Saturday, October 24, 2009

60 Lashes Ordered for Saudi Woman

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A Saudi court sentenced a journalist on Saturday to 60 lashes after she was charged with involvement in a television show in which a Saudi man talked about sex.

The journalist, Rozanna al-Yami, 22, is believed to be the first female Saudi journalist to be given such a punishment. The charges included involvement in preparing the program and advertising it on the Internet. Ms. Yami said she had worked as a coordinator for the program but had not worked on the episode in question. She said the judge, in the western city of Jidda, had handed down the sentence “as a deterrence.”

“I am too frustrated and upset to appeal the sentence,” Ms. Yami said.

Abdul-Rahman al-Hazza, the spokesman of the Ministry of Culture and Information, said he had no details of the sentencing and could not comment on it.

In the program, broadcast in July on the Lebanese satellite channel LBC, the Saudi man, Mazen Abdul-Jawad, described his active sex life and showed sex toys, which the station blurred. The same court sentenced Mr. Abdul-Jawad to five years in prison and 1,000 lashes.

The program scandalized this conservative country, and the government shut down LBC’s two offices in the kingdom.

No Conditions on US Aid to Pakistan

U.S. envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke said Friday legislation on new American aid to Pakistan puts no conditions on that country, and that assertions to the contrary are distortions. Holbrooke says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Pakistan in a few days to discuss U.S. aid and related issues.

U.S. officials are providing no details of the Clinton itinerary because of security considerations.

But Holbrooke says the Secretary will visit Islamabad within a few days for talks focusing on the aid issue and the Pakistani government's new military drive against extremists in the Afghan border region.

The Clinton visit comes amid a controversy in Pakistan over a five-year, $7.5 billion civilian assistance package approved by Congress last month aimed at regularizing what has been an up and up-and-down aid relationship.

The measure, which requires periodic White House reports to Congress on, among other things, whether Pakistan's civilian government is exercising effective control overt the military, was attacked in by some in Pakistan as an infringement of the country's sovereignty.

The issue, eased somewhat by clarifications to Pakistan by Congressional leaders, may flare again with approval Friday of a defense spending bill that would require administration reporting that Pakistan is not diverting military aid intended to help fight the Taliban to build defenses against India.

At a news briefing, Holbrooke said the legislative terms are requirements on the U.S. executive branch, not conditions on Pakistan.

"There are no conditions on Pakistan," he said. "There are reporting requirements on us. Almost all legislation now, and for the last 30 years, since the 1970's, Congress began putting reporting requirements on the executive branch. This began in the Nixon-Kissinger era. That's how it works. And there's been a total, and I believe willful distortion of this among some people in Pakistan."

Holbrooke called the defense spending measure approved Friday a pro-Pakistan bill and expressed hope that it is reported on accurately in Pakistan so that there is no repeat of what he termed the misunderstanding about the civilian aid package.

Under questioning, the U.S. regional envoy also predicted that there will be fewer problems with the second-round presidential election in Afghanistan November 7 than in the fraud-tainted first round of voting in August.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed to the run off with his main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, after investigators determined that about a third of the votes cast for him in the first round were fraudulent and that he did not get an outright majority.

There are concerns that the same kind of irregularities will cloud the second-round vote, but Holbrooke said he expects it to be a smoother process.

"It is reasonable to hope that there will be less irregularities this time, for several reasons," he said. "One, there are only two candidates. Two, there's the experience factor. Three, the international community including the forces under [U.S.] General McCrystal's command are going to go all-out to help make this a success."

There have been suggestions that relations between U.S. officials including Mr. Holbrooke and President Karzai have become difficult amid reports he resisted the idea of a runoff.

But Holbrooke, who said he expects to meet Mr. Karzai in Kabul in a few days, called his relations with the Afghan leader correct and appropriate and said if he wins re-election, the Obama administration looks forward to working closely with him in pursuit of mutual goals.

Pukhtunkhwa govt decides to keep schools closed for another week

LAHORE: Educational institutions in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan will reopen on Monday, however, schools in the NWFP will remain closed until November 2, a private TV channel reported on Saturday.

According to the channel, Sindh Education Minister Pir Mazharul Haq has said all educational institutions across the province will reopen from Monday.

The NWFP government announced on Saturday that all government and private schools would remain close until November 2.

However, a University of Peshawar spokesman told Daily Times the university was scheduled to open on October 26 and so far, no extension in closure of the institution was under consideration.

Meanwhile, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) has announced that all schools under the supervision of Cantonment and the federal board in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Karachi, Quetta, Gujranwala, Sialkot and Peshawar would be opened on Monday.

Separately, the Punjab government has decided to open all educational institutions from Monday.

Two new cases of polio confirmed in Pukhtunkhwa

PESHAWAR: Two more cases of polio, one in Hazara division and the other in Swat valley, were confirmed by the National Institute of Health on Friday.
Sources in the health department informed that one case was reported in Matta tehsil of Swat where one-year-old Inayatullah was tested positive for polio, adding that the affected child had not received any dose of oral polio vaccine (OPV) as the vaccination drive could not be run in the restive valley during the current year owing to fragile security situation.
Similarly, they added, the other case was reported in Hazara division where one and half years old Haseena was affected by the dangerous P1 virus.
Sources informed that the total number of polio cases in the province had become 40 while 72 in the country during the current year after the detection of the fresh two cases.
Health officials told the Statesman that the department was facing many challenges in the eradication of the fatal virus including refusals, inaccessibility of health workers to conflict zones, high prevalence of illiteracy among parents, cross-border movement, weakly routine immunisation programme and lack of awareness regarding the significance of polio vaccines.
They were of the view that especially the war on terrorism had been creating problems for vaccinators to visit the troubled areas, urging the mediamen to play their role in raising the level of people's awareness about the deadly ailment.
District Coordination Officer (DCO) Sahibzada Muhammad Anees informed that as many as 7,42,800 children were administered vaccines during the recent polio drive in the province, adding Swat was also included in the anti-polio drive, where polio drive could not be conducted owing to the precarious law and order situation in the past.

Karzai won't insult democracy

KABUL, Afghanistan-- Afghanistan's president is downplaying accusations of widespread fraud in his country's recent elections, but he's emphasizing the importance of a runoff for the sake of ensuring peace and stability in his nascent and war-torn democracy.

"We must have a second round," Hamid Karzai said in a taped and exclusive interview for the Fareed Zakaria GPS show that airs Sunday on CNN. "If we don't do that, we would be insulting democracy. And I pledge to respect the vote of the people."

In the first interview since a runoff was announced, Karzai said there were so many claims of widespread corruption in the election two months ago that he started to believe that the voting was fraud-laden. In fact, he said, he too began to doubt the results.

"But three days before I made the decision to call for a runoff, I got convinced that all that was said was mostly wrong," said Karzai, who ran for presidential re-election against several candidates.

"There were some mistakes. There were some instances of fraud, but the nation as a whole was clean, and the result was clear. I decided for peace, for stability and for the future of democracy in Afghanistan and for the future of institutional order in Afghanistan to call for a runoff, and I find that in the interest of the Afghan people."

Last month, final uncertified results showed Karzai with 54 percent of the vote, but a report by a U.N.-backed panel of election monitors said there was widespread fraud in the August 20 presidential election.

The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission invalidated nearly one-third of Karzai's votes because of "clear and convincing evidence of fraud." Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission then certified the voting results, which gave him less than the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

The fraud claims reverberated politically in the United States, where criticism of the Afghan war gained even more traction when citizens and lawmakers began questioning whether it was worth sacrificing troops to support what they viewed as a corrupt government.

In light of the fraud claims and in the face of Western pressure, Karzai agreed to a November 7 runoff with his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

"Whatever happens, this election must present a clear result, and that result must be respected," Karzai said. "But of course the international community and us, the Afghans, must do everything that we can to make it better, to make it much more legitimate and to make it worthwhile of the effort of the Afghan people."

Asked whether he was pressured into accepting another round of voting, Karzai said that many world leaders called and asked him to accept the ultimate results, but he said those requests weren't the reason he accepted the runoff.

"It was recognizing that Afghanistan had gone through so many years of difficulty, so many years of internal strife backed by foreign players, and I felt as if Afghanistan was entering that period again. I felt as if Afghans were pitching one against the other, and for that reason, and for the reason of safety and security of the Afghan people and as I mentioned earlier, cementing democratic traditions in Afghanistan, I went to agree to a second round, which I believe is good for Afghanistan, which will eventually be good for all of us," he said.

At the same time, Karzai said, the "last election was not as bad as it was claimed; it was a lot better."

"Afghanistan is a poor country, in Western terminology -- a Third World country," he said, observing that it "has gone through years of war."

"The institutions are just young toddlers in this democracy that resembles a toddler. It walks and falls. We have to understand that, and we have to accept the Afghan elections in the context of the Afghan situation and the poverty and lack of means in this country," Karzai said.

Karzai said in the interview that "Afghanistan always had a national unity government" and that "I will have an inclusive government as always."

"Dr. Abdullah did not vote for me in 2004, but I continued to keep him as the minister of foreign affairs for another year and a half," he said, saying he's "known for consensus."

He was asked to respond to widespread concerns in the United States about his government and a comment from Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel that "the key question we face is, is the government in Afghanistan, is Hamid Karzai's government a reliable partner for the United States?"

"Well, we have the same question, too," Karzai said, noting that the partnership "is not a one-way street."

"Is the United States a reliable partner with Afghanistan? Is the West a reliable partner with Afghanistan? Have we received the commitments that we were given? Have we been treated like a partner? How do we define a partnership?"

Karzai noted that his countrymen have been incensed over civilian deaths caused by international airstrikes.

And, he said, the Pashtun people, among whom the Taliban has much support, can't be "weaned away" from the insurgency if they are under attack, feeling insecure and have no hope for the future.

"The trouble between my government and myself and our allies has been these blind bombardments of our villages, the attacks on our people at night, raiding their homes, arresting them and putting them in prison," he said.

He added he supports Gen. Stanley McChrystal's recent report on Afghanistan that calls for protecting the civilian population. McChrystal is the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

McChrystal reportedly is asking for an additional 40,000 additional troops, and Karzai said future numbers would have to be discussed after the election.

"The arrival of forces must enhance the sense of protection of the Afghan people and must give protection to the Afghan people. It must not be a capture and kill pursuit of the Taliban; it must be one that provides protection to the country and must also lead to the enhancement of the abilities of the Afghan military and security forces. Therefore they have to come as liberators as they did in 2002 and not otherwise," he said.

Asked about American skepticism over whether the Afghan government is a "legitimate" partner, Karzai said World Bank and U.N. reports show that the "Afghan government is found more capable of delivering the resources to the Afghan people, that the money spend by the Afghan government is spent much better and more efficiently, and on the right projects."

He said there's a "strong institutional structure" in the banks, the Finance Ministry and the accounting system.

He also cited improvement in the judicial realm.

"We're a lot better, a lot more capable, a lot more able to deliver justice then we were seven years ago. It will take a lot more in many more years, sir, to get to where we desire to, and for that we must have patience."

Asked about Pakistan's massive ground offensive in Pakistan's South Waziristan region, a sanctuary for insurgents bordering Afghanistan, Karzai said Afghanistan is "fully behind any efforts to remove extremists and terrorists" and said Afghanistan and Pakistan have a "very constructive relationship at present." But he cautioned that the war on terrorism shouldn't be a war on the indigenous people in the region.

