Monday, May 31, 2010

NATO Has High Hopes for Afghan Peace Council

KABUL, Afghanistan — Western leaders are banking on a national peace council set to begin here on Wednesday to start a new chapter in Afghanistan’s political life, bringing the country together and strengthening President Hamid Karzai, even as security deteriorated on Sunday in several areas of the country.
In a joint news conference, the NATO commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, and the senior civilian representative, Mark Sedwill, emphasized that the West supported the peace council, called a jirga, even as many Afghans questioned whether those attending would truly represent the many factions in the country.
“This is a big week for Afghanistan,” said Mr. Sedwill, who described the conference as “the first of a series of major political events that are going to set the agenda of 2010.”
The jirga will be followed by the Kabul Conference on economic development in July and parliamentary elections in September.
“This is a critical moment for this country to bring together all of the people of Afghanistan, their representatives, in an opportunity to set the direction forward and create a national consensus behind the overall approach to security, to development, to reconciliation,” Mr. Sedwill said.
The Electoral Complaints Commission announced Sunday that 85 candidates had been preliminarily barred from participating in the parliamentary elections because they are members of illegal armed groups. They will have the right to appeal. Still, the number is far more than that in the first round of parliamentary elections in 2005, when just 17 people were disqualified for the same reason, according to a former E.C.C. commissioner, Fahim Hakim.
The increase suggests that a more rigorous review system is now in place, analysts say.
Even as the peace efforts proceed in the capital, Kabul, security appeared to be deteriorating in districts in the east and south of the country and on the western border, where Afghan insurgents trained in Iran are returning to fight and smuggling in weapons, General McChrystal said.
“There is clear evidence of Iranian activities, in some cases supplying weaponry and training to the Taliban that is inappropriate,” he said.
In Nuristan Province, on the country’s eastern border, hundreds of local and Pakistani Taliban have taken control of a remote district near the Pakistan border, Barg-e-Matal. The number of fighters who have crossed the border from Pakistan swelled through the week and now has reached 1,000 to 1,500, said Gen. Zaman Mamozai, the commander of the Afghan Border Police for the eastern region of Afghanistan.
They are “mostly from Pakistan and are conducting collective attacks,” he said.
It appears that many of the Taliban from Pakistan had come to Nuristan in search of a new haven after having come under attack from the Pakistani Army in Pakistan. There are few Afghan security troops in Nuristan’s rugged mountains and only a small number of American troops in the province.
NATO leaders say that they cannot control the entire country with the number of troops they have and had to rely on Afghan forces in remote areas. But because not enough Afghans have been trained, NATO officials say they may have to live with some insurgent havens.
As we execute our strategy and our capacity to secure areas, we must prioritize the order in which we do those, and how we deploy our forces and our assets,” General McChrystal said when asked whether Barg-e-Matal was being allowed to become a sanctuary.
“The Taliban can still muster strength in places and there are a lot of unknowns there,” added a senior NATO officer, speaking about Nuristan on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record on the matter.
“If there are Taliban there, so what?” he said, adding that the district was far from any population center. He acknowledged that the situation would become more complicated if the Taliban filter out of remote mountain redoubts and into populated areas.
There was violence as well in the southeastern province of Khost, where a barely completed high school, built with international aid, was blown up late Saturday night by men using rocket-propelled grenades and bombs.
The school, which cost $220,000 to build, would have provided classrooms for 1,300 students, said Musa Majrooh, the spokesman for the Khost Education Department. A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, denied that the Taliban were involved in the blast.
Also in Khost, a suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle at the entrance to the police battalion that patrols suburban areas. Nine police officers were wounded, two of them seriously.
In Nangahar Province, in the east, which until recently was relatively calm, two bombings killed five members of the Afghan security forces, and in Badakhshan Province in the far northeast, six counternarcotics officers were killed when their patrol vehicle was blown up by a homemade bomb.
They were on a mission to eradicate poppy, and the province’s governor, Baz Mohammed, accused narcotics traffickers and the Taliban of setting the bomb.
Sharifullah Sahak and Waheed Abdul Wafa contributed reporting from Kabul, and an Afghan employee of The New York Times from Khost.

Camels: Afghan proxy warriors

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan- Afghan warlords Ghawsudin and Sher Arab have been at war for most of their lives, sometimes fighting side by side as they did against the Soviets, other times fighting each other.
Now, almost nine years into a new era -- a US-sponsored government challenged by a Taliban-led insurgency tearing their country apart -- the two men are again at war, but this time they use proxies to fight their battles.
At sports festivals across Afghanistan's relatively peaceful north, Ghawsudin and Sher Arab are represented in the ring by giant Central Asian camels.
Banned as un-Islamic under the Taliban's radical 1996-2001 regime, camel fighting is a violent feature of daily life in Afghanistan, a country where the value of both men and animals is based on their fighting skills.
In the northern province of Balkh, Ghawsudin and Arab are well known, not only as veteran warriors but as owners of the best fighting camels in the land, and as masters of the game.
"We wait all year for this," said Khwaja Habib, a farmer from Balkh's Dawlat Abad district, ahead of a mighty clash between Luk and Nar, two enormous camels representing, respectively, Ghawsudin and Arab.
"They have the strongest camels, it's going to be a real game," Habib told AFP, as more than a dozen men escorted the two camels onto a dirt field circled by thousands of spectators, almost all of them men.
The animals are positioned face-to-face and then, spitting with fury, ram each other in a battle that resembles a men's wrestling match.
The crowd roars its approval as one of the camels -- it is Luk, Ghawsudin's beast -- forces the other into submission by pressing down on his neck with his massive chest.
"He's going to kill him," shouts the referee in the muddy ring before ordering that the muzzled animals be separated ahead of a second round.
The men, with their long beards and turbans, roar their protest but the decision has been made by the losing camel, Nar, who has picked himself up and is running out of the ring.
According to the rules of camel fighting, by turning tail the giant grey has conceded to Luk.Laughter erupts, banknotes are exchanged as gamblers collect or pay on their bets and Ghawsudin accepts congratulations as a dozen of his men parade Luk in a lap of honour.
"Yes, we won," Ghawsudin said. "As usual."
"It's an old tradition that we have inherited from our ancestors," Ghawsudin, who uses only one name, told AFP as his fans cheered his victory.
"We like it -- especially when we win," he said, with a loud laugh.
Camel fighting has made a strong comeback as a spectator sport since the Taliban regime -- which also banned music, kite flying and education for girls -- was overthrown in a US-led invasion in late 2001.
Its popularity is mostly concentrated in the north, where the Taliban have had
little influence, even when they were in power.
As a result, the northern provinces have been largely shielded from Taliban excesses, though Kunduz and Baghlan have seen a rise in insurgency-related violence in recent years.
The relative peace of the north -- especially in Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of Balkh -- has allowed people to revive such traditions as buzkashi, a frantic, mounted polo-like sport using a headless goat carcass rather than a ball, and kite flying.
But making animals fight each other and betting on the outcome is a favourite pastime: along with camel fighting, sports festivals often include ram fighting, dog fighting, even bird fighting.
The enthusiasm on show in the north stands in stark contrast to the south, where the insurgency is concentrated and where most ordinary people live in fear of both the militants and the NATO-backed forces fighting them.
Animal fights have been specifically targeted by militants in the southern provinces, making attendance a high-risk venture.In February 2008, a Taliban suicide bomber killed 80 people at a dog fight in Kandahar. Most of the dead were farmers having a flutter.
But even in Mazar-i-Sharif, nothing is taken for granted.
"We have security. Without security you can't have fun," Ghawsudin said.
Negotiations begin for a second bout and a fresh pair of camels are escorted into the ring --- again representing the former warlords.
But this time the fighting lasts hardly two minutes as Arab's camel pulls back after the first contact with Ghawsudin's spitting light-gray.
Mocking laughter from the crowd fills the air.
"It's his unlucky day," said one spectator, referring to Arab who has left without saying a word.

