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.