"We must make sure that no civilians are hurt, that no Pashtun families, because they happen to be Pashtun and happen to be affected by terrorists who have taken place in their midst, they must not be hurt or affected," he said.

"As soon as the election is over, if I win in that election, I will make sure to enhance that relationship with Pakistan," he said.

Karzai was asked whether the Pakistani military will target another region, North Waziristan, and attack the groups that have been striking Afghanistan.

"I can't predict that. I hope we will be able to conduct an effective campaign against terrorism, making sure that every Taliban are not hurt, because every Talib is not a terrorist, the Taliban are thousands of people in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"We must differentiate between the Taliban and the terrorists, attack al Qaeda and the terrorists and leave the civilians and the Taliban who are not part of that structure out and respect their life and their property.

He also disputed charges that many insurgents are inspired by opposition to his government, not global Jihad.

"Well, that sort of story has been going around for some time. I think it's not going to serve anybody in America or NATO to try and make scapegoats out of the Afghan government, or out of the Afghan people. I think we must recognize that we have all made mistakes. Some in Afghanistan, some in the international community. So let's correct those mistakes and lets move forward if we are interested in fighting terrorism effectively," he said.

Restaurants, hotels closed down in Peshawar

PESHAWAR: Adding more to the gloom of the provincial capital, all the main restaurants of the city were closed on Saturday, for the first time in the contemporary history of the area.

The Frontier Hotels and Restaurants Association announced closing down their 21 outlets for three days to express solidarity with the owners of Swan Restaurant, attacked with a car bomb on Friday where at least 15 people were injured. The association president, Khalid Ayub, complained of inadequate security for hotels and restaurants, saying they would extend their protest if not provided security.

The general public was of the view this was because of the worsening law and order situation as well as certain visible and invisible threats to the crowded places that forced the owners of restaurants to suspend their business for at least three days.

Many were stunned Saturday evening to see the restaurants on main University Road, where over three dozens food outlets are located, shut.

“This is so disturbing. I was shocked to see all the top restaurants on the University Road shut. This is what I am seeing for the first time in my life,” a senior doctor of the city, Dr Gohar Amin, told The News. He said not only the adults are going through a painful time but even his eight-year-old son asked to shift to safer place in search of peace.

Manager of one of the closed restaurants told this scribe that they were going to shut their outlets to express solidarity with the management of Swan Restaurant.

“We also want to close our restaurants for three days to protest against the inadequate security measures around the food outlets,” stated the manager, wishing not to mention his or his restaurant’s name.

Some of the food outlets, mostly local branches of international chains, had already received threats from different groups to stop their business.

A branch of an international food chain has restricted activities in its Peshawar outlet after several threats. Security was also beefed up in and around the fast food restaurant to protect the visitors. Security was at its best in and around another branch of an international chain on Khyber Road. An Italian restaurant on Ring Road has also been closed owing to the deteriorating law and order and for not being visited by enough number of customers due to insecurity.

Even ahead of closure of the food outlets, the prevailing situation had scared the food lovers who had stopped visiting restaurants to secure their lives and loved ones.

Online adds: Commissioner Peshawar division Azam Khan has directed law enforcement agencies to arrest the insurgents involved in rocket attacks in different areas of the city and to investigate about the specifications and range of fired missiles.

Presiding a high level meeting here Saturday that was attended by senior police officials and political agents, the commissioner directed law enforcement agencies to investigate in details the rocket firing incidents by specifying the designs and range of the fired missiles.

Government not to bow to terrorists: CM

PESHAWAR: Chief Minister Ameer Haider Khan Hoti Saturday said the nation was united against terrorists and the menace of terrorism would be wiped out from the country at all costs.

“We will not bow to the terrorists. Operation against the militants in South Waziristan has been launched and no one would be allowed to challenge the writ of the government elsewhere,” the chief minister told a cabinet meeting at the Civil Secretariat.

The meeting was convened in the wake of Waziristan operation and subsequent terrorist activities in the province.