US troops in Afghanistan mark Memorial Day

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan remembered friends and colleagues Monday in solemn Memorial Day ceremonies to commemorate all of their nation's war dead.
The 9-year-old war raged on, meanwhile, with NATO forces launching airstrikes against Taliban militants who had forced government forces to abandon the Barg-e-Matal district in Nuristan, an eastern province on the border with Pakistan. No casualty figures were given.
About 400 soldiers in camouflage uniforms and brown combat boots gathered at the sprawling Bagram Air Field outside the Afghan capital for a ceremony led by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of some 94,000 U.S. troops in the country.
A color guard displayed the U.S. flag, as well as the flags of units serving in eastern Afghanistan, where the base is located about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Kabul.
A steel construction beam from the World Trade Center destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks was unveiled, engraved with inscrption "WTC 9 11 01". The beam was donated by citizens' group the Sons and Daughters of America of Breezy Point, a suburb in Queens, New York, where 29 victims of the Sept. 11 attacks lived, according to a letter read out at the ceremony.
McChrystal praised the soldiers for their sacrifice, telling them: "You're giving your time for other families."
"Today is about people. It is about the people we have lost and most importantly it's about the people who have been left behind," McChrystal said, referring to the families of those who have died.
Maj. John Sherwood, 38, of San Antonio, said Memorial Day is more somber in Afghanistan than in the U.S., as people remember friends who died.
"I think about a few people I knew, mostly back in Iraq," said Sherwood, of the 82nd Airborne Division based in Fort Bragg.
Maj. Sonya Powell, 42, of Cincinnati, said she though of two people: her executive officer who was killed in an aircraft crash in October, and her 4-year-old son, who is waiting for her to come home.
"It's very hard, but you don't dwell on it," said Powell, of the 401st Army Field Support Brigade. "You come here, you do your mission, and you pray."
In the latest fighting Monday, NATO aircraft pounded the Taliban in eastern Nuristan province after government forces last week abandoned the district's main town following a major assault by the militants, many of them coming in from Pakistan, Afghan officials said.
Taliban strength grew in the Nuristan area after U.S. troops abandoned an outpost where eight American soldiers were killed in a fierce attack last October.
NATO also reported the latest death of a service member, killed by a makeshift bomb in the country's south. It was NATO's 50th death this month, according to a tally by The Associated Press.
U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph T. Breasseale said the latest service member killed was not an American, though an American was killed in a separate incident on Sunday that was reported earlier.
May is already the deadliest month this year for U.S. troops with 33 deaths — two more than in February when American, NATO and Afghan forces seized the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in Helmand province. The month also brought the 1,000th U.S. military death in the Afghan war since it began in 2001.
McChrystal, who is also NATO commander in Afghanistan, said on Sunday that Iran — Afghanistan's western neighbor — has generally assisted the Afghan government in fighting the insurgent group.
"There is, however, clear evidence of Iranian activity — in some cases providing weaponry and training to the Taliban — that is inappropriate," he said.
Last month, McChrystal said there were indications that Taliban were training in Iran, but not many and not in a way that suggested it was part of an Iranian government policy. He did not give details on how many people have trained in Iran at Sunday's news conference.
In Paktia province, NATO said a civilian contractor's helicopter crash-landed Sunday, killing one civilian on the ground and slightly injuring three crew members. The cause was being investigated, but there were no reports of insurgent involvement, NATO said.
In the north, insurgents detonated a remote-controlled bomb Sunday as a police convoy passed by, killing seven officers in a province previously considered to be relatively safe, said deputy provincial Gov. Shams-ul Rahman.
In nearby Kunduz province, militants attacked a police checkpoint in Ali Abad district, triggering a gunbattle that killed three insurgents and wounded seven others, the Interior Ministry said.
Eight Afghan police were wounded Sunday by a suicide bomber who struck a checkpoint on the outskirts of Khost City southeast of Kabul, officials said.
The AP's casualty figures are based on Defense Department reports of deaths as a direct result of the Afghan conflict, including personnel assigned to units in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Uzbekistan. Non-U.S. deaths are based on statements by governments that have contributed forces to the coalition.

President Obama,First family enjoys sleepover in own Chicago home

Good friends, good food and the comforts of his own home.

President Barack Obama enjoyed all three when he brought his family home to Chicago for a long Memorial Day holiday weekend. It was the first family's first sleepover at their red-brick home in more than a year.

Obama's only public appearance Sunday was for a roundtrip to a private gym for a workout. Top advisers updated him on efforts to manage the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In the evening he joined family and friends at a neighbor's home, according to a White House aide.

The president was due back at the White House on Monday after paying respects to the nation's war dead during Memorial Day observances at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Ill., south of Chicago.

Some veterans groups have criticized Obama, who has sent tens of thousands of troops into a ramped-up war in Afghanistan, for skipping the traditional wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Obama helped lay a wreath at Arlington last year but this year has handed the honor to Vice President Joe Biden.

Obama spoke at the Lincoln cemetery on Memorial Day in 2005.

Before taking office in January 2009, Obama expressed a desire to visit his $1.6 million home in the city's Hyde Park neighborhood about every six weeks.

"Our friends are here. Our family is here. We are going to try to come back here as often as possible ... at least once every six weeks or couple of months," he told the Chicago Tribune back then.

But the demands of the presidency and his daughters' busy schedules of weekend soccer and basketball games, birthday parties and sleepovers have thwarted his intentions.

First lady Michelle Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha, Obama's mother-in-law Marian Robinson and family dog Bo arrived in Chicago on Thursday night.

On Friday, Obama interrupted his getaway to visit the Louisiana coast for an update on efforts to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf. He also sought to assure coastal residents, and others unhappy with the federal government's response to the nation's largest oil spill, that he is in command.

Back in Chicago on Saturday, Obama indulged in one of his favorite sports — a game of basketball — at the University of Chicago Lab School where his daughters were enrolled when the family lived in Chicago.

A member of the group of reporters that travels with Obama also briefly saw Mrs. Obama in the backyard of their home, wearing yellow rubber gloves. The reporters were stationed nearby to await word on Obama's next move.

That word came just before the family took a rare stroll down the now-barricaded public streets surrounding Obama's house to the home of neighbor and friend Marty Nesbitt for a backyard barbecue. They stayed until after dark. The Obamas, including a casually dressed, sandal-clad president and Bo, were joined by Mrs. Robinson, her son Craig, his wife Kelly and their new baby.

Russians to study warship sinking probe

Russian experts arrived in Seoul on Monday to review findings of an investigation that blamed North Korea for the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship, as the South sought to build support for U.N. punishment of the North.
If Russia endorses the multinational probe's conclusions, the move could convince China and other major powers to support possible U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang for the sinking two months ago of the Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors.
The South Koreans shared the investigation's findings with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao last weekend before a summit, but Beijing has yet to blame North Korea or support any potential U.N. action against its longtime ally.
Wen is now in Japan, where he was expected to face more pressure to censure North Korea. On Monday, he met with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who said Tokyo strongly supports Seoul's plans to bring North Korea before the U.N. Security Council for sanctions or condemnation.
North Korea has denied sinking the ship and has said the multinational investigation — involving America, Britain, Sweden and Australia — was a biased probe conducted by South Korea's allies.
A Russian endorsement of the investigation could greatly contribute to the legitimacy of the conclusions. Like China, Moscow is a traditional North Korean ally and a veto-holding permanent council member.
The Russian team — including torpedo and submarine experts — arrived Monday and were to stay in South Korea for several days as they review the investigation results and examine the ship's wreckage, said a Defense Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity citing department policy.
The official declined to provide further details, citing Russia's request not to publicize many of the team's activities.
Russia's ambassador in Seoul, Konstantin V. Vnukov, told a forum Friday that Moscow will determine its position on the U.N. action on North Korea after the experts study the probe results, according to YTN television network.

Child Brides Escape Marriage, but Not Lashes

KABUL, Afghanistan — The two Afghan girls had every reason to expect the law would be on their side when a policeman at a checkpoint stopped the bus they were in. Disguised in boys’ clothes, the girls, ages 13 and 14, had been fleeing for two days along rutted roads and over mountain passes to escape their illegal, forced marriages to much older men, and now they had made it to relatively liberal Herat Province.

Instead, the police officer spotted them as girls, ignored their pleas and promptly sent them back to their remote village in Ghor Province. There they were publicly and viciously flogged for daring to run away from their husbands.

Their tormentors, who videotaped the abuse, were not the Taliban, but local mullahs and the former warlord, now a pro-government figure who largely rules the district where the girls live.

Neither girl flinched visibly at the beatings, and afterward both walked away with their heads unbowed. Sympathizers of the victims smuggled out two video recordings of the floggings to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which released them on Saturday after unsuccessfully lobbying for government action.

The ordeal of Afghanistan’s child brides illustrates an uncomfortable truth. What in most countries would be considered a criminal offense is in many parts of Afghanistan a cultural norm, one which the government has been either unable or unwilling to challenge effectively.

According to a Unicef study, from 2000 to 2008, the brides in 43 percent of Afghan marriages were under 18. Although the Afghan Constitution forbids the marriage of girls under the age of 16, tribal customs often condone marriage once puberty is reached, or even earlier.

Flogging is also illegal.

The case of Khadija Rasoul, 13, and Basgol Sakhi, 14, from the village of Gardan-i-Top, in the Dulina district of Ghor Province, central Afghanistan, was notable for the failure of the authorities to do anything to protect the girls, despite opportunities to do so.

Forced into a so-called marriage exchange, where each girl was given to an elderly man in the other’s family, Khadija and Basgol later complained that their husbands beat them when they tried to resist consummating the unions. Dressed as boys, they escaped and got as far as western Herat Province, where their bus was stopped at a checkpoint and they were arrested.

