became Hong Kong's first confirmed case of influenza A/H1N1 infection Friday. It was also the first such casein Asia.

China Monday cancelled a chartered flight to Mexico to pick up 120 or so stranded passengers. The airline said another 80 Chinese citizens have requested to take the expected chartered flight back to the country.


Monday's take-off of Chinese plane has been a result of a bilateral agreement between the governments, which allows both to send chartered flights to each other's country to lift their stranded nationals.

The agreement was reached even after diplomatic disputes whether China has taken discriminatory measures against Mexican citizens.

Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa Cantellano has complained China's quarantine of some Mexican citizens with no symptoms of the virus was discriminatory and short of scientific evidence. He also reminded Mexican citizens not to travel to China until it corrected the discriminatory measures.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said on Monday that the country's medical quarantine of some passengers who had traveled on the same flight with the Mexican man who was infected with influenza A/H1N1 as necessary.

"The measures concerned are not targeted at Mexican citizens and there is no discrimination," he said in a press release. "This is purely a medical quarantine issue."

Ma said China hoped Mexico would be understanding of the measures adopted by China and handle this matter objectively and calmly given the overall situation of jointly addressing the epidemic.

He also said China and Mexico are friendly countries and China attaches great importance to diplomatic relations with Mexico.

"China is willing to enhance cooperation with Mexico and make joint efforts to combat the epidemic situation," said Ma.

All the 176 passengers and 13 crew aboard have been located and those who remained in China have been quarantined, including Mexicans.


In another move to contain the epidemic, the government has stepped up checks on people entering the country by sending another six supervision teams to major provinces to prevent influenza A/H1N1 from spreading to the country, the top quality supervisor said Monday.

These teams went to provinces of Shandong, Hebei, Sichuan, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan, Hubei and Shaanxi and would work together with local authorities, according to the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (GAQSIQ).

GAQSIQ required all people entering China by air, land and sea to fill in personal health statement cards to strength control efforts.

The 6 teams were in addition to the previous 5 teams going to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou on April 25.

Also on Monday, the Ministry of Health said it had listed A/H1N1 under the category of infectious diseases that warranted quarantine, and would quarantine people and material crossing China's borders that were suspected of transmitting the virus.

Source: Xinhua

Is trade embargo with Cuba hurting U.S. interests?

HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- If Americans wonder what it's like to travel to Cuba, just ask a Canadian."Let's be honest, there's a mystique about Cuba," said Graham Cook, a Canadian golf course designer.Or ask South African pro golfer Ernie Els, the star attraction at a Cuban golf tournament aimed at turning the island into the sport's next destination."It would be great to see the Americans and the Cubans get together," Els said. "There's lots of potential here."Every year, foreign travelers escape to Cuba's exotic shores and Spanish colonial streets, pumping an estimated $2 billion into the island's economy.There are stunning examples in Cuba of how America's biggest competitors are investing heavily in the island nation, from European hotels to Chinese oil drilling operations. But the 47-year-old trade embargo with Cuba has Americans only watching from the sidelines, 90 miles away.The trade embargo was imposed on the communist island in 1962, years after Fidel Castro led a revolution to overthrow Cuba's Batista dictatorship. Although Castro was credited with bringing social reforms to Cuba, he has been criticized around the world for oppressing human rights and free speech.Despite the chilly relations between the two countries, Alexis Trujillo, Cuba's deputy tourism minister, says the island is ready to welcome back its neighbor to the north. "We are open to the world. It is they [the U.S.] who cannot come," Trujillo said.

Once known for its classic cars, Cuba is no longer just a time machine to the past, leaving the U.S. with a choice: whether to shift a decades-old policy or let sleeping dogs lie.

It seems, by most accounts, that the Cold War tensions between the two countries may be slowly relaxing.

A growing number of U.S. senators want to end the U.S. travel ban on Cuba and consider scrapping the embargo. On March 31, senators and other supporters unveiled a bill to lift the travel ban.

