Friday, July 31, 2009

Musharraf faces exile in UK after court says emergency rule illegal
Pakistan's former military ruler Pervez Musharraf faces an extended exile, possibly in Britain, following a court ruling that has paved the way for a possible – although unlikely – treason prosecution.

Celebrating lawyers danced on the steps of the supreme court after a 14-judge bench ruled that Musharraf acted illegally when he suspended the constitution and imposed a six-week period of emergency rule on 3 November 2007.

At the time, the rule was seen as a gambit by Musharraf to strengthen his grip on power. After a long struggle, he was forced from office a year ago.

The court ruling was delivered by chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, whose attempted removal by Musharraf in March 2007 sparked a protest movement that eventually led to the general's downfall.

The court did not say whether Musharraf should be tried for treason but the trenchant ruling left him legally exposed to a prosecution. However, analysts said that was unlikely, at least for now, because any move would have to be initiated by the government, which is keen to avoid confrontation with the powerful military.

Hailing the ruling, government officials and lawyers preferred to stress how the decision would deter future military coups. Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for President Asif Ali Zardari, described it as a "triumph of the democratic principles, a stinging negation of dictatorship".

Aitzaz Ahsan, leader of the lawyers' movement that helped oust Musharraf, said the ruling would "lock the door to future adventurism".

Neither Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, nor his lawyers attended the court hearing. The retired general left Pakistan for Britain two months ago, reportedly at the urging of the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, who wanted to remove all political distractions as the army fought the Taliban along the Afghan border.

Since then Musharraf has given media interviews and reportedly bought an expensive apartment in London, the funding of which has been the subject of much speculation in Pakistan.

Talat Masood, a retired general and former Musharraf confidante, said it was unlikely he would return to Pakistan soon. "He will stay away and the army will advise him to stay away," he said. "I hear he's on a luxury cruise. I think that might be extended for some time."

Analyst Cyril Almeida said a treason trial was more a political matter than a legal one. "My gut feeling is that Musharraf isn't a guy to live in exile permanently. He will return at some point but right now the political heat is too much. His presence in the country is seen as being too destabilising." The ramifications of the historic ruling were unclear, exposing the complicated legal tangle that clouds Pakistan's constitution following decades of alternating military and democratic rule.

According to the ruling, all judges who swore allegiance to Musharraf will now be sacked. Also, some 37 laws passed during the emergency period will be subject to review by parliament.

"It is open to the courts to condone all or any of them," said Saeed-uz-Zaman, a former chief justice, speaking on Dawn television.

The decision which came at the end of a tense five-hour deliberation, was a symbolic victory for Chaudhry, who was reinstated as chief justice last March thanks to the vigorous protest movement.

The army is believed to have played a role behind the scenes, with Kayani urging Zardari to reinstate Chaudhry for the sake of political stability.

The world went silent . . . being blown up was too quick to be frightening'
Spurts of dust kicked up in the field to the left of the US Marines and the clatter of gunfire grew louder. The Marines began to run, their bodies taking on the hunched and wary posture of troops under fire. Shouting into radios, officers were struggling to catch up with the ambush that was beginning to envelop them.

More regular, disciplined shots sounded close by. A pall of ugly brown smoke hung in the clear dawn air several hundred metres away, marking the spot where a bomb explosion had initiated the Taleban ambush. It was 6.45am.

I was in the middle of the first squad of Marines. We pounded headlong towards a mud compound ahead. As we got to about 10ft of the corner of the building, the world went suddenly and inexplicably silent and everything turned white.

Being blown up was too quick to be frightening. Instead, the sensation was one of odd detachment.

The bomb — it was, we later discovered by looking at the debris, two devices strapped together — was buried at the base of the wall on the corner of the compound. As they went off the blast wave completely stopped my hearing, lifted me into the air and spun me through 180 degrees.

Time slowed. I landed staggering, half off my feet, and blinded by a pall of dust; much of it seemed to be in my mouth. Blast-proof protective glasses had saved my eyes from damage and after a period of time that I couldn’t measure but which must have been a few seconds, sound began to return, distorted by a shrill ringing.

Someone was shouting “casualty”. Someone else was yelling with what sounded like pain. As the dust began to thin I realised I was now facing the way I had come. I looked down and found all my limbs still attached — a heavy bulletproof plate covered my chest and Kevlar my abdomen and neck. To my right someone was on the ground. I wondered if he was dead.

When Fox Company of 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine had set out from their base an hour earlier they had already been briefed that a fight was a near certainty. They were on the second day of a three-day operation named Kapcha Kafak — Cobra’s Squeeze — designed to strengthen the Afghan Government’s hold in what, in theory, was newly taken territory south of the town of Garmsir. But in truth they knew that the area they were going to had had a minimal Nato presence and all previous forays had met fierce resistance. While their brief was to support Afghan National Army (ANA) units searching compounds and to engage with local people, the strength of the force they took with them was clearly in expectation of a fight. Forty Afghan soldiers and 70 Marines were supported by two attack helicopters and a pilotless drone.

As the events of the day would show, however, firepower can become meaningless when the enemy makes skilful preparation of the ground and has no scruples about cloaking itself with the lives of the local population.

For the first hour all was quiet. Cockerels crowed and the long, loose lines of soldiers passed a group of boys being taught to recite the Koran in a garden of roses. They watched the Marines’ passage without expression.

By 6.45am the Marines were occupying three positions around their goal, named “Objective Victor”, ready for the ANA to begin their search. It was then that the ambush began.

The thump of the first bomb detonating and sound of enemy small-arms fire was quickly followed by a call for casualty evacuation. Two men were badly injured: one, a Marine with shrapnel injuries to his face and hands, would survive; the other, an Afghan interpreter, would later die.

As they began to run towards the firing the Marine’s commander was already sensing a trap. “Watch right, we could be being baited for another IED [improvised explosive device],” shouted Captain Junwei Sun, 31, Fox Company’s commander.

He was right. The second explosion, the one that would catch the squad I was moving with, had been buried in anticipation of the way the force would move. As Sergeant Tom Williams led his men forward, his instinct was to seek the cover of the corner of the building. When the second detonation occurred it enveloped the whole of 1st Squad of 2nd Platoon — they call themselves the Helter Skelter Squad — and sent a plume of smoke rolling skyward.

The men behind were horrified. With a direct radio link to the helicopters above Captain Brian Hill, 32, the unit’s forward-air controller, called to the Huey helicopter circling above: “Did you see that explosion?” he asked. “I think I’ve got multiple friendlies badly injured in there. Can you be ready to put down for an immediate casualty extraction?”

Behind us the platoon commander, Lieutenant Sam Oliver, 23, lay on the ground, flattened by the blast. “I heard someone yell for a medic,” he said later. “I was thinking, ‘not like this, please God, not like this’ . . .”

As the smoke cleared, 1st Squad was still there and men were clambering to their feet. A piece of shrapnel was embedded in one man’s helmet. As the fact that we were still alive began to sink in we stood and laughed, clapping one another on the back, shaking a little. The battle was still unfolding around us but the world seemed a greener and more beautiful place.

There was a reason for this survival. The Taleban bombers had made several mistakes in the way they had made and buried their devices, the result being to channel their force upward rather than outward. They had also incorrectly wired what was to have been a third bomb. Discovered and destroyed by US combat engineers some minutes later, it was 30lb of fertiliser-based explosive that sat directly under the commanders of Fox Company. Had all three blown correctly it is likely that a dozen or more soldiers would have died or been badly injured.

But despite Fox Company’s escape, the advantage now lay squarely with the Taleban. Somewhere close by we were being watched by the insurgents with what was clearly a spider’s web of bombs stretched around us.

Among some of the Marines there was something like panic. “Get away from the roads, the whole place is f***ing rigged!” screamed one young officer as men moved out into the exposed fields rather than take cover.

The unit’s bomb disposal engineers began to sweep methodically with metal detectors, standing exposed as they did so. They quickly began to find naked, hair-thin copper wires in the soil, trailing towards the treeline and a compound 100 metres away.

The Americans prepared to advance on the compound with ANA soldiers. “If we take contact, peel right — I’m going to light it up,” Lieutenant Oliver said as they prepared to advance. But at the same moment they were forced to halt the attack. A group of women and children were moving into the middle of the unfolding battle and making for the same compound.

There were other signs that the Taleban were using the cloak of civilian innocence as cover. A man suddenly stood up in the treeline; as American soldiers fixed him in their sights he ostentatiously slung a shovel over his shoulder. A minute earlier there had been yet another blast from a bomb buried near the corner of the wall the Marines had begun to move along. It missed its target. “Of course he’s carrying a f***ing shovel,” one soldier spat as the man strolled nonchalantly away. Prevented by the rules of the battlefield from shooting him, the soldiers began to push through the lines of compounds ahead.

As the Afghan Army began to question one middle-aged man, those searching his house found pictures of the man and several others all carrying machineguns and rocket launchers and wearing the bulky white turbans associated with the Taleban. The picture had been taken in the front room of the compound.

The Afghans and the Marines were incensed. “Get your f***ing AK and I’ll put a cap between your eyes,” snarled one furious American soldier. “Do you want to go to jail?” he asked, eyeballing the man from a range of a few inches. “As you wish,” replied the man with a shrug.

“Who planted these bombs?” another American demanded. “I have no idea,” he replied — to derision.

A Marine “accidentally” put his foot through the glass of the empty picture frame on the floor and stormed off. But what proof did the pictures represent? There was no telling their date, and from 1996-2001 the Taleban were the Government. As for the weapons, they are found in every Afghan home. There was little the Americans could do but upload the man’s fingerprints and iris scan on to a biometric data machine and tell him he was being monitored. From the other rooms came the sounds of Afghan soldiers kicking down doors and breaking things. At another compound people told the Afghan soldiers that groups of Taleban fighters patrolled the area every day on motorbikes.

By now the temperature was around 52C (125F) and the Marines were fighting the elements. As they moved forward again the engineers found a fourth bomb, buried in a wall. It was defused. Intelligence reports suggested that the Taleban were massing fighters for an attack. Many of the soldiers were relieved that, at last, they might be able to shoot back.

But if the Taleban were still around they remained hidden, wary of the Cobra helicopters overhead. Instead, the Americans were advancing on to the fifth and largest bomb of the day.

Again, luck and keen eyes would come to their aid. As they traversed a field Private Joseph Helmick, 25, spotted something odd — two stakes buried in the ground. They were a marker for a watching bomb triggerman. The unit halted and as Fox Company’s explosives experts moved forward with their minesweepers, they found a command wire and two separate 40lb cylinders of explosive. These were detonated, scattering earth over a 100m area.

As they pulled up the wire they discovered it appeared to lead to the village mosque. As had been the case all day, none of the locals appeared to know why.

Shangla becomes new Taliban base

PESHAWAR: Taliban militants fleeing Swat and Buner are increasingly seeking refuge in the Shangla district and making their presence felt by attacking government installations and pro-military politicians and elders.

“I am hearing reports that there are now 1,500 militants in parts of Shangla’s Puran Tehsil bordering Buner. They pose a threat to all of us,” said Fazlullah, the young Member of the Provincial Assembly (MPA) from Shangla and a relation of former federal minister and PML-Q NWFP President Amir Muqam.

On Wednesday night, Fazlullah’s cousin Haji Khalil Khan, the PML-Q President for Shangla who had been mobilising the people against the Taliban, was killed when a large group of militants attacked his house in Chogha Makhozai village. “The NWFP Chief Minister, Ameer Haider Hoti, who visited Shangla on Thursday to offer his condolences on Haji Khalil’s death also asked me about the militants’ strength in the area. I told him that I haven’t seen the Taliban myself but am aware of their growing presence in parts of Puran Tehsil,” recalled Fazlullah.

Fazlullah’s father Pir Mohammad Khan was killed in a suicide bombing at Amir Muqam’s house in Peshawar’s Hayatabad locality in early 2008. Shangla’s headquarters, Alpurai, was overrun by the Taliban militants, who had mostly come from Swat in 2007. The entire civil and police administration had fled the town. A military operation had to be launched to evict the militants from Shangla at the time, but as has been the case elsewhere, the Taliban gradually returned to parts of the district, particularly to Puran area which is adjacent to Buner. Due to the recent military action in Buner, militants from there have moved to Shangla.

Many militants from Swat, particularly its Charbagh and Khwazakhela Tehsils, have also sought refuge in Shangla.

After gaining strength in Shangla, the militants were reported to have set up roadside checkpoints at certain places, including Shaheed Sar, Hindwano Kandao and Sar Qalla on the Puran-Buner Road. They were patrolling the area and had already blown up a telephone exchange in Puran and fired at a security forces convoy in Martung.

Fazlullah said reports of militants’ attack on his house and that of Amir Muqam weren’t true. “Firing took place near Amir Muqam’s house in the village but it wasn’t attacked,” he clarified the reports appearing in the press.

According to Fazlullah, his family was a target of the militants due to its support for the military operation in Shangla and the rest of Malakand Division. “We are peaceful people. We are against militancy and terrorism. But if a known political family like us isn’t safe, then how could the common people feel confident while living in Shangla,” he argued.

He said security forces should take action against the militants in Shangla but care must be taken to avoid civilian casualties and the use of artillery guns to shell long distance targets be avoided. “We don’t want our poor people to suffer,” he stressed.

On Thursday, the two Taliban militants who were killed in the attack on Haji Khalil’s house were identified. Haji Khalil and his men had fought the militants and killed two of them.

Both were local and hailed from Dheray village in Puran Tehsil. One was Khurshid Ali and the other was identified as Adil. The police arrested Khurshid’s father, named Subedar, along with his brother. Adil’s family members weren’t arrested as they had already disowned and disinherited him for refusing to quit the Taliban.

Taliban arrival in Shangla in growing numbers is a pattern that would be repeated elsewhere in the NWFP in future. They would retreat from areas that are under military attack and move to places where the civil administration and police are weak and the Army has little or no presence. The militants’ strategy is to wage a guerrilla war, create fear among the people and destabilise the area.

Bajaur, Mohmand IDPs to return home soon

PESHAWAR: As the internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Malakand continue returning to their areas in Mingora and Buner district, the government is going to firm up plan for the departure of IDPs from Bajaur and Mohmand agencies in the days ahead.

Chairman of the army's Services Support Group Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmad said Matta tehsil of Swat would be cleared of militants and IDPs would start returning to their homes in the coming few days.

Addressing a news conference, he said Kabal and Kanju tehsils of Swat would also be declared safe and people would start returning there soon, however, he did not specify the time period. He said 162,000 families had returned to their areas in Buner and Swat so far under the government's voluntary repatriation programme. Of those, 65,000 families had gone back before July 13, while nearly 100,000 returned to their areas after the said date.

Dispelling the impression about forced return of IDPs, Nadeem said the process was purely voluntary as 81 per cent people returned to their areas through public transport while only 19 per cent used the officially provided transport facility.

About the total number of IDPs, he said 755,000 families were registered by different government and international agencies, however, after completion of scrutiny 329,000 families found genuine.

Expressing satisfaction over the situation in Buner and Swat, Nadeem said markets were opened, hospitals and other government offices were operational and life was smoothly returning to routine.

What has been most encouraging is the cooperation of the returning population with the security forces, said the official, adding that people were providing information about the troublemakers. He ruled out presence of Taliban in large numbers in some areas near Malam Jabba or Manglawar or Chagharzai tehsil and some villages of Buner as reported in a section of Press.

Ruling out return of the Taliban, he said Shah Dauran had been killed and Fazlullah critically injured. "They are no more effective and capable to run their activities in the area," said the military official.

The official said the next important steps would be reconstruction and rehabilitation. The whole process would need 2 to 2.5 billion US dollars, however, exact figures would be revealed after proper assessment, he added.

He said the process also depended on the response from donors and the Friends of Democratic Pakistan, who were going to meet on August 24 in Turkey. He said they were expecting generous assistance from the friends for the reconstruction process in Malakand. He said economy of Swat was based on agriculture, trade, mining and tourism. Agriculture and trade had already been revived while the mining and tourism sectors would need sometime for revitalisation.

About the return of IDPs from Bajaur and Mohmand, the official said he was going to hold a meeting with Fata and FC officials to draw modalities like security, transportation, food, etc for their return.

To a question about the displaced families from Waziristan, he said a total of 5,512 families were registered in DI Khan and Tank, however, only 3,371 were found genuine after scrutiny. He said the federal government had sanctioned Rs180 million to provide Rs5,000 to each family for food on a monthly basis.

China Military reshuffle not likely

Chinese experts yesterday refuted a report that the country's seven military command regions would be reshuffled into four “strategic zones,” saying the major reform remains at the discussion level because of impracticality and concerns of national stability.

The latest issue of The Mirror, a Hong Kong-based journal, reported that the Chinese military is preparing to reform the system of military regions, as the People's Liberation Army (PLA) marks its 82nd anniversary tomorrow.

According to an unnamed military source, the seven current military regions of Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chengdu will be replaced with four strategic zones in the north, east, west and south, the report said.

Each strategic zone would be under the command of a military commission, formed by a joint command of different armed forces and several provincial secretaries in the zone, the source said, adding that the heads of the four military commissions would be assigned by the central authority in Beijing, responsible for the military actions and defense mobilization in the zones under their jurisdiction.

However, a military source who asked to remain anonymous told the Global Times that it was impossible for the Chinese military to carry out such a major reform this year, as maintaining stability is the top priority.

“The main tasks for the Chinese military so far are to maintain stability along the borders and prepare for the military parade on National Day in October,” he said. “Whether and how to carry out the military reform has been discussed among the academics for almost 30 years, but no answers have been reached yet.”

Li Daguang, a military expert at the University of National Defense, ruled out the possibility of any immediate adjustment in the allocation of military regions.

“Relevant discussions have been ongoing for several years. But none of the proposals are mature enough,” Li told the Global Times, citing the complexity of reforming the system.

“The existing system has been in accordance with the national defense situation of China, which pursues a national defense policy that is purely defensive in nature,” Li argued.

The 2.3 million-strong PLA, under the top command of the Central Military Commission, oversees seven military regions nationwide as administrative headquarters responsible for making plans for troop development, commanding joint operations of different armed forces and guaranteeing joint logistics in several provinces.
Chen Zhou, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, noted that the division of China's military regions is based on administrative divisions, geographic locations, directions of strategic campaign and combat missions.

“The allocation of military regions usually changes with the troops' development and domestic and external environments,” Chen noted.

In private talks, military personnel were often heard talking about the urgency of a reform, as the current divide of seven military regions “appears to be redundant,” and “not up to the demand of modern military mobilization or deployment.”

The views were reflected in heated discussions among military aficionados on the Internet. A Web user wrote on a military forum that the army has been the main decision power in each military region, while the navy and air forces were always sidelined, which the user said isn't good for the military modernization of China.

Some Web users also doubted the efficiency of the division system, as the coordination among several regions is quite inconvenient.

However, military insiders told the Global Times that a major reform is hard to formulate, as the combination of some regions will mean the move of too many personnel and facilities, which might cause problems.

There have been several adjustments in the division of military regions since the foundation of the People's Republic of China.

Originally, six military regions were established in 1950. That number rose to 13 in the late 1950s and was reduced to 11 in 1968. Mao Zedong, the former leader of China, decided to exchange the positions of commanders in eight military regions in 1973. The current divide of seven regions dates back to 1985 when the country initiated a major demobilization of a million servicemen.

In another development, the official bilingual website of the Ministry of National Defense (MND) is expected to launch tomorrow, on the Chinese Army's 82nd birthday. The site is meant to be a channel for China to express and elaborate its military policy and release information of activities.

Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of the US forces in the Pacific region, praised the move Tuesday.

“This goes with our desire for more transparency and better understanding of Chinese military intentions,” Keating said.

On Tuesday, the military also offered 90 foreign journalists a visit to its Third Guard Division, a motorized infantry force that safeguards Beijing. The move was interpreted by Reuters as China's military cautiously trying out new openness.

Rear Admiral Yang Yi, a senior military expert at the University of National Defense, said the army is displaying increased confidence, transparency and openness by a series of military exchanges and diplomatic activities.

“It is conducive for China to convey its message of peaceful development and gradually dispel concerns about its military intentions from its Asian neighbors and Washington,” Yang said.

Pakistani boys recall ordeal at suicide training centre

ISLAMABAD: Four boys from Swat in Pakistan's restive northwest who were kidnapped by militants to be trained as suicide bombers have narrated harrowing tales of their ordeal in captivity, saying they were told to target their families if prevented from joining the jihad against security forces.

They said militants had taken them by force from their villages to training camps in different parts of the Matta sub-district where a large number of other boys were being trained as suicide bombers, Dawn reported on Friday in a dispatch from Swat's largest city of Mingora.

On Thursday, security forces presented them before a team of reporters in Mingora. Two of them, who were in a camp named Fazal Banda, said at least 250 boys, most of them in their teens, were being trained for terrorist acts and suicide bombings.

One of them said he was working in the field when armed men forced him into a car. "They blindfolded me and told me that I would get training for suicide bombing."

"The gunmen took me to the Fazal Banda camp where militants were training a large number of boys. They told us that security personnel were infidels and we should wage jihad against them. If our own families stopped us from joining jihad, we should target them as well."

Another boy said he was in his village when a group men sought his help to load luggage onto a vehicle. "When I went to help them, some masked men bundled me into the vehicle and drove away. They put a mask on my face and removed it at a training camp inChuparyal."

He said some 150 boys were being trained at the camp. Some of them had voluntarily joined the militants while some had been kidnapped, he added.

One of the boys said the Taliban had kidnapped him and told him he would be trained for the jihad. "They trained us and gave us little food. Three to four boys would get one chapati and some green tea. They warned us that anyone trying to escape would be slaughtered," he said.

The boys said they escaped from the training camps after four days and managed to return home.

"On our fourth morning at the camp, we got up along with other Taliban for prayers. We went out of the barracks for ablution and ran away," said two boys.

The Pakistani security forces had April 26 launched a major offensive against the Taliban in the Malakand division of the North West Frontier Province after they reneged on a controversial peace deal with the provincial government.

Under the deal, the militants were to lay down their arms in return for the imposition of Sharia laws in Swat and six other districts of the Malakand division. Instead, they moved south from their Swat headquarters and occupied Buner district that is just 100 km from Islamabad.

The operations had begun in Lower Dir, the home district of radical cleric Sufi Mohammad, who had brokered the peace deal and who is the father-in-law of Swat Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah. The operations, which have now all but concluded, later spread to Buner and Swat.

Some three million civilians were displaced by the fighting. Large numbers of them have now begun to return home.

The military says over 1,500 Taliban were killed in the fighting.