Monday, May 11, 2009

With peace, dreams of Buner students also shattered

SWABI: Like hundreds of other students uprooted from Swat, Buner and Lower Dir districts, the anti-Taliban military operation has also shattered the dreams of Omer Rahman, who wants to become an engineer to serve his beloved country.

Instead of holding books in his hands while studying at the lush green fields of Buner or attending classes at the Daggar Degree College, Omer was standing in a queue with hundreds of his village and town people at a governmental office in Colonel Sher Khan Killay of Swabi to register his name and those of his family members in the list of internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Wearing black shabby shalwar-qamees, with his black shoes covered with dust, Omer said his family arrived in Swabi a day earlier after covering miles of distance on foot to avoid being killed by the helicopter gunships or a stray artillery bullet, which have become a symbol of dread for Buneris.

“I missed to appear in a test for admission in NUST (National University of Science and Technology) because of the operation,” the teenager sobbed. He is a student of third year, but he was re-appearing in the FSc (pre-engg) examination to further improve his marks from the existing 775 and manage to get admission at a University of Engineering and Technology (UET).

“I narrowly missed the chance to reach an engineering university...only four points away in the entry test,” Omer said in a chocked voice while looking away to hide his grief. He said his FSc exam for improvement of marks was underway when the security forces personnel entered their college, ordered the students of ‘C’ Hall to hands up for body search and then the examiners announced that the examination had been cancelled.

The announcement dealt a severe blow to the dreams of the young man who, along with nine other classmates, have set the target of 800 marks and were determined to reach the UET this time. “We were midway when the examination was cancelled. Three papers were given and while attempting the fourth, the announcement of exam cancellation came upon us like a thunder from the sky,” he recalled.

Omer again burst into tears as he recalled his last night telephonic conversation with his nine colleagues, who were also appearing in the FSc examination to improve their position and made their way to an engineering university. “All of us ended up in a refugee camp instead,” said the aggrieved young man.

Omer said he and his colleagues continued attempting the examination despite twice fired upon from the nearby mountains while coming for papers. He said they used to come via other routes instead of using the main road to Daggar College to carry on with their papers.

“I was sure of cent percent results this time as my prep was excellent,” said Omer who was more concerned about his educational future than his family, farms, crops, cattle and a house in Daggar village, the main town of Buner district.

Like other IDPs, Omer’s family is living in a house offered by their benefactors from Colonel Sher Khan village. Many IDP families from Buner are presently living in houses with people from different villages, including Karnal Sher Khan Killay, Sherjana, Speen Kanee, Dagai, Yar Hussain, Tolandai, Shera Ghund, Shewa, Parmolo, Had Khan, Hamaza Dher and Kalo Dher of Swabi district.

Fifteen-year-old Ayub was another student standing in the same queue to register himself as a refugee for a few loaves of bread, a few kilograms of rice and some sugar from a government centre in the same area.

Like his senior partner, Ayub, a student of 8th class at a private school in Daggar, was also concerned about his education. He said his father was in Dubai and he (Ayub) was the only male member who led the family through Tor Sak, Jawar and Kalpanai areas to reach Swabi. Ayub’s family is also living in the house of a villager in Dagai village.

Shahenshah, another student from Kalpanai village, is living with his family at a camp set up by a local politician and philanthropist Liaqat Tarakai. Student of the Modern Public School in Kalpanai village, Shahenshah has just promoted to class 9. He said he had left his new books and could not bring them while in a hurry to save their lives.

The NWFP government, which seems to be more concerned about financial assistance nowadays, has not devised any strategy so far to address the problems of students like Omer Rahman.

Education Minister Sardar Hussain Babak hurriedly said they were doing something for the displaced students when he was told about the touching story of Omer Rahman during his visit to the Yar Hussain IDP camp the same day.

However, the minister delivered an untiring lecture to this scribe about highlighting the problems of IDPs and the financial problems of the provincial government to draw more aid and financial assistance from the international donors and the federal government.

