Monday, May 18, 2009

Swat valley could be worst refugee crisis since Rwanda, UN warns
The human exodus from the war-torn Swat valley in northern Pakistan is turning into the world's most dramatic displacement crisis since the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the UN refugee agency warned.
Almost 1.5 million people have registered for assistance since fighting erupted three weeks ago, the UNHCR said, bringing the total number of war displaced in North West Frontier province to more than 2 million, not including 300,000 the provincial government believes have not registered. "It's been a long time since there has been a displacement this big," the UNHCR's spokesman Ron Redmond said in Geneva, trying to recall the last time so many people had been uprooted so quickly. "It could go back to Rwanda."

The army reported fierce clashes across Swat, a tourist haven turned Taliban stronghold. After a week of intense aerial bombardment with fighter jets and helicopter gunships the army has launched a ground offensive to drive out the militants to rout the militants from the valley. Commandos pushed through the remote Piochar valley, seizing a training centre and killing a dozen Taliban, a military spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, said. Gun battles erupted in several villages surrounding Mingora, Swat's main town. Abbas said the military had killed 27 militants, including three commanders, and lost three members of the security forces. The figures could not be verified, as Swat has been largely cut off since the operation started.

The Taliban leader in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, remains at large. His spokesman vowed the rebels would fight until their "last breath".

The operation continues to enjoy broad public support. Opposition parties endorsed the action at a conference called by the government, dispelling the notion that the army was fighting "America's war".

But that fragile unity could be threatened by heavy civilian casualties or a further deterioration in the conditions of the 2 million displaced. Returning from a three-day trip to Pakistan, the UNHCR head António Guterres termed the displacement crisis as "one of the most dramatic of recent times". Relief workers were "struggling to keep up with the size and speed of the displacement," a statement said.

The main difference with African refugee crises such as Rwanda, however, is that a minority of people are being housed in tented camps. According to the UN just 130,000 people are being accommodated in the sprawling, hot camps in Mardan and Swabi districts, while most are squeezed into the homes of friends or relatives, with as many as 85 people in one house.

Nevertheless aid workers and political analysts warn that if international aid to ease the crisis is not urgently delivered, the strain on the displaced and those helping them could lead to political destablisation. Acknowledging the scale of the crisis, the prime minister of Pakistan, Yousaf Raza Gilani, said: "The displaced men, women and children should not feel alone. We won't leave any stone unturned in providing them help and protection."

The UN is expected to launch an international appeal for aid running into hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming days.

Obama insists Palestinians must have state, rejects Iran deadline

May. 18, 2009
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu emerged from his first meeting with US President Barack Obama Monday confident that Israel has the right to defend itself from the threat of a nuclear Iran.

Following four hours of talks with Obama, Netanyahu told Israeli reporters gathered across from the White House that there are no green, red or yellow lights from the US but rather a shared sense that Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons capacity.

Speaking side by side at the Oval Office earlier in the day, Obama stressed the importance the US places on Israeli security and its recognition of how the Jewish state perceives the threat from Teheran, even as he defended his policy of engagement.

Obama rejected the notion of "artificial timelines" in negotiations with Iran, which he indicated he expected would begin in earnest after the Iranian election on June 12 and could subsequently expand to include direct talks between Washington and the Islamic republic.

At the same time, he stressed that "we're not going to have talk forever" and allow Teheran to develop a nuclear weapon while negotiations go on, offering that "we'll probably be able to gauge and do a reassessment by the end of the year."

He also noted that "we are not foreclosing a range of steps, including much stronger international sanctions, in assuring that Iran understands that we are serious."

Israel has been pushing for a timeline on the United States's diplomatic efforts out of concern that Iran could use the talks to run out the clock. The notion of a timeline was just one subject where differences were expected to emerge between the two leaders as they sat down for their first meeting as respective heads of government in a visit deemed crucial for determining the contours of their relationship and personal rapport.

The policy differences were clear, with Obama emphasizing the importance of a "two-state solution" and an end to settlement growth even as Netanyahu made no reference to an independent Palestinian country. Instead, the prime minister spoke of the possibility of a "two peoples to live side by side in security and peace" if the Palestinians recognized Israel as a Jewish state and agreed to an end of conflict.

Both men positively described the encounter, which was repeatedly prolonged to give the two more time together; their one-on-one meeting lasted for an hour and 45 minutes.

