Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Afzal Lala gets Hilal-i-Shujaat

ISLAMABAD: President Asif Ali Zardari conferred Hilal-i-Shujaat on veteran politician Muhammad Afzal Khan Lala at an investiture held at the Aiwan-e-Sadr on Wednesday.The investiture was attended among others by Awami National Party chief Asfandyar Wali Khan, NWFP Governor Owais Ahmad Ghani, cabinet members and provincial ministers.

Hilal-i-Shujaat has been conferred on Muhammad Afzal Khan Lala, a former federal and NWFP minister, in recognition of the great courage and steadfastness demonstrated by him during the operation against militants in Swat.

The citation read out on the occasion said: “With granite determination he refused to abandon his village and inspired his people to stand up to bigotry, fanaticism and extremism”.Talking to reporters Presidential Spokesman Farhatullah Babar said the provincial assembly of NWFP had adopted a unanimous resolution about three months ago, urging the president to immediately confer Hilal-i-Shujaat on Afzal Lala for his courage in fighting against militancy for the survival of Pakistan.

Afzal Khan fondly called Lala in NWFP belongs to the village of Drush Khela in Swat. When the victims of militants were streaming out of Swat for safety, 78-year-old Afzal Khan stood up against militants and refused to abandon his ancestral home for fear of life, he added. In standing up to militants he became a tower of strength and encouragement to the besieged people.

NWFP govt admits security lapses

PESHAWAR - The death toll in Pearl Continental Hotel blast reached 19 on Wednesday, as six more bodies were retrieved from the debris on Wednesday.
The bodies of a woman, three foreigners, hotel manager Syed Kamal Ahmad, and PIA captain Muhammed Ayub were recovered from the wreckage of the hotel.
The hotel was damaged in a powerful blast on Tuesday night and the government has also formed an investigation team headed by DIG Sifwat Ghayyur.
Police and hospital sources revealed that the injured and killed persons also included some foreigners who had been shifted to Khyber Teaching Hospital, Peshawar. The deceased foreigners were identified as Alexander (45), citizen of Serbia and a UN employee, and a Philippine citizen Parse, while the injured were identified as Witson, a UN employee, Golden Brown, citizen of Great Britain, and Enas, a citizen of Germany.
One Jamil Shah told that he was a driver in the hotel and when the blast occurred he was coming out of the mosque and some 20 persons including the prayer leader (Imam) came under the rubble of the mosque. A portion of the hotel razed to the ground while around 50 vehicles in the parking lot were damaged, he added.
The rescuers are still searching for bodies while some people are busy removing debris of the collapsed portion. Security has further been tightened to avert any possible attacks of militants. More troops have been deployed on Corpse Commander House and important installations.
The number of casualties can rise as some of the injured persons were stated to be in critical condition.
An official of bomb disposal squad said that more than 500 kilograms explosive material was used in the attack and probably its original target was the house of Corps Commander Peshawar.
AFP adds: Rescuers have pulled at least nine bodies from the rubble of a luxury hotel in the City hit by a suicide car bomb, as blame fell Wednesday on Taliban rebels avenging a military push.
NWFP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said there were 'security lapses' leading up to the blast late Tuesday at the five-star Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar city, and vowed an investigation.
He said the bombing was likely the latest in a string of attacks by militants seeking to exact revenge for a six-week offensive against them in swathes of the northwest.
“The blast is a reaction to the army offensive in Swat and Malakand. The possibility of this type of terrorist attack cannot be ruled out in future,” said Iftikhar.
He earlier put the death toll at 18, but late Wednesday told a Press conference that new information indicated nine people had died.
“Nine people died including two foreigners,” he said, adding that 62 people were injured. “Earlier information was obtained in an emergency situation.”
Local police, however, have put the death toll at 13.
Iftikhar said one of the vehicles had earlier attracted suspicion and come under fire near the residence of a senior military official, while the electronic barrier at the Pearl Continental was lowered when attackers hit.
“This shows there were clearly security lapses,” he said. “There will be an official investigation.”
Online adds: Senior provincial minister and central ANP leader Bashir Bilour has said that the involvement of hotel employees in the blast cannot be ruled out, adding that the province was in a state of war.
Talking to mediamen during a visit of destroyed hotel, he said definitely the terrorists had local support to carryout deadly blast in luxury hotel while the investigating team led by CCPO Peshawar is investigating the matter and nation would be informed about the results.
Answering a question, he said the province was in a state of war. “If we have taken no security measures then 50 to 60 blasts could have been happened in Peshawar. Foreigners were the target of terrorists and targeting those foreigners who were in Pakistan for help of internally displaced people is condemnable,” he said.
Monitoring Desk adds: An organization which calls itself Abdullah Azzam Shaheed Brigade (AASB) has claimed responsibility of the Tuesday’s bomb blast at Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, reported a private TV channel on Wednesday.
Almost 19 people including foreigners were killed in the Tuesday’s suicide attack at PC Hotel.