Men, women, and children flee violence in Pakistan

MARDAN DISTRICT, Pakistan, (UNHCR) – The UN Refugee Agency said Friday there was a situation of "massive displacement" in north-west Pakistan, as the confrontation between government forces and militants becomes more widespread and people take advantage of the partial lifting of curfews to move into safer areas.The provincial government estimates between 150,000 to 200,000 people have arrived in safer areas of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) over the last few days, with another 300,000 on the move or about to move.Those fleeing the latest escalation of hostilities in Lower Dir, Buner and Swat districts join another 555,000 previously displaced Pakistanis who had fled their homes in the tribal areas and NWFP since August 2008 and who had already been registered by NWFP authorities and UNHCR. The vast majority of the earlier arrivals – more than 462,000 people – are staying in rental accommodation or with host families. Another 93,000 are staying in 11 camps supported by UNHCR."The new arrivals are going to place huge additional pressure on resources," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said in Geneva. To date, more than 83,000 people from Buner, Dir, and Swat have been registered from the new influx: some 5,000 staying in three new camps and more than 78,000 people who are renting houses or staying with host families.However, registration in the new camps is continuing and the figures will rise quickly. There are also reports of people from Buner arriving at the existing camps in Lower Dir. In Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore and other urban centres of the Punjab, UNHCR has registered a further 40,000 displaced people, mainly from Bajaur, Mohmand and Swat, over the past two weeks.UNHCR field teams report the roads out of Swat and Buner, as they converge in the districts of Mardan and Swabi, are full of traffic. A journey to Mardan, which normally takes two hours, now can take twice that long because the road is jammed.The Jalala camp in Mardan district is one of the three camps established six days ago in response to the influx of people fleeing fighting in Buner and Lower Dir. In the last two days, an increasing number of families from Swat have gone to the camp, travelling in rickshaws, cars, small trucks and buses. Most carry little more than the clothes on their backs.New arrivals told UNHCR staff in the camp yesterday that they had trouble finding transport and had to pay steep prices to hire vehicles. One family of 20 from Buner reported paying 30,000 rupees ($350) to travel to the camp from their home. Another man from Mingora, capital of Swat, drove with his family in a rickshaw for seven hours to reach the safety of Jalala camp.
Mohammad, aged 16, was at school in his Swat Valley village when the government warned people to leave. He arrived in Jalala on Thursday carrying his school books because he did not want to fall behind in his studies. "We came to this place because it is a safe place. We had nowhere else to go. My father is a cabbage farmer. We do not have a lot of resources or savings and we had no choice but to come here," he told UNHCR.The teenager said he had seen lots of people on the road and scrambling to get lifts on vehicles. "For the first time in my life, I saw women hanging off the sides of vehicles," he said, adding: "People are desperate to flee and find transport." He managed to hitch a series of lifts.Amandullah, from Buner district, took four days to reach Jalala by vehicle because he and family members could not travel during curfew hours. "My family was separated on the journey and I hope my father will arrive soon." said the worried 22-year-old.Meanwhile, a doctor working for the provincial government in Jalala said people were arriving with respiratory problems, scabies, insomnia and trauma. "People have left behind animals and poultry and, in some cases, even family members. They have had to flee their homes suddenly. Many of the children don't even have shoes."Aside from Jalala, UNHCR has also helped set up Sheikh Shehzad camp in Mardan and Yar Hussain camp in Swabi district. "We are helping the Pakistan Red Crescent set up a fourth camp in Swabi. UNHCR site planners are currently assessing the suitability of land for additional camps in the region already identified by the government," Redmond said in Geneva.Meanwhile, further south in NWFP, plans are under way to further expand the existing Jalozai camp, currently hosting some 48,000 people who have fled the tribal areas since August last year.Over the past week, UNHCR has worked with the government to set up 12 registration centres in Mardan, Swabi and Charsadda districts. However, this is not enough and the agency has plans to open 75 registration centres in the region and to expand the number of humanitarian hubs aimed at helping people staying outside of camps.On Thursday, a new reception centre opened on the main Malakand Road at Jalala to give people food, water and information about the camps and registration centres. It is the first of four such centres planned on the major routes of influx to assist people in the safer areas. Plans are also under way to provide medical care and transport assistance at the reception centers.UNHCR is currently responding to the emergency with relief supplies (tents, plastic sheets, buckets, jerry cans, and kitchen sets) for 100,000 people, while procuring additional supplies for an additional 200,000.

UN to Air Lift Supplies to Conflict-Hit Pakistan

The United Nations refugee agency says it will airlift 120 tons of humanitarian supplies to help Pakistanis fleeing a military offensive against the Taliban.

The agency's chief, Antonio Guterres, said Monday that the "speed and scale" of the displacement of people in northwestern Pakistan requires an immediate international humanitarian response.