Although Herat has shelters for battered and runaway women and girls, the police instead contacted the former warlord, Fazil Ahad Khan, whom Human Rights Commission workers describe as the self-appointed commander and morals enforcer in his district in Ghor Province, and returned the girls to his custody.

After a kangaroo trial by Mr. Khan and local religious leaders, according to the commission’s report on the episode, the girls were sentenced to 40 lashes each and flogged on Jan. 12.

In the video, the mullah, under Mr. Khan’s approving eye, administers the punishment with a leather strap, which he appears to wield with as much force as possible, striking each girl in turn on her legs and buttocks with a loud crack each time. Their heavy red winter chadors are pulled over their heads so only their skirts protect them from the blows.

The spectators are mostly armed men wearing camouflage uniforms, and at least three of them openly videotape the floggings. No women are present.

The mullah, whose name is not known, strikes the girls so hard that at one point he appears to have hurt his wrist and hands the strap to another man.

“Hold still,” the mullah admonishes the victims, who stand straight throughout. One of them can be seen in tears when her face is briefly exposed to view, but they remain silent.

When the second girl is flogged, an elderly man fills in for the mullah, but his blows appear less forceful and the mullah soon takes the strap back.

The spectators count the lashes out loud but several times seem to lose count and have to start over, or possibly they cannot count very high.

“Good job, mullah sir,” one of the men says as Mr. Khan leads them in prayer afterward.

“I was shocked when I watched the video,” said Mohammed Munir Khashi, an investigator with the commission. “I thought in the 21st century such a criminal incident could not happen in our country. It’s inhuman, anti-Islam and illegal.”

Fawzia Kofi, a prominent female member of Parliament, said the case may be shocking but is far from the only one. “I’m sure there are worse cases we don’t even know about,” she said. “Early marriage and forced marriage are the two most common forms of violent behavior against women and girls.”

The Human Rights Commission took the videotapes and the results of its investigation to the governor of Ghor Province, Sayed Iqbal Munib, who formed a commission to investigate it but took no action, saying the district was too insecure to send police there. A coalition of civic groups in the province called for his dismissal over the matter.

Nor has Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry replied to demands from the commission to take action in the case, according to the commission’s chairwoman, Sima Samar. A spokesman for the ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Forced marriage of Afghan girls is not limited to remote rural areas. In Herat city, a Unicef-financed women’s shelter run by an Afghan group, the Voice of Women Organization, shelters as many as 60 girls who have fled child marriages.

A group called Women for Afghan Women runs shelters in the capital, Kabul, as well as in nearby Kapisa Province and in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, all relatively liberal areas as Afghanistan goes, which have taken in 108 escaped child brides just since January, according to Executive Director Manizha Naderi.

Poverty is the motivation for many child marriages, either because a wealthy husband pays a large bride-price, or just because the father of the bride then has one less child to support. “Most of the time they are sold,” Ms. Naderi said. “And most of the time it’s a case where the husband is much, much older.”

She said it was also common practice among police officers who apprehend runaway child brides to return them to their families. “Most police don’t understand what’s in the law, or they’re just against it,” she said.

On Saturday, at the Women for Afghan Women shelter, at a secret location in Kabul, there were four fugitive child brides. All had been beaten, and most wept as they recounted their experiences.

Sakhina, a 15-year-old Hazara girl from Bamian, was sold into marriage to pay off her father’s debts when she was 12 or 13.

Her husband’s family used her as a domestic servant. “Every time they could, they found an excuse to beat me,” she said. “My brother-in-law, my sister-in-law, my husband, all of them beat me.”

Sumbol, 17, a Pashtun girl, said she was kidnapped and taken to Jalalabad, then given a choice: marry her tormentor, or become a suicide bomber. “He said, ‘If you don’t marry me I will put a bomb on your body and send you to the police station,’ ” Sumbol said.

Roshana, a Tajik who is now 18, does not even know why her family gave her in marriage to an older man in Parwan when she was 14. The beatings were bad enough, but finally, she said, her husband tried to feed her rat poison.

In some ways, the two girls from Ghor were among the luckier child brides. After the floggings, the mullah declared them divorced and returned them to their own families.

Two years earlier, in nearby Murhab district, two girls who had been sold into marriage to the same family fled after being abused, according to a report by the Human Rights Commission. But they lost their way, were captured and forcibly returned. Their fathers — one the village mullah — took them up the mountain and killed them.

Peshawar blasts

PESHAWAR: The Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) in collaboration with Social Welfare and Women Development Department and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is planning to conduct a survey for collecting data of the affectees of bomb blasts in Peshawar district.
The proposed survey, to be carried out in all Peshawar’s 92 union councils, would collect data about the people killed, injured or maimed and the property destroyed in bomb blasts. An official of the PDMA said that firms having expertise in carrying out surveys had been asked to submit proposals by June 2.
The official said the assessment would possibly be started in late June. The survey teams, he said, would go door-to-door to collect data about the blast affectees. The authorities, he added, were also considering a proposal for setting up registration points where affectees would fill a form and register themselves as affected by blasts.
The city saw scores of suicide blasts during the last two years, which killed hundreds of people and injured and maimed several thousands.
Most of the blasts in 2009 were carried out in busy bazaars of the city, which destroyed business outlets and inflicted huge material losses on the business community. The traders have been complaining that the government did not extend financial support and bail them out of the crisis caused by bomb blasts.
After the completion of the survey, the official said, the Social Welfare Department would prepare a report along with their recommendations as to how the affectees could be assisted.

First time in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

PESHAWAR: For the first time in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, neurosurgeons at the Lady Reading Hospital (LRH) here conducted live endoscopic surgery of human brain, bringing good news for the patients suffering from brain disorders.
“We conducted the first-ever live and successful endoscopic surgery on human brain,” remarked noted neurosurgeon and head of Neurosurgery Department at LRH and Postgraduate Medical Institute (PGMI), Prof Dr Mumtaz Khan.
The procedure is being used in the developed world for treating brain disorders with limited complications and excellent results, he explained. “It can be learnt under the supervision of skilful neurosurgeons on cadaver in laboratory or on living human brain,” he added.
Dr Mumtaz said the procedure was nowadays practiced worldwide and was quite successful. “The efforts of the neurosurgeons at the LRH made this huge challenge easy,” he said.
The neurosurgeon said patients in the province would be benefited as treatment for brain disorders would become available to them nearer home at reduced cost. Earlier, he pointed out that patients had to travel to Lahore and Karachi for the treatment. The new procedure brought down the treatment cost for a patient from Rs45, 000 to Rs9,000.

It was a challenging and exciting moment for the neurosurgeons and trainee doctors of the LRH when they gathered for this innovative event in their field on Saturday to conduct live endoscopic surgery on human brain.

A senior surgeon, Dr Nadeem Malik, was invited from Lahore to supervise Dr Mumtaz and his team performing the first live endoscopic surgery. Dr Mumtaz then performed four more cases in the presence of his 14-member team.

A pharmaceutical company arranged the multimedia and other necessary equipment to contribute to the success of the procedure.

Dr Mumtaz had earlier travelled to Germany to attend a workshop to refine his skills in the technique. The trip cost him Rs400,000, which he arranged from his own resources.

The provincial health department didn’t extend any support to him or the neurosurgery unit at LRH to perform this procedure.

The endoscopic machine used for performing the procedure is owned by Dr Mumtaz. Costing Rs450,000, the endoscopic machine needs to be provided to the neurosurgery department for its use.

There is also need to extend neurosurgery facilities to the district-level hospitals so that patients aren’t required to visit Peshawar for the purpose.

Pakistani court lifts ban on Facebook

A top information technology official says a Pakistani court has lifted a ban on the social networking website Facebook.
Najibullah Malik, secretary of the country's information technology ministry, says the Lahore High Court lifted the ban Monday after Facebook removed a page encouraging users to post images of Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
Malik says Facebook also apologized for the page, which was offensive to many Muslims who regard depictions of the prophet, even favorable ones, as blasphemous.
As of midmorning Monday, access to Facebook was still restricted.
Malik says government officials are waiting for a written court order before they advise Internet service providers to restore access to Facebook.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Lahore carnage

