Friday, June 19, 2009

Mousavi rally in doubt after Iran leader warning

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Backers of beaten presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi will decide on Saturday whether to defy a stern warning by Iran's top authority and stage mass protests over a disputed election.

(Editors' note: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on their ability to report, film or take pictures in Tehran.)

Iran's top legislative body holds an extraordinary session on Saturday morning to which it has invited Mousavi and the two other candidates who lost against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 election, which Mousavi wants annulled.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanded an end to the rallies on Friday, issuing a strong warning to leaders of the street protests that they will be responsible for any bloodshed.

President Barack Obama condemned the violence carried out by security forces and believed Iranians should be free to protest, his spokesman said on Friday after Khamenei's speech, sharpening the White House's rhetoric over the post-election events.

Khamenei's words appeared to hint at a future crackdown by authorities on rallies. Khamenei said the election was fairly won by Ahmadinejad and not rigged, as Mousavi who wants the poll annulled has said.

Another defeated candidate, Mehdi Karoubi, called in an open letter to the Guardian Council legislative body for the election to be canceled.

There was no immediate word from Mousavi's supporters whether they would still go ahead with a planned demonstration in downtown Tehran at around 4 p.m. (7:30 a.m. EDT) on Saturday.

An ally of Mousavi said he was not calling on people to take to the streets again. "Mousavi has no plans to hold a rally tomorrow or the day after tomorrow," he told Reuters.

But his supporters may decide to show up anyway, as they did in their tens of thousands last Tuesday despite a call by Mousavi for them to stay home.

If they proceed in defiance of Khamenei's explicit warning, they risk a severe response from security forces, which have so far not tried to prevent Iran's most widespread street rallies since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"If there is any bloodshed, leaders of the protests will be held directly responsible," the white-bearded cleric told huge crowds thronging Tehran University for Friday prayers.

State media have reported seven or eight people killed in unrest since the election outcome was published on June 13, prompting Mousavi's supporters to hold mass rallies in Tehran, with demonstrations reported in several Iranian cities.

Scores of reformists have been arrested and authorities have cracked down on foreign and domestic media.

In a sign of defiance, Mousavi backers took to Tehran rooftops after nightfall on Friday to shout Allahu Akbar (God is greatest), an echo of tactics in the 1979 Islamic revolution.


Khamenei called for calm in his country, a major oil exporter embroiled in dispute with major powers over its nuclear program which the West suspects could be used to make bombs. Tehran says its nuclear work is peaceful.

He also attacked what he called interference by foreign powers who had questioned the result of the election.

Britain said it had summoned the Iranian ambassador to complain about Khamenei's speech, in which he also called the British "the most treacherous" of Iran's enemies.

Asked about the call by Khamenei for street protests to end, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Friday: "He (Obama) believes that those who wish to have their voices heard should be able to do that without fear of violence."

"I think you're ... witnessing something extraordinary ... I'm not sure that anybody even a week ago or so would have expected to see the courageous images that we're seeing now."

Iran's national security council dismissed a complaint by Mousavi, in a letter to the Interior Ministry body earlier this week, about plainclothes men using weapons such as sticks and metal rods to attack protesters.

"Your national duty and responsibility would require that instead of raising charges against police or army forces ... to try to avoid such illegal gatherings and not support them," Fars News Agency quoted its secretary Abbas Mohtaj as saying.

"You are certainly aware that in the event of instigating or inviting such illegal gatherings the responsibility for the consequences would lie with you," he said.

Mousavi has demanded the annulment of the election result, which showed he won 34 percent of the votes to Ahmadinejad's tally of nearly 63 percent.

The Guardian Council is considering complaints by the three losing candidates, but has said only that it will recount some disputed ballot boxes.

It has invited Mousavi, Karoubi and conservative Mohsen Rezaie to an extraordinary session on Saturday to discuss their 646 complaints about the election.

"We are urging candidates to avoid any remarks which can disturb public opinion until the Guardian Council carries out its final investigation," council spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodai told the official IRNA news agency.

