Friday, April 30, 2010

Swat Valley Returnees in Acute Need of Help

The United Nations refugee agency says thousands of people who have returned to the homes they fled last year from Pakistan's Swat Valley are still struggling to rebuild their lives. Next week will mark the first anniversary of the fighting between the Pakistan government and Taliban militants, which resulted in more than two million people fleeing their homes.

The U.N. refugee agency says the intense fighting that erupted nearly one year ago between the Pakistani government and Taliban militants in the Swat Valley triggered one of the largest and fastest developing displacements it has ever seen.

While the fighting was particularly fierce, it was short lived. And, on July 13, 2009, the Pakistani government began a program to help the internally displaced people return to the homes they had fled.

The government estimates 80 to 90 percent of the more than two million people who were affected have returned to their home areas.

While the Swat Valley remains relatively stable, UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic says many of those who have returned home are having difficulty in resuming a normal life.

"Today, Swat's capital Mingora is once again a bustling town, but the human cost of the conflict is still being felt there and across the Swat Valley," said Mahecic. "UNHCR and its NGO partners are helping some of the most vulnerable returnees by building shelters for civilians whose homes and other property has been lost. In Swat, Buner and Lower Dir, we are working with partners to build more than 12,000 shelters for families whose houses were badly damaged or destroyed. Typically, these people live in small rural villages and were already very poor."

Mahecic says the UNHCR and its partners have set up 15 welfare centers in Swat and Lower Dir where psychologists continue to counsel people suffering from trauma. He says more than 30,000 vulnerable people have been helped since November.

While a dramatic number of people have returned home, Mahecic says the displacement crisis in northwest Pakistan is not over. He says some 1.3 million people from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas remain displaced.

He says the region remains volatile. He says people are still fleeing the conflict areas to escape the sporadic operations launched by the security forces against the militants in the tribal belt.

"In April alone, some 85,000 people have been newly registered by the local officials," he said. "They fled from Kurram and Orakzai… Registration was later suspended following an attack on the registration point in Kohat on 17 April. Today, UNHCR in Pakistan faces a complex humanitarian operation on several fronts. In addition to helping people rebuild lives and homes in return areas, new IDPs from Kurram and Orakzai need to be registered and given emergency relief. The longer term displaced still are also in need of care."

Mahecic says more than 130,000 people live in nine camps, which have to be maintained or consolidated. He says new return operations to other areas in the tribal belt are underway.

He says a lot of money will be needed to make their return sustainable. So far, he notes the UNHCR only has received $35 million of the $176 million it needs to carry out its humanitarian operations in northwest Pakistan's Swat Valley this year.

Encouraging trends in Afghanistan despite rise in violence

Violence in Afghanistan is up nearly 90 percent from this time last year, according to a new Pentagon report submitted to Congress Wednesday.Despite that increase and a 240 percent spike in roadside bomb attacks -- a major factor in overall violence statistics -- and increasing Taliban tactics to discredit President Hamid Karzai's government with shadow governments, some officials said they are seeing encouraging trends.
"We have the beginnings of the potential for real change," said a senior U.S. defense official who is closely involved with the Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy. The additional troops ordered by President Barack Obama, the official said, "have begun to have some impact on reducing the Taliban's ability to operate."
The new report tracks progress in Afghanistan from October 2009 to March 2010, revealing that an overall decline in stability over the last several years appears now to have steadied. But overall violence has risen, mostly due to an increase in allied offensives reaching into Taliban-controlled areas, as well as successful Taliban efforts to return to areas that had been cleared by U.S. troops.
The United States faces two major concerns in Afghanistan, the senior defense official said: developing Afghan security forces and stopping corruption.
A recent poll indicated that more than 80 percent of Afghans are affected by government corruption in their daily lives. About a third believe the government is less corrupt than a year ago, but a near equal number believes it is more corrupt.
Progress is slow. The government was to have enacted 13 new anti-corruption measures by the end of February, but as of last month, only one of the decrees had been signed, the Pentagon report said.
"Public perceptions of the government with regard to corruption continue to be decidedly negative, with blame placed on ISAF and the rest of the international community as well as the government," the report says. ISAF is the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
There have been some recent acts aimed at cleaning up corruption, the defense official said, citing an Afghan police general who was convicted of stealing from a "widows and orphans" fund. But overall, eliminating corruption is "elusive now. It was elusive two years ago. And it was elusive five years ago."
The official said building Afghan security forces is both challenging and risky.
"There is significant risk to us attaining our goals," the officials said. "There is a lot of concern over the ability of the Afghan National Police to grow."
The report describes problems inside the force with individuals not on the payroll doing police work in some districts, as well as "ghost police" who are on the payroll but don't actually show up for duty. The entire police force has begun to be drug tested, and the most recent results found nearly 14 percent of the force tested positive.
The report also details a severe shortage of trainers to build the Afghan forces to sufficient size and quality. But, the senior defense official said, there's been some progress on that front within the last month.
"Since the report closed, we've had more commitments of trainers," the official said. "It's 20 to 30 percent better since the report closed."
The report also indicated that the recent capture of some Taliban leaders over the border in Pakistan has been demoralizing to some Afghan Taliban fighters. The fighters are under more pressure than ever, the report says, but they are still able to get money for their fight from Islamic states outside Afghanistan.
Iran, the senior defense official said, has been "a mixed bag."
"They're doing some positive things in Afghanistan, and some very negative things."

Afghan enforcement of liquor ban rankles foreigners

The timing might be entirely coincidental, but the liquor taps of Kabul are running dry — on the heels of a bitter public quarrel between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers.

Alcohol is illegal in what is formally known as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. But in the nearly nine years since the fall of the Taliban, a number of restaurants with a mainly foreign clientele have enjoyed a de facto exemption from the ban, as long as they refrain from serving liquor to Afghan Muslims.

Behind high blast walls and double-doored entryways, where patrons are sometimes asked to show their foreign passports, the libations flowed freely — at least, until lately. In the wake of police raids on several establishments this month, a Prohibition-style sensibility has set in.

At some restaurants frequented by diplomats, aid workers and other foreigners, liquor is now served clandestinely, out of juice containers or from porcelain teacups, in back rooms or at secluded tables. Even the best-connected restaurateurs are fearful of police bursting in and dragging them, their wait staff or even patrons off to jail.

In the dinner-hour raids this month, gun-toting Afghan police confiscated tens of thousands of dollars worth of wine and spirits. At one eatery close to the U.S. Embassy, half a dozen foreign waitresses, mainly from the former Soviet Union, were detained and accused of prostitution.

It's a far cry from Taliban times, but some find the crackdown unpleasantly reminiscent of the movement's harsh rule, when women were forced to stay home, music and television were banned and roaming vice squads meted out beatings and other punishment to those deemed to be engaging in immoral behavior.

Still, few Afghans can muster much sympathy for thirsty foreigners, whose privileged existence rankles many here.

Restaurants, hotels and other establishments catering to Westerners form a kind of parallel economy with little relation to what lies within the financial reach of the vast majority of this country's citizens. Dinner in such restaurants can cost more than a month's salary for many Afghans.

It's not clear who initiated the raids. The Interior Ministry, which would normally have authority in such matters, said it was a decision made by the local police. But the scale of the crackdown — which includes newly initiated announcements on incoming international flights warning against the importation of alcohol — appears beyond the scope of police authority.

The Karzai government of late has had rocky relations with the West. The Afghan leader rattled his foreign allies this month by blaming the West for the massive fraud that tainted the presidential election last August.

After the White House characterized his comments as "disturbing," Karzai responded by declaring — perhaps rhetorically — that foreign meddling might just drive him join the Taliban.

Karzai's aides were particularly incensed when former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, who was fired last year as the No. 2 official at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, hinted that the Afghan leader's sometimes-erratic behavior might be due to a drug habit.

Both sides have worked since then to smooth things over. Senior Obama administration officials issued public assurances of partnership, and Karzai is to visit the White House in May, a meeting that had appeared in jeopardy at the height of the public squabble.

In the meantime, many expatriates wonder whether this is payback time — a means for the Karzai administration to quietly needle Westerners without stirring up a diplomatic hornet's nest.

"It's a way of showing who's in charge here," said a European aid worker, nursing a beer he had managed to wheedle from a well-tipped waiter.

In any event, the ban is far from watertight. Diplomats have ready access to supplies of liquor — and, perhaps for that reason, invites to embassy receptions are rarely declined these days. Other foreigners resort to buying from local bootleggers who charge extortionate prices.

In past years, such crackdowns have been short-lived. But this time, restaurant owners and their expatriate customers are settling in for what could be a long dry spell.

"It's the law," said Gen. Abdul Ghafar, the chief of detectives for the Kabul police, whose forces have been carrying out the raids. "And it's for Allah's sake."

Pakistan, in Shift, Weighs Attack on Militant Lair

New York Times
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani military, long reluctant to heed American urging that it attack Pakistani militant groups in their main base in North Waziristan, is coming around to the idea that it must do so, in its own interests.

Western officials have long believed that North Waziristan is the single most important haven for militants with Al Qaeda and the Taliban fighting American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan has nurtured militant groups in the area for years in order to exert influence beyond its borders.

The developing shift in thinking — described in recent interviews with Western diplomats and Pakistani security officials — represents a significant change for Pakistan’s military, which has moved against Taliban militants who attack the Pakistani state, but largely left those fighting in Afghanistan alone.

That distinction is becoming harder to maintain, Pakistani and Western officials say, as the area becomes an alphabet soup of dangerous militant groups that have joined forces to extend their reach deeper inside Pakistan.

“This is a scary phenomenon,” one Western diplomat said. “All these groups are beginning to morph together.”

The consensus is gathering against a background of improved United States-Pakistan relations. The Obama administration’s efforts with Pakistan are beginning to bear fruit, officials said, while the countries’ armies have begun working together more closely, particularly since Pakistan stepped up its military efforts, according to a Pentagon report to Congress released this week.

Even so, any operation in North Waziristan by Pakistan’s badly stretched military would still be months away, Pakistani and Western officials said. And even if it is undertaken, the offensive may not completely sever Pakistan’s relationship with the militants, like Sirajuddin Haqqani, who serve its interests in Afghanistan.

The area has long been a sanctuary for Mr. Haqqani, a longtime asset of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services who is also one of the most dangerous figures in the insurgency against American forces.

In recent months, however, it has also become home to Hakimullah Mehsud, Pakistan’s enemy No. 1, who is now believed to have survived an American drone strike in January, according to the Western diplomat and Pakistani intelligence officials.

He and his supporters fled a Pakistani military operation in South Waziristan that began last October. Though Pakistan’s military said the operation was completed last month, its soldiers are still dying there in rising numbers, as Mr. Mehsud and his forces strike at them from their new base. In recent weeks, at least 19 soldiers have been killed in areas where the military had all but claimed victory.

To make matters worse, families who left during the operation are reluctant to return to their homes, saying they are afraid of vengeful leaders still at large.

“They know a lot of these guys have fled to North Waziristan,” said a Western diplomat in Islamabad. “That’s patently obvious. And sooner or later,” the diplomat continued, “they’re going to have to go in there.”

In a separate interview, a senior Pakistani official concurred. “The source of the problem is in North Waziristan, and it will have to be addressed,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, because he was not allowed to speak publicly.

The growing consensus on North Waziristan comes after a year in which the Pakistani military has opened several fronts against the Taliban in Pakistan, beginning with a campaign in the Swat Valley last spring.

The fighting has cost Pakistan about 2,700 soldiers since 2001, nearly triple the total number of Americans killed in Afghanistan in the same period.

Militants struck back, hitting the military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, a mosque where military families prayed, and the offices of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies in three cities. The number of Pakistani civilians killed last year in Taliban attacks exceeded civilian deaths even in Afghanistan, helping shift public opinion against the militants.

“I think it has become very dramatic that these people are out after them,” the diplomat said.

The fighting — coupled with intense American drone strikes in the western tribal region — has splintered the militant groups, which are now a poisonous mix of Pashtun tribesmen, Arabs, Uzbeks and ethnic Punjabis, known for their brutality against Shiites and their close links to Al Qaeda.

The fracturing is so profound that one Pakistani government official in the tribal region said that the Pakistani Taliban now consisted of several parts operating independently, and that the groups “do not necessarily take orders from Hakimullah Mehsud.” But the widening military campaign has also given them common cause. Operations by the militants have become more fluid. “All these groups are helping each other out and selling their services to the highest bidder,” the diplomat said.

Pakistani officials recognize that the evolving nature of the militants has made them more dangerous — and made the necessity of going after them in North Waziristan increasingly unavoidable. “Their nexus with the Punjabi Taliban have given them greater reach,” a Pakistani law enforcement official said.

But even as there is a growing consensus that North Waziristan is now the source of the problem, there is a continuing debate in the military over when and how to tackle it. Publicly the Pakistani military is saying that it is already fighting on several fronts, and that it does not have the resources to push into North Waziristan for at least several months. Western officials say they believe that the Pakistani military is doing as much as it can under the circumstances.

There is also an understanding that opening a new front in North Waziristan — with its tangle of tribes, Qaeda militants, antistate groups and Haqqani supporters, thought to be in the thousands — will be a formidable task. “To go after Haqqani, it takes a very sizable military operation,” the diplomat said.

But some officials say an operation could come sooner, not least because officers on the ground are calling for it. More frequent attacks emanating from North Waziristan “are likely to lead to a reaction sooner rather than later as field commanders feel the pressure to protect their troops,” said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia program at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Others argue that Pakistan should wait and see how the American-led military offensive in southern Afghanistan plays out this summer. One senior military officer who favors Pakistani military action sooner derisively called that option “sitzkrieg,” Mr. Nawaz said.

Whatever the case, the military would most likely avoid a frontal invasion, some officials suggested, and instead bolster the forces it already maintains in the area, about 10,000 soldiers. Pakistani forces in North Waziristan, which include the paramilitary Frontier Corps, are mostly confined to their barracks.

Despite the prospect of a shift on North Waziristan, there is no apparent change in Pakistan’s attitude toward the leadership council of the Afghan Taliban, which manages the insurgency from in and around the city of Quetta, in southwest Pakistan, several diplomats said.

The Afghan Taliban, under Mullah Muhammad Omar, remains Pakistan’s main tool for leverage in Afghanistan. The arrest of the Taliban’s top operational commander, Abdul Ghani Baradar, in January has not led to a broader crackdown against the Afghan insurgents. “Does it indicate a shift in policy?” the Western diplomat said, referring to the arrest of Mr. Baradar. “No. But it’s still a good thing.”

Hazara to have enhanced share in ADP, says Iftikhar

PESHAWAR: The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government on Thursday announced that all genuine demands of the people of Hazara would be met and their share in the next Annual Development Programme (ADP) enhanced to remove sense of deprivation among them.

“The people of Hazara are our brethren and we will take steps to allay their concerns and their valuable suggestions would be considered,” Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain quoted Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti as having told the assembly members from Hazara division.

He was briefing reporters after the meeting of the elected representatives from Hazara division with the chief minister. Mufti Kifayatullah, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl member of the provincial assembly from Mansehra, Pakistan People’s Party MPAs from Haripur and Abbottabad Dr Faiza Rasheed and Sajida Tabbasum were also present on the occasion.

Mian Iftikhar said the unrest in Abbottabad and Haripur was not an issue between Pakhtuns and non-Pakhtuns. He said that nobody could divide them on linguistic or ethnic bases. He advised the media not to portray the trouble as a racial tension.

The minister said the protest was the constitutional and democratic right of the people of Hazara and the provincial government would not create any hurdle in their struggle. He, however, hastened to add that the protesters should remain within the ambit of law.

The minister said the judicial inquiry into the April 12 tragic incident was in final stages and exemplary punishment would be awarded to those found guilty. He said the provincial government had offered talks to Hazara Action Committee but there were no response from the latter.

“If the leaders of the committee did not negotiate with the provincial government, we would have no option but to resolve the issue through elected representatives of Hazara,” he stressed.

The minister said soon a meeting of the parliamentary leaders would be convened to discuss the agenda and timing for the assembly session to seek solution to the problem in Hazara. To a question, the minister said they would foil the nefarious designs of those who wanted to politicise the issue and exploit the situation.

Speaking on the occasion, Mufti Kifayatullah of JUI-F appreciated the gesture of the provincial government for providing constitutional path to the movement of Hazara province. He said the chief minister had assured that the matters of Hazara province and Abaseen division would be looked into separately.

Desperate tribesman ready to sell kids for wife’s treatment

LANDIKOTAL: A poor tribesman, whose wife is suffering from cancer, on Thursday offered his two children for sale and threatened to commit self-immolation if he was not helped to arrange her treatment.

The wife of Shamsher Kokikhel of Ghundai in Jamrud tehsil of Khyber Agency is under treatment at the Hayat Shaheed Teaching Hospital in Peshawar for the last three months. While protesting close to the gates of Jamrud Press Club on Thursday, Shamsher, father of three boys and three girls, offered his one son and a daughter for sale. He told The News that his wife was diagnosed with lung cancer three months ago. “I sold all my property and other valuables for my wife’s medical treatment. Now I have nothing to sell except my children,” he said.

Shamsher threatened that if he was not provided help within a week he would be compelled to commit self-immolation. Meanwhile, some influential people hailing from Jamrud tehsil came to the protest camp and assured him of all possible help. They also demanded of the governor and chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to help Shamsher Kokikhel.

Three girls’ schools blown up in Orakzai

KALAYA: Unidentified militants blew up three girls primary schools in Upper Tehsil while the political administration arrested 26 persons redhanded while looting and plundering the houses abandoned by the displaced families because of the ongoing military operation in Ferozkhel area of Orakzai Agency on Thursday, tribal sources said.

Tribal sources said the three schools were destroyed in the Mamozai area early in the day. The militants have destroyed 12 government schools and two healthcare centres in Orakzai Agency since the military operation was launched in the region on March 23.

Presently more than 478 schools and 26 health centres are wearing a deserted look because of fighting between the security forces and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan-affiliated militants in Orakzai Agency.

Dozens of militants have been killed in the ongoing military operation and several parts of the Orakzai Agency have been declared cleared of insurgents by the security forces. Meanwhile, the political administration arrested 26 persons redhanded while looting and plundering the houses abandoned by the uprooted families because of the ongoing military operation in Ferozkhel area in Orakzai Agency on Thursday, tribal sources said.

The sources said the detained men were handed over to the security forces by the political administration. They said the accused were also involved in inciting violence between the rival sects residing in the Ferozkhel area in lower part of Orakzai Agency.

They were accused of plundering the houses of the internally displaced persons who had migrated to safer places because of the military action in the area, the sources said, adding that the political administration recovered the goods and valuables that the arrested people had looted from the abandoned houses.

Some of the arrested men were identified as Babur, Malik Awan Ali, Ashkat Ali, Siddique Ali, Jabir Ali, Karamat Ali, Mutahir Hussain, Mumtaz Ali, Shakeel Khan, Ashraf Khan, Iftikhar Ali, Majid Hussain and Ameer Ali belonging to Manikhel tribe residing in the area, the sources added.

The political administration had handed over a list of 40 persons for being involved in act of looting to the elders of the Manikhel tribe and demanded that they be delivered to the government.

Vietnam celebrates 35th anniversary of war's end

Vietnam marked the 35th anniversary of the Communist victory in the Vietnam War with a grand military parade Friday through the former Saigon, with the government basking more in its economic achievements than its historic military defeat of the United States.

The city is now named for Ho Chi Minh, the father of the revolution, but signs of the burgeoning market economy are everywhere, with Communist banners competing for space with corporate ads and logos.

Some 50,000 invitees, many waving red and gold ruling party flags, crowded the parade route. They marked the day that North Vietnamese tanks smashed through the gates of the former Presidential Palace in Saigon and ousted the U.S.-backed South Vietnam government — the culmination of one of the most seismic military achievements since World War II.

The parade brought back vivid memories for Do Thi Thanh Thuy, 49, who watched the tanks roll by her home on April 30, 1975, when she was a junior high student. She and her neighbors on the outskirts of the city had run into the streets to cheer.

"When I saw those tanks, I felt so happy," said Thuy, who on Friday carried a hammer and a sickle flag. "The South had been liberated, the country was united, and the war was over."

The fall of Saigon marked the official end of the Vietnam War and the decadelong U.S. campaign against communism in Southeast Asia. The conflict claimed some 58,000 American lives and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese.

The war left divisions that would take years to heal as many former South Vietnamese soldiers were sent to Communist re-education camps and hundreds of thousands of their relatives fled the country.

In Friday's re-enactment of the war's end, everyone in the former Saigon greeted the Communist troops with jubilation. A tank replica rolled by and soldiers in white uniforms goose-stepped their way down the former Reunification Boulevard, later renamed Le Duan Street after a former Communist Party chief.

Battalions of women soldiers marched by carrying rifles and wearing the black-and-white checkered scarves made famous by the former Viet Cong guerrillas. Patriotic songs blared, some to a pulsing disco beat.

In a reminder of how the Communist Party retains a strong grip on the flow of information despite the opening of the economy, foreign journalists were forbidden from conducting interviews along the parade route. The area was sealed off from ordinary citizens, apparently due to security concerns.

President Nguyen Minh Triet was joined at the parade by leaders and dignitaries from Cuba, Russia and neighboring Cambodia and Laos. Most of those in the crowd were war veterans, party cadres and others selected by local communist organizations.

Among the veterans was Huynh Van Quan, 70, who helped build the famous Cu Chi tunnels outside Saigon, an elaborate underground network where Viet Cong guerrillas sought refuge from American bomber planes. He sat beneath one of the hundreds of portraits of Ho Chi Minh that dotted the route.

Quan, who has attended each of the 35 anniversary ceremonies since the war's end, declared the anniversary a "very important day for the Vietnamese nation." He reminisced about how skilled his comrades were in fighting the United Sates.

A usual honored guest, former Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, 98, architect of Vietnam's military campaigns against their former French colonial rulers and then the Americans, was too ill to attend.

Friday's speeches were sprinkled with timeworn communist slogans and quotes from Ho Chi Minh, including perhaps his most famous, which was invoked by Le Thanh Hai, the Ho Chi Minh Communist Party chief: "There is nothing more precious than independence and freedom."

But Hai focused his remarks on Vietnam's economic achievements, for which Ho Chi Minh City has served as the engine. The city generated more than 20 percent of the nation's gross domestic product last year and 30 percent of its tax revenues, Hai said. The city's economic growth has averaged more than 10 percent a year since 1986.

Much of Vietnam's growth is being fueled by foreign investment and trade, and in recent years, the United States has become Vietnam's main trading partner.

"The U.S. is a friend of Vietnam now," said Do Phuoc Man, 17, who woke up at 3 a.m. to attend Friday's festivities, which began at 6:30 a.m. "We've seen growing investment from the United States, which is to our mutual benefit."

Although the two nations have grown much closer since the war, they disagree over issues such as human rights and press freedom.

In a speech, Lt. Gen. Le Thanh Tam, the chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Veterans Association, warned that Vietnam must be wary of "hostile forces who use democracy and human rights as a pretext to sabotage Vietnam."

"We affirm that the Communist Party of Vietnam is the only party which has the prestige to lead the Vietnamese people to stable development and international integration," Tam said.

China to start global 24-hour English TV news

BEIJING – China's biggest national news agency announced plans Friday to launch its global, English-language television news network this week, part of efforts to expand the communist government's media influence abroad.

Starting Saturday, China Xinhua News Network Corp. (CNC) will begin trial broadcasts of its English TV service around the clock, including news segments, feature stories, weather updates and special bulletins, the official Xinhua News agency said. The channel is officially set to launch on July 1. The agency did not immediately say what countries would receive the channel.

"CNC will offer an alternative source of information for a global audience and aims to promote peace and development by interpreting the world in a global perspective," Xinhua quoted its President Li Congjun as telling a launching ceremony in Beijing.

In recent years, China has announced multibillion-dollar plans to raise the profile of state media abroad by expanding Xinhua, state broadcaster China Central Television and the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily.

Chinese authorities have expressed disapproval of much of the international coverage of sensitive events in China such as human rights. They accuse international media organizations of being biased and focusing on negative news.

In January, Xinhua began broadcasting TV programs in Chinese in Asian and select European countries.

Last year, CCTV began a 24-hour channel airing in 22 Arabic-speaking countries, reaching a total population of nearly 300 million people.

Xinhua, a ministry-level body under the administration of the State Council, China's Cabinet, said it is transforming itself into a multimedia, worldwide news agency.

All three state media outlets enjoy top-level party support and funding, along with virtual monopolies in certain sectors of their domestic markets.

Despite China's rapid economic growth and rising global influence, it has not experienced a freeing of the media. China has retained its authoritarian one-party political system with strict limits on freedom of speech and civil and political life.

Pakistan's Punjab heartland alive with extremist groups

By Saeed Shah, McClatchy Newspapers
Pakistan — Even the Pakistan army conducts military operations against Taliban guerrillas in northwest tribal areas bordering Afghanistan , banned al Qaida -linked groups are operating openly in the Pakistani heartland of Punjab, which itself has been the target of dozens of terror attacks.

The province on Pakistan's eastern border with India is home to more than half the country's population and functions as its economic and political powerhouse, as well as the main recruiting ground for the military.

It is the stronghold of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif , who leads the opposition to President Asif Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party , which rules nationally from Islamabad .

Critics accuse Sharif and his brother, the chief minister, of accommodating extremist groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba, a banned sectarian group blamed for the killing of hundreds of Shiites, the minority sect of Islam. The Sharifs draw political support from the religious right.

During a recent election campaign, Punjab's law minister, Rana Sanaullah , who is close to the Sharifs, seemed to endorse Sipah-e-Sahaba when he traveled in a triumphal motorcade with Ahmed Ludhianvi, the alleged leader of the group in the town of Jhang, in southern Punjab province.

They were surrounded by the green and red flags of Sipah-e-Sahaba, and the group's gunmen provided security, working alongside the Punjab police. The crowd showered rose petals on the pair, who stood in an open vehicle, garlands around their necks.

Sanaullah denied that there was any danger of extremists taking over parts of Punjab.

"There is no Talibanization in Punjab. Not a single street where you can say there is a no-go area," Sanaullah told McClatchy .

The federally appointed provincial governor disagreed.

"The Sharifs are creating a potential bomb here in Punjab," Salman Taseer , the governor, told McClatchy in an interview. "These (militant) groups are armed and dangerous. There is no way you can accommodate these people. There has to be zero tolerance."

Punjab government officials and police personnel insist that Sipah-e-Sahaba, and Jaish-e-Mohammad, another major military group, are not involved in terror activity within Pakistan .

That view is not shared by U.S. officials, who are now broadening their attention from what had been a singular focus on Pakistan's northwest fringe. Both Punjabi groups are thought to have links to al Qaida .

"We think there also needs to be progress against these Punjab-based groups, many of which, by the way, are targeting Pakistan , as well," Robert Blake , an assistant secretary of state, told reporters in Washington earlier this month after returning from Pakistan .

Although security in the provinces is a local responsibility, the growth of the banned groups in Pakistan's industrial and political heartland raises new questions about the commitment of the country's security services, especially its Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, to cracking down on the Islamic extremists they created to wage a proxy war against rival India over the divided Kashmir region.

In March, Nawaz Sharif's younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif , who is chief minister of Punjab, provoked an outcry when he appealed in a speech to the Taliban to spare his province violence because his party, known as PML-N, shared their ideals. He contrasted his party's position to that of Pakistan's previous ruler, military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf .

"Gen. Musharraf planned a bloodbath of innocent Muslims at the behest of others only to prolong his rule, but we in the PML-N opposed his policies and rejected dictation from abroad," Shahbaz Sharif said in an address delivered at a religious seminary in Lahore , the provincial capital."If the Taliban are also fighting for the same cause then they should not carry out acts of terror in Punjab."

Militancy appears to be on the rise. Police in recent weeks have traced a spate of armed robberies and kidnappings of the Ahmedi religious sect in the central Punjabi city of Faisalabad to members of Jamaat ud Dawa, the group previously known as Lashkar-e- Taiba that was blamed for the devastating 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, India .

Three Ahmedis were also shot dead, in what was likely to be the work of the same outfit. Jamaat ud Dawa is focused against India and was not previously known for violence inside Paksitan. The United Nations labeled Jamaat ud Dawa a terrorist group in the wake of the Mumbai attack.

In March, Jamaat ud Dawa held a public rally in Lahore , marching down the colonial-era Mall Road , the city's main thoroughfare, to protest against India "stealing" water from rivers that flow from its territory into Pakistan .

The recent admission in U.S. federal court by an American citizen, David Headley , that he scouted targets for the Mumbai attacks raised the profile of Lashkar-e- Taiba , with which he was affiliated. A recent Pentagon report found that Lashkar-e- Taiba was active in the insurgency in Afghanistan .

McClatchy reported in September that another banned group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, whose orientation is anti- India , was operating openly from Bahawalpur, another town in Punjab, and had expanded to a new site on the outskirts of town.

Sheikh Waqas Akram , an opposition member of parliament from Jhang, which is the headquarters of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba, likened the situation in Punjab to the Swat valley, where official inaction led to the area being taken over by Taliban in 2008.

"There can be ten Swats in Punjab, if you don't check them (extremists)," said Akram. "These groups are connecting up, they are increasing their political influence, they are spreading to new districts."

Unlike the Taliban in the northwest, extremist groups in the Punjab have not sought to capture territory or enforce Islamic law but operate out of seminaries and compounds amid the population.

Sanaullah insisted that groups based in the north west were behind the terrorist attacks in Punjab, not local groups and that "95 percent of the people of Sipah-e-Sahaba are not terrorists".

"We must persuade these persons to put aside their guns, to participate in elections," said Sanaullah. "They have the right to vote, so why can't I ask them (Sipah-e-Sahaba) for votes?"

But independent experts believe that the attempt to distinguish among militant groups overlooks the fluidity of individual membership in the groups. The Pakistani Taliban's leader, Hakimullah Mehsud is a former member of Sipah-e-Sahaba, as is the head of the Taliban's suicide training squad, Qari Hussain . The Pakistani Taliban's spokesman calls himself after a former head of Sipah-e-Sahaba. Jaish-e-Mohammad, another group supposedly not involved in domestic terrorism, provided many of the commanders and for the Taliban's takeover of Swat valley.

Mehsud was reported dead in February from a U.S. missile attack in Pakistan's tribal area. But Pakistani intelligence reported Thursday that it now believed him to be alive.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

India, Pakistan leaders agree on new peace talks

The prime ministers of India and Pakistan agreed Thursday to resume peace talks between their top diplomats and work toward rebuilding trust shattered by the deadly 2008 Mumbai terror attacks that New Delhi blamed on Pakistani militants.

Officials said India's Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, agreed on the need to normalize relations, dogged by more than six decades of hostility since both gained independence from Britain. They deputed their foreign ministers to meet at a later date to discuss the resumption of a wide-ranging formal dialogue that began in 2004 but was suspended after the Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.

The two prime ministers met for more than one hour in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, on the sidelines of a summit of South Asian leaders. It was their first meeting in eight months.

India's foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, said Gilani assured India that Pakistan would not allow its territory to be used for terrorist activity directed against India and it would expedite the trial of suspects of the Mumbai attacks it is holding in Pakistan.

The two prime ministers "agreed that relations between the two countries should be normalized and the channels of contact should work effectively to enlarge the constituency of peace in both countries," Rao told reporters.

Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, described it as a "very friendly" meeting and signaled that he thought the resumption of the dialogue — which covers a range of issues from border disputes, nuclear weapons and the two countries' dispute over Kashmir — was a formality.

"The two prime ministers have agreed to resume a dialogue process that remained suspended for so many months. Both foreign ministers have been asked to work out modalities of engagement. The climate has changed," Qureshi told reporters.

"I don't think that either side was expecting such a positive turn in dialogue."

Rao was more equivocal. She said India was willing to discuss and resolve all outstanding issues with Pakistan — including terrorism and the rise in infiltration by Islamic insurgents. She said the foreign ministers have been charged with "thinking afresh and working out ways to restore trust and confidence in the relationship." No date has been set for the meeting.

India and Pakistan have been under pressure to resume their peace dialogue — which eased historic tensions although it made little headway on the key issue of Kashmir, which they both claim in entirety and have fought two of their three wars over since gaining independence in 1947.

The United States hopes that if tensions on the subcontinent ease, Pakistan will be able to deploy resources to fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida on its western border with Afghanistan.

"The issue of terrorism was holding back progress," Singh was quoted as telling his Pakistani counterpart. "Pakistan has to address the issue of terrorism. The terror machine that operates from Pakistan needs to be eliminated."

Pakistan is trying seven men on charges they planned and carried out the Mumbai attacks, but the militant network blamed for the assault continues to operate relatively freely in the country.

India also accuses Pakistan of supporting militants fighting Indian rule in the portion of Kashmir it controls — a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives over two decades.

Shakira visiting Phoenix over immigration law

Colombian singer Shakira planned to visit Phoenix on Thursday over concerns that a sweeping new state law cracking down on illegal immigration will lead to racial profiling.The Grammy winner was set to meet with Phoenix's police chief and mayor to learn more about how the law will be implemented if it goes into effect this summer, said Trevor Nielson, her political and philanthropic adviser.
The law, signed Friday by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, is viewed as the toughest on illegal immigration in the nation and has drawn criticism from President Barack Obama, who questioned its legality. The law makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally and directs police to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they're illegal immigrants.

"Shakira is deeply concerned about the impact of this law on hardworking Latino families," Nielson said. "She is coming to Arizona to try to learn more about how law enforcement is reacting to this new law and how we can ensure that people in the state of Arizona are not being targeted because of the color of their skin."

He said Shakira canceled other commitments to make the visit and also planned to meet with Hispanic families in Phoenix to see how they'd be affected by the law.

Nielson said Shakira also sought to meet with Brewer during her visit to Phoenix, but that the governor's director of scheduling told Nielson it wouldn't be possible because the governor was booked.

The new law thrust Arizona into the international spotlight last week, with civil rights leaders and others demanding a boycott of the state, and the Mexican government warning its citizens about an "adverse political atmosphere" in Arizona. At least three Arizona cities are considering lawsuits to block the law, and there are two efforts to put a referendum on Arizona's November ballot to repeal it.

Supporters of the law say it takes the handcuffs off police and is necessary to protect Arizonans, while opponents say it will lead to rampant racial profiling.

Shakira is perhaps best known for her nimble dance moves and songs including "Hips Don't Lie" and "She-Wolf," but recently she has become more active in political and social issues.

She visited earthquake-ravaged Haiti earlier this month, expressed her support for Cuban dissident group Ladies in White and has worked as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. Her Barefoot foundation provides nutrition to more than 6,000 children in Colombia, and she is a member of the ALAS foundation that advocates for children across Latin America.

Last month, the U.N. labor agency gave the singer a medal for her work to help impoverished children.


Obama: Congress may not tackle immigration soon

President Barack Obama says there "may not be an appetite" in Congress to deal with immigration immediately after going through a tough legislative year.

With energy legislation on the table and midterm elections approaching, Obama said Wednesday he didn't want to force an immigration bill through Congress "just for the sake of politics." Still, he said discussions on the issue must move forward in a way that can garner the support of the American people.

"We've gone though a very tough year and I've been working Congress very hard, so I know there may not be an appetite immediately to dive into another controversial issue," the president told reporters aboard Air Force One returning with him to Washington from a Midwest trip.

The issue of immigration bubbled to the surface in recent weeks after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a controversial bill into law requiring local and state law enforcement to question people about their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the country illegally. The law also makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally.

Obama has sharply criticized the law, asking the Justice Department to look into whether it violates civil rights. On Wednesday, he said he understands the frustrations of people in Arizona who are faced with thousands of immigrants coming into their state illegally, but he said the state's new immigration law would only end up polarizing the debate over reform.

"What I think is a mistake is when we start having local law enforcement officials given the power to stop people on the suspicions that they may be undocumented workers," Obama told reporters. "That carries a great amount of risk."

The president said that while he believed he could get a majority of Democrats to support immigration reform, he still needs help from Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had talked about moving immigration ahead of climate change legislation, a suggestion that splintered bipartisan support for the climate bill. Then Reid said Tuesday he was willing to bring up climate change legislation ahead of an immigration bill, but Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was still angry that Reid considered putting off the climate bill.

Reid said the long-delayed climate bill "is much further down the road in terms of a product" than the immigration measure, which remains unwritten.

An immigration proposal by three Democratic senators calls for more federal enforcement agents and other border security-tightening benchmarks before illegal immigrants could become legal U.S. residents, according to a draft of the legislation obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press. The bill is being developed by Reid of Nevada, Chuck Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

Hispanics, Democrats to rally against Arizona immigrant law

Hispanics and Democratic lawmakers furious over Arizona's harsh crackdown on illegal immigrants expect huge weekend rallies across the United States, piling pressure on President Barack Obama to overhaul immigration laws in this election year.

Protest organizers said on Wednesday outrage over the Arizona law -- which seeks to drive illegal immigrants out of the state bordering Mexico -- has galvanized Latinos and would translate into a higher turnout for May Day rallies in more than 70 U.S. cities.

"The marches and demonstrations are going to be far more massive than they otherwise would have been," said Juan Jose Gutierrez, a Los Angeles rally organizer who runs an immigration assistance company.

The backlash began on Friday after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law a measure that requires state and local police to determine a person's immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion" they are undocumented. Critics say it is unconstitutional and opens the door to racial profiling.

Republican backers of the law say it is needed to curb crime in the desert state, which is a key corridor for drug and migrant smugglers from Mexico.

A Rasmussen Reports poll on Wednesday found that almost two-thirds -- 64 percent -- of voters in the state favored the measure. A telephone survey earlier in the week showed that 60 percent of voters nationwide favored such a law.

The crowds on the streets, from Los Angeles to New York, could be the biggest since 2006, when hundreds of thousands of marchers urged former President George W. Bush to overhaul of federal immigration laws. He tried, but failed in Congress.

"With what's going on in Arizona we see renewed energy for folks to fight for immigration reform," said Marissa Graciosa, of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, an organizer of rallies and vigils on Friday and Saturday.

In Washington, a diverse group of more than two dozen lawmakers -- Hispanics, blacks, Asians, whites -- held a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to denounce the Arizona law as a violation of civil rights.

"What Arizona has done is that it has galvanized, united, fortified, focused our immigration movement," Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez declared at the news conference.


The Arizona law has catapulted the immigration issue back to the front and center of U.S. politics in this congressional election year, and ratcheted up pressure on Obama to keep a pledge to Hispanics to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Obama said on Wednesday there may not be an "appetite" in Congress to immediately tackle the divisive issue while plenty of work remained on energy legislation ahead of the November congressional elections.

U.S. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, who faces a tough re-election battle in Nevada where Latinos helped clinch victory for Obama in 2008, said on Wednesday he would work to pass energy legislation before tackling immigration reform, although both are seen as election-year long shots.

Passing an overhaul offering a path to citizenship for many of the 10.8 million illegal immigrants in the United States would consolidate support for Democrats among Hispanics, the country's largest minority, but would run the risk of energizing Republican opposition to Democratic lawmakers in swing states and districts.

Arizona's bold move reverberated well beyond its borders, sparking calls for economic boycotts and celebrity interventions.

Colombian-born pop star Shakira said she will travel to Phoenix on Thursday to help campaign against the new law, and would meet with Mayor Phil Gordon, police and Latino families. She sought a meeting with Governor Brewer but was turned down, her publicist said.

Adding to calls to shun the state, Saint Paul, Minnesota, Mayor Chris Coleman on Wednesday banned publicly funded travel to Arizona. The state law set a "dangerous example to the rest of the country," he said, by creating a culture that made racial profiling acceptable.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said similar state immigration enforcement laws may be proposed in Georgia and Texas in coming months, following a summer recess.

In Mexico, where the government has warned its citizens living in or traveling to Arizona that they could be harassed, taxi drivers organized their own peculiar boycott.

"We don't give service to gringos from Arizona," was the phrase some Mexico City taxi drivers painted in white on their rear windows.

Afghan support for Karzai's government low: Pentagon report

The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai commands support or sympathy in only a quarter of 121 Afghan areas considered ‘key’ by the US military, a Pentagon report said on Wednesday."The overall assessment indicates that the population sympathizes with or supports the Afghan government in 24 percent (29 of 121) of all Key Terrain and Area of Interest districts," the quarterly report to Congress said."The establishment of effective governance is a critical enabler for improving development and security."Karzai has gone from a darling of the international powers who placed him at the head of the Afghan state in 2001 to facing accusations from the United States and other nations that he has allowed unchecked corruption.
Popular anger at Karzai's government, which is widely seen as corrupt and inefficient, has allowed the Taliban to "perceive 2009 as their most successful year," the Pentagon report said."Expanded violence is viewed as an insurgent victory, and insurgents perceive low voter turnout and reports of fraud during the past presidential election (in August 2009) as further signs of their success," the 150-page report said.According to the Pentagon, "violence is sharply above the seasonal average for the previous year -- an 87 percent increase from February 2009 to March 2010."
"Although the overall security situation has stabilized somewhat since the end of 2009, violence during the current reporting period is still double that for the same period in 2008-2009," the report said.
The Pentagon said increased action by coalition forces in the country meant the Taliban has "been under unprecedented pressure.""Reporting indicates increased and often strained efforts to resource the fight, which has led to tension and sporadic dips in morale," the report said.It added that the decline in stability seen in the last report submitted to Congress "has leveled off in many areas over the last three months of this reporting period."
"Polls consistently illustrate that Afghans see security as improved from a year ago," the report added.

U.N. Report says 1.6 Billion Still Lack Access to Electricity

A new U.N. report calls for expanding access to energy to more than two-billion people and boosting efforts for clean, efficient and renewable energy.The Secretary-General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change report - Energy for a Sustainable Future - says many people still lack access to electricity, describing it as a “significant barrier” to development.
Secretary General Ban Ki Moon released the report Wednesday in New York, saying, “I convened this group last year for one simple reason. We need to urgently transform this global energy system.”Moon adds, “The decisions we make today on energy will have a profound impact on global climate, on sustainable development, on economic growth and global security.”He says a “clean energy revolution” is needed in developing countries to meet rising demand and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Moon says affordable, modern energy sources are necessary to meet the Millennium Development Goals by their target date of 2015.“One-point-six-billion people lack access to electricity. Without electricity you cannot do anything in this world. Two to three billion people still rely on traditional energy sources, such as firewood, peat or dung. This affects their health and keeps people trapped in poverty,” he says.The report calls for “universal access to basic modern energy services” by 2030. It says this can be achieved “without significantly increasing greenhouse emissions.”
New industrial revolution
Kandeh Yumkella, Director-General of the U.N. Industrial Development Organization, chairs the advisory group.
“What we advocate for here is a transition to a low carbon economy, investing in new energy systems. But these investments must also enhance access for all.”He says there was much debate among advisory group members about reaching the energy goals by 2030.“You can look at the composition of our group – more private sector than U.N. types. And that was a deliberate choice by the Secretary-General because, given the many dimensions and its linkages to so many things, we wanted fresh thinking from the private sector,” says Yumkella.
Clean, renewable energy is a major recommendation in the report.
“We believe that’s part of the transformative change,” he says, “that will in fact engender a new industrial revolution that will lift people out of poverty and also deal with some of the issues of climate change.”
United Nations Foundation President Timothy Wirth calls energy the “oxygen of commerce and wealth creation.” He adds, “Producing more with less makes economic sense and is fast approaching an environmental imperative.”