The Frontier Post
This Lahore carnage was heart-rending. The colossal loss it exacted on innocent lives and limbs was intolerably tragic. The bestiality of the perpetrators of this mayhem was unspeakably contemptible. And the collapse of the local state security apparatus in averting this gruesome slaughter too was glaring and at once appalling and indefensible. By every account, the provincial administration had been alerted to the impending strike much in advance by various state agencies. Yet its security arm was found napping. The attackers reached their target sites fully loaded with their deadly weapons in broad daylight without being intercepted on the way. That speaks volumes of the dismal state of vigilance mounted by the security apparatus to prevent such a holocaust. Some heads must roll, although one fails to comprehend what for has the security force drawn praise from chief minister Shahbaz Sharif in the face of so damning facts. Some top cops have sought to deflect their apparatus’s failure by claiming possible Indian spy service RAW’s involvement in the thuggish strike. But that wouldn’t do, given the reported acceptance of responsibility by outlawed TTP’s Punjab chapter. It indeed is the time that the Punjab ruling leadership must come out of its persistent state of denial, come to terms with some incontrovertible realities obtaining dreadfully and worrisomely in the province, and set about robustly to deal with them. It is an open secret that parts of the province, particularly its southern regions, have become the hotbed of rabid religiosity and the lair of blood-thirsty fanatics who have been found never shy or inhibited in brandishing their extremism violently and bloodily. Even this Lahore massacre is in all probability the thuggish evil job of a confessional outfit of these murderous brigands. They need to be dealt with iron hand, sternly, unexceptionably and decisively. Yet, by every indication they are being treated with kid-gloves, instead. And not long ago the citizenry all over the land was terribly horrified watching a law minister of the Punjab government participating in a by-election public rally by riding in a truck with a leader of an outlawed fanatical outfit. Politics, surely, cannot override public security and stability of the polity and the state. And the ruling leadership of the province must understand that if the thuggish elements are not shown the stern face of the state and are shown leniency for political ends, they outgrow to become a formidable threat not just to the lives of the ordinary citizens and law-abiding folks but also to the very writ and authority of the state itself. Indeed, none could be as alive to this factuality as the Mian brothers. It was on their previous watch in the late 1990s that their bastion of Punjab got trapped into an increasingly bloodied sectarian fratricide. The bloodletting was horrific, and only ascendant, not diminishing. For years, the province stayed caught up in this terrible bloodbath, with the blood of the innocent being shed with abandon by the partisan thugs with their bomb blasts and terrorist strikes on mosques and imambargahs vindictively. It took tremendous efforts to restore a measure of sanity. Yet the bestiality didn’t go away altogether. It just slowed down, leaving in its trail the sectarian scars not easy to heal. This alone should bring home to the Punjab ruling leadership, especially chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, the imperative urgent need of showing no accommodation at all to the blood-hungry extremists, mothballing the wellsprings of their religiosity and finishing off their lairs of terrorism. All and sundry must bear this in mind that these messengers of death and destruction are poles apart from what they were in the 1990s. Although various outfits have their own particular vile agendas which they pursue and work for, they have created nexuses between themselves to collaborate in the perpetuation of their thuggery. They have now become a killer syndicate. And if it was an uphill job in those blood-soaked yesteryears to cripple the sectarian thugs, the task of reining in and decimating the extremists now in the province has become all the more gigantic. They can rely on their murderous peers of the country’s northern parts for help as would depend their peers on them when they stand in need of help. For this reason, any more procrastination by the Punjab government in overcoming these extremists and decimating them lock-stock and barrel would lead up to their becoming invincible and impossible to control. Hence, Shahbaz Sharif has no other option but now to take off the gloves and take on this murder brigade resolutely, boldly and unbendingly. This he owes to his own people as also to this country’s citizens at large. He must act before these vile characters become stalking fiends.

Power breakdown triggers protests

PESHAWAR: The 20-hour-long power breakdown in various parts of the provincial metropolis forced the enraged consumers to come on roads and stage violent protests on Saturday night, sources said.
The sources said power supply to several areas of Faqirabad, Zaryab Colony, Saeedabad, Dilazak Road, Afghan Colony and other areas situated on Ring Road was disconnected at 4am on Saturday.
The power disruption caused severe hardships to the people as the provincial metropolis has already been under extreme hot spell for the last five days. The lack of electricity also created water shortage in the affected areas, triggering anger and anguish among the people.
When inquiries were made to the Peshawar Electric Supply Company (PESCO) office from time to time, the spokesman claimed that there was a fault at the Shahi Bagh Feeder, which was being rectified, claiming that the power would be restored soon. But PESCO assurances proved wrong, as power was not restored even after 18 hours of disruption.
The disruption forced people to come on roads in protest. The enraged power consumers blocked busy Dilazak Road for all vehicular traffic at 10pm and raised slogans against Pesco.
The protest turned violent on Ring Road at Pattang Chowk where people disrupted the traffic by burning tyres on the road. The protesters also pelted vehicles with stones, damaging several vehicles in the protest. Protests were also staged in other areas Afghan Colony, Yusufabad and Eedgah Road. The power supply was not restored to the affected areas till our going to the press.

Malik sees terror roots in south Punjab

Federal Interior Minister Rehman A Malik said the terrorists could not enervate the government of Pakistan, as it would bear down upon the havoc-wreaking assassins in concert with the entire nation for the national integrity, Geo News reported Sunday.
Talking to media while on visit to the worshipping place of the Qadianis here, he said the anti-Pakistan forces which were defeated in Fata and Swat, have unleashed their activities in Punjab.
The interior minister added the outfits like Laskhkar-e-Jhangavi and Jaish-e-Muhammed were part to Al-Qaieda and on receiving training, they were busy with sabotage activities in Punjab.
The federal minister said at least 1764 people of banned 29 groups belonged to Punjab, adding the terrorists holed up in Southern Punjab, were making appearances now and that he spotted them to have links even in Balochistan as well.
Malik said, ‘I am here not to grapple with the Punjab government; instead, we hand in hand, will put to an end the terrorism.’
The confident minister appealed on the occasion to Punjab Chief Minister to make public the inquiry report on Gojra Tragedy.
The Interior Minister informed that the government is bringing a bill in connection with the rights accorded to the minorities enshrined in the Constitution.

PML-N, Taliban links prime reason behind Lahore mosques' terror siege: Taseer

Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer has said that the close links between the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Taliban was the prime reason behind Friday's ghastly terror attack on the two Lahore mosques.

"Ahmedis had to face gun-and-grenade attacks inside the places of worship in Model Town and Garhi Shahu due to the close relations between the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Taliban," The Daily Times quoted Taseer, as saying.

In his message on the social networking site-Twitter, Taseer said that banned extremist groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba and the Taliban were jointly working in the province under the patronage of the provincial Law Minister Rana Sanaullah.

"Extremists are receiving VIP treatment in the Punjab jails," Sanaullah wrote in his tweet.

Political bickering over the deadly militant attack on the two mosques, in which over 70 people were killed, is in full flow.

Earlier, Interior Minister Rehman Malik claimed that the Punjab government was already informed about militants' plans to target minorities in the province.

Malik said that the provincial government was given specific intelligence inputs that militants may target religious places and other important installations in Lahore.

Over 70 people were killed, including nine security personnel, and more than 100 injured when several heavily armed gunmen struck two mosques belonging to the Ahmadiya community in Lahore on Friday (May 28). More than a thousand people were said to be inside the worship place at the time of the attack.

The hostage drama ended after an intense three hour-long gun battle between the security forces and the attackers. Media reports said that at least two suicide attackers were nabbed alive in the commando operation.

Brutal assault on the Ahmedis

Daily Times
May 28th, 2010, will be etched in history as ‘Black Friday’ for Pakistan. On the day that the country was celebrating ‘Yaum-e-Takbeer’ to commemorate the 12th anniversary of Pakistan going nuclear, Lahore witnessed two deadly terror attacks against the Ahmediyya community. Terrorists carried out simultaneous attacks on the Ahmedis’ places of worship — Baitul Noor in Model Town and Darul Zikr in Garhi Shahu — during Friday prayers when thousands of Ahmedis had gathered there. It was surreal to see the images unfolding on our television screens when the terrorists went inside the two houses of prayer and unleashed their terror on the innocent worshippers. More than 90 people died while more than a hundred others were injured. The Punjab wing of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Wielding guns, wearing suicide vests and with hand grenades at their disposal, the terrorists launched well coordinated attacks subsequently leading to a standoff for hours at Garhi Shahu while the Model Town assault was relatively brief. The effort of the security volunteers of the Ahmediyya community during the operations must be lauded.

The dead were buried separately on Saturday after the Ahmediyya community cancelled a mass funeral because they were not “satisfied with the security arrangements”. This is the height of injustice since the Ahmedis are the most persecuted community in Pakistan but every government, past or present, has failed to provide adequate security to them. In an act of supreme opportunism under pressure from the religious extremists, the Ahmedis were declared non-Muslims by Zulfikar Bhutto in 1974. This opened the door for religious zealots to wreak further havoc when it came to the Ahmedis. General Ziaul Haq, a bigot, persecuted the Ahmedi sect by promulgating discriminatory laws specific to this community. Since then we have seen a constant rise in intolerance towards the Ahmedis. Instead of giving protection to our minorities as per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we have castigated them.

Another worrying aspect of Friday’s brutal massacre was that apparently the Punjab government had been forewarned of possible terrorist attacks against the minorities. Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that two security alerts were sent to the provincial government on May 13 and May 26 warning them of such an attack. It is shocking to know that instead of doing anything about it, the Punjab government adopted a ‘devil may care’ attitude. We are already in a life and death struggle with terrorism, thus the Punjab government’s apathetic treatment of an intelligence report of such sensitivity is nothing short of criminal negligence. On top of that we have seen the provincial government’s top minister hobnobbing with the leaders of banned terrorist groups, case in point being Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah mollycoddling a Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) leader in Jhang for electoral purposes. Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif begging mercy from the Taliban to spare Punjab is another grim reminder that our leaders are playing a very dangerous game. It seems the PML-N is playing the role of a fifth column in this war against terrorism. Instead of owning up to the fact that there are terrorists in Punjab, the provincial government has shifted the blame to an obscure ‘foreign hand’. The government should not try to fool the public with red herrings. The people of this country want answers and not flimsy excuses. The Friday attacks were not just an assault on the Ahmedis but an assault on every citizen of Pakistan.

Ahmadis claim 95 killed in Lahore attack

LAHORE: The death toll from the terror attacks on two places of worship of the Ahmadiya community in Lahore rose to 79 on Saturday. The figure was 74 on Friday.

However, a spokesman for the Jamaat-i-Ahmadiya Pakistan told Dawn that 95 people of the community had lost their lives in the strikes at Model Town and Garhi Shahu.

Punjab police spokesman DIG Akram Naeem Bharoka told reporters that 79 people had died and 107 injured in the bloody carnage.

Police obtained a 20-day physical remand of 17-year-old Abdullah alias Mohammad from an anti-terrorism court. The bomber was caught by worshippers and is in the custody of the Crimes Investigation Agency.

The other bomber, 20-year-old Mooaz from southern Punjab, who was earlier identified as Ameer Moavia, is being treated at Jinnah Hospital. He has been unconscious since Friday and underwent a CT scan.

Police arrested three suspects on information provided by Abdullah, of Rahim Yar Khan. Abdullah identified the two other men who blew themselves up in Garhi Shahu as Darwaish of Swat and Mansoor of Waziristan.

He told investigators that he and three others were sent for the two missions by Badar Mansoor, the head of the Punjabi Taliban group in Waziristan.

A police official said that Abdullah had provided valuable information to the investigators about other members of the network.

The Civil Lines police picked up six Afghan nationals on Friday night. DIG Bharoka said initial investigations suggested that four militants had reached Batti Chowk in Lahore from Miramshah via Bannu on May 21 and gathered at a nearby mosque.

They were taken by two facilitators to their potential targets for scouting out the place same day. They then left for Tableeghi Markaz in Raiwind, where they stayed under the pretext of attending Ijtima.

According to the DIG, the attackers stayed at Masjid Ibrahim on Ferozpur Road on May 26 and went to Batti Chowk on May 27, where their facilitators were already present.

One of the facilitators took Abdullah and Mooaz to Model Town and the other left for Garhi Shahu with Darwaish and Mansoor for a second scout-out. On May 28, the four men and their facilitators again converged on Batti Chowk and left for their targets on motorcycles. The attackers were provided heavy weapons, suicide jackets, magazines and detonators.

DIG Bharoka said the two facilitators, one of them identified as Rana, had provided logistic and weaponry support to the assailants.

Abdullah told the investigators that his younger brother Badar worked for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and he himself got training from one Munir.

The DIG said that arrest of the two bombers had unearthed their network’s link with the TTP and police would be able to reach others. He said that militants were in the habit of forming new groups.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Ahmadis, a persecuted minority, targeted At least 25 killed in Lahore attacks

Bombing attacks in Pakistan targeting houses of worship for a persecuted religious minority have killed at least 25 people, officials said on Friday.The strikes took place at two mosques in Lahore belonging to the Ahmadi religious group.
At least 20 people were killed at the Baitul Noor place of worship in the Model Town region after two attackers on motorbikes fired at the entrance of the building and tossed hand grenades, a rescue official told CNN.

Police have since cleared the scene, and one of the attackers is critically injured. The other clad in a suicide jacket was detained.
In the other location, Garhi Shahu, at least five bodies were recovered, the official said. One witness there told CNN he saw two attackers armed with AK-47s and another witness said he saw at least four gunmen.
Ahmadis regard themselves as Muslim. But the government says they aren't and many Muslim extremists have targeted them.
The group, which is thought to number between 3 and 4 million people in the country, endures "the most severe legal restrictions and officially-sanctioned discrimination" among Pakistan's religious minorities, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan U.S. government commission, said in its latest annual report that "Ahmadis may not call their places of worship 'mosques,' worship in non-Ahmadi mosques or public prayer rooms which are otherwise open to all Muslims, perform the Muslim call to prayer, use the traditional Islamic greeting in public, publicly quote from the Koran, or display the basic affirmation of the Muslim faith."
The agency says it's illegal for the group to preach publicly, pursue converts, pass out religious material, restricted from holding public conferences and traveling to Saudi Arabia for the hajj pilgrimage

Ahmadis' worship places attacked, 10 killed

LAHORE: Firing incidents have been reported at religious places of Ahmadi sect in Garhi Shahu and Model Town areas of Lahore on Friday.Security forces have completed the operation at Model Town.Ten people have been reported killed and several injured in the attack at this place. Seven terrorists attacked Model Town mosque and police
have killed five one of them.One attacker was arrested during operation.TTP Punjab has claimed the responsibility for the attack, Geo News reported.Terrorists entered into the worship places where at least 1500 wereoffering Friday prayers.Explosions also heard in these localities, Geo News stated.Heavy police contingents have reached the scene.

Firing, explosions hit Lahore

LAHORE : Blasts and firing hit Garhi Shahu and Model Town areas of Lahore on Friday, Aaj News reported. According to sources religious sermon was underway in both the areas when some unknown gunmen opened fire and threw grenades on the people gathered there.
Police have cordoned off the area, rescue team and ambulances have been reaching the spot, sources said.
Sources also said that Tehrik e Taliban Punjab has claimed the responsibility for the attack.

Kalam awaiting tourists after restoration of peace

After recovering from the violent spell of militancy that engulfed Swat for over three years, the picturesque Kalam valley is all set to welcome tourists.
No step has been taken to again attract the thousands of regular visitors to Kalam. Most started going to Nathiagali, Kaghan and Murree after militants played havoc with the peace of Swat. The government and administration is yet to convince people from across the country that Kalam is as peaceful as it used to be three years back.
The area had remained under curfew for several months when military operation was underway in Swat Valley last year. Militants had captured many buildings in Kalam, including some owned by the government. The lone police station in the town was razed to the ground after terrorists bombed it.
Kalam wore a deserted look as a small number of tourists were coming there. However, Bahrain and Madyan were relatively crowded with some families from parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and other provinces, were seen hesitantly reaching there and seeking advice about the security situation.
Law and order situation is no more a problem for the tourists intending to visit Kalam. From Landaki checkpost at the entrance to Swat up to Kalam, one has to go through 24 security checkposts jointly manned by army and police personnel. In some areas, soldiers of the Frontier Constabulary are also deployed.
“We are sorry for inconvenience but checking is for your own security,” read the billboards on Mingora-Kalam Road. Outsiders are supposed to enter names of all the passengers of the vehicle while entering Madyan, Bahrain and Kalam for security reasons. Every hotel providing accommodation to tourists also keeps a record of the guests. Police patrolling cars check every hotel to know who are staying there at night.
“Though many feel bothered at these checkpoints, these steps are a must for ensuring peace in the area. The practice, however, would create problems once people in large numbers start coming,” said a tourist Shaukat Ali.
He criticised the condition of road from Bahrain to Kalam, saying tourists in large numbers would never be attracted until the road was constructed properly. The 35 kilometres distance between Kalam and Bahrain takes two hours.
In summers when the entire country suffers from scorching heat, temperatures in Kalam remain around 20 centigrade. The streets and forests of Kalam used to bustle with life as tourists played loud music in vehicles and held parties in hotels. The main attractions were the River Swat, thick forests, glaciers and natural lakes.
“This town used to be crowded whenever I visited Kalam. Today, I see only a few outsiders,” said a disappointed Mohammad Iqbal, who came from Karachi along with his brother and two female members of his family. He, however, asked the authorities to take measures to attract the old visitors of Kalam.
“Tonight only two of our 74 rooms are booked,” said Asim, manager of a luxury hotel in Kalam. He said they had held meetings with the authorities and were planning to hold a cultural festival and a music concert in Kalam in coming months to send the message that Kalam is peaceful and ready to receive guests.
The authorities had offered 10-day free stay in hotels at Kalam during February. “The decision was taken in haste. This package should have been announced for the current month,” said a hotel owner.

Ahmadis mosques attacked in Lahore...Another Act of terrorism.

Firing incidents have been reported at religious places of Ahmadi sect in Garhi Shahu and Model Town areas of Lahore on Friday.
Terrorists entered into the worship places where at least 1500 were offering Friday prayers.Explosions also heard in these localities, Geo News stated. Heavy police contingents have reached the scene.TTP Punjab has claimed the responsibility for the attack, Geo News reported.

Sprint Getting Apple's New iPhone 4G???

All indications are that Apple and AT&T have a loyal and cozy partnership with the iPhone. But sporadic reports suggest a crack in the armor.
The latest is a tech blog that reports a commenter, supposedly a Best Buy employee from Pennsylvania, who said, "Sprint will be carrying the iPhone, beginning in June. They've begun to grease the wheels for advertising."
The commenter then cited rumors that Apple made a deal with AT&T to continue its U.S. iPhone contract in exchange for iPad Wi-Fi coverage with no contract as Apple launched its groundbreaking tablet device.

4G Up and Running
Sprint Nextel is the only carrier that currently has a 4G network up and running, so a compatible iPhone could potentially provide better connectivity and faster data speeds than AT&T currently offers. Published reports said AT&T has blocked employees from taking vacation time in June and the company has quietly confirmed that an iPhone release is imminent.
Apple didn't respond to our request for comment in time for publication, and a spokesperson for Sprint said "we don't comment on rumor and speculation."
According to Information Week, Sprint Chief Financial Officer Robert Brust recently told investors that the company, which didn't have much success with Palm's Pre phones, longs for an iPhone deal. "We'd love to have it," he reportedly said, while acknowledging that it was unlikely to happen soon.
Current Analysis consumer-devices analyst Avi Greengart said any report of a Sprint iPhone is greatly exaggerated. "I think that all these rumors are equally credible," he said cynically.
But analyst Gerry Purdy of MobilTrax said since only an estimated 10 to 15 percent of AT&T users have bought an iPhone, it may be only a matter of time before Apple seeks out other U.S. carriers.
"I think it is in Apple's best interests to have a CDMA offering, whether it is Sprint or Verizon or both," Purdy said.
Acknowledging that Apple may have renegotiated with AT&T to extend their contract because of market dynamics, Purdy said it "seems destined" for Apple to add new carriers because of "billions of dollars of marketing opportunities out there."
Whither the 3G?
Meanwhile, amid reports that Wal-Mart is offering a rock-bottom $97 price for the 16GB iPhone 3GS, Apple has removed the "select" button from the iPhone 3G in the Apple Store, a sign that it is winding down sales of the older device with 4G on the horizon.
"You've seen that happen with prior products when there is significant volume and models change; you want to flush out the inventory through the channel so you don't have the inventory coming back," said Purdy. "In Apple's case, it would mean taking back their own inventory from themselves."

Apple's store sells the 16GB iPhone 3GS for $199.

Obama to visit Gulf, defends oil spill response

President Obama is expected to visit Louisiana on Friday to observe cleanup efforts and speak to local officials about capping the undersea oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico.His visit will be the second to the region since the spill occurred on April 20. His visit also comes amid criticism that his administration has been slow in its response to the environmental disaster."I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down," Obama said Thursday at a White House news conference. "That doesn't mean it's going to be easy. That doesn't' mean it's going to happen right away or the way I'd like it to happen. That doesn't mean we aren't going to make mistakes."
Obama insisted that the federal government was fully engaged, adding "and I'm fully engaged."
The president even said his 11-year-old daughter, Malia, weighed in on Thursday.
"You know, when I woke up this morning and I'm shaving, and Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she says, 'Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?'" he said.
New federal estimates Thursday determined the spill is likely the largest in U.S. history, with oil already coating parts of the Louisiana coast and the eventual impacts still unclear.BP announced Thursday that it had suspended its "top-kill" procedure for more than 16 hours before it was restarted later that afternoon.
The "top kill" involves pumping heavy drilling fluid into the head of the leaking well at the sea floor. The manufactured fluid, known as drilling mud, is normally used as a lubricant and counterweight in drilling operations. Officials hope the drilling mud will stop the flow of oil. Cement then would be pumped in to seal the well."When we did the initial pumping (Wednesday), we clearly impacted the flow of the well. We then stopped to monitor the well," said Doug Suttles, the company's chief operating officer. "Based on that, we restarted again. We didn't think we were making enough progress after we restarted, so we stopped again."
"I probably should apologize to folks that we haven't been giving more data on that," Suttles said when asked why it took so long for BP to announce it had suspended the top kill. "It was nothing more than we are so focused on the operation itself."
The revelation that the procedure had gone on a break angered local officials and observers. Neither President Obama or Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is leading the government's response to the oil spill, appeared to be aware of the break when they addressed reporters at separate news conferences Thursday.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, who has been extremely critical of the federal response to the spill, said the delay in information from BP was "par for the course."
"We've been dealing with this from day one, and the information has not flowed on anything," he told CNN's Anderson Cooper.
A White House official told CNN that people inside the White House knew about the temporary delay in the "top kill," but it wasn't clear if Obama was aware of it.
The official said the president wouldn't micromanage every decision made by BP and government officials working the disaster site. The White House didn't announce the break because it didn't seem to be a major issue -- the operation had continued throughout the delay and the pumping of the liquid resumed later in the afternoon, the official said.
"It would have been a bigger deal if the entire operation stopped -- and they want to make that distinction," CNN Senior White House Correspondent Ed Henry reported.
BP officials say the procedure could take another 24 to 48 hours to complete, though whether the top kill will successfully stop the flow of oil is uncertain.
The spill claimed a job in Washington on Thursday as Elizabeth Birnbaum stepped down as head of US Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling. However, two Obama administration sources told CNN that she was fired.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

50,000 Afghan refugees return home so far this year

ince January 2010, some 50,000 Afghan refugees have returned home from the neighboring states of Pakistan and Iran, a statement of United Nations Refugee Agency ( UNHCR) said Sunday.
"Two months after the UN Refugee Agency resumed its 2010 voluntary repatriation program in Pakistan and five months since return started in Iran, 50,000 Afghan refugees have returned home with UNHCR's assistance," the statement said.
Of these, 48,000 refugees have returned from Pakistan and some 2,000 others from Iran, the statement further said.
The UNHCR-assisted repatriation program from Pakistan, according to the statement resumed on March 22; while from Iran early this year.
Each Afghan returning with UNHCR assistance receives a cash grant averaging about 100 U.S. dollars, depending on the distance to their area of origin. The grant is given out to returning refugees at one of the five UNHCR encashment centers in Afghanistan.
There are still some 2.7 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran many of whom have lived there for over two decades.Over 6 million Afghans had left their home country due to three decades of war and civil strife.
More than 3.6 million Afghans have returned home from Pakistan and 865,000 others from Iran with UNHCR's help since 2002, the UN Refugee Agency stressed in the statement.

Conflict injuries stretch Afghan health services: ICRC

KABUL — Health services in Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest countries, are being strained by a rising number of people injured in the escalating insurgent war, the Red Cross said Tuesday.
Southern provinces Helmand and Kandahar, where fighting between Taliban and US-led NATO and Afghan forces is intensifying, were the most troubling areas, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement.
"Fighting, mines and road blocks are preventing many people in the conflict-affected areas of Afghanistan from getting to hospital," it said."The armed conflict is taking a heavy toll on health services around the country. Even basic first aid is often lacking, let alone advanced war surgery. And when health care is available, it is not always easy to get it," it said.
This has been the case in Marjah, a poppy-growing district of Helmand where international and Afghan forces launched a major operation in mid-February.
Insurgents planted booby-trap bombs, known as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), throughout Marjah, impeding the progress of military and civilian efforts to re-establish government sovereignty, the statement said.
Mines planted on roads around Marjah made it difficult for residents and injured Taliban fighters alike to leave.
"Even after the fighting is over in a particular area, we're having difficulty transporting patients to doctors," the statement quoted a volunteer with the Afghan Red Crescent Society as saying.
"Mines, checkpoints and general insecurity stop us getting through safely," the volunteer said.
The ICRC said it was seeing a similar situation emerge in neighbouring Kandahar, which has become the latest focus of the war and regarded by the Taliban as their fiefdom.The ICRC said its operatives had tracked a "worrying" trend in Kandahar with "a substantial increase in the number of patients injured by improvised explosive devices and other weapons".
Attacks against international forces are also on the rise as US, NATO and Afghan forces put the squeeze on the insurgents with the aim of eradicating the Taliban threat from the province before elections set for September.The United States and NATO are ramping up their overall deployment in Afghanistan to 150,000 troops by August. Most of the thousands of extra troops will go through Kandahar as part of the operations underway there.Health facilities are woefully inadequate in Afghanistan, which has been in the grip of war for the past three decades.
Hospitals and clinics, along with education and power generation, top the wish lists of Afghans but despite billions of dollars in aid since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001, health remains poorly under-resourced.
The ICRC said it was training Afghan doctors, as well as providing first aid training and equipment to "arms carriers and to civilians living in conflict areas".

More Workers Start to Quit

As the job market begins to loosen up, human-resource managers might increasingly be surprised by an announcement from employees they haven't heard in a while: "I quit."
In February, the number of employees voluntarily quitting surpassed the number being fired or discharged for the first time since October 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Before February, the BLS had recorded more layoffs than resignations for 15 straight months, the first such streak since the bureau started tracking the data a decade ago. Since the BLS began tracking the data, the average number of people voluntarily leaving their jobs per month has been about 2.7 million. But since October 2008, the average number dropped to as low as 1.72 million. In March, it was about 1.87 million.And recent sentiment indicates that the number of employees quitting could continue to grow in the coming months. In a poll conducted by human-resources consultant Right Management at the end of 2009, 60% of workers said they intended to leave their jobs when the market got better. "The research is fairly alarming," says Michael Haid, senior vice president of global solutions for Right Management. "The churn for companies could be very costly."

Adecco Group, a world-wide staffing firm based in Zurich, has seen several of its clients ask for candidates for key positions after employees made surprise departures, says Vice President Rich Thompson. Although so far there haven't been widespread departures, Mr. Thompson says his company is readying itself for large-scale changes within the next few months. "We're preparing for a massive reshuffling of talent at all job levels in all industries," he says, noting that the recession earlier this decade was so short and shallow that the turnover this time around is likely to be much greater.

Recruiters and human-resource experts say the increase in employees giving notice is a product of two forces. First, the natural turnover of employees leaving to advance their careers didn't occur during the recession because jobs were so scarce. This created a backlog of workers waiting for better times to make a move to better jobs. The median monthly voluntary turnover rate in 2009 was 0.5%, half of the rate in 2008, according to the Bureau of National Affairs, a specialized news publisher for professionals.
During the recession, even if they heard of an opening, employees were reluctant to switch employers, says Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. "The idea of moving when the world was already in uncertainty was quite scary," he says. But those hang-ups are disappearing, and employees are becoming more receptive to recruiter calls and beginning to tap their networks again for signs of opportunities, he says.

Another factor making it harder for companies to retain employees is the effect of the heavy cost-cutting and downsizing during the downturn on workers' morale. A survey conducted last summer for the Conference Board, a management research organization, found that the drivers of the drop in job fulfillment included less satisfaction with wages and less interest in work. In 2009, 34.6% of workers were satisfied with their wages, down more than seven percentage points from 1987. About 51% in 2009 said they were interested in work, down 19 percentage points from 1987.

"Employees feel disengaged with their jobs, which is going to lead to a lot of churn as we come out of the recession," says Brett Good, a district president of Southern California for Robert Half International (NYSE: RHI - News), an executive recruiting firm.

Mr. Good, who worked for Robert Half in the San Francisco Bay Area earlier this decade,says his company saw a "tremendous amount" of departures from technology companies that needed to be refilled when the dot-com recession ended. Already, Mr. Good says he's received calls from executives who nine months ago felt trapped because of economic conditions and didn't want to lose sure-thing positions, but now feel they're able to move on. "They feel like 'a bird in the hand' isn't good enough anymore," he says.

An increase in turnover can be costly for companies. It typically costs a company about half of the position's annual salary to recruit a person for that job, but the cost can run up to several times that if the position requires rare skills, says Right Management's Mr. Haid. Convincing employees to stay might not be cheap either. Nearly 5,400 members of, a job board for positions that pay $100,000 or more, responded to an April survey that asked how much more money it would take to convince them to stay if they wanted to leave. More than 20% said it would take a raise of more than $25,000. In all, about 50% of respondents said it would take more than $15,000.

To re-engage employees, Robert Half International is advising clients to hold town hall meetings and one-on-one sessions with employees to hear grievances and try to rekindle interest in the company among workers, Mr. Good says. Some clients had made broad-based cuts in departments based solely on salary or without regard to employee tenure, damaging the trust of the employees who survived, Mr. Good says.

Florida Hospital Flagler, an 850-employee hospital in northern Florida, faced a 30% turnover rate in 2008, almost double the average for area hospitals, says Alyson Parker, director of human resources. That dipped to 20% in 2009 as the economy suppressed voluntary departures, but the hospital still spent $3 million in 2009 on covering open positions, and finding and training new employees. The average search for a new nurse, for example, costs the hospital between $52,000 and $60,000, Ms. Parker says. This year, the hospital implemented regular town hall and department meetings, and one-on-one "stay" interviews for employees to air grievances and give ways to improve the work environment. So far, the measures have helped the hospital to lower its turnover rate by about 2 percentage points. "We're trying to catch people before they even start looking for a new job, which will become even more important as the economy improves and more opportunities at competitors open up," Ms. Parker says.

Human-resource managers often have trouble getting resources from top management until employees actually start to leave, says Mr. Cappelli. In the late 1990s, companies that were losing employees started to offer concierge services, discounted lunches, and hiring bonuses in a mad scramble to keep employees and recruit new ones, a trend Mr. Cappelli says could come back if the job market continues to improve. But this time around, Mr. Cappelli says companies might try to deal with more nuanced employee requests, such as lowering stress at work, improving work-life balance, and creating more opportunities for career advancement within the company.

For some employees, it might be too late., a job board for tech professionals, asked members what could persuade them to stay in their jobs if they found another opportunity. More than 57% of the 1,273 surveyed said nothing could persuade them to stay. Of those who said they could be persuaded, 42% said they wanted a higher salary and 11% wanted a promotion.

Swat - regained Paradise Lost, welcomes once again

Once falling under the reign of terror, facing the largest displacement after military operation, the breathtaking valley of Swat - ringed by Hindu Kush mountains, once again invites its beloved nature lovers to flock to its scenic treasure. Located about 250 kilometers away from Islamabad, a valley - ‘regained paradise lost’ comes in the mountainous region to the north of the Peshawar plain; it includes the main valley of the upper course of the River Swat, for a length of about 200 km from the source.

After restoring peace, the valley seemed tranquil. Stores were opened and streets were bustling. Merchants, children, shoppers, bicyclists, goats, donkey carts, rickshaws and tractors jostled for space in the narrow roadways.
Efforts to promote tourism of Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) at Swat valley of course weigh a lot. To accomplish the goal, it offered attractive package to foreigners for Udyana and Suvastu- an ancient sources for Swat because of the scenic beauty of the valley and the name of the river respectively.
Apart from its fascinating landscapes, crystal clear water torrents, diverse flora and fanna, mesmerizing lakes, there are some ‘installations’ although to be ‘overlooked’ yet widely observed by visitors.
Factually, the spectacle role of Pakistan Army made possible the ‘densely forested valley’ peaceful for the survivors. It owes responsibility to continue safeguard ‘the beauty of nature’ through stalling its troops for lasting peace in the area.
People on their visit to Swat come across sprawling troops at different check posts to the valley, alarming the visitors of the residue of the past. The troops’ deployment is a part of long term strategy for durable peace, but it instilled a premature caution of the presence of relics of past for all.
In addition, another factor which reduces visits of tourists at the valley is presence of stinky atmosphere that surrounds the area. Rather, worth seen places have been abused by the people having least concern about beauty of nature.
“Worse” because for the most part, the quality of that local room, food and health products are unreliable and probably unregulated. And whose fault is that - the tourist’s?”, said a visitor staying at common and a low-paid motel. He added the motel management probably don’t filter their drinking water (forcing each and every guest to buy bottles of water, don’t provide garbage and bin and don’t ask guests if they’d be willing to have their sheets washed every other day.
It is not a matter of local business, some tourists and inhabitants of the locality were noticed throwing their garbage on the ground without even looking for a garbage bin - someone will deal with it, sometime. “I saw a lot of garbage on the way from Islamabad to here,” said a local journalists on trip to Swat.
It’s overwhelming issue, not to be overlooked, if we really want to revive the old era in the valley, to make it a ‘tourists heaven. What to be suggested, it should be taken at earnest level, for nature attracts people through its cleanliness.
Upon that critical situation, spokesman of Ministry of Tourism, Joint Secretary Muhammad Yasin Janjua described the issue as ‘very important’, but passed the buck to Tehsil Municipal Administration of Swat.
He said that it should at least be given training to the locals to save the environment, for it would boom business in malls of the city, causing prosperity to the local people. He assured to convey ‘the observation’ to concerned authority soon.
Answering the general impression after deploying the security forces at place to place in the area, the spokesman told APP that the matter had already been taken up in meeting with the military officials deputed in the locality.
“We told them to remove security check or at least lower down upto remarkable extent”, he said.
The cheered Moulana Atta-ur-Rehman after restoration of peace in the scenic valley, by using this medium of agency urged countrymen to visit Swat, assuring of complete security in the area. He added the provincial and federal governments were making efforts to revive tourism in the picturesque Swat valley.
He owed important role to the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to revive Swat, once a tourist hub. To conclude, it is certainly a paradise for nature lovers where they can feast their eyes on the diverse bounties of nature ranging from the densely forested.

Moderate Drinking May Protect Brain From Alzheimer's

Moderate drinking may help protect against the onset of Alzheimer's disease among otherwise healthy people, a new Spanish study suggests.
Women who don't smoke appear to gain the most benefit from alcohol consumption, according to the research team, from the University of Valencia, the Valencia government and the Municipal Institute of Medical Investigation in Barcelona.
"Our results suggest a protective effect of alcohol consumption, mostly in non-smokers, and the need to consider interactions between tobacco and alcohol consumption, as well as interactions with gender, when assessing the effects of smoking and/or drinking on the risk of Alzheimer's disease," the study's lead author, Ana M. Garcia, from the University of Valencia's department of preventive medicine and public health, said in a news release.
"Interactive effects of smoking and drinking are supported by the fact that both alcohol and tobacco affect brain neuronal receptors," Garcia explained.
The findings, published in the May issue of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, are gleaned from a comparative analysis of both the medical background and the smoking and drinking habits among people with Alzheimer's disease stacked up against a group of healthy individuals.Both groups were similar in age and in gender breakdown.
Smoking appeared to have no impact on Alzheimer's risk, the authors found. However, moderate drinking did seem to reduce risk for the disease, particularly among non-smoking women.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Paul McCartney to be honoured by Barack Obama at White House

The ex-Beatle will appear next week, with the show being broadcast in the US over the summer.
The president and first lady are hosting the show in the East Room on June 2 for an event at which Sir Paul will receive the third Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library of Congress.

Last year the prize - awarded to musicians for a lifetime of songwriting - went to Stevie Wonder.
Sir Paul hinted at the appearance when he took part in a live webcast last week in which he mentioned the White House.
He told fans: ''If there is an announcement, remember where you heard it first.''
The prize commemorates George and Ira Gershwin, the legendary American songwriting team whose extensive manuscript collections reside in the Library of Congress.
The prize is awarded to musicians whose lifetime contributions in the field of popular song exemplify the standard of excellence associated with the Gershwins.

US troops in Afghanistan surpass number in Iraq

American forces in Afghanistan have surpassed those in Iraq for the first time since Saddam Hussein was ousted as the struggle against the Taliban-led insurgency intensifies. Troops are continuing to flood into Afghanistan as part of Barack Obama's surge, while the United States is rapidly withdrawing from Iraq.
The most recent Pentagon figures show 94,000 US personnel are now in Afghanistan compared with 92,000 in Iraq. Mr Obama was elected on a pledge to pull US troops from their unpopular involvement in Iraq as soon as possible and instead focus on the "necessary war" to prop up Hamid Karzai's regime.
He said at the weekend: "As we end the war in Iraq ... we are pressing forward in Afghanistan." "There will be difficult days ahead. We will adapt, we will persist, and I have no doubt that together with our Afghan and international partners, we will succeed in Afghanistan."
US numbers in Afghanistan are scheduled to peak later this year at about 98,000 as the final detachments of 30,000 reinforcements ordered by Mr Obama in December arrive.
Britain currently has 9,500 troops in the international coalition.
Mr Obama has given his senior commander, Gen Stanley McChrystal, until July 2011 to turn the tide of the insurgency and bolster the Afghan forces. He has vowed to begin withdrawing US troops next summer.
This summer is expected to see continued heavy fighting in southern Afghanistan, particularly around Kandahar, as Gen McChrystal pushes into Taliban strongholds.
A total of 4,400 US troops have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion compared with just over a thousand in Afghanistan since 2001.
All US combat forces are scheduled to leave Iraq by September and the Iraq government has agreed the US military should leave completely by 2012.

Afghans accuse Defence Secretary Liam Fox of racism and disrespect

Liam Fox was under attack last night for damaging Britain’s relations with Kabul after he described Afghanistan as a “broken 13th-century country”.
The Defence Secretary’s comments, made in an interview with The Times published on Saturday, provoked fury from the Afghan Government and media with officials calling the claims racist.According to senior Afghan officials, Dr Fox’s characterisation of the country was raised at a meeting with President Karzai on Saturday. The President expressed his deep displeasure at the remarks, they said.In his interview Dr Fox said that there must be a distinction between military and humanitarian goals. “We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened.”A senior Afghan government source said: “His view appears to be that Afghanistan has not changed since the 13th century and it implies that Afghanistan is a tribal and medieval society.“Despite the sacrifices of British soldiers and the massive support of the British Government we do not feel that there is a mutual respect. His remarks show a lack of trust.”The source added: “We see Britain as still a colonial, orientalist and racist country that they should have this view. Dr Fox really believes what he said, and he is not alone. London and Kabul must move on or things will be more difficult.”The issue provoked furious editorials in the Afghan press, with the daily Arman-e Melli publishing a leading article yesterday with the headline: “We don’t need Britain in Afghanistan”. At a press conference at the British Embassy in Kabul yesterday Dr Fox said: “Of course, what I was pointing out, and I welcome the opportunity to amplify it, is that the primary reason for sending our Armed Forces to Afghanistan was one of national security.“But clearly if we are to make the long-term gains that will provide the stability to maintain the momentum when our Armed Forces eventually hand over to the forces of the Afghans, we will require a long period of development in concert with the international authorities, the NGOs and our and other countries’ aid programmes.”Dr Fox was returning home last night with William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, and Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, after meeting British Forces in Helmand province. A Ministry of Defence spokesman denied that there had been any confrontation and said that the allegations were “groundless and without truth”.Mr Mitchell said yesterday: “You can’t get a cigarette paper between Liam Fox’s views and mine on the importance of joining together better and more effectively defence, diplomacy and development.”
Liam Fox office said: “Hamid Karzai has used similar words himself, describing what the Taleban left behind as 13th or 14th-century.”
The visit was intended to display unity within the coalition British Government on what is regarded as the most important foreign policy issue.
The Defence Secretary got off to a controversial start, however, when he told The Times that Britain was not a “global policeman”.
He added that he wanted to “reset expectations and timelines”, a hint that he wanted to use the trip to accelerate the return of some of the British contingent.
Last night General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US and Nato troops in Afghanistan, who also met Dr Fox, said that he was confident that the British would continue to serve in Afghanistan.
“British support is absolutely rock- solid — nobody has told me anything differently,” he told journalists at his headquarters in Kabul.
Davood Moradian, a senior policy adviser to the Afghan Government, said that the new Defence Secretary’s view contradicted Britain’s stated position, which committed Western nations to the pursuit of a “comprehensive approach” to Afghanistan’s problems.

Russia gives U.S. Afghan drugs data, criticizes NATO

Russia's top drugs official gave a list of Afghan and Central Asian drug barons to U.S. anti-drugs tsar Gil Kerlikowske Sunday, but criticized U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan for failing to stem opium output.Russia is the world's biggest per capita user of heroin -- all of it flowing from Afghanistan -- and President Dmitry Medvedev has called drug abuse among the country's youth a threat to national security.
"I handed him (Kerlikowske) over a list of nine ... people living in Afghanistan or elsewhere in Central Asia and involved in drug trafficking by supplying wholesale batches of narcotics," Russia's drug enforcement chief Viktor Ivanov told a news conference.Moscow is willing to prosecute the suspects.
Ivanov said he met Kerlikowske, director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, at a Moscow airport during Kerlikowske's stopover en route to Stockholm -- their fourth meeting in less than a year.He said Russia had earlier supplied the names of around 25 other people involved in drug trade, as well as data on 175 drug laboratories operating in Afghanistan.
"To destroy these drug laboratories is the most urgent task, because these are already well-established cartels, with a stable hierarchy and structure, funding sources and technological equipment to produce narcotics," Ivanov said.Ivanov said Russia annually consumed 35 metric tones of heroin alone. If counted with other Afghan-made opiates, Russia's per capita consumption of opium was the biggest in the world.
However, while praising Moscow's cooperation with Washington in some aspects of the anti-drug fight, Ivanov criticized the U.S.-led coalition of NATO states fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan for failing to eradicate opium output there.
He said Afghanistan accounted for 95 percent of the world's heroin output. The country now produces each year twice as much heroin than the entire world produced 10 years ago, he said.
In March, NATO rejected Russian calls for it to eradicate opium poppy fields in Afghanistan and urged Moscow to give more assistance against the insurgency.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai said at the time that it was impossible to remove the only source of income for Afghan farmers without being able to provide them with an alternative.
"Where is the logic here? To destroy a plant is much cheaper than ... catching it later on the streets of Berlin, Rome, London, Moscow and so on," Ivanov said.
Opiates flow to Russia across Central Asia's often porous borders. Up to 2.5 million Russians are drug addicts, and some 90 percent of them use heroin. Each year 30,000 Russian drug users die and 80,000 people try narcotics for the first time.
Ivanov said Russia accounted for a fifth of the world's market of opiates estimated at a total of $65 billion.
He said Moscow would host an international forum on June 9-10 sponsored by the Kremlin where Russia would raise its concerns and call for the creation of an anti-drug coalition.