Hidden crisis haunts Pakistan fighting

RUSTUM, Pakistan (CNN) -- Piled high with food, Minhaj Bahdar rides a rented motorbike back to his family's temporary sanctuary away from the fighting between Pakistan's army and the Taliban.The little motorbike struggles under the weight of food -- 80 kilograms of wheat, 4kg of sugar, 1 kg of salt and 300 grams of tea. It sounds like a lot -- but it has to last the Bahdar family one month.Twenty-three of them live in two tiny rooms provided by a local villager. They don't have enough food. There is no running water. The family is part of a humanitarian crisis in Pakistan that aid groups say is going largely unnoticed-- hidden from view because they are not in a tent city aid camp."Up until now it's been a largely invisible crisis. Most of the displaced -- something like 90 percent of those two-and-a-half million (displaced) -- are staying with host families," Chris Webster, of the World Vision aid organization, told CNN.Some 2.5 million people have been forced to leave their homes, on the run from the Taliban and war. The largest movement of people in Pakistan since partition from India more than sixty years ago.Communities have been taking in those fleeing the fighting -- and the toll on them could soon show, Webster said."I've met people who sold their land, sold their cattle in order to provide for people they have never met before," he said. "They are impoverishing themselves to help these impoverished people. The potential for that is another wave of displacement and a deepening of the crisis."Barely one quarter of the pledged half billion in aid dollars has actually been given, Webster said. "The scale of the need is so vast across such a wide area that $10 or $50, whatever you can give, will make a huge difference."The Bahdars are at Rustum -- about three hours' drive from the capital Islamabad but still close to the former Taliban strongholds of Swat and Buner. Pakistan army convoys are on the road that leads to Swat on their way to battle the Taliban. Last week, an army convoy got into an eight-hour gun battle with the Taliban on that road.There appears to be more fighting in South Waziristan, and Webster expects another mass displacement of people - perhaps another half million people.At its distribution hub, World Vision is struggling to keep pace with the needs as it hands out food to 500 families a day.It was into this chaos that Minhaj Bahdar came hoping to get food for his family.It was his lucky day -- he had the right papers and was able to claim a month's ration of food for his family. Too heavy to carry far, he rented a motorbike to make the 10-minute trip home.Back at his house, everyone was waiting to help, but when the food was laid out it was clear: What was too much for the bike was too little for 23 people --- 16 adults and 7 children -- for a month.Minhaj Bahdar said they were barely an hour's drive from their old home but were too afraid to go back. He said he was angry with the Taliban and blamed them for being forced out.Their mud homes were falling down from shelling and it took them three days to get to Rustum."The whole population was fleeing from their homes and without anything," Bahdar's father said. "Indeed, we are in miserable condition but what can we do, except to bear it?"I asked Bahdar's five-year-old niece if she missed her home. "Of course," she said, and then asked if I would take her somewhere safe.It's heartbreaking, but so is their plight.

NATO to send up to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan: Scheffer

KABUL :The visiting NATO's Secretary General Jaap de Hope Scheffer HAS announced sending additional troops to Afghanistan ahead of the second presidential election after the fall of Taliban regime set for August 20 this year.

"We are bringing extra forces into Afghanistan for a protection role between 8,000 and 10,000, if you want to know the numbers of whom will come on temporary bases to Afghanistan," Scheffer said after meeting Afghan President Hamid Karzai in his Palace.

The outgoing NATO chief described Afghanistan's coming election as "very important" for both Afghans and the international community, saying the ISAF along with Afghan security forces would do its best to help Afghans have a transparent election in a peaceful environment.

During his last tour to Afghanistan as NATO Secretary General, Scheffer once again repeated the military alliance commitment towards the post-Taliban Afghanistan.

"We would be alongside Afghan people and we will support Afghan people," he stressed.

The NATO top diplomat also expressed concern over civilian casualties during military operations against anti-government militants, saying "we will do everything which is in our power to prevent loss of innocent life, loss of innocent civilian life."

He asserted that the international forces would do its best to minimize civilian casualties.

Repeated harming of non-combatants has raised anti-U.S. forces resentment in Afghanistan while President Karzai and Afghan citizens at large have repeatedly asked the international forces to protect civilian life as it would not serve the U.S.-led war on terror.

Peshawar airport reopens

ISLAMABAD/PESHAWAR: The Peshawar airport has been reopened with the prime minister’s approval, Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar said on Thursday. Talking to a private TV channel, he said the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had been directed to reopen the airport for flight operations. The airport had been closed for all air traffic on Wednesday due to the volatile law and order situation in the province and all Peshawar-bound flights were re-routed to Islamabad. Taliban had threatened to attack passenger planes, prompting officials to close the airport.

Militants bomb schools in Pakistan tribal area

KHAR, Pakistan — Militants blew up two boys' schools and a college in Bajaur tribal area in northwest Pakistan, an official said Friday, as an offensive against the Taliban rumbled on in nearby districts.
"Several locally-made bombs planted inside the school buildings went off late in the night," local government official Adalat Khan told AFP, adding that both schools were "completely demolished."
"They also bombed a boys' degree college in Mamond town."
Gul Rehman, a Bajaur education officer, said 44 schools had been bombed or set on fire in the past year in the district troubled by Taliban attacks.
Elsewhere in Bajaur on Friday, a roadside bomb exploded and wounded a tribal policeman while he was on patrol, an official said.
Bajaur lies just to the west of Dir and Swat districts, where the military is locked in a nearly two-month-long offensive against Taliban insurgents.
Militants in Swat have destroyed nearly 200 schools, mostly for girls, in the valley during a two-year campaign to enforce sharia law.
The army has said it is also poised to launch a fresh assault into the tribal areas along the Afghan border to track down the senior Taliban leadership.
Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt has become a stronghold for hundreds of extremists who fled Afghanistan after a US-led invasion toppled the hardline Taliban regime in late 2001.

Iran's supreme leader defends election

Iran's supreme leader passionately defended last week's presidential election process today, praising President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election as a "definitive victory" and denying charges of vote-rigging. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said those who cause violence during protests would be held accountable.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, angrily warned opposition leaders Friday to stay off the streets and denied that the results of last week’s election were rigged. Mr Khamenei demanded an end to the demonstrations. "I want to tell everyone these things must finish. These street actions are being done to put pressure on leaders but we will not bow in front of them," he said.

Without naming the three losing candidates who have challenged the election results, he ordered them to "open their eyes" and see behind the demonstrations "the enemy hands working, the hungry wolves waiting in ambush".