"We don't limit the right to travel to China or Vietnam ... but we decide to punish the American people by refusing them the right to travel to Cuba," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, who was one of the bill's sponsors.

Not everyone in Washington, however, is eager for change.

Cuban-American members of Congress, in particular, have voiced outrage over the easing of relations.

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Florida, was born in Cuba, and he doesn't want to see changes to the embargo.

"Having tourists on Cuban beaches is not going to achieve democratic change in Cuba," Martinez has said.

New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat and Cuban-American, said in a recent speech that the Cuban government is "pure and simple a brutal dictatorship. ... The average Cuban lives on an income of less than a dollar a day."

President Obama recently eased some restrictions on Cuban-Americans who visit and send money to family members on the island. Travel restrictions for Americans of non-Cuban descent will remain in place. Read more on Obama's new policy

At the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago last month, Obama said he is seeking "a new beginning" in U.S. relations with Cuba.

"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," he said. "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."

And the Cuban government may be biting.

"We've told the North American government, in private and in public, that we are prepared, wherever they want, to discuss everything -- human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners -- everything, everything, everything that they want to discuss," Cuban President Raúl Castro said at a summit of leftist Latin American leaders in Venezuela.

But there may be more than travel and political negotiations at stake.

China is now a player in Cuba, selling the island tourist buses. And the Chinese are getting more than cigars out of Cuba; they're tapping into the country's oil reserves.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls China's growing influence in Latin America disturbing, and she says she feels the same about Iran.

"If you look at the gains, particularly in Latin America, that Iran is making and China is making, it is quite disturbing," Clinton said Friday at the State Department. "They are building very strong economic and political connections with a lot of these leaders. I don't think that is in our interests," she said.

The next phase in U.S.-Cuba relations won't be easy. As a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba told CNN, it's complicated. As both sides start talking, old controversies will rise once again.

Pakistan deal with Taliban 'collapses' as convoy is attacked

The fragile agreement, in which the government said it would allow Islamic law in the region in exchange for militants laying down their arms, was left in tatters when a soldier was killed in an ambush.
It came just a day after two local officials were beheaded and Taliban fighters began patrolling Mingora, Swat's main town.
A Taliban spokesman blamed the government and military for provoking the violence saying it had sabotaged the peace process to appease the United States.
Muslim Khan, said that the controversial peace deal "practically stands dissolved".
"This is not our army, this is not our government. They're worse enemies of Muslims than the Americans," he said. "They're US stooges and now it's clear that either we'll be martyred (killed) or we'll march forward," he added.
The attack came despite Pakistan making further concessions to the Taliban by establishing an Islamic appeal court. Officials had insisted that by carrying out its part of the agreement, the government could gain more support from the public to take action against the Taliban if the militants violate the pact.
The apparent collapse of the deal raised the prospect of the Pakistani army having to retake control of Swat where the militants are deeply entrenched and where the army conducted an unsuccessful operation until February. Rejoining the battle in Swat would involve heavy casualties and uprooting thousands more people from their homes.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, Northwest Frontier Province Information Minister, who helped negotiate the pact said: "We set up Islamic courts, we gave them Islamic judges, yet they do not accept this. They have some other agenda. We will fight them and, God willing, these handful of miscreants will be defeated and the nation will prevail."
Since the peace agreement was signed in February, militants have infiltrated neighbouring districts of Buner and Dir where fierce fighting continued.
The Pakistani army last night accused militants of holding 2,000 villagers in Pir Baba in Buner as human shields to stop an offensive being launched.
The growing strength of the Taliban has raised alarm in the United States which has openly questioned the ability of the government to stand up to the militants.
Washington has expressed concern, with Barack Obama acknowledging the government was "very fragile" and secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, saying Pakistan was "basically abdicating" to the Taliban.
Mr Obama will present his strategy for defeating the militants to Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani President, and Afghanistan leaders when they arrive in Washington on Wednesday.
Washington has said it wants Pakistan to fight the militants, not talk to them, and is unlikely to mourn the three-month-old deal in the region if it breaks down.
Mr Zardari hopes to build American confidence in his government's ability to tackle militancy and secure a massive aid package.
It has emerged American officials are increasingly concerned about the vulnerability of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal as the country's security deteriorates.
The New York Times published a report saying Mr Obama's government was worried Taliban militants could snatch a weapon in transport or get sympathisers to infiltrate laboratories or fuel-production facilities.
The US does not know where all of Pakistan's nuclear sites are located, and its concerns have intensified in the last two weeks as the situation has deteriorated.

