Thursday, February 10, 2011

Civilian suffering suggests Pakistan stability far off

Dozens of civilians maimed or wounded by bombings, landmines and shootings in recent months lie in a hospital in Pakistan's northwest, raising doubts over government assertions that conflict zones had been stabilised.

Pakistani policy-makers and their American backers take a strategic view of the war on al Qaeda-backed militants, often overlooking the scale of civilian casualties which can shed light on what progress has been made.

People like Ishaq Khan, 13, see few signs that security is improving in the northwest, the epicentre of the conflict between the government and Taliban insurgents. His leg was blown off by a landmine.

"I was playing in a corn field with my two friends and I had taken my shoes off than I stepped on something," he said from his bed in a hospital run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Peshawar, the main city in the northwest.

"We just want peace," said Khan, as he sits up on his hospital bed with his leg stump exposed.

That's unlikely anytime soon in Pakistan, which the United States views as a crucial ally its global war on militancy.

Despite a series of military offensives against Taliban insurgents, civilians remain highly vulnerable to militant attacks and are likely to lose confidence in Pakistani leaders if the violence doesn't ease, analysts say.

The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), a U.S. advocacy group, says there were likely more civilian casualties in Pakistan in 2009 than in Afghanistan.

In 2010, 3,570 civilians were killed in Pakistan in the war between government forces and Islamist militants, slightly more than the previous year, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies.

Taliban militants have been digging in despite pressure from the military. Public confidence in the government is likely to erode, if the violence does not ease.


Bloodshed is often random. One man was gathering firewood when he was hit by a blast. Gulzada, 45, was riding his donkey cart past a government office when a bomb sprayed shrapnel into his legs.

"The situation is getting worse," said Gulzada. Staying home isn't safe either. His family dug out tunnels beneath their home to hide during battles.

"The paramilitary forces closed shops in our village. We have to keep moving around when there is fighting."

Even if military operations succeed, long-term stability hinges on better governance and economic development in lawless tribal areas in the northwest, ideal bases for militants.

Until then, the ICRC surgical hospital for war wounded, which has treated more than 1,600 patients since opening ion 2009, is likely to keep busy.

Patients interviewed by Reuters do not take sides in the conflict. But most doubt security will improve.

Taimur Shah was riding his motorcycle near a graveyard when he noticed a pushcart filled with glass. Then a bomb exploded.

"This could happen anytime, anywhere," he said. "I don't know what will happen to my country," said Shah from his bed at the hospital in Peshawar, where a bomb exploded a few hours earlier.

To cope with the trauma, Ishaq Khan and other patients chase each other on wheelchairs. Or he chats about cricket with his cousin Abdur Rahman, 12, resting in the next bed. He was standing at an aid collection point for people displaced by the war when a bomb exploded. All he can remember is people screaming.

Outside their white tent, patients try to enjoy nice weather.

Mehmood Hassan, 13, has a patch over one of his eyes. He's cheerful enough to joke, even though he came close to dying. Perhaps it's because he doesn't understand how serious his injuries are.

"He doesn't know he will stay blind in one eye," said an ICRC official.

Egypt labor unrest spreads as bus drivers strike

Bus drivers and public transport workers in Cairo joined thousands of state employees on strike Thursday in spreading labor unrest that has pumped further strength and momentum into Egypt's wave of anti-government protests. With its efforts to manage the crisis failing, the government warned of the potential for a coup.

The warning from Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit was the second from the regime this week that a coup could take place, a sign that the reinvigorated protests could face a new crackdown.

Speaking to the Arab news network Al-Arabiya on Thursday, Aboul Gheit said that if "adventurers" take over the process of reform the military "will be compelled to defend the constitution and national security ... and we'll find ourselves in a very grave situation."

Youth activists organizing the 17-day-old protests demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak planned to up the ante even further, calling for an expanded rally on Friday, hoping to repeat a showing earlier this week that drew about a quarter-million people.

Khaled Abdel-Hamid, speaking for a coalition of groups behind the protests, said they wanted Egyptians to show up at six separate rallies on main squares in Cairo from which they would all march to Tahrir Square, which has been the focal point of the demonstrations. Thousands were packing the square on Thursday, vowing not to give up until the longtime leader steps down despite a host of sweeping government concessions.

Now the protests, focused on discontent over the regime's heavy hand on power, have tapped into the even more widespread anger over economic woes — inflation, unemployment, low wages and wide economic disparites between rich and poor.

Strikes also have erupted in a breadth of sectors — among railway and bus workers, state electricity staff and service technicians at the Suez Canal, in factories manufacturing textiles, steel and beverages and hospitals. Protest organizers have made a concerted effort to bring labor movements into the protests.

On Thursday, hundreds of doctors in white coats marched down a street from the Qasr el-Aini hospital to Tahrir, chanting "Join us, O Egyptian," witnesses said.

From another direction, crowds of lawyers in black robes marched from their union to the square, waving Egyptian flags and chanting "Mubarak, you pilot, how did you get $70 billion?" — a referring to the president's past as the air force commander.

Egyptians have been infuriated by newspaper reports that the Mubarak family has amassed billions, and perhaps tens of billions of dollars in wealth while, according to the World Bank, about 40 percent of the country's 80 million people live below or near the poverty line of $2 a day. The family's true net worth is not known.

"We demand a trial of Mubarak and his regime; we are protesting corruption," said Mohammed Zarie, one of the marching lawyers, who said hundreds of lawyers arrived from provinces and planned to spend the night at the square.

The labor strikes come despite a warning by Vice President Omar Suleiman that calls for civil disobedience are "very dangerous for society and we can't put up with this at all."

Impoverished Egyptians are heavily dependent on public transportation and the strike threatened a new blow to the hard-hit economy.

Ali Fatouh, a bus driver in Cairo says buses were locked in the garages and won't be moved "until we achieve our demands," which include salary increases. He says organizers are calling on all 62,000 transportation employees to participate.

Some buses were still seen on the streets early Thursday and it's not immediately clear how widespread the strike is.

Mustafa Mohammed, a bus driver since 1997 who earns about 550 Egyptian pounds (about $93), said he Egyptians deserve a better life.

"We are immersed in debts," the 43-year-old driver said as he joined a crowd outside the administration building on the outskirts of Cairo. "We are staying until our demands are met. If our demands are not met, we will join Tahrir, and camp there."

He said the administration sent a senior employee to "throw us a bone" with a holiday bonus but that wasn't enough.

Egyptians have been infuriated by newspaper reports that the Mubarak family has amassed billions, and perhaps tens of billions of dollars in wealth while, according to the World Bank, about 40 percent of the country's 80 million people live below or near the poverty line of $2 a day. The family's true net worth is not known.

The protesters filling streets of Cairo and other cities since Jan. 25 have already posed the greatest challenge to the president's authoritarian rule since he came to power 30 years ago. They have wrought promises of sweeping concessions and reforms, a new Cabinet and a purge of the ruling party leadership, but Mubarak refuses their demands that he step down before September elections.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has said about 300 people have been killed since the protests began, but it is still compiling a final toll.

The White House warned Egypt's leaders to expect unrelenting protests unless they start to show real reforms and a transition to a freer society, dismissing governmental concessions so far as not having met even the minimum threshold of what people want.

Obama administration officials were also increasingly blunt in describing the limits of their leverage, reasserting that the United States is not seeking to dictate events in Egypt — and that it cannot.

"We're not going to be able to force them do anything," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday.

Still, Gibbs and other officials called on Egypt's leaders to end the harassment of activists, to broaden the makeup of their negotiations with opposition leaders, to lift a repressive emergency law, and to take up a series of other moves the Obama government has requested for days.

Suicide blast kills Pakistan army recruits

A teenage suicide bomber wearing a school uniform killed at least 22 army recruits at a military training center in northwest Pakistan on Thursday, police and intelligence officials said.

The bomber's uniform was from a nearby school, and wearing it apparently allowed him to escape scrutiny upon entering the heavily guarded Punjab Regiment Center in Mardan, the officials said. The blast wounded at least 32 people, some seriously, one intelligence official said.

The attacker entered the training grounds as army recruits were doing morning warm-up exercises. Abdullah Khan, the top police officer in Mardan, said the attacker was 17.

The bombing was among the deadliest of many attacks that militants, whose hubs are in Pakistan's northwestern border region, have carried out against the army in recent years. An attack on the same training facility killed 35 people in 2006.

The bombing underscored the continued ability of Pakistani militants to organize high-profile attacks despite several army counter-insurgency offensives. While those operations and an escalation of CIA drone strikes have helped slow attacks, security analysts say they have failed to kill the leadership of militant groups such as the Pakistani Taliban.

Military officials say militant organizations are increasingly recruiting children and teenagers to carry out bombings. The Pakistani army runs a deradicalization school for such youths in northwest Pakistan, not far from Mardan.