Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bashir Bilour asks Fazlullah, other militants to face courts

Bashir Bilour, who is parliamentary leader of the Awami National Party in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, asked the fugitive leader of the Swat Taliban, Maulana Fazlullah, and his comrades to face courts in Pakistan. He said the militants’ dream to establish a parallel administration was not going to come true. “It’s not the rule of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, which handed over the whole Malakand region and Swat to the Taliban,” he remarked.

The minister said that the Pakhtuns were being subjected to atrocities and terrorism through a well-hatched conspiracy, which was mainly due to the disunity among them. “Had Pakistan avoided interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbouring countries, there would not have been bloodshed on our soil,” he argued.

Bashir Bilour said the dream of renaming the province as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa came true after a long struggle and the longstanding problems being faced by the Pakhtuns were being resolved after getting provincial autonomy. “The day is not far off when the federation would only have foreign and defence departments while all the remaining ministries will be devolved to the provinces, which will go a long way in putting the provinces on the path to prosperity,” he hoped.

The 18th Amendment, he said, would herald an era of prosperity in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as the provincial government would shortly start work on Munda and Spaylanai power projects. He said these projects would not only cater to the energy needs of the province but also provide sufficient water for irrigation purposes.

Mass March by Cairo Women in Protest Over Abuse by Soldiers

Several thousand women demanding the end of military rule marched through downtown Cairo on Tuesday evening in an extraordinary expression of anger over images of soldiers beating, stripping and kicking female demonstrators in Tahrir Square.

“Drag me, strip me, my brothers’ blood will cover me!” they chanted. “Where is the field marshal?” they demanded of the top military officer, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. “The girls of Egypt are here.”

Historians called the event the biggest women’s demonstration in modern Egyptian history, the most significant since a 1919 march against British colonialism inaugurated women’s activism here, and a rarity in the Arab world. It also added a new and unexpected wave of protesters opposing the ruling military council’s efforts to retain power and its tactics for suppressing public discontent.

The protest’s scale stunned even feminists here. In Egypt’s stiffly patriarchal culture, previous attempts to organize women’s events in Tahrir Square during this year’s protests almost always fizzled or, in one case in March, ended in the physical harassment of a small group of women by a larger crowd of men.

“It was amazing the number of women that came out from all over the place,” said Zeinab Abul-Magd, a historian who has studied women’s activism here. “I expected fewer than 300.”

The march abruptly pushed women to the center of Egyptian political life after they had been left out almost completely. Although women stood at the forefront of the initial revolt that ousted President Hosni Mubarak 10 months ago, few had prominent roles in the various revolutionary coalitions formed in the uprising’s aftermath. Almost no women have won seats in the early rounds of parliamentary elections. And the continuing demonstrations against military rule have often degenerated into battles in which young men and the security police hurl rocks at each other.

On the fifth day of clashes that have killed at least 14 people, many women in the march said they hoped their demonstration would undercut the military council’s efforts to portray demonstrators as little more than hooligans, vandals and arsonists. “This will show those who stay home that we are not thugs,” said Fadwa Khaled, 25, a computer engineer.

The women’s demand for a voice in political life appeared to run counter to the recent election victories of conservative Islamists. But the march was hardly dominated by secular liberals. It contained a broad spectrum of Egyptian women, including homemakers demonstrating for the first time and young mothers carrying babies, with a majority in traditional Muslim head scarves and a few in face-covering veils. And their chants mixed calls for women’s empowerment with others demanding more “gallantry” from Egyptian men.

Their voice was evidently heard at military headquarters. Even before the march broke up, the ruling generals reversed themselevs to offer an apology to women for unspecified “violations.”

“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces expresses its utmost sorrow for the great women of Egypt, for the violations that took place during the recent events,” the council said in a statement. “It stresses its great appreciation for the women of Egypt.”

The statement asserted that the council had already taken “all the legal actions to hold whoever is responsible accountable.” But it gave no indication that anyone in the military has been publicly investigated or charged for any misconduct, and the statement also reprised the council’s recent attempt to pin blame for the clashes on the protestors themselves. The generals urged calm “until we can reveal the infiltrating and paid agents of thuggery that aim at destruction, sabotage and damaging the revolution and the great Egyptian youth.”

Egypt’s military rulers came under fire from international human rights groups soon after they took power in February for performing invasive, pseudo-medical “virginity tests” on several women detained after a protest in March. But in Egypt’s conservative culture, few of the women subjected to that humiliation have come forward to criticize the generals publicly.

The spark for the march on Tuesday came over the weekend, when hundreds of military police officers in riot gear repeatedly stormed Tahrir Square, indiscriminately beating anyone they could catch. Videos showed more than one instance in which officers grabbed and stripped female demonstrators, tearing off their Muslim head scarves. And in the most infamous case caught on video, a half-dozen soldiers beat a supine woman with batons and ripped off her abaya to reveal a blue bra. Then one of them kicked her in the chest.

Recalling that event at a news conference Tuesday, the woman’s friend Hassan Shahin said he had told the soldiers: “I’m a journalist, and this is a girl. Wait, I’ll take her away from here.” But, he said, “nobody listened, and one of them jumped on me, and they started beating me with batons.”

No doubt fearful of the stigma that would come with her public humiliation, the victim has declined to step forward publicly, so some activists now refer to her only as “blue bra girl.” The photos of her beating and disrobing, however, have quickly circulated on the Internet and have been broadcast by television stations around the world.

In Washington on Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the recent events in Egypt “shocking.”

“Women are being beaten and humiliated in the same streets where they risked their lives for the revolution only a few short months ago,” Mrs. Clinton said.

“Women are being attacked, stripped and beaten in the streets,” she added, arguing that what she called the systematic degradation of Egyptian women “disgraces the state and its uniform.”

As recently as Tuesday morning, however, many activists here said that because relatively few Egyptians have access to the Internet, read independent newspapers or watch independent satellite television news, the blue bra video was far more widely familiar in the United States than in Egypt.

“Four blocks from here, no one knows about this,” said Aalam Wassef, a blogger and an activist, at a meeting Tuesday morning in which activists announced a plan to set up screens in cities and towns around the country where people could see that video and others that contradict the generals’ version of events. (Other scenes include security forces hurling rocks and gasoline bombs, military police officers firing rifles and handguns and protesters bloodied by bullets.)

Some men who had seen the images questioned why the woman had been in the square, suggesting that her husband or father should have kept her at home. Other men have argued that she must have wanted the exposure because she wore fancy lingerie, or they have said she should have worn more clothes under her abaya.

But the woman’s ordeal began to receive new attention on Monday when Gen. Adel Emara, a member of the ruling military council, acknowledged what had happened during a news conference on state television. General Emara argued that the scene had been taken out of context and that the broader circumstances would explain what happened.

At the same news conference, a veteran female journalist who reports on the military stood up to ask the general for an apology to Egyptian women. “Or the next revolution will be a women’s revolution for real,” the journalist warned. The general tried to interrupt her — he said the military had learned of a new plan to attack the Parliament — and then he brushed off her request.

Many Egyptian women said later that they were outraged by his response.

When core activists called for a march Tuesday evening to protest the military’s treatment of women — organizers on Twitter used the hash tag “#BlueBra” — few could have expected the magnitude of the response.

The crowd seemed to grow at each step as the women marched, calling up to the apartment buildings lining the streets to urge others to join them. “Come down, come down,” they shouted in an echo of the protests that led to Mr. Mubarak’s ouster in February.

“If you don’t leave your house today to confront the militias of Tantawi, you will leave your house tomorrow so they can rape your daughter,” one sign declared.

“I am here because of our girls who were stripped in the street,” said Sohir Mahmoud, 50, a homemaker who said she was demonstrating for the first time.

“Men are not going to cover your flesh, so we will,” she told a younger woman. “We have to come down and call for our rights. Nobody is going to call for our rights for us.”

Along the sidewalks beside the march, some men came out to gawk and stare. Others chanted along with the women, “Freedom, freedom.”

“I came so that girls are not stripped in the streets again,” said Afaf Helal, 67, who was also demonstrating for the first time, “and because my daughters are always going to Tahrir. The army is supposed to protect the girls, not strip them!”

Afghanistan opening first major train service

Operators ran the first train down Afghanistan's first major railroad Wednesday, clearing the way for a long-awaited service from the northern border that should speed up the U.S. military's crucial supply flow and become a hub for future trade.

A cargoless train chugged into a newly built station in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday after a 47-mile (75-kilometer) trial run from the border with Uzbekistan, said Deputy Public Works Minister Noor Gul Mangal, who was on hand for the arrival.

The new rail line is the first stage of an ambitious plan to link landlocked Afghanistan to its neighbors' extensive railways for the first time, eventually opening up new trade routes for goods traveling between Europe and Asia.

Afghanistan has never had a functional rail network, though many projects have been begun and later abandoned, victims of maneuvers of the 19th century Great Game rivalry between Russia and Britain, and then political bickering in the early 20th century. Soviet occupiers abandoned a few rail projects in the 1980s, and later years of bitter civil war made such construction impossible.

So the line from the border town of Hairatan to Mazar-i-Sharif marks a milestone in a violence-wracked country eager for good news on the horizon. It also could be a key route for the U.S. troop withdrawal beginning next year and, eventually, a gateway for Afghan exports that would travel its neighbors, said Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Washington

"It's actually a big deal. It's very significant both practically and symbolically," Starr said.

In the short term, service will help release a bottleneck at Hairatan dry port that is now holding up goods — including fuel and other supplies for American troops — while they are loaded off of trains and onto trucks for a hazardous journey over Afghanistan's northern mountain roads.

"This port of Hairatan is where the bulk of commercial cargo is coming from into the country, so it is very important," said Juan Miranda, head of Central and West Asia Department of the Asian Development Bank, which funded the $165 million project.

Allowing trains to come straight in will help Hairatan handle up to 10 times as much cargo, from 4,000 tons per month now to 25,000-40,000 tons per month once the service is fully operating, the ADB says. Once in Mazar-i-Sharif, the goods can be transferred to most of the rest of Afghanistan on surface roads.

Uzbekistan's state-owned SE Sogdiana Trans will run the commercial train service, ADB's Afghanistan representative Noriko Sato said.

A U.S. military spokesman says the new railway will be key to supplying American troops — and possibly also withdrawing non-lethal cargo during the American troop pullout set to begin next year.

"We do not have numbers yet, (but) we anticipate that the rail line will be able to speed the transit of cargo into Afghanistan and out of it," said Cmdr. Bill Speaks of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The U.S. has recently shifted much of its supply line to the north from routes going through Pakistan, and the northern routes' importance was brought into sharp focus last month when Pakistan — angered by a disputed NATO strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers — closed its two border crossings for U.S. supplies.

Just three years ago, about 90 percent of nonmilitary supplies to Afghanistan went through Karachi, Pakistan. Today, close to 75 percent of cargo is shipped through the northern network.

Just as the Pakistani supply line has been attacked by insurgents, the newer northern routes through Mazar-i-Sharif and other cities are likely to also become targets. In 2009, Taliban forces in the northern province of Kunduz hijacked two fuel trucks, resulting in a fiery NATO airstrike that killed dozens.

While many fear instability or even civil war in Afghanistan after 2014 when most foreign forces leave, others are busy planning for a future in which the country could be a hub in a New Silk Road reconnecting spice and silk routes from centuries past.

The 10-country Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation project — supported by the ADB along with the U.N., World Bank and International Monetary Fund — envisions a network of some 2,250 miles (3,600 kilometers) of roads and 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) of railway linking China and India to the Middle East and Europe, although the project is far from complete.

For years, Afghanistan's poor roads and rails have been the project's missing link to much of that network.

With the northern Hairatan rail line ready to open for business, Afghan officials are already planning to expand its infant railroad with another proposed line to Turkmenistan to the northwest, Mangal said Wednesday.

He said a delegation would meet with Turkmenistan officials to discuss the expansion at the official inauguration for the Hairatan-Mazar-i-Sharif line, which he said would come soon though he wouldn't give a date.

"This is the first railway in Afghanistan and of course when we inaugurate it there will be a big ceremony, Mangal said.

Pakistan should follow independent policy, says Karzai

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday urged Pakistan not to forge its policy on Afghanistan based on its rivalries with either India or the United States.

`We want Pakistan to have an independent policy towards Afghanistan. It should not look at Afghanistan based on its relations with India and America. Pakistan should approach us as its neighbour, Mr Karzai told the local television.

Relations between Pakistan and the US, which is fighting a 10-year war against the Taliban, have fallen to a new low following the Nov 26 Nato air strikes which killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers.

Mr Karzai said he was trying not to involve his country in regional rivalries, so that when Nato-led foreign combat troops withdraw in 2014, Afghanistan can become a successful centre for international business.

`We are trying to turn Afghanistan into a country where in the years between 2014 and 2024 it won`t be a scene of negative rivalries and clashes,` he said.

`Instead it will be a place for cooperation, business and economy, and a main transition route between central, south and east Asia.

Indian involvement in Afghanistan is extremely sensitive because of the delicate and often deadly power games in South Asia, with Pakistan vehemently opposed to India meddling in what it considers its backyard.

Meanwhile, the Afghan deputy foreign minister appealed for international help to boost talks with the Taliban and other armed opposition groups.

At a UN Security Council debate, Jawed Ludin stressed the government`s determination to pursue reconciliation efforts despite Taliban attacks and assassinations.-Agencies

Polls to be held on time: President Zardari


President Asif Ali Zardari asked those who are dreaming of sending the government back to wait until the next elections, Geo News reported.

Next elections would be held on time, President Zardari said.

The President met with various leaders here on Tuesday at Bilawal House including Prime Minister Syed Youuf Raza Gilani, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, ANP Chief Asfandyar Wali, Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah.

According to sources, the Prime Minister and the President discussed prevailing political situation, Abbottabad Commission and memogate issues. ANP chief and Sindh CM also attended the President-PM meeting. They inquired about President’s health after his treatment in a Dubai hospital.

President Zardari said: " I am not among those who runaway. I had gone for treatment but the anti-democratic forces projected it as I had fled. People of Pakistan had elected the PPP government".

It is to be mentioned here that Tuesday's meeting was the first between PM Gilani and President Zardari after his return from Dubai.

Earlier, Interior Minister Rehman Malik also called on the President and briefed him on the current law and order situation of the country.