15 August 2012

Pakistan accuses Afghanistan of backing Taliban

Pakistan’s interior minister has said elements of the Afghan government are likely supporting a senior Pakistani Taliban leader who is fighting to topple theIslamabadgovernment, accusations which could further raise tensions over cross-border raids by militants.

Officials say the Taliban commander known as Fazlullah has been orchestrating raids on Pakistani security forces fromAfghanistan, where he fled several years ago after a Pakistani army offensive against his stronghold in theSwatValley.

Pakistanhas repeatedly called onAfghanistanto hunt down Fazlullah, whose fighters cross the border in their hundreds, set up ambushes and attack army checkpoints.

‘I think some of the elements [of the Afghan government] there are supporters. Maybe state actors, maybe non-state actors,’ Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said in a weekend interview.

Afghan officials seePakistan’s suggestion that Afghans are supporting cross-border attacks as an attempt to distract attention from what they say isPakistan’s long history of supportingAfghanistan’s Taliban movement and other insurgent factions.

US and Afghan officials say there is no comparison between the relatively small and recent presence of Fazlullah’s men in easternAfghanistanand what they describe as long-standing ties between elements of Pakistani intelligence and the Afghan Taliban.

Pakistan’s intelligence agencies backed the emergence ofAfghanistan’s Taliban movement in the mid-1990s and Western officials believe that parts of the security establishment continue to tolerate or actively abet Afghan insurgents.

Gilgit blast kills one, injures five

One person has died and six have been injured after a van carrying around 20 passengers was targeted by a bomb near the Minawar locality of Gilgit city.

The dead man, who has been identified, passed away at theDistrictHeadquartersHospitalwhere all the injured – including three women and a four-year-old child – were taken after the front portion of the van was destroyed.

According to reports, the incident happened on theKarakoram HighwaynearMinawarVillage, while the vehicle was travelling from Gilgit city toHaramoshValley. The explosion occurred as the van was crossing a culvert, and it is believed the bomb had been planted inside the culvert.

Officials have said that the bombs planted at the roadside were most probably detonated through a remote control or time device. This is the first time in the history of Gilgit-Baltistan that terrorists have used remote controlled or time devices to carry out attacks.

The Pakistani government has ordered an investigation into the incident, which has been condemned by representatives of all political parties and religious groups, who have also demanded that the government take indiscriminate action against the terrorists and their supporters.

Sri Lanka denies release of Chinese fishermen

Sri Lanka’s navy has said it is still holding 37 Chinese fishermen to appear in court on charges of fishing within its waters, contradicting a report byChina’s Xinhua state news agency that they had been released.

Sri Lankaarrested the fishermen on the night of August 5 for fishing in Sri Lankan waters. They were aboard two trawlers off the country’s east coast town ofBatticaloa, Xinhua said.

‘They are in our custody and they have not been released yet,’ Sri Lankan Navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya told Reuters.

‘They are being held in Trincomalee,’ he said, referring to the island nation’s eastern port city.  He said they would appear in court the following day and were still on the boat. The Chinese state news agency earlier had saidSri Lankahad released all 37 of the detained fishermen.

Chinais the island nation’s largest lender in the last two years and the arrests could be a test for the increasingly close ties betweenBeijingandColombo.

The Chinese embassy had ‘urged Sri Lankan authorities to handle the issue in accordance with the law, sort out the truth and release the Chinese fishermen as soon as possible,’ Xinhua said.

Sri Lanka’s location astride an ancient trade route in the Indian Ocean makes it of strategic commercial and military interest to theUnited States,IndiaandChina.

Assad’s ‘loosening grip on power’

The White House has said that the defection ofSyria’s prime minister shows that President Bashar al-Assad’s government is ‘crumbling from within’ and it repeated its call for him to step aside and end the violence gripping the country.

‘This is a sign that Assad’s grip on power is loosening. If he cannot maintain cohesion within his own inner circle, it reflects on his inability to maintain any following among the Syrian people that isn’t brought about at the point of a gun,’ White House spokesman Jay Carney told a news briefing.

‘The momentum is with the opposition and with the Syrian people. It’s clear that these defections are reaching the highest levels of the Syrian government and Assad cannot restore his control over the country because the Syrian people will not allow it,’ he said.

TheUnited Stateshas been seeking to increase pressure on Assad to leave power for more than a year.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced recently that he would resign his post as UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoy forSyriaafter Assad failed to respect the terms of a UN-backed peace deal and afterChinaandRussiarefused to support increased sanctions onSyria.

At the White House, Carney said the Obama administration would continue working with other countries and withSyria’s opposition to keep pressure on Assad and encourage a peaceful political transition there.

Beijing attacks US ‘trouble-making’ over South China Sea

Chinese state media have hit out at US ‘trouble-making’ on the South China Sea, two days afterBeijingsummoned aUSdiplomat on the issue.

The response came after the US State Department said it was ‘closely’ monitoring increased tensions in theSouth China Sea. It also expressed concern overChina’s move to militarise a disputed island.

‘China’s upgrading of the administrative level of Sansha City and establishment of a new military garrison there covering disputed areas of the South China Sea run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences,’ acting deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement.