The airlift will include $584,000 worth of plastic sheets, portable warehouses and mosquito nets. The United States also announced Monday that it is providing $4.9 million in emergency aid to displaced families.

The U.N. refugee agency says more than 360,000 people have registered with authorities after escaping the latest fighting.

Pakistan's army launched its air and ground offensive against Taliban positions in the northwest Malakand region last week after a peace pact broke down. Heavy fighting also continues across the Swat Valley.

The newest refugees are joining about 500,000 other people who have been displaced by violence in other northwestern areas in the past year.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik announced Monday that at least 700 militants were killed in operations around the northwestern Swat Valley in recent days. The death toll could not be independently verified.

As the military pushed forward Monday, a suicide bomber killed 10 people at a security checkpoint in North West Frontier Province. No one claimed responsibility for the blast.

In related news, the U.S.-based New York Times newspaper published a report Monday saying that al-Qaida is taking advantage of Pakistan's turmoil to strengthen its presence there. The article quotes unnamed U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials who say al-Qaida is recruiting young fighters from across the region and the Middle East, and bolstering other Islamist militant groups.

Iran Releases Journalist Convicted of Spying for U.S.

TEHRAN — An Iranian-American journalist who was sentenced to eight years in jail on charges of spying for Washington was released Monday after an appeals court reduced the sentence, her lawyer said. The journalist, Roxana Saberi, will be able to leave the country, he said.

The lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, who defended Ms. Saberi in a hearing on Sunday, said the court rejected the original jail term and issued a two-year suspended prison term in its place.

“The verdict was given to me in person today,” Mr. Nikbakht said. “The appeals court has accepted our defense.”

Ms. Saberi had been held in Evin prison in Tehran since January. Her father, Reza Saberi, told journalists that Ms. Saberi was “exhausted but in good condition.” He added: “Her release was a big surprise.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a news briefing at the State Department that Ms. Saberi had been reunited with her family and that she would leave Tehran for the United States in the coming days.

“Obviously, we continue to take issue with the charges against her, and the verdict rendered,” Ms. Clinton said. “But we are very heartened that she has been released, and wish her and her family all the very best.”

The case threatened to complicate political maneuvering between Iranian and American leaders over Iran’s nuclear program, a source of longstanding tension between the two nations. President Obama recently made overtures to Tehran about starting a dialogue over the nuclear program, and Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, responded positively.

The State Department spokesman, Ian Kelly, said the release of Ms. Saberi would help reduce the chill in Iranian-American relations. “We see it as a humanitarian gesture, and we welcome it as such,” he said.

A senior administration official said Ms. Saberi’s case illustrated a deepening divide with the Iranian leadership about how to respond to President Obama’s offer of direct negotiations.

“The fact that she was taken and not released right away was clearly something done by the hard liners,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “But those who were open to the United States said ‘wait a minute.”

“Those who are trying to engage the U.S. won out,” the official said, noting that the release removes a substantial short-term impediment to direct talks between Iran and the United States.

“There wasn’t going to be any major new administration initiative toward Iran without this case resolved,” he said. “If we were going to go in any way toward a direct dialogue, it had to be resolved.”

The appeals court ruling appeared to reflect the moderating tone of relations between the two nations. In the closed hearing on Sunday, Mr. Nikbakht argued that Ms. Saberi should be released because both Iran’s foreign ministry and its judiciary had recently affirmed that “there was no hostility between Iran and the United States,” he said. The judges accepted the argument.

Saeed Leylaz, a political analyst in Tehran, said that he believed Ms. Saberi’s release confirmed speculation that her arrest was political. “Maybe Iran wants to send a message to Washington with her release that we are powerful,” he said. “Secondly, that we are flexible, and thirdly, that if we receive the right incentives, we will hold talks as well.”

Ms. Saberi, 32, has lived in Iran since 2003 and worked as a freelance journalist for National Public Radio and the BBC. She was arrested in late January for buying a bottle of wine, which is illegal in Iran. But the charges against her escalated to working without a press card and then spying for Washington. Her press card had been revoked in 2006.

Ms. Saberi was found guilty in April in a trial her father said lasted less than an hour. Soon after her sentencing, Mr. Ahmadinejad urged the chief prosecutor to re-examine the case in a move analysts saw as a way to portray himself as a defender of human rights ahead of the presidential election on June 12.