Editorial: Peshawar hotel blast

Daily Times

A massive 500kg blast inside the compound of the only five-star hotel in Peshawar, the Pearl Continental, reminds us of the October 2008 Marriott Islamabad attack and tells us about the modifications made in the plan of attack by the terrorists as well as the lack of lessons learned by the security agencies. The barrier was one of the most effective erected by the hotel management, but like the Rescue 15 incident in Lahore, the detail of guards mounted to oversee the barrier was not adequately protected. On the side of the terrorists, the lesson learned from the Marriott was that the barrier had to be crossed somehow.
The hotel management can hardly be blamed. Anyone who has visited the Peshawar PC will recall the security erected at the gate of the hotel, which is more distant from the main building than the Marriott barrier was. The guards were always vigilant and unremitting in their strictness despite the dull routine of letting in vehicles through the day. What no one anticipated was that a truck laden with explosives would succeed in making its way through the city roads to the gate of the hotel. More, it was not anticipated that the terrorists would kill all the guards before making their way into the hotel compound.
Some mistakes on the part of the administration were repeated in the light of the Marriott Islamabad blast. The trucks coming into the area were not stopped and inspected. However, one has to admit that Peshawar is not Islamabad and its capacity to inspect all kinds of traffic coming into the area is limited. In Islamabad the plan to block and inspect all big vehicles was in place but was defeated by the terrorists by using the moment of the breaking of the Ramadan fast to get through to the target. In Lahore the recent Rescue 15 attack had a new feature that should have been taken stock of: the terrorists reduced the barrier to zero by killing the guards.
The Marriott blast was planned meticulously by highly educated men who put the truck together in South Punjab before bringing it to some place close to Islamabad without being noticed. In Peshawar conditions are quite different. The administration is quite weak after years of significant advance of warlords and criminals into the various sections of the city. Warlords located in Khyber and other tribal agencies now own properties in the city grabbed from intimidated original owners. There are sections in the city where people calling themselves Taliban rule without being challenged. The ANP government in Peshawar has warned about the steady decline of the writ of provincial government dating from the times when the MMA was ruling the NWFP.
The loss of life is small in proportion to the scale of the explosion. One can say that the hotel security was after all effective in so far as it prevented too many deaths. But out of the 15 killed, the death of those belonging to various UN departments is indeed damaging to the state of Pakistan as it struggles to look after its refugees from the various war zones in the tribal areas. That said, the world will expect Pakistan to stand up and fight despite the reversals it is experiencing from attacks such as the one on the Peshawar PC. The hotel must come back into business after mounting an even better security barrier, like the one at Serena Hotel in Islamabad where the guests may be inconvenienced as a price for their security.
The Taliban are facing challenges in Pakistan as they never faced before. Their casualty rate is significant and they are on the run. But their strength arises from the years of exemption they enjoyed in Peshawar and the adjoining tribal and “frontier region” (FR) cities. This strength is now being challenged and rolled back by the Pakistan Army. The targeting of hotels is significant. It cuts off cities from one another by preventing important people from travelling; and it cuts Pakistan off from the rest if the world. Therefore the Peshawar blast must not result in closure of the hotel. All red tape should be lifted to permit the PC to return to its normal profile with better security. Hotels are symbols of normal life. They are a part of our national struggle against terrorism.
The hotel owner, Sadruddin Hashwani, is a brave and committed man who has given his all to this country. The government must do everything to help him keep his hotels going in the face of adversity.

Over 100 killed as troops target Taliban in Bannu

LAHORE: Troops killed more than 100 Taliban during two days of operation in Jani Khel and Baka Khel areas of Frontier Region (FR) Bannu, a private TV channel reported on Wednesday.

According to the channel, Taliban commander Sher Alam is among the dead.

Security forces are pounding Taliban positions with gunship helicopters and artillery shells, the channel said.

Taliban: Up to 800 Taliban have reportedly arrived in the semi-tribal area of FR Bannu that borders North Waziristan to fight the army that has started an operation in the area.

“Reportedly 600 to 800 terrorists reached Jani Khel from Miranshah and Razmak. They are planning to strike at various places in the NWFP,” the military said in a press release.