World asthma day to be observed on Tuesday

Asthma is one of the most common chronic diseases in the world and it is characterized by recurrent breathing problems and symptoms such as breathlessness, wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing. However, these symptoms vary over time and from individual to individual.

Talking to APP here on Monday Eminent Pulmonologist and Dean of the Faculty of the Paleontology Department of the Liquat University of Medical Health Sciences, LUMHS, Jamshoro, Dr Rashid Ahmed Khan said on the World Asthma day would be observed across the globe on Tuesday (Tomorrow), and this year the theme of the year is, `You Can Control Your Asthma'.

He said that Asthma is a serious but treatable condition. Asthma is the most common serious chronic disease of childhood, affecting millions of children across the globe. He said that even though asthma cannot be cured, it can almost always be controlled.

Dr. Rashid Ahmed Khan said that asthma experts are emphasizing the need for increased awareness of asthma and healthcare workers and governments should provide better treatment and control this common respiratory illness.

He said that this is a fact that there are no reliable statistics about the prevalence of allergic diseases or asthma in Pakistan.

Dr Rashid Ahmed Khan said that the nose and airways also trap large particles dust, pollen, molds, bacteria, and chemical smoke, sprays and odors, which could cause serious injury to the lungs.

Dr Rashid Khan said the studies show that almost 20 percent of 13 to 14 year old schoolchildren are asthma patients, which means that one out of every five children in Pakistan is asthma patient. The studies also reveal that two out of every five children may have a respiratory allergy and out of these less than a third are properly diagnosed. Moreover, those who are diagnosed do not receive proper treatment, he added.

Giving the possible reasons for the rise in asthma in Pakistan, he said that the modern lifestyle, atmospheric pollution, smoking, increased use of carpets, were some of the reasons for the rise in asthma cases in this country.

Inhalers are the safest way to deliver asthma medication to the lungs, and these are not habit forming as commonly perceived by the patients in this country." It is wrong to think that inhalers are given only in the advanced stage of the disease, he explained.

He stressed that doctors should check the inhaling techniques of their patients on every visit to the clinic. At the end, a question and answer session was also held with a panel of experts.

He said that asthma is an inflammatory condition of the bronchial airways. This inflammation causes the normal function of the airways to become excessive and over-reactive, thus producing increased mucus, mucosal swelling and muscle contraction.

Dr Khan said that in child the changes produce airway obstruction, chest tightness, coughing and wheezing. If severe this can cause severe shortness of breath and low blood oxygen.

He said that each individual suffers a different level of severity. Virtually, all children with asthma, however, do enjoy a reversal of symptoms until something triggers the next episode, he added.

About the Causes of Child Asthma Rashid Ali Khan explained that inflammation of the airways is the common finding in all asthma patients. Recent studies indicate that this inflammation is virtually always causative in the asthmatic condition. Allergy, viral respiratory infections, and airborne irritants among others produce this inflammation.

Dr. Rashid Ahmed Khan said that Childhood asthma is a disorder with genetic predisposition and a strong allergic component. Approximately 75 to 80 percent of children with asthma have significant allergies.

Regarding smoking he said that if any of the parents is a smoker then their children have an increased risk of developing asthma. Dr Khan stressed that children should be protected from environment tobacco smoke at all costs.

