Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Swatis rejoice as Amn Festival gets underway

MINGORA: Thousands of Taliban militants and their supporters had gathered last year in the Grassy Ground where Maulana Sufi Muhammad declared the superior courts un-Islamic and denounced the Constitution but on Tuesday it was the site of rejoicing people, music and dance scenes, circus and all those activities free people could carry out. The Grassy Ground is hosting these activities in connection with the Amn Festival, or Peace Festival, being held by the Provincial Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Settlement Authority (PaRRSA) in collaboration with the Pakistan Army. The first phase of the festival is being held in Mingora, the headquarters of Swat district, from June 29 while the second phase will begin in the prime tourist destination, Kalam, from July 11. The fair will continue till July 18 in both the towns. The purpose of the event is to bring back the tourists to the Swat following an end to the Taliban control as a result of the military operation last year. It is also aimed at erasing the bitter memories of the people and removing fear of the militants from their hearts. The event was inaugurated by civil and military officers amid cheers and songs. The site was beautifully illuminated and decorated with welcoming banners, buntings and fluttering Pakistan flag. People waited in long queues till the filing of this report (9:35 p.m.) to enter the ground. The security forces had put in place strict security, carrying out body search, making people to go through the walk-through gates. The security forces personnel were deployed inside the ground in adequate number. People had set up stalls of different items. But stalls representing culture of the area were missing. “We don’t expect business here. The organizers are charging us 1,000 per day. But we want to make this event a success, as we are interested in a durable peace,” said Anwar Ali, who had set up a stall of shoes and bags. He hoped the festival would attract tourists and was happy to see a good number of people at the site. “We have no fears now,” he said, amid songs being loudly played in the background. The Pakistan Army had put on display the pictures of the valley representing its newfound life, under the title “Swat smiles again.” People streamed into the Grassy Ground in the evening with everyone wearing a toothy smile. “This is Eid for the people of Swat. Look at the shining faces of the children,” said a happy Zahid Khan, president of the Swat Hotels Association and a staunch opponent of Taliban. The women, who faced risks moving outside their houses in times when Taliban were calling the shots, were roaming around the stalls. Their number is expected to rise. Children who would see hung bodies of people at squares and dumped bodies at roadsides and field were the most jubilant lot. “I saw motorcyclist’s stunts (at the circus),” said six-year-old Wajid Ali. The child with an angelic face said he was enjoying being at the festival However, two religious students sitting inside but away from the place of activities were not happy with the music and dances. They had also come there to enjoy but were expecting something else. “They (the organisers) were announcing that there would be lions, elephants and other animals. We had come to see that but were disappointed to see music and dance only,” one of them said, refusing to disclose his name. “It is good as it will remove fear from the hearts of the people,” chipped in the third friend of the religious students. A year ago, no one could imagine seeing such sights at the Grassy Ground. There was control of Taliban, fear in the heart of people and no end in sight. In fact, it was the same ground from where the stage for a military operation was set. Thousands of Taliban and their supporters had gathered at this venue to send challenging message to the government. The now jailed chief of the banned Tanzim Nifaz Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), Maulana Sufi Muhammad, publicly spoke at the Grassy Ground against the superior courts in April last year and condemned democracy and the Constitution. His speech changed the mind of the government, which until then was seeking a negotiated settlement to end the militancy through Sufi Muhammad.

Pakistan's defense and Poverty

On June 26, a mother along with her three children aged one, three and seven committed suicide by throwing herself and her children before an approaching train in Rahim Yar Khan. The main cause cited for the incident was poverty. The children, in all probability, were malnourished, living in a one-room house, drinking contaminated water with little or no prospects of going to school. Their father was reportedly jobless. On the same day, three F-16 C/D Block 52 aircrafts landed at PAF Shahbaz Air Base at Jacobabad. They are equipped with advanced avionics suite and latest weapons with night vision attack capability. Their estimated unit cost is approximately US $34 million. Do sophisticated military machines ensure a country's defence when a degraded environment persists in terms of economic, social and internal security? Around Rs700 billion (one-third of the budget) would be used by the military establishment during 2010-2011. At the same time countless children would die of hunger and poverty. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, HRCP, 141 people committed suicide in the month up to Feb. 25. The commission recorded 138 suicides in January. “There is no government data on suicides as most are not reported. Many of the suicide victims are on daily wages. “Bills and prices of basic commodities will increase by at least 15 percent when VAT comes into effect … Every day price hikes have become the norm and the number of suicides is increasing among unemployed youths and the poor.

Russia: Suspected spies include Russian citizens

Some of the suspected spies arrested in the United States are Russian citizens, Russia's Foreign Ministry acknowledged Tuesday, but it insisted they did nothing to hurt U.S. interests. The ministry statement said Russia is counting on the U.S. "to show proper understanding, taking into account the positive character of the current stage of development of Russian-American relations." Prime Minister Vladimir Putin delivered the same message during a meeting at his country residence with former President Bill Clinton, who was in Moscow to speak at an investment conference. "I understand that back home police are putting people in prison," Putin said, drawing a laugh from Clinton. "That's their job. I'm counting on the fact that the positive trend seen in the relationship will not be harmed by these events." The Foreign Ministry would not say specifically how many of the 11 alleged deep-cover agents are Russian. NTV television identified two of the defendants as Russian and showed their photographs from a social networking website. NTV said Mikhail Semenko had moved to the U.S. in 2008 and Anna Chapman, said to have an English husband, moved to the U.S. in February of this year. Both are in their late 20s. The FBI announced the arrests of 10 suspects Monday, and an 11th person allegedly involved in the Russian spy ring was arrested Tuesday in Cyprus. Court papers said the operation goes back as far as the 1990s and many of the suspects were tracked for years. Semenko and Chapman, however, were listed in a separate complaint and said to use their real names. Most of the other suspects were accused of using fake names and purporting to be U.S. or Canadian citizens while really being Russian. They are accused of attempting to infiltrate U.S. policymaking circles while posing as ordinary citizens, some of them as married couples. Oleg Gordievsky, a former deputy head of the KGB in London who defected in 1985, said Russia probably has about 50 deep-cover couples spying inside the United States. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would know the number of illegal operatives in each target country but not their names, the 71-year-old ex-double agent told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday. Countries often have a number of intelligence officials whose identities are declared to their host nation, usually working in embassies, trade delegations and other official posts. Gordievsky, who spent nine years working in the KGB directorate in charge of illegal spy teams, said he estimates there are 400 declared Russian intelligence officers in the U.S., as well as up to 50 couples charged with covertly cultivating military and diplomat officials as sources of information. He said the complexity involved in training and running undercover teams means Russia is unlikely to have significantly more operatives now than during his career. "I understand the resources they have, and how many people they can train and send to other countries," Gordievsky said. "It is possible there may be more now, but not many more, and no more than 60 (couples)." The ex-KGB officer said deep-cover spies often fail to deliver better intelligence than their colleagues who work in the open. "They are supposed to be the vanguard of Russian intelligence," Gordievsky said. "But what they are really doing is nothing, they just sit at home in Britain, France and the U.S." The Foreign Ministry's first reaction to the U.S. arrests was less amicable, and some senior Russian lawmakers said some in the U.S. government may be trying to undercut President Barack Obama's warming relations with Moscow. "These actions are unfounded and pursue unseemly goals," the ministry said in a statement issued earlier Tuesday. "We don't understand the reasons which prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to make a public statement in the spirit of Cold War-era spy stories." Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted that U.S. authorities announced the arrest just days after Medvedev had visited the United States and met Obama at the White House. "They haven't explained to us what this is about," Lavrov said at a news conference during a trip to Jerusalem. "I hope they will. The only thing I can say today is that the moment for doing that has been chosen with special elegance." Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service refused to comment on the arrests of its alleged agents. Nikolai Kovalyov, the former chief of the main KGB successor agency, the Federal Security Service, said some of the U.S. charges against the alleged spies resembled a "bad spy novel." Kovalyov, now a lawmaker, said the arrests were an attempt by some "hawkish circles" in the United States to demonstrate the need for a tougher line toward Moscow. Kovalyov added that Russian-U.S. ties will continue to improve despite the spy scandal. "Our two great powers must stand together," he said. Some lawmakers suggested a tit-for-tat Russian response, but Kovalyov said Russia would reciprocate only "if the Americans don't stop at that and risk evicting our diplomats," the ITAR-Tass news agency reported. Other senior Russian lawmakers also alleged that some in the U.S. government resented warmer ties with Russia. "This was initiated, was done by certain people of certain political forces, who aren't in favor of improving relations between Russia and the United States, and I feel deeply sorry about that," Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house, the State Duma, told Associated Press Television News. "Not all of them support Obama's policy," Mikhail Grishankov, a deputy head of the Duma's security affairs committee, told AP. "There are forces interested in tensions." Viktor Kremenyuk, a deputy head of the U.S. and Canada Institute, a Moscow-based think tank, said the spy case could threaten a planned ratification of a new nuclear arms reduction deal signed by Obama and Medvedev in April. "That may change the atmosphere, that may change the attitudes among Americans toward Russia, (and) that may cause very significant political consequences," Kremenyuk said. In Britain, the case stirred memories of the country's own illegal Soviet spy — Melita Norwood, a civil servant who spent about 40 years passing atomic research and other secrets to Moscow. Authorities ruled against prosecuting the elderly grandmother when she was exposed in 1992. Norwood died in 2005 at the age of 93.