Besides cabinet members, the meeting was also attended by the chief secretary and heads of all concerned departments and district coordination officers.

The meeting was briefed in detail about the operation in Waziristan and security arrangements in the province.

The chief minister lauded the sacrifices of the police and said all possible steps were being taken to strengthen the force in the province. He said the government had already decided to increase the strength of police in the districts. “The relatives of the slain cops would be proffered in new appointment,” the chief minister said and directed the concerned authorities to implement the ‘Shuhada Package’ as early as possible.

Hoti also said the police in Peshawar range and southern districts would also get special package soon.

He said a force comprising former soldiers would also be formed for Peshawar on which work was in progress.

'Afghanistan Has Changed'

The man up against Hamid Karzai for the presidency of Afghanistan tells Sky News that his country has changed from a tribal to a democratic land.

Rs2.5bn released to meet urgent needs of IDPs

ISLAMABAD: Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Qamar Zaman Kaira Saturday said the government has released Rs2.5 billion to meet the urgent needs of the dislocated persons from South Waziristan.

Addressing a joint press conference with Director General ISPR, Major General Athar Abbas here to brief media persons about the updates on the on-going operation in South Waziristan Agency, he said the government would leave no stone unturned to facilitate around 20,872 families from the area.

‘This is our responsibility to meet all needs of the displaced people as the process of registration of around 9,297 new IDP families is going on smoothly, and there is no problem in this regard,’ he added.

He said 11,000 families from South Waziristan Agency have already been registered and each displaced family is being provided with Rs5,000 as food-aid through cash cards, while they would also be provided money for purchase of non-food items.

Kaira said the rehabilitation process of IDPs from Swat and Malakand is in progress and besides taking various steps for their welfare, the government was also planning to initiate financial empowerment programmes there

Security forces capture Taliban chief’s hometown

PESHAWAR: Pakistan said Saturday it had captured Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud’s hometown as the US demonstrated its support for the war on the militants with an air strike that killed more than 14 people.

Security officials said the army overran Mehsud’s town of Kotkai overnight after three days of aerial bombardments which had underlined the huge challenge facing the military in taking on the Taliban in their tribal heartland.

And in another part of the northwest tribal belt, a missile fired by an unmanned US drone spy plane killed more than 14 people including three foreign militants, local officials said.

Although figures are impossible to verify, the army says more than 160 militants and 23 troops have been killed in the week-long South Waziristan offensive. Twelve militants and three soldiers died in the final stages of the battle for Kotkai, it added.

‘Today, after intense fighting, security forces took complete control of the town of Kotkai,’ the army’s chief spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told a press conference.

The army said many of the houses in Kotkai had been converted into bunkers by militants and it was also the site of a training camp for suicide bombers.

‘Security forces are in the process of clearing the build-up area of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), booby-traps and mines,’ the spokesman added.

Abbas said the Taliban had been hit by a large number of desertions, saying that the militants were now trimming their beards to distance themselves from their erstwhile comrades in arms.

The army launched the drive last Saturday, pitting 30,000 troops against estimated 10,000-12,000 Taliban fighters where Al-Qaeda-linked militants are believed to have plotted attacks against the West as well as in Pakistan.

The army had promised to make the Taliban leadership a particular target of their offensive and sealed off the main road into Kotkai last weekend.

There has been no word on the whereabouts of Mehsud since the operation began.

Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal belt has become a stronghold for hundreds of extremists who fled Afghanistan after the US-led invasion toppled the hardliner Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan in late 2001.

While US ground troops are not free to operate in Pakistan, it has carried out a series of air strikes by unmanned planes.

The latest killed more than 14 people in the Bajaur district, to the north of Waziristan, and officials said the toll was likely to rise.

One security official said that a house was targeted in Damadola village, saying those killed included three foreign militants.

Another security official said a tunnel linked to a bunker in the house of a relative of local Tehreek-e-Taliban chief Maulvi Faqir Mohammad was targeted.