He said that studies indicate that allergic reactions produce both immediate and late phase (delayed) reactions. Research indicates that approximately half of the immediate allergic reactions to inhaled allergens are followed by a late phase reaction.

Dr Rashid Ahmed Khan informed that any child who has frequent coughing or respiratory infections (pneumonia or bronchitis) should be evaluated for asthma. He said that the child who coughs after running or crying might have asthma. Recurrent night cough is common, as asthma is often worse at night.

Dr Rashid Ahmed Khan defined that infants who have asthma often have a ratty cough, rapid breathing and may have an excessive number of "pneumonias," episodes of bronchitis or "chest colds." Obvious wheezing episodes might not be noted until after 18 to 24 months of age 4.

He said that in Child case chest tightness and shortness of breath are other symptoms of asthma.

There might be exceptions, such as prolonged running, especially during cold weather, allergy season or illness from a "cold." Swimming seems to be the least asthma-provoking form of exercise, added.

Dr Rashid said about the causes of the respiratory infections, including the flu, frequently trigger severe episodes of asthma. Research indicates that viruses, rather than bacteria most frequently produce these infections.

He said that antibiotics are of no benefit for viral infections and thus may be of little value in asthma. It is important for all children with asthma to get vaccinated for the flu each year.

He said that chronic sinusitis in childhood due to bacteria can be a very stubborn chronic trigger for asthma. Treatment for 10 days with antibiotics may not be effective. In these children, sinus x-rays are frequently required to diagnose the underlying conditions.

He said that antibiotic treatment for 3 to 4 weeks or longer may be required to completely eradicate these infections. Asthma may also be triggered by an ear infection or bronchitis, which would also require antibiotic therapy.

Dr Rashid elaborated about asthma allergy that a asthma symptoms of many children with asthma are triggered by allergies. Allergic children suffer reactions to ordinarily harmless material included pollen, mold, food, and animals and during an allergic reaction; chemicals such as histamine are released from specialized cells. This may produce swelling of the lining of the airway, excessive mucus secretion and muscle contraction in the airways. In this way, an allergy can provoke an asthma prolong. He said that allergy may be the cause of unrecognized or hidden asthma, he added.

He said that cigarette smoke, air pollution, strong odors, aerosol sprays and paint fumes are some of the substances which irritate the tissues of the lungs and upper airways. The reaction (cough, wheeze, phlegm, runny nose, watery eyes) produced by these irritants can be identical to those produced by allergens, he added.

Dr Khan said that cigarette smoke is a good example, because it is highly irritating and can trigger asthma. Most people are not allergic to cigarette smoke but that is there is no known immunology reaction. Nevertheless, this irritant can be more significant than any allergen.

Dr Khan also explained about the further common condition of the asthma patients, its a common misbelieve is that children with asthma have a major psychological problem that's caused the asthma. Emotional factors are not the cause of asthma; however, emotional stress can infrequently trigger asthma.

He said that a child's asthma might only be noticeable after crying and laughing in response to an emotional situation. These normal "emotional" responses involve deep rapid breathing, which in turn can trigger asthma, as it does after running.

Dr Rashid khan said that Asthma is a disease characterized by inflammation in the lungs that difficulty breathing that usually results from some sort of triggers that may include viral infections such as colds, house dust mites, smoke, pollen or other allergens in the air, animals, exercise, air pollution, and changes in weather.

Dr.Rashid Ahmed Khan further said that the emotional stress itself anxiety, frustration and anger also can trigger asthma, but the asthmatic condition precedes the emotional stress.

He said that emotions are associated with asthma for another reason. Many children with asthma suffer from severe anxiety during an episode as a result of suffocation produced by asthma. The anxiety and panic can then produce rapid breathing or hyperventilation, which further triggers the asthma, he added.

Dr Rashid Khan suggested that treatment should be aimed at controlling the asthma. When asthma is controlled, emotional stress will be reduced and other emotional factors can then be dealt with more effectively. Any chronic illness, especially if uncontrolled, can have associated secondary psychological problems. More severe psychological problems require a specialist to help the child and his or her family, he added.