The city was established in June asChina’s administrative base for the whole South China Sea area, including the disputed territories of theSpratlyIslandsand the Scarborough Shoal.

Beijingsummoned theUSembassy’s deputy chef de mission Robert Wang to express ‘strong dissatisfaction’ over theUScomments. And two days later, a commentary in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily – the Communist Party mouthpiece – went further.

‘The statement by the US side confuses right and wrong, strongly misleads public opinion, sends the wrong signal and should be sternly refuted,’ it said.

Chinalays claim to a U-shaped swathe of the South China Sea, overlapping areas claimed by thePhilippines,Vietnam,Taiwan,BruneiandMalaysia. There are thought to be significant oil and gas reserves below parts of the sea that are subject to ownership disputes.

In recent years, tensions over the issue have increased amid growing assertiveness fromChinaover its maritime claims. Last month, the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries failed for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history to issue a joint statement because of rows over the maritime disputes.

Saudi Arabian woman makes Olympic history

Wojdan Shahrkhani became the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete at the Olympic Games when she took part in the +78kg judo competition inLondon.

The 16-year-old had been in the spotlight before her event began as judo officials said she could not wear a headscarf for safety reasons. Shahrkhani instead wore a tight-fitting black cap for her bout, which ended quickly in defeat by Puerto Rican Melissa Mojica.

‘Hopefully this is the beginning of a new era,’ Shahrkhani said afterwards. ‘I will be a star for women’s participation. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.’ Her father, Ali, a judo referee, said he was extremely proud to watch his daughter compete.

Despite only being qualified as a blue belt in judo, she wore the higher black belt to compete.

Shahrkhani did not qualify for her Olympic spot but was invited by the International Olympic Committee to compete as the organisation wanted to bring Saudi women to the Olympics for the first time.

The two women engaged in a slow-moving fight, with the bout ending when the Puerto Rican grabbed Shahrkhani with a secure grip on her collar and flipped her into a match-ending ippon. Mojica said afterwards that everyone had a right to their own religion and should be given an opportunity in judo.

Shahrkani is one of two Saudi Arabian females competing at London 2012. The other is American-born 800m runner Sarah Attar. The pair have been heavily criticised and maligned for competing in the games by fellow Saudis, but have also garnered huge support through Twitter.  

Jihadist attack in Sinai Peninsula

Eight Islamist militants have attacked an Egyptian military unit stationed at a border checkpoint withIsrael, killing 16 soldiers.

The militants then commandeered two Egyptian military vehicles and broke through the checkpoint intoIsraelnear the town ofKerem Shalom. Israeli forces pursued the vehicles and neutralized them within about 15 minutes, preventing any significant damage inIsrael.

Violence in the Sinai has increased dramatically since former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011.

Attacks on natural gas pipelines have reducedIsrael’s access to energy from the Sinai and militants have conducted a number of attacks againstIsraelfrom the region.

The August 5 attack resembles a previous attack on August 18, 2011, when militants fromGazainfiltratedIsraelvia the Sinai and killed eight Israelis near the town ofEilat. The recent attack was not as successful at targeting Israelis as the 2011 attack, partly becauseIsraelhas significantly increased its security presence and infrastructure along the border withEgyptand was well-equipped to deal with the attack.

However, thatIsraelincurred few casualties does not mean the attack was a complete failure for the militants; as attacks along the border increase,Israelhas more reason to distrustEgypt’s ability to secure the Sinai.IsraelallowedEgyptto increase its military presence in the Sinai in 2011 beyond the terms outlined in the 1979 peace treaty, but if conflict in the Sinai brings adversaries uncomfortably close, the neutrality of the space quickly erodes.

Militants in the region opposed toIsraelare eager to destabilize the neutrality and are using violence to do so. The deterioration inEgypt’s ability to maintain security will result in increased tensions and more opportunities for the militants to conduct attacks.

Landmark decision: Indian passport for man from Pakistani-held Kashmir

A man from Pakistani-administered Kashmir who enteredIndiaillegally is to apply for an Indian passport after officials said he could stay.

Siraj Khan had requested deportation so he could see family inKashmiragain. However, officials said he should be considered an Indian citizen asIndiaclaims all ofKashmir. The case is thought to be the first of its kind. Kashmir has been divided betweenIndiaandPakistansince independence and both claim it in its entirety.

Mr Khan came to India when he was nine years old, finally making his way to Mumbai, where he is married to an Indian Muslim woman and has three children. He had no passport or any official documentation, which prevented him from leaving the country.

Judges at the court hearing said the case had ‘ramifications on national security’ and summoned the state’s attorney general to explain how Mr Khan had been allowed to stay in the country illegally. However, as soon as the hearing began the state government said it regarded him as an Indian citizen and that therefore all cases against him for being inIndiaillegally should be dropped.

Mr Khan’s lawyer Ejaz Naqvi described the state government’s decision as ‘a landmark outcome’ and the case may be viewed with interest by other Pakistanis who have been detained for enteringIndiaillegally

Siraj Khan said that he was happy and relieved with the outcome of his three-year fight. There has been no reaction from officials inPakistan, which denies that Pakistani-controlled Kashmir should be regarded asIndian territory.

Russian prosecutors demand three years’ jail for Riot girls

Russian prosecutors have asked for three years’ prison for three women musicians accused of inciting religious hatred during a protest in a cathedral, saying they had ‘set themselves up against the Orthodox Christian world’.

The three members of the punk band Pussy Riot played a song attacking Russian leader Vladimir Putin in front of an altar on 21 February. Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, could have faced a maximum sentence of seven years.

They sought to justify their performance of the ‘punk prayer’ by saying it was a reaction to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, publicly backing Mr Putin in elections. Wearing their trademark coloured balaclavas, the women danced and sang a song which parodies a Christian prayer, imploring the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Mr Putin. The song, which has an obscene chorus, also appears to mock Patriarch Kirill himself.

Mr Putin, who was re-elected president in March, called for leniency towards the women during a visit toLondonfor the Olympic Games.

But state prosecutor Alexei Nikiforov said in his closing arguments that ‘using swear words in a church is an abuse of God’ and, given the ‘severity’ of the crime, the ‘requisite punishment must be a real deprivation of freedom’.

The prosecution of the women has caused concern both withinRussiaand abroad, with many, including music celebrities, seeing this as a freedom of speech issue.Russiastands divided between those who feel the group’s action grossly offended the Orthodox faith and those who think the women have been treated far too harshly.

‘Nineteen killed’ in Nigeria church attack

At least 19 people have been killed in a gun attack on a church in centralNigeria, according to officials. Gunmen stormed the church near the city ofOkenein Kogi state and fired on worshippers. The pastor was among those killed when the assailants fired Kalashnikov assault rifles, the officials add.

It is not clear who carried out the attack but militant Islamist group Boko Haram has carried out numerous raids on churches and other targets inNigeria. The shooting happened further south than most areas affected by Boko Haram violence, whose attacks have been staged in the largely Muslim north ofNigeria.

The joint military force commander in Kogi state, Lt Col Gabriel Olorunyomi, said the gunmen opened fire on theDeeperLifeBibleChurchin the town ofOtite, near Okene, according to press reports. Many others were wounded in the attack and the authorities are searching for more victims who may have run into the bush nearby, he added.

In April,Nigeria’s security forces raided a suspected bomb-making factory in the Okene area, killing at least nine alleged Boko Haram militants. And in February, Boko Haram said it had attacked a jail in Kogi, using bombs and heavy gunfire to free 119 inmates.

The groups wants to establish Islamic law in the country, whose large Christian and animist population mainly lives in the south.

Assassinations in Libya target former Gaddafi officials

Unknown assailants in Benghazi have recently launched sophisticated attacks targeting ex-members of former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s Internal Security Organization, including several who defected from the Gaddafi regime and fought for the rebels in Libya’s 2011 revolution.

The Internal Security Organization was a key instrument of repression during Gaddafi’s rule, and the recent violence directed at its former members could be motivated by a simple desire for revenge or a larger strategic purpose. However, the fact that the attacks have all taken place in Benghazi, the birthplace of the Libyan uprising, is a worrying sign for the transitional government in Tripoli, which has struggled to manage Libya’s historical divide between its eastern and western regions.

The Libyan government is presently focused on acquiring nationwide political legitimacy, a prerequisite for establishing a competent security apparatus capable of dealing with threats emanating from Benghazi and elsewhere. Building such a force, however, will take time, and a continued assassination campaign – along with a lack of a central authority, the proliferation of weapons, and history of jihadist activity in Libya – would complicate the interim government’s stabilization efforts.

Belarus pulls embassy staff from Sweden over pro-democracy stunt

Belarushas said it is withdrawing its remaining embassy staff fromSwedenover a pro-democracy stunt involving an air drop of teddy bears on its territory, and has givenSwedenuntil the end of the month to pull its diplomats out ofMinsk.

Although a foreign ministry statement saidBelaruswas not severing relations with the Nordic country, the move marked an escalation in the dispute and looked certain to worsen the already strained ties with the European Union.

BelarusexpelledSweden’s ambassador on August 3 following the July 4 escapade in which about 800 toy bears bearing pro-democracy messages were parachuted into the hardline former Soviet republic from a light aircraft chartered by a Swedish public relations firm.

The incident was a humiliation for President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and is on poor terms with the West because of his harsh policies towards the political opposition.

The Belarussian ambassador toStockholmwas also withdrawn.

Democracy Forum seminar

The Democracy Forum will host its third seminar of the year at the House of Commons on Wednesday 5 September, on the theme ‘UN sanctions and their impact on terrorism’.

The debate will explore the history of sanctions and their effectiveness in countering extremism; who really suffers from the application of sanctions; the effect of UN proscription regimes; and the ability to engage individuals and groups classified as ‘terrorist’ in dialogue to end conflict and the use of violence.

Speakers will include Dr Ishtiaq Ahmad, Quaid-i-Azam Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford; research analyst Valentina Soria from the Royal United Services Institute; David Newton, Director of Policy, Practice and Communications at Conciliation Resources; Stephen Hammond, MP; and Dr Rashmi Singh from the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, St Andrew’s University.