Some of his relatives were among the dead and there were reports Mohammad himself had been in the house but left 10 minutes before the strike, he added.

Announcing plans for both himself and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to visit soon, Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the region, said the US is ‘very impressed with the Pakistani resolve’.

Although the government has said it will deal a decisive blow to the militants, the rebels have continued to carry out attacks in Pakistani cities since the start of the operation, with the military a major target.

On Friday, a bomb attack outside a Pakistani Air Force base killed six civilians and two air force personnel. On Thursday in Islamabad gunmen killed a brigadier and his driver.

Nearly 200 people have been killed in attacks this month alone.

‘The wave of militancy has adversely affected every segment of society,’ Gilani told a meeting of his top security officials late Friday.

Islamabad on Edge

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Islamabad, once the safest city in the country, feels under siege, as the war has crept across the border from Afghanistan, now slowly into the capital with near daily Taliban bombings and shootings. Constant threats of suicide attacks have spread unaccustomed panic. Schools are closed. Shopping malls are deserted. Traffic has thinned. With winter approaching, evenings are darker and quieter with a foreboding air.

“I’m concerned about my children and their future,” said Saba Sharif, 27, a mother of three children, who range in age from one to five years old. “Yesterday, I was talking to my husband’s sister who is in Canada. She said that we should apply for immigration to Calgary.”

And it’s not just personal safety: Her husband, Usman, 33, leases a coal mine near Islamabad. But the deteriorating security situation is making him feel jittery about his heavy investment.

Though Pakistan is hardly immune to violence, Islamabad, with the grand Hindu Kush to the north and east, once had a serene quality to it.

Now diplomats are drawing contingency plans, fearing bigger attacks and nervous that suicide attackers may enter the city’s heavily guarded diplomatic zone. People have started forwarding short text messages on their cellphones, warning friends and relatives about places that might be possible targets or to ensure that vehicles are locked while idling at traffic signals to deter any hostage-taking attempts by bombers on the loose. Security checkpoints and barriers cause long queues of cars and people fear this might actually attract a terrorist attack.

Madeeha Hazoor, 27, said that while Pakistan has been dangerous for some time, she has only begun to feel it in the capital recently.

“My brother was in a building, which a suicide bomber attacked; a friend’s father was in a target killing and many other people I know were close to an area that was attacked minutes later,” she said.

“ People are avoiding going out, my office has told us to work from home, whenever us friends have to hang out - we try and plan something at someone’s house rather than at a restaurant,” she said. “If I do go to eat out, I visualize which seat would be safest to sit at in case of an attack!”

Beenisch Tahir, a freelance writer for an English-language daily, said: “Being used to a peaceful Islamabad, where safety was the last thing that ever entered our minds, having it ruined because of terrorism in the last two years especially makes me angry.’

“Many of us just refuse to give up our right to normalcy,” she said.

But a new normal is evolving here, which some find as disturbing as the attacks themselves. Grim news, killings and scenes of devastation are now all too frequent and give terrorism a strange, disturbing sense of familiarity.

“Maybe we’re desensitized,” Ms. Tahir said. “Or maybe we’re just sick of living like this for the last few years and just can’t take it anymore. Now I check the news like I check a game for the score.”

“It is sad,” she said.