‘2,000 people being used by Taliban as human shields’

ISLAMABAD: Militants beheaded two soldiers they had earlier captured in Khawazkhela area of Swat ‘against all norms of religious teachings and human ethics’.

According to a press release issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations on Monday, security forces were still exercising restraint because of the peace agreement but militants’ high-handedness was continuing.

It said that the militants, in gross violation of the peace accord, were marching on the roads of Mingora city and in other areas, threatening innocent people and the civil administration.

The ISPR said that in Buner militants were using 2,000 innocent people as human shields in view of the imminent cleansing of Pir Baba by security forces.

Early on Monday morning, the militants attacked a security convoy in Barrikot. An officer was killed and two soldiers were injured in the ensuing exchange of fire.

Militants raided a security checkpost at Shangla top and killed one soldier. Security forces also came under attack at Maidan and three militants were killed in an exchange of fire.

A vacant police checkpost at Yakhtangi in Shangla was destroyed by the militants who also set on fire three civilian trucks in Biladram area of Chamtalai.

The militants torched the house of a DSP in Kumber (Maidan) and looted the house of a UC Nazim. They kidnapped a few civilians from Kot Haya Sarai area in Maidan.

According to ISPR chief Major General Athar Abbas, the armed forces were exercising maximum restraint and still wanted the issue to be resolved without bloodshed. He, however, said the militants were blatantly violating the peace agreement.

He said the operation in Swat had been suspended to give peace efforts a chance. It is for the government to decide whether or not a military operation should be launched in Swat again.

Violence against minorities ‘common in Pakistan’

WASHINGTON: Pakistan is one of 13 countries named by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom as a place where violence against religious minorities is common and condoned or supported by the government.

Some of the documented violence includes rape victims being charged and jailed for adultery, women being murdered for refusing to quit their jobs, and the public beheading of critics of the Taliban and other terrorist extremists.

The year 2009 ‘has seen the largely unchecked growth in the power and reach of religiously-motivated extremist groups whose members are engaged in violence in Pakistan and abroad, with Pakistani authorities ceding effective control to armed insurgents espousing a radical Islam ideology’, the Annual Report 2009 of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom stated.

The report said Pakistan was one of 13 ‘countries of particular concern’ (CPC) because of ongoing religiously motivated violence that targets minorities.

‘Since 2002, our commission has recommended that Pakistan be named a CPC in light of a whole range of serious religious freedom concerns,’ said Elizabeth Prodromou, vice-chairwoman of the commission.

‘The State Department, however, has not followed the recommendation of the commission,’ added Ms Prodromou, who is also assistant professor in the Department of International Relations at Boston University.

‘Today, the threat to religious freedom or belief in Pakistan has measurably and demonstrably increased,’ she said, ‘and therefore we renew our recommendation that Pakistan be named a PCP’.

Ms Prodromou claimed the Pakistani government had aided and abetted terrorist extremists who targeted religious minorities.

‘Pakistan’s central government in Islamabad has succeeded effective control of more and more of the country to these Taliban-associated extremist groups,’ she said.

‘Pakistanis have repeatedly been murdered while engaging in religious worship,’ she said. ‘The government does not provide adequate protection to members of religious minorities and perpetrators of violence against those communities are seldom brought to justice.’

Ms Prodromou also claimed that the Pakistani police and justice system contribute to religiously motivated violence, with the Hudood Ordinances resulting in the amputations and deaths by stoning for violation of Islamic laws.

The commission recommended decriminalising blasphemy and rescinding laws that outlaw certain religious practices.

A Crisis Out of Reach?

Washington Post
President Obama pointed out last week that while the "typical president" has to handle two or three big problems at once, he has had to juggle "seven or eight." Still, the new administration is managing to generate an impressive amount of energy and activism across that broad field. In foreign affairs, that raises a compelling question: Do the levers of American influence still work?

The question can be asked about the Middle East, Iran and North Korea, where the administration's special envoys and initiatives so far are showing few results. But it is coming to a head in Pakistan, where the Obama team has focused much of its attention and diplomacy the past two weeks.

This first big test has been something of a slow-burner, often neglected by media distracted by pirates and swine flu. Nevertheless, the accelerating power of Islamic extremists in a nuclear-armed state is as big and as scary a threat as any president has faced since the end of the Cold War -- and the administration has responded with an aggressive array of military, political, diplomatic and economic initiatives, in Pakistan, Washington and elsewhere.

The trouble is, it all may not work -- as senior administration officials frankly acknowledge. By year's end, Pakistan could morph into a catastrophe that overshadows those six or seven other big problems. That won't happen because the White House ignored it, but it may be the case that proves that U.S. global influence has receded to a dangerous degree.

The administration began by treating Pakistan as an adjunct to its strategy for Afghanistan, because Pakistan's western tribal territories serve as bases for the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. Yet in the past month Pakistan suddenly has seemed to tip toward collapse as the Taliban rapidly expanded toward Islamabad while the country's army and weak civilian government dithered.

This is the sort of trouble U.S. administrations have often ignored until it was too late -- as in neighboring Iran before its Islamic revolution. So it's been notable how quickly how many senior Obama administration officials have concentrated on Pakistan. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has almost camped out in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of Pakistani army commander Ashfaq Kiyani, visiting twice in the past month alone. President Asif Ali Zardari has been invited to Washington this week for a trilateral summit with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The administration organized a pledging conference in Tokyo three weeks ago that raised $5.5 billion in new civilian aid for the government. It is meanwhile talking to Congress about quickly approving $400 million in training money for Pakistani security forces fighting the Taliban, in addition to the billions in military and economic aid in future budgets. The National Security Council met last week to hear a new report by the U.S. intelligence community, which concluded that an Islamic revolution in Pakistan was not likely "in the near future." An intensive review has also begun of how Pakistan's nuclear weapons are secured and what might happen to them in an emergency.

Much of the focus flows from the administration's special envoy system at the State Department, which has served to bypass a sometimes sluggish bureaucracy. Richard Holbrooke, the czar for Afghanistan and Pakistan and a diplomat of legendary aggressiveness, has been showering Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the White House with memos on Pakistan, shuttling back and forth to the region, and bulking up his staff with outside experts.

All this activity has produced some tentative results. Under heavy American pressure, Zardari backed down from a potentially disastrous street confrontation with rival Nawaz Sharif; the administration is now trying to push Pakistan's two biggest civilian parties into an alliance. Days after Mullen's last visit, the Pakistani army finally launched an offensive last week against Taliban forces that had infiltrated the Buner district, some 60 miles from the capital.

The administration is discovering, however, that its power to influence events in Pakistan is quite limited. Other than remote-controlled missile strikes, the United States has no direct means of stopping Islamic extremists from taking over the country. Despite its new offensive, Pakistan's army still resists U.S. urgings that it shift some of the 250,000 troops it has deployed along the border with India to the western territories where the Taliban is entrenched. Much of the civilian elite remains focused on intramural political squabbles and -- like Iran's secular middle class in the 1970s -- discounts the fundamentalist menace.

"We have a list of things we can do, but at the end of the day they are inputs," one senior official said. "None of them can determine the internal dynamics of the country."

In other words, energy and focus won't necessarily spare Obama from a foreign policy disaster. "It's not good when your national security interests are dependent on a country over which you have almost no influence," said that senior official. Yet those are the cards this atypical president has drawn.

Mullen: 'Gravely Concerned' About Threat to Pakistan Even as Nukes Remain Safe for Now

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Monday he is "gravely concerned" about the "crisis" Pakistan is facing as Taliban militants fight their way past the army toward the capital of Islamabad.