Netanyahu declared a desire to restart negotiations with the Palestinians immediately, saying, "We don't want to govern the Palestinians. We want to live in peace with them. We want them to govern themselves, absent a handful of powers that could endanger the State of Israel."

He also noted that "there'll have to be compromises by Israelis and Palestinians alike. We're ready to do our share."

The talks, which Obama described as "extraordinarily productive" and Netanyahu called friendly, went on for much longer than the time the American president has usually devoted to foreign leaders this year. Israeli officials took this as a good sign.

Asked about reports in the media that Israel felt progress on Iran needed to be linked to progress with the Palestinians, Obama explicitly rejected the formulation, saying, "If there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way: To the extent that we can make peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with the potential Iranian threat."

But he added that both issues needed to be addressed independently on their own merits.

And Netanyahu, with Obama nodding along, said each issue could be helpful in reaching a positive conclusion on the other, but that there was no "policy linkage." Netanyahu also thanked Obama for his willingness to keep all options on the table when it comes to Iran.

And following the meeting with Obama, he told the Israeli media that he sensed a seriousness in the new American administration to push the Arab states to take meaningful steps toward peace with Israel that he had not seen before.

In his remarks to the press, Obama said "there is a recognition that the Palestinians are going to have to do a better job providing the kinds of security assurances that Israelis would need to achieve a two-state solution, [and] gain additional legitimacy and credibility with their own people, and delivering services."

He also said, "The other Arab states have to be more supportive and be bolder in seeking potential normalization with Israel."

But he cautioned Israel that it would have to make difficult steps, too, including improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and stressed that "there is a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements; that settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward."

Obama also said that the situation in Sderot was unacceptable, and that he'd seen the situation there himself. During that visit, during his electoral campaign over the summer, he first met with Netanyahu, though Monday was their first tete-a-tete as leaders of their respective countries.

Obama also noted it wasn't the first time Netanyahu had come to the White House as prime minister, perhaps warning him about the possible mistakes that could come from sour US-Israel relations such as those the prime minister once experienced with US president Bill Clinton in his bid to coax him toward the peace process.

"I'm confident that he's going to seize this moment and the United States is going to do everything we can to be constructive, effective partners in this process," Obama said of Netanyahu.

U.N. says 1.4 mln people displaced in Pakistan valley

UNITED NATIONS- The number of people displaced by fighting in Pakistan's northwestern Swat valley has risen to more than 1.4 million, U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said on Monday.

"The situation is volatile and changing rapidly," Holmes told reporters at the United Nations.

He said extra financial resources were urgently needed to deal with the situation and that the United Nations would soon launch an emergency appeal for hundreds of millions of dollars to cover the costs of the refugees over the next 12 months.

Pakistan's government on Sunday urged people stranded by a military offensive against Taliban militants in Swat, an alpine beauty spot 80 miles northwest of Islamabad, to try to get out.

Many civilians are believed to still be inside Mingora, the main town in Swat, after the army launched an offensive more than a week ago to stop the spread of Taliban influence.

Holmes said the number of people displaced by the most recent fighting is more than 1.4 million. That is a total of people registered with the Pakistan authorities, with the help of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), he said.

The U.N. previously said it had registered 1.17 million people displaced by the fighting in the Swat area.

Holmes said that when including at least half a million more displaced by fighting since last August, the total is around 2 million to 2.1 million people.

"This is clearly a major humanitarian challenge for the government and all the aid agencies," said Holmes. "All the agencies are scaling up their efforts and their presence rapidly," he said.

Holmes said that 15-20 percent -- or around 250,000 -- of those registered are in some 24 camps, meaning that most people are with families, in rented accommodations or elsewhere.

UNHCR, which already had a major presence in Pakistan, has been distributing aid from the stocks it already had in the country and helping establish new camps as well as registration centers, Holmes said.

"There will need to be extra resources... and I expect a revised appeal to be published this week," said Holmes.

Bill Clinton to be named to UN post

UNITED NATIONS — Former U.S. President Bill Clinton has been tapped as a United Nations special envoy to Haiti, U.N. officials confirmed on Monday.An official announcement will be made Tuesday on the selection of the two-term president, officials said.

Swat Qaumi Jirga supports operation

PESHAWAR: Expressing satisfaction over the ongoing military operation in Swat, Buner and Dir Lower districts, members of the Swat Qaumi Jirga on Sunday asked the government and security forces to take it to its logical conclusion.

“Qazi Hussain Ahmad, Sirajul Haq and Imran Khan should not score political points on the massacre of our children and destruction of our property,” said the Jirga members after its meeting at the provincial headquarters of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) here.

“We wish to convey our voice to the participants of the government-sponsored All Parties Conference (APC), scheduled to be held today (Monday), not to pay heed to the voices of some so-called political and religious elements who want an end to the operation in Malakand Division,” the Swat Qaumi Jirga declared.

Besides Jirga members, the meeting was attended by Swat district Nazim Jamal Nasir, Nazim Batkhela Abdul Jabbar, Ayub Khan, Ziauddin Yousafzai and Provincial President of PkMAP Mukhtar Khan Yousafzai.

Briefing the journalists, Mukhtar Yousafzai, flanked by the rest of the Jirga members, said the Swat operation should continue till the militants laid down their arms or were eliminated. “The problem can’t be solved through talks as the government has already conceded much time and concessions. Now it is time to act,” said Yousafzai while voicing strong support for the military action. He said religious or other parties asking for an end to the operation had two options. “Either they are supporting the terrorists or are against them,” said Yousafzai, who also demanded of the provincial and central governments to charge the former commissioner Malakand Division Muhammad Javed and Chief of Tanzim Nifaz Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) Sufi Muhammad over the killing hundreds of people.

Nazim Swat Jamal Nasir, Nazim Batkhela Abdul Jabbar and Ziauddin Yousafzai said although they were satisfied with the pace of the operation, yet the people of the Malakand Division wanted the elimination of the top Taliban leadership.

“The operation must be quick and targeted. Security forces will win hearts of the people by eliminating the high value targets in Swat,” they demanded. Some of the Jirga members complained that the Taliban FM radio was still operational, creating doubts in the minds of the people of Swat.

The Jirga members appealed to the people to boycott the religious and political parties demanding suspension of the operation and asking for talks with the militants at this crucial time.

They also warned against some elements active in the camps for the internally displaced persons in the guise of welfare organisations. They asked the government to take action against such elements.

Army to remain in Malakand till restoration of peace: PM

ISLAMABAD: The All Parties Conference (APC) on Swat Operation has begun in Prime Minister House here. The leaders of all political parties are participating in the conference.In his inaugurating address, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said army to remain deployed in Malakand till restoration of peace and return of IDPs to their homes. This conference is reflected that we are capable to resolve problems on our own. Focus of the conference is Swat and Malakand situation. The recommendations which would chalk our in the conference will be included in national policy. Reconciliation policy was adopted on Swat and Malakand situation. Federal government expressed satisfaction when NWFP made peace deal. The agreement tabled in National Assembly, which was approved and later, signed by President Asif Zardari.Prime Minister said unfortunately peace did not restored in the region despite implementation of Nizam-e-Adl. Swat militants destroyed educational institutions and hospitals. Sufi Muhammad and comrades challenged the writ of government. He sanctioned billion for affected areas.Premier Gilani announced made it clear that Pakistan’s nuclear assets are completely safe and global concerns in this connection are baseless.

Pakistani army claims to have killed over 1,000 Taliban fighters

Pakistani security forces fought Taliban militants on the outskirts of the main city in the north-west’s Swat Valley and entered two other Taliban-held towns there, the army has said, foreshadowing what could become bloody urban battles.

A top government official said the offensive near Afghanistan had already killed more than 1,000 Taliban fighters, while a group of pro-government religious leaders endorsed the operation, but condemned US missile strikes in the north-west.

The developments underscored Pakistan’s resolve and frustration in its battle against militancy.

Washington has pressed Islamabad to crack down on al Qaida and Taliban strongholds along the Afghan frontier, saying the militants threaten not only US and Nato troops in Afghanistan but also nuclear-armed Pakistan’s future. But many in Pakistan believe the militancy here has increased because of US intervention in Afghanistan.

Recent Taliban forays into a district just 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad, seem to have swayed many Pakistanis to support the most recent military operation, but that could easily change if the toll on the hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced mounts, and if more US missiles strikes stoke greater popular discontent.

In giving the 1,000-plus death toll yesterday, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the operation in Swat and surrounding areas would “continue till the last Taliban are flushed out”. It was not possible to independently verify the figure. The territories bombarded over the past three weeks are now too dangerous for journalists to freely visit.

In a statement this afternoon, the army said 25 militants and a soldier died in the previous 24 hours.

Security forces were facing off with militants in “intense fire engagements” on the outskirts of Swat’s main town, Mingora, where many of the estimated 4,000 Taliban fighters in the valley are believed to be holed up, the statement said.

It also said security forces had surrounded and entered the towns of Matta and Kanju to take on the militants, and it requested civilians still in those areas stay away from the Taliban hide-outs. Troops were making gains in remote Piochar area, the rear base of Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, it added.

“The operation is going in the right direction as we had planned,” Mr Malik said in a televised news conference from Mardan, where he went to relief camps to see some of the new refugees. “I cannot give a time but we will try (to complete the operation) at the earliest.”

The military did not detail how many ground troops were involved in the latest advances.

Pakistan’s army is geared towards fighting a conventional battle again long-time rival India on the plains of the Punjab region using tanks and artillery, and it has limited experience battling guerrillas in urban settings.

Its most recent major offensive, in the Bajur tribal region, drew praise from US officials for dismantling a virtual Taliban mini-state, but was criticised for the large amount of destruction it caused. The number of civilians killed in Bajur is unknown.

At a convention in Islamabad, hundreds of religious scholars and leaders denounced suicide attacks and other Taliban tactics in urging the government to continue the operation until peace is restored. The attendees also blasted the US missile strikes, saying Pakistan should take up the matter at the United Nations.

“Internally, terrorists were attempting to weaken Pakistan by spreading terrorism and killing people and on the other hand drone attacks are on. This is a conspiracy against Pakistan and we will foil it,” said Sahibzada Fazl Karim, one of the speakers.

US officials say the missile strikes are a critical tool in killing top militants, but Pakistan has protested against them, though many analysts believe the two countries have a secret deal allowing the attacks.

Pakistanis trickle home to war zone to harvest wheat

DAGGAR, Pakistan - Fighting between the Pakistani army and Taliban militants drove farmer Rahim Zada and his family from their home in the mountains a week ago but on Sunday he was trudging back.

"I've come back to harvest my crop," Zada said as he took a break on the road with his aged father, four women in all-enveloping burqas and a baby.

"We can't live in Mardan, it's too hot," he said, referring to the main town on the lowland to the south.

More than a million people have sought refuge on the lowland from fighting that began last month when the army moved to push the Taliban out of Buner district, 100 km (60 miles) northwest of Islamabad.The army then launched an offensive in the Swat valley, to the north of Buner. "There was fierce fighting but now we hope there will be peace. That's why we've come back," Zada said as he and his relatives, laden with boxes and bundles, resumed their walk into the mountains.

More than 1,000 militants had been killed in the offensive, the Interior Ministry said on Sunday. There was no independent confirmation of the toll.

In fertile fields by the road from the lowland up to Buner, wheat was ready for harvest while stands of tobacco were growing well. Burnt-out cars and trucks lay on the road.


The fighting in Buner district began in the small town of Ambala and it would appear the Taliban put up stiff resistance.

Many shops along Ambala's main street, including the town's petrol station, have been destroyed and many homes damaged.

Broken glass, electric cable and shattered trees littered the ground.

The town was mostly deserted but two small shops were open.

"Ambala was the front line," said Shah Wali, preparing chewing tobacco in one of the shops. "I came back yesterday just to see if my house was standing."

In Daggar, the main town in Buner, the district's top government official said about 350 Taliban were holding out in the village of Sultanwas, about 6 km (four miles) away.

"Much of Buner has been cleared of militants and now the fighting is concentrated on their main stronghold in Sultanwas," said administrator Yahya Akhundzada.

"When it is fully cleared then the whole of Buner will be cleared and we will ask the people to return," he said.

"We hope it will be a matter of days."

An occasional boom of artillery rang out over the hills as he spoke.

Very few civilians remained in Buner, all shops were closed and its hospital was deserted.

But authorities have relaxed a curfew in Buner during the day to allow those farmers who are there to harvest their wheat.

"People are returning as their crops are going to waste," said police officer Jaffer Khan.