With Ms. Saberi’s case seemingly settled, attention shifted to others incarcerated, including two Iranian-American doctors, Kamiar and Arash Alaei, who were arrested in the Islamic Republic while working on AIDS relief and accused last December of interacting with an “enemy government.” Vigils demanding their release were planned in 16 countries and at the United Nations on Tuesday.

Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based group, said that he was “thrilled” that Ms. Saberi had been released from prison.

“But this is also a moment to reflect on the difficult conditions that Iranian journalists endure every day,” Mr. Simon said. “Several Iranian journalists remain jailed today. We urge they be given the same opportunity for judicial review that was afforded to Roxana Saberi.”

Gates replacing top U.S. commander in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON -- The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- Gen. David McKiernan -- will be replaced by Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Monday afternoon.

Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez has been tapped to serve as McChrystal's deputy.

McKiernan, who was asked to resign, will remain in his current position -- which as top U.S. commander means he is the head of NATO forces in Afghanistan -- until McChrystal and Rodriguez are confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Gates said.

"Today we have a new policy set by our new president," Gates said at a Pentagon news conference.

"We have a new strategy, a new mission, and a new ambassador (in Afghanistan). I believe that new military leadership also is needed."

Gates stated that "nothing went wrong" under McKiernan, but that it was his "conviction ... that a fresh approach (and) a fresh look in the context of a new strategy was in our best interest.

"We have in (McChrystal and Rodriguez) a rich experience level," added Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"These two officers will bring ... a focus that we really need in 2009."

Mullen noted that McKiernan, who has been in Afghanistan for 11 months, would have been scheduled to rotate out of Afghanistan after 18 to 24 months.

Gates' announcement came less than a week after President Obama met with the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan and pledged a more coordinated effort to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban.

In addition to sending 21,000 more troops and trainers to Afghanistan, Obama has committed a surge in U.S. civilian personnel and aid to boost domestic support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is currently considered weak and unpopular.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said earlier Monday that Gates "asked for and got from the president his commitment" to support the switch from McKiernan to McChrystal.

"Let none of this detract from, nor cause us ever to forget Gen. McKiernan's long and distinguished career of military service. For decades, in peace and war, Dave McKiernan has led hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform with conviction, integrity and courage," Gates said.

Two girls school blown up in Landi Kotal

LANDI KOTAL: Militants blew up two girls schools and an alcohol shop in Khyber tribal region on Monday, officials said.A science laboratory and an adjacent classroom were partially damaged when an explosive device went off at the Government Higher Secondary School for Girls, situated close to an army camp.Claiming responsibility for the blast, Umar Farooq, a spokesman of local militants demanded the girls’ school shut within a week.Speaking to local reporters on phone from an undisclosed location, he threatened to attack girls students if the school was not closed.The boundary wall of another girls primary school at Nadar Khan Zakhakhel Kalay was damaged when a low intensity explosive device went off at around midnight.Militants also blew up a shop at Charwazgai for allegedly selling local made alcohol. The shop was completely destroyed by the blast.In a related incident, militants fired a rocket at the Landi Kotal helipad which landed near the Hamza Baba mausoleum situated near the helipad.
Another low intensity explosive device went off near the boundary wall of the Government Degree College for Boys which smashed window pans of nearby houses.

Roxana Saberi, US-Iranian journalist, 'to be freed'

Roxana Saberi, an American journalist jailed for spying in Iran, could be released within hours after her sentence was overturned, her lawyer said today.

An Iranian appeals court has reduced the eight-year jail sentence to a suspended two-year term. She was initially given the lengthy prison term during a secret hearing that sparked a diplomatic incident between Washington and Tehran.

Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, her lawyer, said: “The appeals court ... has reduced her jail sentence from eight years to two years of suspended sentence ... and she will soon be free.”

Ms Saberi, 31, a dual American-Iranian national who had lived in Tehran for the past six years, was found guilty of espionage and told she would be imprisoned in the notorious Evin prison in the Iranian capital.

Her father, Reza Saberi, described the court proceedings last month as a mock trial and said that the entire hearing lasted only a few minutes.

Western diplomats in Tehran and Iranian reformers were sceptical about the case, suggesting that it was politically motivated.

There were suspicions that hardliners in the regime wanted to use the prosecution to end a peace initiative announced by President Obama. Another interpretation was that Iran wanted a bargaining chip to use with the Americans.

President Obama personally intervened on her behalf at the time damaging hopes for a reconciliation bid with the Islamic regime.

He said: “I have complete confidence that she was not engaging in any sort of espionage. She is an Iranian-American who was interested in the country which her family came from, and it is appropriate for her to be treated as such and to be released.”

Taliban challenge of 21st century

About 3,000 terrorists in Swat Valley would be killed, says President Zardari
WASHINGTON: President Asif Ali Zardari has reiterated his confidence that his country will not collapse in the increasing insurgency of the Taliban forces, adding this is the new challenge of the 21st century, and this is the new war."
Speaking in an interview with the NBC aired on Sunday, Zardari said, "Is the state of Pakistan going to collapse? No. We are 180 million people. There the population is much, much more than the insurgents are."
Zardari made the remarks in response to the saying by some US military analysts who had raised the possibility of a collapse of the Pakistani state because of the worsening situation resulted from the Taliban insurgency.
Admitting that Pakistan has "a problem" with Taliban activities inside its borders, Zardari called for joint international effort to deal with the threats of Taliban activities. "I think we need to find a strategy where the world gets together against this threat, because it's not Pakistan-specific. It's not Afghanistan-specific," he said.
"I think the world needs to understand that this is the new challenge of the 21st century, and this is the new war."
Observing that about 3,000 terrorists were in Swat valley, President Asif Ali Zardari said his government is determined to kill them all to bring life to normalcy in the picturesque valley.
He said that Pakistan Army has been carrying out operation against the terrorists and they had some successes earlier and "this success is going to be even more effective." When asked to clarify on the statement made by his Prime Minister that the objective was to "eliminate the militants and terrorists," Zardari said:
"That means clearing out the area of the miscreants and bringing life to normalcy. ... If they can, they kill our soldiers and we do the same." When interviewer, Margaret Warner asked him to clarify what "eliminate" means, Zardari said "eliminate means exactly what it means." When she asked: "Killing them all". Zardari replied: "That's what it means." It could be the toughest message coming from President against the terrorists so far.
Zardari said the Swat peace agreement with militants no longer exists. "The deal was based upon the fact that they would bring peace and lay down the arms. They refuse to lay down arms and they did not bring peace to the region. So yes, you can say that the deal is off," he said.
Acknowledging that there has been a presence of the Taliban in the Swat Valley, Zardari however asserted that they were never running the show. "There was a presence of the Taliban. We were there and we had - you know this is the third operation in Swat. We have encountered them before and we had an agreement which failed - it did not work.
So now they have to be eliminated." Zardari also said that the deal could not be revived in case the Taliban abide by the contours of the agreement and stop taking military action.
President said after the army operation was over non-governmental and humanitarian organisations would be asked to move in the area to provide aid.
"We can't have the aid donors going in there and getting casualties on them also. So it is a little precarious, a little difficult situation. But the moment it settles down, they will be allowed to go there. At the moment, the situation is the people have come out of the area. So we are looking after them in camps. Most of them have gone to their own extended families. That's the way it is playing out," he said.
President Asif Ali Zardari has said India is not a threat to Pakistan and it is facing danger from the terrorists inside the country.
"Well, I am already on record. I have never considered India a threat," Zardari said.
"I have always considered India a neighbour, which we want to improve our relationship with. We have had some cold times and we have had some hard times with them. We have gone to war thrice, but democracies are always trying to improve relationships," Zardari said while responding to a question about "which being the greatest threat to Pakistan? India, or the militants."

Suicide attack kills 10 in Darra Adam Khel

PESHAWAR :A suicide car bomber on Monday killed 10 people at a paramilitary checkpoint in Darra Adam Khel.

"Ten people were killed. Three of them died of their injuries in hospital. And seven people are injured," an intelligence official told AFP.

Officials said a six-year-old girl and two security personnel were among those killed when the suicide bomber exploded his car near the checkpost.

No one initially claimed the responsibility for the blast.

Army says 52 militants killed in Swat

ISLAMABAD :The military said Monday that 52 militants had been killed during an offensive against Taliban militants in the district of Swat over the last 24 hours.

"(The) operation against miscreants by security forces is making headway... In the last 24 hours, 52 miscreants have been killed and five wounded during the exchange of fire," the military said in a statement.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik earlier said more than 700 militants have been killed in the northwest, although such official tolls are unverifiable and authorities have not released any information on civilian casualties.