Pakhtunkhwa govt, Hazara MPAs agree to resolve issues peacefully

PESHAWAR: The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government and members of the Provincial Assembly from Hazara division on Wednesday agreed to resolve the issues of Hazara province and Abaseen division through political means and proposed that the provincial assembly would take up the matter in its upcoming session.

The proposal came at a consultative meeting between the government and the assembly members belonging to Hazara. The meeting was called by speaker of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly Karamtullah Khan. Except a couple of lawmakers from Hazara, all other members from the area attended the meeting.

After the meeting, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Minister for Information Mian Iftikhar Hussain briefed members of the media. He said the government was ready to hold negotiations with the Hazara Action Committee. He said the meeting discussed in detail both the demands — Hazara province and Abaseen division — and it was decided that the issues would be debated in the next session of the provincial assembly. He said the participants condemned the sad incident of April 12 and demanded a judicial inquiry, which had already been initiated by the government.

Mian Iftikhar said the sentiments of Hazara people would be respected and the lawmakers from the area would be taken into confidence and efforts would be made for maintaining peace in the region.

The minister said protest was the constitutional and democratic right of the Hazara people, but added that it should remain within the ambit of law. He warned that no one would be allowed to damage public property and violate the law. He said the government had called another meeting with the Hazara lawmakers today to discuss the issue further in presence of the chief minister.

Sources privy to the meeting said Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and PML-Quaid members had an argument over the happenings of April 12 in Abbottabad and Haripur district.

The PML-Q lawmakers opined that despite the fact that the people of Hazara division voted for PML-N, the party did not take them into confidence while agreeing on the new name for the province.

The PML-N lawmakers pointed out that the 18th Amendment was not only confined to renaming of the province but had resolved many longstanding demands of the provinces, which would strengthen the federal parliamentary system. They said that despite imposition of Section 144 in Abbottabad, the PML-Q workers took to the streets and looted shops and attacked police station.

Curfew imposed in Kohat region

The Hangu police have imposed curfew in Thall tehsil from morning till afternoon to allow a safe passage to an army convoy to Parachinar.

The Kohat-Parachinar road was opened for general traffic in the afternoon when the authorities decided to lift the curfew.

The in-charge of the Thall police station in a late night announcement had advised the people to remain inside their homes from 5am till 4pm and close the bazaar as a huge military was scheduled to cross over to Parachinar.

The precaution had been taken in view of the imminent threats of terrorism due to ongoing military operation in Orakzai Agency and strict vigilance of the security forces in Tootkas area which had been vacated by the people on the orders of the local army high command.

The outskirts of Thall were the most infested ones with banned militants from TTP who had started suicide attacks and IEDs blasts at army and police while ambushing the passengers more frequently in recent months

US inaugurates $25m Peshawar Ring Road

The United States has started a $25 million project to reconstruct 25 kilometres of the Peshawar Southern Ring Road to strengthen security and generate greater trade opportunities.The project was inaugurated by the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, at a function in Peshawar early this week, the State Department said yesterday.The project, overseen by the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) in close cooperation with the Government of Pakistan, will provide USD 25 million in upgrades to the important provincial thoroughfare for the purpose of strengthening security and bolstering economic development, it said.The inauguration of the Peshawar Ring Road project follows the signature of a Letter of Intent between Deputy Secretary of State Jacob J Lew and Pakistan's Finance Secretary Salman Siddique on March 25, as part of the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue.The Ring Road will be widened and improved from two lanes to three lanes, including construction of service roads, green belts, centre medians, and drainage on both sides.The refurbished road will also include a bypass of the Hayatabad residential area and a transit link to the Matani bypass road, the construction of which the US is currently supporting."The new Ring Road will ease traffic between Charsadda and Hayatabad, improve security, and generate greater trade opportunities," Patterson said."We are proud to partner with the Government of Pakistan to deliver this vital infrastructure that will benefit the citizens of Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas," she said.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

‘People of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa should unite’

President Asif Ali Zardari on Tuesday called on the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to prevent outsiders from “entering your ranks” and unite to protect the country from the challenges confronting it.

Addressing a tribal jirga at Governor’s House, Zardari said every citizen had a role to play, as there was no room for complacency in such challenging times. He said the people of the province needed to check if their neighbours were “illegal foreigners or were involved in unlawful activities”. The president – who was on a daylong visit to the provincial capital – said the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had better understanding of their surroundings and social customs, and called on them to work together for a safe environment. He assured the jirga that the government would fully back the province in this context.

“We will not let anyone take even an inch of our land, and will protect it at the cost of our lives ... as we know how much sacrifices were made for Independence.”

The president said the families of those who had lost their lives in terrorist attacks would be compensated. He said the budget for the province had increased by 30 percent, and the “total budget would be around Rs 21 billion after adding foreign aid and additional resources” to be given by the federal government.

About the distribution of Benazir Income Support Programme Cards (BISP), Zardari said all deserving people would be given cards in a transparent manner. He said the government was pursuing a policy of reconciliation, and described the NFC Award and 18th Amendment as “small steps in this context”. He asked the governors of all provinces to visit Islamabad to discuss their problems, and vowed to resolve the problems confronting the masses. He said he would try to visit at least two tribal agencies each year.

Also, the president laid the foundation stones of four development projects for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The president unveiled the plaques for the projects as he arrived in the province for the daylong visit.

Under the projects, Peshawar Ring Road would be extended at a cost of Rs 303 million, Peshawar-Warsak Road would be made dual at a cost of Rs 363.94 million, 21 destroyed schools in Swat would be reconstructed at an estimated cost of Rs 87 billion and a 60-bed “burn and trauma centre” would be established at a cost of Rs 532.24 million in 24 months.

In addition, Zardari also gave a Rs 30 million cheque to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Bar Council Ahmed Vice Chairman Farooq Khattak. Addressing a separate ceremony at Governor’s House, the president said the Benazir Income Support Programme would be improved to attract international donor organisations. Addressing a meeting of the PPP’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chapter, Zardari said the government believed in politics of reconciliation, and would steer the country through challenges in collaboration with all political parties.

According to a private TV channel, Zardari also said that those given refuge 30 years ago had stabbed Pakistan in the back and also killed former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Budget of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa increased to Rs 21bn

PESHAWAR : President Asif Ali Zardari on Tuesday urged the people of province not to let outsiders enter their ranks and unite to protect their motherland against all challenges.

Addressing a tribal jirga here at the Governor House, the President said every citizen has to play his role as complacency has no place in such challenging times.

He said the people of the province need to check that their neighbours were not illegal foreigners or involved in unlawful activities so that they might not create problems for the locals.

The President who was on a day-long visit to the provincial metropolis said, the people here have a better understanding of their surroundings, social customs and must work together to create a safe environment. He assured full support of the government in this regard.

"We will not let anyone take even an inch of our land and will protect it at the cost of our lives as we know how much sacrifices were rendered to get liberation from the British," he said.

He said it was his vision that Pakistan emerges as a major world trade route and added the government was committed to achieve all these goals with the help of the people.

The President greeted the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for getting their true recognition and thanked Allah Almighty for bestowing the present government the honour of giving the province its new identity.

He said the decision of the new name was the result of a consensus that reflected the political maturity of the people and the political party.

President Zardari said the government was facing several challenges but added that all these would be surmounted. He recalled the past when there was no crime in Fata and the area was totally peaceful. However, he regretted that all those who were granted a refuge in these areas, turned out to be bitter enemies in the end.

President pointed that Shaheed Benazir Bhutto lost her life and said her supreme sacrifice was for the sovereignty of Pakistan. He invited the tribal elders to visit Islamabad at their convenience and assured that all their problems would be resolved.

He also assured that all those who lost their lives in the province be given equal compensation. He said the budget of the province has increased 30 per cent. The president said the total budget would touch Rs 21 billion after adding foreign aid and additional resources of Rs 8 billion from the federal government.

President pointed at the distribution of the new BISP cards and said all the deserving people would get their cards through a transparent and clean system.

President Zardari said the government was pursuing the policy of reconciliation of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto and said the NFC award and 18th amendment were small steps in this regard and assured that much more would be done by the government.

The President said jirgas need to be formed and consensus will be achieved to take along the people of Fata and to address their problems.

Governor Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Owais Ahmed Ghani thanked the President for his support to the province and in particular the Fata, to counter the challenges the province was facing.

Karzai's brother says UN should not leave south

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The powerful half brother of President Hamid Karzai urged the international aid community Tuesday not to pull out of the troubled southern city of Kandahar, where a deteriorating security situation prompted the U.N. to scale back its operations.
The world body said Monday it had relocated several foreign employees to Kabul and told more than 200 Afghan workers to stay home.The announcement came hours after three bombings — one targeting a local police official — shook the city. A recent rash of attacks comes ahead of a joint Afghan-NATO operation to try to wrest control of the area from Taliban militants."We are not facing a big threat," said Ahmad Wali Karzai, a top official in Kandahar province and the most important power broker in southern Afghanistan. He added that the security situation was far worse a few years ago."You get one or two incidents once or twice a week," he told The Associated Press. "That shouldn't be a concern. A suicide attack can happen anywhere."
Later, Karzai told reporters in Kandahar that pulling out of the city plays into the Taliban's hands and will affect humanitarian assistance.
Since April 12, at least 20 civilians, including eight children, have been killed in Kandahar, according to an AP count. Local officials, aid workers and contractors for U.S. development projects have been targeted by Taliban fighters trying to disrupt the upcoming military operation, expected to accelerate this summer.
A senior Western official familiar with U.N. operations said 16 U.N. workers based in Kandahar were moved to a more heavily secured compound Sunday night before going to Kabul and perhaps other destinations. The official spoke anonymously because the information had not been publicly released by the United Nations.
The U.N. has been on the defensive in Afghanistan since October, when three suicide attackers stormed a Kabul residence where dozens of staffers lived. Five U.N. employees and three Afghan citizens were killed in a two-hour siege.
After that attack, the U.N. sent about 600 of its 1,100 foreign staffers either out of the country or relocated them to safer quarters. Many eventually were recalled to Kabul; others chose not to renew their contracts or terminated their tours in Afghanistan early.The U.N. had previously used only Afghan police officers to protect most staff living quarters. Since then, it has added international armed guards to all its buildings.On Tuesday, the Afghan government renounced a U.N. report that says friendly fire from Afghan security forces may have killed four of the five U.N. staffers that died during the assault.An Interior Ministry spokesman said a separate investigation by the Afghan government and the European Union police mission reached another conclusion."Our findings show that these people were killed as a result of the shootings of the bombers, the terrorists who were wearing police uniforms," ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said. He said that the U.N. had ignored requests from the government to share their evidence and called for NATO to launch an independent investigation into the event.Regarding the situation in Kandahar, Bashary said the Afghan government is committed to providing security to U.N. staffers throughout the country.
In Kabul, security forces were setting up extra roadblocks and checkpoints ahead of Wednesday's celebration to mark the Mujahedeen victory over the Soviets in the 1980s war. The deputy police chief in Kabul said a rocket hit the ground near the Ministry of Urban Development in the capital early Tuesday, but there were no casualties.
In April 2008, insurgents tried to assassinate President Karzai during the celebration. Three people were killed and eight others were wounded.On Tuesday, a NATO service member was killed in eastern Afghanistan in a small-arms attack. NATO did not release the service member's name or nationality.Also Tuesday, Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said a rocket attack killed three civilians and wounded three others inside a home in the northern Kunduz province. The ministry blamed insurgents for the Monday night attack.Kunduz had been relatively quiet until a few years ago when Taliban activity began to increase, threatening NATO supply routes south from Central Asia.In the Argandab district of Kandahar on Tuesday morning, a roadside bomb exploded near a school while NATO troops tried to defuse it, but nobody was hurt, NATO said.In Helmand and Ghazni provinces, gunbattles killed eight militants Monday — two in Helmand and six in Ghazni, the Interior Ministry said. Both battles pitted militants against private security workers.

Militant assassinations sow new fear in Afghan city

On Sunday evening in Afghanistan's southern city of Kandahar two masked men on a motorbike stopped in the middle of a bazaar, pulled out guns, killed a man and then sped off.The dead man was Haji Abdul-Hai, a tribal chieftain with strong connections to the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai, which is the target of a bitter Taliban insurgency.The assassination of government officials, their associates or anyone notably linked to the government has become routine in the volatile city.A series of shockingly audacious murders in recent months has spread fear throughout the city and as far as the highest levels of leadership in Kabul.The UN on Monday ordered its 200 Afghan staff in the city to remain indoors for their own safety, and relocated foreign staff to Kabul, a spokesman said.Karzai held a National Security Council meeting at the weekend to discuss the deadly surge of attacks against officials in his home town.The security chiefs presented Karzai with a plan aimed at countering the attacks, said his spokesman, Waheed Omar, adding: "The president will personally follow this."Since late February, when Taliban assailants killed Abdul Majid Babai, provincial director of information and culture, 12 people, mostly working for the provincial government, have been murdered.The killing spree has emerged as US and NATO troops have been conducting military operations in and around the city as part of a stealthy offensive to eradicate the militant threat.Kandahar was the birthplace of the Taliban movement in the 1990s, capital of their 1996-2001 regime, and has long been the heartland of the insurgency.
Much of the city, as well as large swathes of the province, are under Taliban control.
NATO and the United States have 126,000 troops in Afghanistan battling the insurgency, with the number set to reach 150,000 by August. Many are heading south, military officials have said, with the aim of neutralizing the Taliban by the time the Ramadan religious festival begins in August.
As the campaign intensifies, the Taliban are adapting their own tactics, adding assassination to crude mines and suicide bombings.
The recent killings have been almost identical. So far this month, four people have been shot by men on motorbikes: Abdul-Hai, as well as a deputy mayor, an agriculture official and a young Afghan woman working for a US aid organisation.
The militants have claimed responsibility, with a spokesman saying Abdul-Hai was killed "because his brothers are working for the puppet government".
Yousuf Ahmadi, the Taliban spokesman, told AFP by phone from an unknown location that the deadly campaign "will continue".
"We will kill anyone working for the puppet government," he said.
The killings appear to have had the desired effect.
"Lots of people are scared, I'm scared," said a senior government official in Kandahar, requesting anonymity.The official said many people in his department had resigned in recent weeks and more were threatening to do so, fearful of becoming targets.Even worse, he said, their fear could prompt them to get close to the militants as a way of ensuring their safety."If this situation continues, if these assassinations are not stopped, I tell you lots of government officials will establish contact with the Taliban."They will have to. They'll make contact with the Taliban to protect themselves," the official told AFP, adding: "This has to stop."
The assassinations are eroding support for the Karzai government, already unpopular across much of the south and east, where the Taliban presence is strongest.
"This government can't protect us," said Dost Mohammad, a baker in downtown Kandahar.
"We already had lots of problems with Taliban bomb attacks and suicide attacks," he said. "Now we have one more thing. Every day I sit by the radio to see who else has been assassinated."
Kandahar authorities are working on a plan to try to deal with this new challenge, said Zalmai Ayoubi, a provincial government spokesman.
"The assassination of prominent people has escalated. We're working on a plan and hope with the implementation of that plan that the situation improves," he said, without going into detail.

Pakistanis Living on Brink, and Often in the Dark

New York Times

LAHORE, Pakistan — The Taliban may be plotting bombings, and the economy is on the brink. But these days, the single biggest woe tormenting Pakistanis is as basic as an electric light bulb.
Pakistan is in the throes of an energy crisis, with Pakistanis now enduring about 12 hours of power cuts a day, a grueling schedule that is melting ice, stopping fans and enraging an already exhausted populace just as the blast furnace of summer gets started.
In an effort to stem that frustration, Pakistan’s government held an emergency meeting last week, bringing together top bureaucrats from across the country. But instead of easing the problem, it aggravated it, ordering power-saving measures that seemed calculated to smother some Pakistanis’ last remaining pleasures.
“They are playing a joke on us,” said Amina Ali, the mother of a bride at a wedding hall that was under orders to close early as part of the new energy-saving restrictions. Her brother chimed in: “The Pakistani people are a toy in the hands of the government.”The power failures could prove destabilizing if they go unchecked, analysts said. Pakistan badly needs its economy to expand to make space for its bulging young population, and chronic power cuts work against that.
It is a concern for the United States, which is trying to help steady Pakistan’s wobbly finances and keep its democratically elected government afloat. The Obama administration has pledged about $1 billion for energy over the next five years.
The crisis is a snarl of unmet responsibilities, and untangling it will not be easy. It has a cast of guilty characters that goes back years: governments that are incapable of planning ahead; bureaucrats who take bribes; even ordinary people who steal about 30 percent of all the power produced. The tribal areas in the west, for example, have no meters and have never paid for power.
The result is about $2 billion a year in energy that is generated but not paid for. Industry experts said they were skeptical the government had a way to close the growing gap between Pakistan’s demand for power and the energy sector’s ability to produce it.
“There is nobody in Islamabad who is working on a coherent, integrated plan,” said one industry executive who asked not to be identified because he did not want to be seen as being critical of the government. “The discussion just keeps going in circles.”
Which was why it seemed particularly galling when the government ordered stores to be shut at prime shopping time, 8 p.m., and wedding halls closed by 10. Weddings are important entertainment in Pakistan, and go on late into the night, with dancing, lights and finery.
“Should we just sit at home in the darkness and go to sleep?” sputtered Ms. Ali, waiting outside the Mughal-e-Azam banquet hall, whose owners had been warned the night before that it should be closed by 10 p.m. One of the owners, Moazzam Ilyas, was nervously trying to coax the event along, even though at 9:45, the groom had still not arrived.
Here in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, the power failures have been disastrous for small businesses. Ali Raza, a printing press owner, has watched his once-prospering label business sag as power cuts bite into printing time, delaying orders and frustrating clients.
Late last year, he sold two large Swedish presses and fired half his 35-member staff. He has given up much of his upper-middle-class lifestyle, selling his Toyota, quitting his gym and limiting purchases of fruit and meat.
As his life and business shrink, so does his determination to stay in Pakistan. “I should move from here before I have nothing,” he said, sitting in his office next to a blank computer monitor and motionless fan. “Staying means committing suicide.”
Poorer Pakistanis have it worse. In Lahore’s old city, an ancient warren of narrow streets full of cavelike workshops for metal and leather, the sound of circular saws stops suddenly at 4 p.m. Candles are lighted. The only noise is the tapping of hammers.
“There’s no income; we are very worried,” said Mirza Arif Beg, 33, a metal polisher whose family business is collapsing. “We feel helpless. Should we do crime?”
Stealing electricity seems to be an option available mostly to those with enough money to afford a bribe. It also might require some relation to the storied meter men, who are paid a pittance but are reported to live well off the proceeds.
“They have big houses, big cars,” said Muhamed E. Baderi, a plastic-tube maker who said he knew a metal-works company that regularly bribed its meter man to reduce its electric bill. “They know the art of meter tampering.”
Those who cannot afford to bribe have to pay or face being shut off. Muhamed Faqir, a 45-year-old buffalo farmer with five children, said he had to borrow from relatives to pay $50 in bills after his power was cut for eight days this winter.
The energy industry was already beginning to spiral when the current government took office in 2008, and to a large extent, the problem is inherited. Even so, the government and President Asif Ali Zardari are the lightning rods for public anger, which has begun to bubble up in the form of protests in some places in Punjab.
A basement full of cobblers in the old city, when asked to describe where they thought the crisis had come from, could come up with only curse words for their leaders.
The opposition party, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has played on that anger, trumpeting the crisis to score political points, analysts said, even though its government’s record in the 1990s was no better.
On Saturday, city government officials marched around Lahore’s most important markets at 8 p.m., demanding that merchants shutter their stores. Men with sticks from the local trade union made the final argument for those who were slow to comply.
“We want to shop,” said a woman glaring at the lowered gates of a shoe store. “People don’t get up early, and it’s hot. Now I’ll have to come back on Monday.”
The restrictions look menacing, but few believe they will last. Follow-through has never been Pakistan’s strong point, and the power-saving measures seemed unlikely to be an exception.
When the groom finally arrived at the marriage hall, it was after 10 p.m., and Mr. Ilyas looked distressed. A thick river of guests inched into the hall for dinner, which had been ready since 7, as a marching band played behind them in the dark.
But by 11, no one had come to shut the hall down. A basic truth about Pakistan had been revealed.
“It will be like this for 10 days, and after that will go back to the way it was,” Mr. Ilyas said. “This is the Pakistani way.”

Bhutto panel to question senior Pakistan army officer

A panel of Pakistani civilians is to question a senior army officer over the murder of former PM Benazir Bhutto in 2007, officials say.No serving army officer has ever faced a civilian inquiry in Pakistan before.
The committee was set up by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to investigate questions raised by a UN inquiry into the assassination.It said the murder site had been hosed down too quickly by police, apparently on the orders of Maj Gen Nadeem Ijaz.The panel will interrogate a number of police officials as well as Gen Ijaz, who was then chief of the army's Military Intelligence (MI).
The committee is led by Cabinet Secretary Chaudhry Abdur Rauf. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial Home Secretary Fayyaz Toru and an army officer, Maj Gen Sajjad Ghani, are among its members.The committee is led by Cabinet Secretary Chaudhry Abdur Rauf. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial Home Secretary Fayyaz Toru and an army officer, Maj Gen Sajjad Ghani, are among its members.It was formed to determine why the crime scene was hosed down by police soon after Ms Bhutto's assassination in December 2007, and to submit a report to the prime minister within a week.
The committee met late on Monday evening to work out its terms of reference and to issue summonses to officers.
The UN report quotes at least two sources who suggest that top police official Saud Aziz - who ordered the hosing down of the crime scene - was not acting "independently" and was being leaned on by the army.
Ms Bhutto was assassinated in a gun and bomb attack in Rawalpindi soon after addressing an election rally.
The military government at the time, headed by President Pervez Musharraf, blamed militant leader Baitullah Mehsud for ordering the assassination, a charge which he denied.
Many in Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) believe that the country's powerful security establishment may have been involved in eliminating Ms Bhutto.
The UN report published earlier this month said the assassination of Ms Bhutto could have been prevented and the subsequent inquiry was bungled.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Afghan schoolgirls fall ill; poison feared

Dozens of Afghan schoolgirls have fallen ill in recent days after reporting a strange odor in their classrooms in northern Afghanistan, prompting an investigation into whether they were targeted by militants who oppose education for girls or victims of mass hysteria.

Either way, the reports from three schools within 2 miles (3 kilometers) of one another in Kunduz province have raised alarm in a city threatened by the Taliban and their militant allies.

The latest cases occurred Sunday, when 13 girls became sick, Kunduz provincial spokesman Mahbobullah Sayedi said. Another 47 complained of dizziness and nausea the day before, and 23 fell ill last Wednesday.

All complained of a strange smell in class before they fell ill.

"I came out from the main hall, and I saw lots of other girls scattered everywhere," Anesa, a 9-year-old who was hospitalized briefly Sunday, told The Associated Press. "Then suddenly, I felt that I was losing my balance and falling."

None of the illnesses was serious and the girls were only hospitalized for a short time. The Health Ministry said blood samples were inconclusive and were being sent to Kabul for further testing to determine the cause of the illnesses.

"This is a matter of concern not only for us but for the families," Sayedi said, blaming the sicknesses on "enemies" who oppose education for girls.

In the capital of Kabul, President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said any attempt to keep girls out of school is a "terrorist act."

Kunduz had been relatively quiet until a few years ago when Taliban activity began to increase, threatening NATO supply routes south from Central Asia. Late Saturday, NATO and Afghan troops killed one militant and detained several others in Kunduz province.

Girls were not allowed to attend school when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan. The group was ousted from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. The Taliban and other conservative extremist groups have been known to target schoolgirls.

In one of the most chilling attacks, men on motorbikes sprayed acid from squirt guns and water bottles onto 15 schoolgirls and teachers in 2008 as they walked to a girls school in Kandahar, the southern city that is the spiritual birthplace of the militant movement.

Previous cases of sudden illness in schools have left families too frightened to send their daughters to school.

Last year, dozens of girls were hospitalized in Kapisa province, just northeast of Kabul, after many collapsed with headaches and nausea following reports of a strange odor in their schoolyard. The Taliban was blamed, but research into similar mass sickenings elsewhere has suggested that some might be the result of group hysteria.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan on Sunday, hundreds of people blocked a main road in Logar province, west of Kabul, and burned several trucks to protest what they said were civilian deaths in NATO operations. They gathered hours after NATO said coalition troops killed several insurgents and captured a Taliban sub-commander.

"The man they killed was a schoolteacher and a mullah," said businessman Jan Mohammed. "They killed him inside his house and because of that the people came and burned my gas station, my car and my house."

He complained that if NATO thought the mullah was with the Taliban, "they should have arrested him at his school not gone to his house at midnight."

"The people are very angry. They are saying these people killed are innocent civilians," provincial spokesman Din Mohammad Darwesh said.

Civilian deaths caused by U.S. and other international forces are highly sensitive in Afghanistan. Public outrage over such deaths prompted the top commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, last year to tighten the rules on the use of airstrikes and other weaponry if civilians are at risk.

Last week, hundreds of residents in Logar protested another NATO operation, saying they were not convinced the victims were actually Taliban fighters. Logar is a strategic province because it controls southern land routes into Kabul, allowing weapons, explosives and fighters to move into the capital.

Also Sunday, NATO said a helicopter belonging to a civilian contractor made an emergency landing in Farah due to mechanical problems. There were no reports of injuries, NATO said. The Taliban claimed they shot down the helicopter.

In southeastern Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked private security guards while they were at a bazaar, killing four Afghans and wounding 12, the government said.

Two of the dead and five of the wounded worked for the U.S. Protection and Investigations security firm, an Interior Ministry statement said. The other victims were civilians.

The Houston-based company could not immediately be reached for comment.

The suicide attacker, who was on foot, targeted the guards at a bazaar in Sahjoy district of Zabul province, the ministry said.