Look at insurgent groups on Afghan-Pakistan border

Associated Press
A complex network of insurgents is battling U.S. forces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The groups include:
_Afghan Taliban: A hard-line Pakistani-sponsored movement that began forming during the 1970s as part of the mujahadeen, or freedom fighters, who battled the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan until the Russians were ousted in 1989. The Taliban emerged as a united entity in 1994 and took control of the country in 1996, instituting a strict and often brutal sharia, or Islamic law.
Led by Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban sheltered Osama bin Laden in the years leading up to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But the group was toppled shortly after the U.S. and allied invasion a month later. The U.S. government estimates there are roughly 25,000 members of the Afghan Taliban. Mullah Omar remains a fugitive.
Al-Qaida also has strong ties with the network run by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj, Afghans who direct the fight against U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan from the Waziristan tribal region in Pakistan.
_Pakistan Taliban: Formed more recently, the group is known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban Movement. It initially was led by Baitullah Mehsud. Largely a loose federation of various tribal and regional faction united by Mehsud, the group is located mainly in strongholds along the northwestern tribal belt, where the militants are also believed to be providing safe havens for senior al-Qaida leaders, including bin laden.
Mehsud was killed in an Aug. 5 CIA missile strike in northwestern Pakistan. He was replaced by his military chief, Hakimullah Mehsud. U.S. officials said it is hard to determine the precise number of Pakistani Taliban along the border, but they say it's in the thousands.
_Al-Qaida: Established by bin Laden in 1988 with the stated goal of uniting Muslims to defeat the West and form an Islamic caliphate. The group is behind a number of high-profile attacks including the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and the Sept. 11 attacks that saw 19 al-Qaida members hijack four airlines and slam them into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside.
While weakened and diminished in Iraq, the group has spawned franchises or affiliates in East Africa, Somalia, Indonesia and other locations around the world. Officials say there are a couple hundred in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Obama Declares Swine Flu a National Emergency

WASHINGTON — President Obama has declared the swine flu outbreak a national emergency, allowing hospitals and local governments to speedily set up alternate sites and procedures if needed to handle any surge of patients, the White House said on Saturday.

The declaration came when long lines formed around the country for the swine flu vaccine, with distribution that has not met demand.

Flu activity — virtually all of it the swine flu — is now widespread in 46 states, a level that federal officials say equals the peak of a typical winter flu season. Millions of people in the United States have had swine flu, known as H1N1, either in the first wave in the spring or the current wave.

Although no one has an exact count of the flu’s mortality, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that it had killed more than 1,000 Americans and hospitalized over 20,000.

The emergency declaration, which Mr. Obama signed Friday night, has to do only with hospital treatment, not with the vaccine.

A spokesman for the C.D.C., David Daigle, said he had not heard of any hospital that has faced a surge of patients so large that it had to set up a triage area or a treatment unit off-site. He knew of hospitals in Texas and Tennessee that had set up triage tents in their parking lots in order to screen patients with fever or other flu symptoms, but those have been on hospital grounds, he said.

Against this backdrop, administration officials emphasized that Mr. Obama’s declaration was largely a bureaucratic move that did not signify any unanticipated worsening of the outbreak of the H1N1 flu nationwide. Nor, they said, does it have anything to do with the recent reports of vaccine shortages.

“This is not a response to any new developments,” said Reid Cherlin, a White House spokesman. “It’s an important tool in our kit going forward.”

Public and private health officials were administering swine flu shots at scores of locations around the country this weekend.

In Chicago, health officials began giving free vaccinations at six City College locations on Saturday, and within hours officials were turning away hundreds of people because supplies had been exhausted.

Health officials said that they distributed 1,500 doses at each of the sites and that they began the vaccinations at 9 a.m. But two hours before the centers opened, there were already hundreds of people waiting in line for the numbered cards that were needed to get the vaccination. With the number of patients outrunning the supply, officials said that they would give priority to patients who fell into the higher-risk groups.

The seasonal flu typically hospitalizes 200,000 people in the United States each year and kills 36,000. But over 90 percent of the deaths from seasonal flu are among the elderly, while the swine flu mostly affects the young.

The country is in the midst of a serious shortage of swine flu vaccine; only about 16 million doses are available. There is no overall shortage of seasonal flu vaccine — 85 million doses have already shipped, and the regular flu season has not started. But there are temporary local shortages.

The president’s signature on the declaration fulfills the second of two conditions necessary under federal law to empower Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, to issue waivers expediting health care facilities’ ability to transfer patients to other locations. The first condition was met in April when the Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency, which Ms. Sebelius renewed for a second time on Oct. 20.

The declaration allows hospitals to apply to the Department of Health and Human Services for waivers from laws that in normal times are intended to protect patients’ privacy and to ensure that they are not discriminated against based on their source of payment for care, including Medicare, Medicaid and the states’ Children’s Health Insurance Program.

As a practical matter, officials said, the waiver could allow a hospital in danger of being overwhelmed with swine flu patients to remove them, and any emergency room visitors suspected of having the illness, to a location such a local armory to segregate such cases for treatment.

In a few cases, hospitals already have set up tents on their sites. But under federal law, if the patients are sent off-site, the hospital might be refused reimbursement for the care as a sanction.

Since last winter’s more isolated cases of swine flu, the expectation that the virus would return with a vengeance in this flu season had posed a test of the Obama administration’s preparedness. Officials are mindful that the previous administration’s failure to better prepare for and respond to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left doubts that dogged President George W. Bush to the end of his term.

Pakistan troops retake Taliban stronghold in Waziristan

Pakistani forces backed by helicopter gunships and artillery recaptured a strategic town from Taliban militants after fierce fighting, officials said on Saturday.

Kotkai town in South Waziristan has changed hands three times since the army launched a major offensive on Taliban strongholds a week ago, highlighting the difficulty of seizing territorial advantage in the rugged mountains and valleys near Afghanistan.

It is also the birthplace of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud and the home town of Qari Hussain Mehsud, a senior commander known as "the mentor of suicide bombers".

The offensive is a test of the government's determination to tackle Islamist fundamentalists, and the campaign is being closely followed by the United States and other powers embroiled in Afghanistan's growing conflict.

The militants have responded by stepping up a campaign of suicide bomb attacks and commando raids that have killed more than 150 people and wounded even more in the past three weeks.

Military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said security forces entered Kotkai on Friday evening and were now clearing the area. Government troops first took the town on Monday, but the Taliban retook control a day later.

"The place was a stronghold of terrorists, with a majority of households turned into bunkers," he told a news conference, adding that militants were abandoning their weapons and shaving their beards to try to blend in with ordinary civilians and avoid capture.

Abbas said the military was ahead of schedule on the offensive but the terrain meant operations were going to slow down.
Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in South Waziristan but aid officials do not expect the exodus to become a humanitarian crisis, as did a similar offensive in the Swat Valley earlier this year.

The rise in urban attacks by militants is taking a toll, however, with the country's stock market .KSE -- which has performed well this year after a slump in line with global markets -- dropping 6 percent in a week.

Analysts have warned of the possibility of more attacks as the militants come under pressure in South Waziristan, with the Taliban hoping bloodshed and disruption will cause the government and ordinary people to lose their appetite for the offensive.

A suicide bomber killed eight people outside a key airforce facility on Friday. Hours later, a car bomb outside a restaurant in the northwestern city of Peshawar wounded 15 people.

Remote and rugged South Waziristan, with its rocky mountains and patchy forests cut through by dry creeks and ravines, has become a global hub for militants who flit between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A missile believed fired from a U.S. predator drone aircraft on Saturday killed at least 15 militants at a senior Taliban commander's hideout in the neighbouring tribal area of Bajaur, a government official said.

"All of them are militants, including foreigners," a senior government official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.

He said the commander, Maulvi Faqir, narrowly escaped, but two of his relatives were killed.

About 28,000 soldiers are battling an estimated 10,000 hardcore Taliban, including about 1,000 tough Uzbek fighters and some Arab al Qaeda members.

In the last 24 hours, Abbas said 21 militants and three soldiers had been killed in Waziristan.

Foreign journalists are not allowed anywhere near the battle zone and it is dangerous even for Pakistani reporters to visit, so independent confirmation of casualty figures is difficult to obtain.

Students unite against terrorism

Students from various private universities of Karachi gathered outside the Karachi Press Club on Saturday to denounce all acts of terrorism and raise their voice against the closure of educational institutions across the country till Monday.