Adm. Mike Mullen, who visited Pakistan and Afghanistan last week, added that while fighting continues in Iraq, and the U.S. remains committed to the mission, "the main effort in our strategic focus from a military perspective must now shift to Afghanistan."

Mullen told reporters at the Pentagon Monday that the Taliban, aided by Al Qaeda, are "recruiting through intimidation, controlling through fear and advancing an unwelcome ideology through thuggery."

"The consequences of their success directly threaten our national interests in the region and our safety here at home," Mullen said.

Mullen was speaking ahead of a joint meeting in Washington, D.C., this week with President Obama, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss economic, political and security benchmarks for ousting militant forces from the region.

Mullen expressed concern that the political leadership and military leadership in Pakistan are working at cross-purposes. Taliban operatives have moved through the Swat Valley, which Pakistan's government essentially ceded to the fundamentalists last month in hopes of batting down additional confrontations.

However, Monday morning, the mayor of Methar Lam City, north of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, was assassinated, and militant forces continue to expand their area of control throughout the border region.

"It's a grim reminder of the brutality with which the Taliban pursue their goals, as is the closing of schools and the imposition of Sharia law," Mullen said.

Mullen said he is pleased with progress made by the Pakistan military in controlling the Buner region, but he has a limit to what he knows. He said that during his trip last week he saw that the Pakistani military is undergoing intensive training under Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the head of the Pakistani army.

Mullen said the Taliban are "pretty consistent" with their fighting, but lately have been "more coordinated" and "operating at a higher level." He said he is as concerned as he was a couple weeks ago that Pakistani security is at a "a tipping point," but has seen several significant movements in operations on the part of the Pakistani military.

"They've had some positive impact. Too soon to tell how long it's going to be sustained and where it goes," he said.

Mullen added that the Pakistani military is capable of dealing with the security of nuclear weapons right now.

"I remain comfortable that the nuclear weapons in Pakistan are secure," Mullen said on the same day The New York Times published an article saying U.S. officials are increasingly nervous about the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

"We all recognize, obviously, the worst downside of -- with respect to Pakistan is that those nuclear weapons come under the control of terrorists. I don't think that's going to happen. I don't see that in any way imminent whatsoever at this particular point in time."

A senior defense official told FOX News that the Pentagon is "very concerned" about the possibility that nuclear weapons could "fall into the hands of extremism given the tenuous state of affairs in Pakistan and recent advancements made by the Taliban."

Another senior U.S. official added that "not everything is known" about the location of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. This official said that security around these sites is "very sophisticated" and because the system is in "piece parts" -- meaning it is held in various locations -- it is that much more secure.

The United States does have a good read on Pakistan's launch sites, which are visible from satellite. But in terms of the locations of raw materials and warheads, some of that is unclear, the official said.

Mullen said he is comfortable with the security of nuclear weapons because the U.S. has spent the last three years investing, assisting and improving security.

On a separate subject, Mullen did not say whether he thinks CIA interrogators engaged in torture during the Bush administration, but supported the position held by Arizona Sen. John McCain that the publicity surrounding "enhanced" techniques will be used against the United States as a recruiting tool.

FOX News Justin Fishel and Steve Centanni contributed to this report.

Tens of thousands flee Pakistani fighting

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Newly displaced residents, fleeing the fighting between government troops and Taliban militants in northwestern Pakistan, are putting a crush on U.N. resources already stretched thin.

The United Nations estimates some 50,000 people have left the embattled district of Buner since fighting erupted there late last month. Other humanitarian sources say the displaced population may be as high as 150,000, but numbers are difficult to confirm in the volatile area about 60 miles (100 km) north of the capital, Islamabad.

Pakistani families are fleeing the area any way they can: on foot, hitching rides on the back of trucks and stowing their belongings on the roofs of cars.

But not all have made it out alive.

"Innocent civilians are lying on the roadside and the dogs are eating their bodies," said an agitated man, who only gave his first name Khushaid.

Another fleeing man, Aurang Zaib, recounted how the military opened fire on his village Saturday.

"They started bombing, so all the people left their homes and fled the area," he said, speaking from inside a pick-up truck loaded with relatives and belongings. "[The soldiers] were shooting at the villages."

The Ministry of Defense was not immediately able to comment on the claims.

The Pakistani military launched an offensive into Buner last week, after hundreds of Taliban fighters descended from their stronghold in the neighboring Swat Valley and seized control of the district last month.

Pakistani forces will likely advance to Swat in coming days, said Yahya Akhunzada, the top Pakistani government official in Buner.

"We have established the writ of the government in the south of Buner," he said Sunday. "Now we are planning ahead toward Swat Valley, Malakand and Shangla."

Brig. Fayaz Mehmood, a Pakistani military commander in Buner, claimed his forces killed between 50 and 80 Taliban fighters during recent fighting, while losing only three Pakistani troops.

The Taliban claimed to have beheaded two members of Pakistani security forces after initially denying it.

The army "killed two of our Taliban commanders," Muslim Khan, a Taliban spokesman in Swat, said laughing. "And we did the same." Khan said armed Taliban fighters are out in force in Swat, patrolling the area.

The latest round of clashes is exacerbating the growing humanitarian crisis that has emerged in northwestern Pakistan since fighting escalated in the region last August.

Two new camps are being established to house the tens of thousands of displaced civilians emerging from Buner and from another combat zone in the district of Lower Dir.

The newly displaced population will further strain resources that are already being used to help house and feed more then half a million people.

Zardari arrives in Washington today

WASHINGTON :President Asif Ali Zardari will reach here on Monday evening for his first official visit to Washington, during which he will hold talks with President Barack Obama on bolstering bilateral relations and attend a trilateral meeting on ways to root out violent extremism from Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.

Besides attending a trilateral summit with President Obama and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai at the White House, the Pakistani leader is scheduled to have a series of meeting with American leaders including Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

Zardari will also be interacting with top congressional leaders on the Capitol Hill including members of the influential Senate and House committees dealing with foreign affairs. On the eve of the visit, US presidential envoy Richard Holbrooke expressed the administration's full support for the democratic government, saying Obama wants to back Islamabad's effort to get rid of militancy with both security and economic assistance.

According to Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, Hussain Haqqani, Islamabad wants a durable and wide-ranging relationship with Washington, which should not be based on quid pro quo but on the principles of sovereign equality of nations.

"In this respect, we welcome initiatives to expand the relationship to trade and economic fields," Haqqani says referring to the administration's moves toward a preferential trade programme known as Reconstruction Opportunity Zones and a long-term plan to provide $1.5 billion to Pakistan annually. "Our objective is to develop a strategic partnership with the US that enhances Pakistan's security and prosperity," Haqqani stressed.

Islamabad also welcomes the US support in rallying the world economic powers and international financial institutions behind Pakistan's economic development plans. According to Finance Ministry, it has lost as much as $35 billion in economic activity to fight against terrorism and resultant spate of attacks in its cities. Pakistan has urged Washington to provide it the much-needed security equipment for an effective fight against al Qaeda militants. The administration is trying to fast-track security and economic assistance for Pakistan as it is endeavouring to get congressional approval for both a five-year $ three billion Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund and a five-year $7.5 billion economic assistance under Kerry-Lugar legislative measure.

The Pakistani leader's visit takes place in the backdrop of some important developments in Pakistan including its effort to enforce security in Swat valley through introduction of Sharia Law in accordance with the aspiration of the local people. Pakistan's security forces have also been fighting the Taliban militants to wrest control of some key north-western areas including Buner and Lower Dir.

In the three-way talks, the Pakistani side is expected to underline the importance of building trust and adopting a comprehensive, multifaceted approach to containing the menace of extremism in the long-term perspective. The Pakistani officials will also raise the issue of drone attacks on suspected al Qaeda targets in the tribal areas, an issue, which has drawn criticism from American experts as well, who call it counterproductive to overall anti-terror effort.