The operation was launched after Jani Khel tribesmen failed to hand over Taliban involved in the abduction of hundreds of students and staff of Razmak Cadet College last week.

Troops moved in on Monday after talks between two tribes thought to be involved in the brazen abduction and political administration broke down.

“Forces pounded the militant hideouts for the whole night and in the morning in Jani Khel tribal area,” local police official Khalil Zaman told AFP. “Authorities have imposed curfew in some areas.”

Rocket attack: Also in Bannu, a man was killed and two others wounded when Taliban fired a rocket at a house, AFP reported. daily times monitor/staff report/afp

Bombing Challenges Aid to Pakistan Refugees

new york times

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — One casualty of the bombing that killed as many as 18 people at a luxury hotel here Tuesday night may be the effort to aid Pakistan’s surging population of refugees, who have been displaced by the military campaign against the Taliban.

Around 30 United Nations staff members were at the Pearl Continental Hotel on Tuesday when the bomber hit it, a United Nations spokesman said, and two were among the dead.

The bombing disrupted operations immediately, if temporarily, prompting a one-day suspension of food distribution efforts and forcing many United Nations agencies to move most of their international staff to Islamabad, the capital.

There, they will regroup, reassess risk levels and determine if and how many foreign staff members will now be posted in Peshawar, United Nations officials said.

“It’s a reshaping of operations, it’s not a reduction,” said Kilian Kleinschmidt, emergency coordinator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is leading the humanitarian effort.

Among them were 10 World Food Program employees, who had recently been brought to Pakistan to help handle the crush of nearly three million refugees from the Swat Valley, north of here, where the military has been conducting an operation to root out Taliban insurgents for a month.

The bombing at the Pearl Continental was believed to have been carried out by the Taliban in retaliation for the military’s campaign. Taliban leaders promised major attacks in Pakistani cities, and Peshawar has been hit by seven bombs since the operation began.

“This is a very specific targeting of the humanitarian effort,” said a spokesman for the World Food Program, Paul Risley. “It was a tragedy, but it won’t stop the U.N.’s work.”

Two World Food Program employees were wounded in the blast, one of them seriously. But Mr. Risley said that more staff members were expected to arrive in Pakistan in the near future, and that the program would not be reduced. Food distributions were scheduled for Thursday by Pakistani staff members.

The United Nations High Commissioner, Antonio Guterres, condemned the attack in a statement with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “Humanitarian workers around the world are coming under increasing attack and it is the poor, the uprooted and the vulnerable who will suffer the most by their loss,” Mr. Guterres said.

The hotel was also a broader symbol of affluence and Western visitors. It had even been considered by the United States as a location for a consulate in Peshawar.

“Yes, we were looking at it,” said Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administrations special envoy to Pakistan, adding that he had stayed in the hotel. But no deal had ever been closed, he said at a news briefing in Washington.

Diplomats and aid workers increased security measures last year after bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in which more than 50 people were killed. But like in the case of that bombing, the overwhelming majority of the victims were Pakistani.

The United Nations workers killed on Tuesday night were identified as Aleksandar Vorkapic, a Serbian technology specialist with the refugee agency; and Perseveranda So, of the Philippines, who directed education programs in impoverished areas of Pakistan for Unicef.

Two Pakistani drivers and an administrative assistant were among the United Nations local staff who died, said Muhammed Ajmal, a spokesman for the United Nations Population Fund. They were attending a dinner being held at the hotel.

Pakistani news programs on Wednesday broadcast footage from a closed circuit television camera near the security gate of the hotel that showed a man riding a bicycle passing through the security post. Almost immediately, a Toyota car sped inside, and rushed through the security barrier, followed by a small truck laden with explosives.

In a sign of a major security lapse, the electronic barrier was already lowered, allowing the attackers to speed through the security post.

Two Pakistani security officials said that security agencies had been tipped by a source to watch for attacks by the same type of small truck used in the hotel attack.

Security agencies had warned high-profile installations to step up security, among them the Pearl Continental, the officials said, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Officials also said that the Toyota car that entered the security gate first was unrelated to the truck, and that all the attackers were in the truck. The driver of the car, from an upscale area in Peshawar, called Hayatabad, was injured in the blast.

The security officials said that Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, may have carried out the attack, though his group, often quick to claim responsibility, has remained silent about this one.

Sadruddin Hashwani, the owner of the hotel, criticized the government for not providing sufficient security to important buildings. He said he planned to reopen the hotel within two months.

“We will not abandon the more than 2 million people,” Mr. Kleinschmidt said. “That’s very clear.”

Search for Pakistan blast victims

Rescuers are searching for victims of a suicide bomb attack on a luxury hotel in the Pakistani city of Peshawar which killed at least 18 people.Rescue teams are picking through the rubble of the Pearl Continental Hotel recovering bodies and looking for more people trapped in the debris.The UN says two of its employees - one from Serbia and the other from the Philippines - are among the dead.
A spate of bombings has followed an army crackdown on Taliban militants.
The latest attack came as the Pakistani army stepped up its operations in the north-west with an offensive in the Bannu district bordering semi-autonomous North Waziristan.
Artillery and helicopter gunships have pounded positions held by the Janikhel tribe, which is accused of aiding the Taliban.

Similar tactics

The BBC's Syed Shoaib Hasan in Islamabad says the Peshawar attack bore similarities to one on the Lahore police headquarters last month.
Gunmen forced their way through a security barrier, firing at guards, before a van packed with explosives was driven through and detonated in the car park.Police believe the bomb contained about 500kg of explosives.

The death toll rose to 18 with the discovery of three bodies early on Wednesday, our correspondent says. At least 60 people have been injured.

"The number of casualties could rise as we fear that some people are still trapped under the debris," police spokesman Abdul Ghafoor Afridi told AFP news agency.

Jill McGivering, BBC News The PC is a well-known landmark in Peshawar. Often used by foreigners but also by Pakistani officials and businessmen, it is known for good Western as well as local food and 5-star service. All factors which may have contributed to its becoming a target. When I visited recently, there was a whole series of security checks. First of vehicles, as they drove in, past heavy concrete barriers. Then of people, screened by metal detectors and bag searches. But suicide bombers and gunmen are hard to stop. There are clear echoes of the devastating assault on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad last September. Security in Peshawar has worsened dramatically in the last year. Many of those who can afford to move have taken their families to Islamabad or beyond - abandoning a city now becoming consumed by fear and violence.
"One portion of the hotel was totally destroyed. Three people including a manager of the hotel are missing and we fear they are under the debris."

The UN named its two employees killed in the attack as Serbian national Aleksandar Vorkapic, of the refugee agency UNHCR, and Perseveranda So of the Philippines who worked for the children's agency Unicef.

Unicef said the bombing was "reprehensible and unacceptable" and said it was "greatly saddened" by the death of Perseveranda So.

"She was in Peshawar, a dangerous and difficult environment, helping implement programmes to assist girls in gaining access to the education they so desperately need. She will be greatly missed," the statement said.

At least a dozen UN workers had been staying at the hotel before heading out to refugee camps in North West Frontier Province.

Peshawar, the main city in the north-west, is not far from the Swat valley, where the government's offensive against the Taliban has been concentrated.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani swiftly condemned the attack but the blast hardly comes as a surprise, says the BBC's Chris Morris, in Islamabad.

While there was no immediate claim of responsibility for Tuesday night's attack, our correspondent says most people will assume it to be the work of the Taliban.

The injured include a British man and a German national, Peshawar district co-ordination officer Sahibzada Anis said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke of "a heinous terrorist attack which no cause can justify".

Eyewitnesses told the BBC News website the blast could be seen up to 5km (3 miles) away. The blast left a large crater and parts of the hotel were destroyed.

“ I saw the red light from there blowing and then I heard a huge sound ”
Musa Khan BBC News website reader in Peshawar
An injured man, Jawad Chaudhry, said he had been in his room on the ground floor when he heard gunshots, then an explosion.

"The floor under my feet shook," he said. "I thought the roof was falling on me. I ran out. I saw everybody running in panic. There was blood and pieces of glass everywhere."
Correspondents say the Pearl Continental - usually just called the PC - runs a series of security checks, first of vehicles as they drive in past concrete barriers, then of people who are screened by metal detectors and bag searches.

Taliban leaders have promised revenge attacks on major Pakistani cities and claimed responsibility for the bombing in Lahore last month which left at least 28 people dead.
A suicide attack on the Islamabad Marriott hotel last September killed at least 53 people and injured more than 266.
In Bannu, officials say 70 militants have been killed in the action which started on Tuesday, but the figures cannot be verified.
Security officials say the tribe refused to hand over militants involved in the kidnapping of students and teachers from a college last week who were later freed.
A curfew has been imposed in Bannu.
Analysts say North and South and North Waziristan are strongholds for al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Story from BBC NEWS: