15 April 2012

US puts $10m bounty on head ofPakistan’s LeT founder

TheUShas offered a $10m (£6.2m) bounty for Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the founder of Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). A $2m bounty was also announced on Abdul Rehman Makki, Mr Saeed’s brother-in-law and co-founder of Lashkar.

Mr Saeed now heads the Jamaat-ud-Dawa group, widely seen as a front for LeT, which is blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks inIndia. The three-day rampage in November 2008 by 10 gunmen in Mumbai left 165 people dead. Nine of the attackers also died in the Mumbai attacks.

Both Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Lashkar-e-Taiba are blacklisted by theUS, which announced the reward for the capture of Saeed and Makki or information leading to their capture.

Mr Saeed figures prominently on a list of ‘most wanted’ given to Pakistanby India. He was held after the Mumbai attacks but released without charge. The US State Department’s Rewards for Justice website describes Mr Saeed as ‘a Pakistani citizen’ and ‘a former professor of Arabic and engineering, as well as the founding member of Jamaat-ud-Dawa… and its military branch, Lashkar-e-Taiba.’

Indiahas welcomed the announcement of the reward. ‘It reflects the commitment ofIndiaand theUnited Statesto bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai terrorist attack to justice and continuing efforts to combat terrorism,’ the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.

Interpol has issued an arrest notice against Mr Saeed for his role in the Mumbai attacks and theUShas designated LeT and Jamaat-ud-Dawa as ‘Foreign Terrorist Organisations’.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa denies it operates as a front for militancy. (266 words)

Burmapoll: Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD sweeps by-elections

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party has won a landslide victory inBurma’s by-elections, with the National League for Democracy (NLD) winning at least 40 of the 45 seats being contested. The by-elections were held to fill 45 parliamentary seats left vacant by the appointment of ministers after the polls that formally ended military rule in November 2010.

Ms Suu Kyi said she hoped the polls marked the start of a new era inBurma. She called the vote a ‘triumph of the people’ and said the goal now was reconciliation with other parties. Apart from winning her own seat, Ms Suu Kyi appears to have helped a number of her colleagues to victory.

Correspondents say that the ruling party could be badly shaken by its losses. But even if the NLD wins most of the seats, the army and its proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will still hold about 80 per cent of the 664 seats in parliament.

TheUnited Statessaid the vote was an important step inBurma’s ‘democratic transition’. And The European Union’s Trade Commissioner, Karel De Gucht, said this result could lead to the EU easing sanctions onBurma.

Ms Suu Kyi – who spent years under house arrest after her party won polls in 1990 but was not allowed to take power – has promised to use her voice to continue to push for further reform. (244  words)

Hundreds of Afghan women jailed for ‘moral crimes’

Hundreds of Afghan women are in jail for ‘moral crimes’, including running away and extra-marital sex, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said. In a report titled I Had to Run Away, it said that women were punished for fleeing domestic abuse and violence while some rape victims were also imprisoned. This is because sex outside marriage – even when the woman is forced – is considered adultery, another ‘moral crime’.

The report said that the government of President Hamid Karzai had failed to fulfil its obligations under international human rights laws. It states that, ‘The treatment of women and girls accused of ‘moral crimes’ is a black eye on the face of the post-Taliban Afghan government and its international backers, all of whom promised that respect for women’s rights would distinguish the new government from the Taliban’.

And HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth said, ‘It is shocking that 10 years after the overthrow of the Taliban, women and girls are still imprisoned for running away from domestic violence or forced marriage.’

The report has called on the government to release about 400 women and girls held in jails or juvenile detention centres. ‘After conviction, women routinely face long prison sentences, in some cases more than 10 years,’ it said.

It also said that the situation had been made worse by Mr Karzai frequently changing his position on women’s rights and being ‘unwilling or unable to take a consistent line against conservative forces within the country (so that) he has often made compromises that have negatively impacted women’s rights’.

The president recently endorsed a ‘code of conduct’ issued by an influential council of clerics which allows husbands to beat wives under certain circumstances.

Many activists fear that hard-won rights, such as progress on girls’ access to education and participation in public life, are increasingly being undermined as the government tries to woo conservative religious forces. (322 words)

China: curbs on micro-blog services fail to quell coup rumours

Services on two ofChina’s biggest micro-blogging sites have returned after being part suspended recently. The companies that run the sites had stopped users commenting on other people’s posts, following rumours of a coup inBeijing. It was just one of a series of moves designed to quell the speculation.

The services were suspended on Twitter-equivalent micro-blogging sites run by Sina Weibo and Tencent to allow a ‘concentrated clean-up’ of comments about a coup, which had flown around the internet despite a lack of evidence.

The rumours gained some credibility because of a crisis currently being played out at the top ofChina’s political system. The Communist Party holds a once-in-a-decade reshuffle later this year and there is a battle over who will be promoted. The former party chief ofChongqing, Bo Xilai, was sacked last month, despite previously being tipped for a top job. No proper explanation has been given for his removal.

As well as the suspension of the micro-blogging services, the authorities took their own measures to curb speculation of a coup. They arrested six people and closed down 16 websites.

An editorial in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, laid out what the country’s leaders think about some internet chatter: ‘Internet rumours package lies as truths and change speculation into fact,’ read the comment piece.

However, the companies’ attempts to kill speculation through their actions failed.

‘Rumours fly because the truth is covered up,’ one internet user wrote. ‘Chinais a hotbed for rumours because there is no free press and no transparent system. This lures people into believing gossip,’ was another posting. (281 words)

Yemenair raids ‘kill al-Qaeda militants’

About 40 al-Qaeda militants have been killed in a series of air raids inYemen’s mountainous south. Officials told the AFP news agency that government forces had taken the al-Qaeda base of al-Rahha after three days of strikes. The raids followed an attack on a nearby army base that left 30 dead.

Islamist militants have renewed attacks since President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi took office in February. He has made fighting al-Qaeda a top priority.

One unnamed official told AFP that 38 militants had been killed after days of shelling and bombing in theprovinceofLahij. Another official said 43 people had been killed.

The militants have taken advantage of a year of anti-government protests and have been locked in deadly battles with the army for months.

There has been no confirmation of the Yemeni claim that the militants are from al-Qaeda. However, a group linked to al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Sharia, has been increasing its influence in southernYemenover the past year of political instability.

TheUnited States, worried about the militant threat, has been encouraging the Yemeni authorities to tackle them, and has reportedly intensified its own drone strikes.

Yemen’s political upheavals finally forced long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh to leave the country earlier this year.

However, a BBC World Affairs correspondent has said that continuing tensions within the country’s political and military establishments are hampering the new government’s efforts to establish stability and maybe also in its campaign against the militants. (249 words)

Bashar al-Assad cannot survive for long, his uncle says

The uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad believes it is unlikely that he can hold onto power much longer. Rifaat al-Assad told reporters that the level of violence on the streets was too high for his nephew to survive.

However, Rifaat also insisted that the Assad family was still ‘pretty much accepted by the Syrian people’, fuelling speculation that Rifaat may see himself as his nephew’s successor. This is highly unlikely, given the years he has spent in exile.

Mr Assad has lived in exile since he unsuccessfully tried to seize power from his brother, Hafez, in the 1980s. In February 1982, he led a military assault onHamato suppress an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, leaving between 10,000 and 25,000 people dead. The Syrian National Council (SNC) has called for Rifaat al-Assad to be subjected to international sanctions, like current senior officials in the Syrian government, because of his past crimes.

Meanwhile, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jakob Kellenberger, is meeting top Syrian officials inDamascusto try to get them to allow aid workers better access to those who have been wounded or displaced by the conflict.

There has also been pressure on the Syrian authorities to implement a daily two-hour ceasefire, as stipulated in the peace plan proposed by the UN and Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan. Mr Annan had urged the UN Security council to set a deadline of 10 April for the plan to come into force, whichSyriaagreed to.

US permanent representative and Security Council chairwoman Susan Rice has pointed out that the ceasefire is only part of Mr Annan’s peace plan, which also calls for a political process to address the aspirations of the Syrian people, release of detainees, delivery of humanitarian aid, free movement for journalists, and right to protest. (315 words)

Situation remains tense in Gilgit-Baltistan despite curfew

A complete shutter-down strike was being observed in Skardu and its adjoining areas on April 4 following a day of violent incidents in Gilgit-Baltistan that claimed at least 14 lives.

The unrest has promptedPakistan’s government to deploy troops and impose a curfew. Educational institutions were closed and attendance at government offices remained thin, while traffic was also less than normal as the situation remained volatile.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik has issued orders to suspend communication services until peace has been restored in the region.

‘Control of law and order in Gilgit-Baltistan is our priority and the government will utilize all resources to ensure peace in the northern areas,’ he said.

Malik has been in talks with the Minister forKashmirand Gilgit-Baltistan Affairs, Manzoor Ahmad Wattoo, who met with him to discuss the security situation in Gilgit-Baltistan. The province’s Chief Minister, Syed Mehdi Shah, was also present at the meeting. Both ministers urged the use of dialogue to ensure peace.

Malik said the federal government was taking all-out measures in collaboration with the Gilgit-Baltistan authorities to restore order.

Riots broke out after unidentified men lobbed a hand grenade at a protest rally of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, a reincarnation of the banned Sipah-i-SahabaPakistan, which was observing a strike to press the government for the release of its leader.

Thailand fears further attacks after bombs in south

A Thai minister has ruled out talks with suspected insurgents in the South and warned of further attacks after recent explosions killed 13 people, while the army chief said martial law could be imposed in the region’s biggest city.

Police said they have arrested two alleged members of separatist groups active in the southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, which were part of an independent Malay Muslim sultanate until they were annexed by predominantly Buddhist Thailand in 1909.

At least 5,000 people have died in the region since violence flared up again in 2004 after a hiatus.

‘The intelligence we have gathered shows unrest is likely to increase during April and May,’ said Yuthasak Sasiprapa, a deputy prime minister and retired general.

He said he had met army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha and ‘we concluded we will not negotiate with the attackers’. However,Sukampol Suwannathat,Thailand’s defence minister and a former air force officer, declined to rule out talks.

The present government and its predecessor are thought to have held talks with separatist figures but there has been no official confirmation.

On March 31, two bombs hidden in pick-up trucks exploded in a busy shopping street in Yala, killing ten people. A third blast 87 miles away in Hat Yai, a regional trade and tourism hub, killed three more. In all, the attacks wounded more than 300 people.

‘Innocent people were killed. The attackers did not discriminate between Buddhists and Muslims,’ Prayuth told reporters, adding: ‘If further attacks take place then martial law will be declared in Hat Yai.’

The three southern provinces are already covered by a tough emergency decree that gives the military wide-ranging powers of search and arrest.

The scale of the bombings and the fact that large numbers of civilians were targeted in a tourist area has worried some analysts, although the insurgents’ aim is unclear.

Al-Qaeda using Mali crisis to expand, warns France

Francehas warned that the seizure of northernMaliby a Tuareg-led rebellion was playing into the hands of local al-Qaeda units, urging neighbours includingAlgeriato do more to tackle the threat.

For a long time one of the most stable democracies inWest Africa,Malihas plunged into turmoil since a widely condemned March 22 coup that emboldened Tuareg rebels in their quest for a northern homeland.

They have been joined by Islamists bent on imposing Islamic sharia law across the whole of the moderate Muslim state, the latest security worry for a region battling organised crime and home-grown militant groups such asNigeria’s Boko Haram.

‘We fear that in this confused situation, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) will take advantage of the situation to expand its perimeter of activity and strengthen the terrorist threat, said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.

AQIM is a mostly autonomous wing that sprung from the Algerian Salafist movement in 2007. The group, believed to number a few hundred members, has taken advantage of weak governance and poverty to mount sporadic attacks on local armies and kidnap Westerners, earning millions of dollars in ransoms.

The rebellion is likely to complicate efforts to secure the release of six French hostages held by the group.

France, the former colonial ruler, isMali’s fourth-largest donor of aid and it also trains and equips government forces. Since the rebellion, it has suspended its cooperation, but has maintained aid to the population and advised its 5,000 citizens living in the West African state to leave.

Al Shabaab blast hits Somali theatre

An explosion has killed at least six people atSomalia’s newly reopened national theatre inMogadishuduring an April 4 event attended by government officials, the African Union force inSomaliasaid.

‘So far six died and ten were injured, mostly civilians. The Prime Minister was speaking inside the theatre when the blast took place, but he is unhurt,’ said Prosper Hakizimana, deputy spokesman for the AU’s AMISOM force.

Somalia’s National Theatre reopened on March 19 for the first time in 20 years, an event the government said signalled a marked improvement in security in the war-ravaged Horn of Africa country.

But rebels from al Shabaab – a Somalia-based terrorist cell of al-Qaeda – who pulled out of the capital last August have continued to strike targets in the heart of the coastal city using roadside bombs, mortars and suicide bombers.

Al Shabaab said on March 14, after one its suicide bombers struck at the presidential palace, that more explosions and bombers would follow.

Iran proposes Baghdad as nuclear talks venue

Iranhas proposed holding the next round of talks with six world powers over its disputed nuclear programme inIraqinstead ofTurkey, saysIraq’s foreign minister.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the April 13-14 negotiations withIranwould be held inIstanbul, the first such meeting since January 2011 when the two sides failed even to agree on an agenda.

But Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters the proposal for talks inBaghdadcame from a recent Iranian delegation and he would meet with ambassadors from the five Western powers plusGermanyto discussTehran’s plan.

‘The proposal came from them. We received a delegation fromIran… Today we are inviting G5 plus one ambassadors to hand over a letter about the proposal,’ Zebari said.

Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government is closely aligned withIranin a region whereSunniArabGulfpowers are jockeying for influence with Shi’ite powerTehran.

A senior Iranian figure recently spoke out against Turkey hosting the talks as once warm Iranian-Turkish relations have cooled in the past year over the Turkish position against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s close Arab ally.

Indian government and army deny ‘coup fears’ report

India’s government and the army have denied an ‘alarmist’ front-page newspaper report detailing how troop movements towards the capital in January had worried the cabinet.

The Indian Express claimed the unnotified nocturnal deployments had sparked concern about a possible coup at a time when relations between the head of the 1.13-million-strong army and the government are strained.

It said the government had taken measures as a precaution on the night of January 16-17, including asking lookouts to identify the troops involved and ordering police to take measures to slow traffic on the highways into the capital.

‘These are alarmist reports and should not be taken at face value,’ Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said outside parliament, adding that no one should work to lower the ‘dignity and respect’ of the army chief’s position.

Defence Minister A K Antony, speaking at the launch of a nuclear-powered submarine in south India, told reporters the suggestion the government had been worried was ‘absolutely baseless’.

‘They (the army) will not do anything against Indian democracy. They are true patriots,’ he declared, adding that the deployments – by a column of mechanised infantry travelling in armoured personnel carriers and a separate column of paratroopers – were ‘usual, natural activities’.

Indian Army spokesman Colonel Jagdeep Dahiya also called the story in the respected broadsheet ‘baseless’ and ‘incorrect’.


Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers to meet

The Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers will meet later in April, according to officials, though the rare talks may only sharpen differences that have brought peace negotiations to a standstill.

The Palestinians said they will present Benjamin Netanyahu with a letter spelling out Israel’s failure to implement a 2003 ‘road map’ that includes a halt to settlement activity as a step towards achieving a final peace agreement.

‘The real test in front of Netanyahu is to stop the settlements, after which he will find that we are ready for negotiations,’ said Mohammed Shtayyeh, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team.

An Israeli government official said Netanyahu would reiterate, at the meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, his call for peace talks to get underway without any terms for their resumption.

US-hosted peace negotiations froze in late 2010 after Netanyahu rejected Palestinian demands that he extend the ten-month partial construction freeze he had imposed at Washington’s behest to coax them into talks.

The official said Netanyahu would also repeat his demand that Palestinians recogniseIsraelas a Jewish state in any peace agreement – something they oppose.

Fayyad will become the highest-level Palestinian official to have met Netanyahu since the negotiations broke off. But the upcoming talks will not be attended by the highest-ranking Palestinian leader in theWest Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas.