15 February 2012

Pak soldiers killed in Balochistan clashes

Baloch militants have attacked Pakistani security forces overnight, killing at least 11 soldiers and wounding another 12 in clashes that raged for five hours, officials have reported.

Gunmen attacked two posts in the Margut area, about 60 kilometres east ofQuetta, capital of the insurgency-torn southwesternprovinceofBalochistan. The soldiers were responsible for guarding coal mines, they said.

‘About two dozen gunmen armed with light and heavy weapons attacked the Frontier Corps [paramilitary] posts and killed 11 soldiers,’ a senior military official said. He added that another 12 soldiers were wounded in the assault.

Other security officials confirmed the casualties.

The assailants belonged to a Baloch militant group led by Hyrbyair Marri who is living in self-imposed exile inLondon, the official said. Mr Marri has not so far responded to the allegation.

Baloch militants have been fighting since 2004 for political autonomy and a greater share of profits from Balochistan’s wealth of natural oil, gas and mineral resources. There is said to be a growing sense of frustration among unemployed youths in the province who are increasingly joining the separatist insurgency or pro-Taliban militant groups.

Gilani faces contempt hearing

Ending the brief peaceful interlude in Islamabad, the Supreme Court has summoned prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to appear before it on Feb 13, thus moving a step closer to finding him guilty of contempt of the court.

‘We are satisfied that prima facie there is enough case to proceed further,’ announced Justice Nasirul Mulk, who heads a seven-judge bench, before putting off further proceedings till Feb 13 for framing the charges.

The prime minister will appear in person before the court for a second time for not pursuing $60 million graft cases inSwitzerlandthat also involve President Asif Ali Zardari. He made his first appearance on Jan 19.

The abrupt manner in which the order was announced came as a surprise to the prime minister’s counsel, barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, as he was not expecting that the bench would suddenly terminate the hearing.

Earlier, Justice Nasirul Mulk told the counsel that the court would hear him till the end of the day, but suddenly stopped the proceedings to announce that the bench would take a break to discuss the matter.

Mr Ahsan could only say he still had many things to argue and had not concluded yet.

Apparently what prompted the court not to proceed further was the failure to get an assurance from the counsel that a letter would be written to the Swiss authorities by the government even if the court accepted Mr Gilani’s argument that his earlier decision of not writing the letter was because of wrong advice given to him.

On the other hand, Mr Ahsan argued the government would write the letter only if the court said so and that too after exhausting all legal remedies.

When the bench reassembled it simply said that it had decided to frame contempt charges against the prime minister.

Protesters shot dead inEgyptclashes

At least two protesters have been shot dead by Egyptian police using live ammunition in the city ofSuez. Witnesses said protesters were trying to break into a police station when shots were fired.

Thousands took to the streets following the deaths of at least 74 people at a football match inPort Saidon February 1, and the episode has quickly turned into a political crisis as protesters hold the military-led authorities responsible for the bloodshed.

InCairo, several thousand protesters remained on the streets around the ministry on the night of February 2, shouting: ‘This was not a sports accident, this was a military massacre!’

Now people demanding retribution for the deaths are facing a fierce crackdown by the authorities. Tear gas has been fired at those gathered on the streets and motorbikes screeched through the crowds carrying those who had collapsed to waiting ambulances.

One woman told Sky News she had joined the protest to make sure ‘they don’t just kill us all’.

‘If we’re not here they will kill people,’ she said, pointing towards the interior ministry.

Many of the young men joining the battle waved the flags of the Al Ahly team in a show of solidarity for the dead.

‘We want revenge,’ one said. ‘Either it will come with the military stepping down or we will take it ourselves,’ he said.

Cairo-based Middle East analyst Omar Ashour told Sky News: ‘I think there will be very serious political consequences whether on an institutional level in the parliament or on the streets ofCairo.’

Tamil Nadu minister vows to take back Kachchativu from Sri Lanka

The Chief Minister ofIndia’s Tamil Nadu state, J Jayalalithaa, has once again vowed to take backSri Lanka’s Kachchativu islet in order to stop alleged attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy.

The Chief Minister has said that she is working towards protecting the livelihood of fishermen and will not stop till Kachchativu is retrieved.

India, under an Indian Supreme Court directive, ceded Kachchativu – an uninhabited island in the Palk straits – toSri Lankain 1974.

‘The attacks on Tamil fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy can be stopped only by retrieving Kachchativu,’ Indian media quoted the Chief Minister as saying in the state assembly.

Jayalalithaa has said that her case for reclaiming the island was in the Supreme Court and the Tamil Nadu government had also passed a resolution to this effect.

In response to the demand by Tamil Nadu politicians,India’s External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, clarifying the central government’s position, last year reiterated that the island belonged toSri Lankasince it was located within its territorial waters.

Under the signing of the 1976 Agreement and the Exchange of Letters betweenIndiaandSri Lanka, fishing vessels and fishermen from one country fishing in the other’s waters is clearly prohibited.

However, Indian fishermen, mainly from Tamil Nadu, continue to poach in the waters of the Sri Lankan side of International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).

The Sri Lankan Navy, which arrests any Indian fishermen crossing the IMBL, denies any attacks on the men.

Queen’s re-affirms dedication on Accession Day

On 6 February 2012 the Queen marked the 60th anniversary of her accession to the British throne and in doing so rededicated herself to the public. In an Accession Day message, the 85-year-old monarch expressed thanks for statements of support for her Diamond Jubilee year and said: ‘In this special year, as I dedicate myself anew to your service, I hope that we will all be reminded of the power of togetherness and the convening strength of family, friendship and good neighbourliness.’

Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth II while on tour in Kenyaon 6 February 1952, after her father, King George VI, died suddenly of a heart attack. Since the date marks the anniversary of her father’s death the Queen usually spends Accession Day privately. However, for this, her Diamond Jubilee year, she marked the date with two engagements in Norfolk, albeit relatively low-key: ‘A significant moment will pass in a deliberately low-key manner with a visit to a town hall and a primary school in Norfolk,’ said the BBC’s Peter Hunt.

The Royal Mail has issued a special sheet of first class stamps to mark the anniversary of the accession. Royal Mail Chief Executive Moya Green said: ‘The Queen’s image is one of the most recognisable in the world and we are delighted to bring these iconic images together to mark the 60th anniversary of [her] accession.’

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year is due to be marked by a series of events, including a riverboat pageant on the Thames and a concert atBuckinghamPalaceduring a four-day bank holiday weekend in June. The only other Diamond Jubilee celebrated by a British monarch was in 1897 in the reign of Queen Victoria, who also held the title of Empress of India.

Suu Kyi jumps another hurdle in race for democracy

The Burmese Election Commission has formally approved Aung San Suu Kyi to run for a seat in Parliament in the April 1 by-election, a further sign of its acceptance of a more open political atmosphere and another step to national reconciliation.

Her official candidacy is another step in fulfilling the demands of Western governments who want to seeBurmamove to a democratic system at a faster pace and could prompt the West to lift the economic sanctions that were imposed on the country during the military junta’s rule.  A spokesperson for her party, the National League for Democracy, said, ‘There is no objection to her nomination, and we can say that her candidacy is officially accepted.’

Suu Kyi, who is seeking a seat representing Kawhmu, a poor district south ofRangoon, recently conducted a campaign trip to Dawei, an industrial zone in southernBurma, where she spoke to NLD members and was greeted by thousands of supporters along her route.

Some observers, who remain sceptical ofBurma’s rapid changes over the past year, note that opposition groups within Parliament will hold only minimal power, with Parliament seats still dominated by former and current military officers.

However, Suu Kyi is expected to become even more influential asBurmaattempts to tackle its chief political problem, which is how to achieve a lasting peace with diverse ethnic groups who have fought the Burman-dominated government for 50 years.

The government engaged individual groups in cease-fire and political agreements, and it’s widely anticipated that Suu Kyi could play a decisive role in the next step, which would involve national-level negotiations that bring the two sides together.

Deadly shelling resumes inHoms

The Syrian army has resumed shelling inHoms, killing at least 23 people so far on February 9, activists say.

With several districts controlled by rebel forces,Syria’s third-largest city is a major focus of unrest against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. Scores have been killed since the army started an assault there in early February.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon says said the failure to agree a UN resolution onSyriahad encouragedDamascus‘to step up its war on its own people’.

The international community is struggling to find a way to resolve the crisis afterRussiaandChinarecently blocked a text drafted by Arab and European countries.

The worst shelling inHomshas been concentrated on the Baba Amr district, where activists say 50 people were killed on February 8 alone.

The BBC’s Jim Muir in neighbouringLebanonsays there are armed rebels in the area, but also many civilians.

Ali Hazuri, a doctor in Baba Amr, told AFP news agency that the intense bombardment had resumed early on February 9 after an overnight lull. ‘The shells are raining down on us and regime forces are using heavy artillery,’ he said.

Homsresident Omar Shaker said: ‘The situation is dire. We are short of food, water and medical aid. Doctors have collapsed after treating the wounded without rest for five days.’

Syriarestricts access to foreign media and casualty figures cannot be independently verified.

The army says it is fighting foreign-backed armed groups. Army defectors have joined rebel forces inHomsand other parts ofSyriain recent months.

MeanwhileGermanyannounced it was expelling four diplomats from the Syrian embassy inBerlin. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that the move followed the recent arrest of two people suspected of spying on Syrian opposition figures inGermany.

Greecebailout: Coalition fails to agree cuts

Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos has failed to secure the support of his coalition for a raft of new austerity measures, after more than seven hours of talks.

He met officials from three parties to try to secure a deal leading to a fresh bailout package. The main stumbling block was proposed pension cuts, reports said.

Immediately after the talks ended, Mr Papademos held a meeting with officials from the ‘troika’ of bailout creditors, which broke up after several hours.

A statement issued by the prime minister’s office said the aim of the meeting with the troika  representatives from the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – was to ‘conclude the agreement’ before an upcoming meeting of eurozone finance ministers.

Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos is travelling toBrusselsto explain the sticking points of the deal to the Eurogroup.

‘I leave forBrusselswith hope that the Eurogroup will take a positive decision concerning the new aid plan,’ Mr Venizelos said prior to his departure fromAthens.

‘There was broad agreement on all the programme issues with the exception of one, which requires further elaboration and discussion with the troika,’ the prime minister’s office said.

The main problem appears to be pension cuts worth 600m euros reportedly proposed in a draft text agreed by the troika and the prime minister. The document is also said to include a 20 per cent minimum wage reduction and the sacking of 15,000 public sector workers.

Key al-Qaeda militant ‘killed inUSdrone attack’

One of the most senior al-Qaeda militants inPakistan, Badar Mansoor, has been killed in aUSdrone strike, local officials say.

The attack took place in Miranshah in North Waziristan tribal area, close to the border withAfghanistan.

Badar Mansoor is suspected of killing dozens of people in attacks inPakistanand further afield. If confirmed, his death would be seen by theUSas a vindication of its drone programme, correspondents say.

Al-Qaeda has so far not publicly commented on the claim, but AFP news agency has quoted one Mansoor loyalist confirming the death.

Pakistani officials say he was among at least four militants killed in the pre-dawn strike.

Badar Mansoor had moved between the militant groups of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the Pakistani Taleban and al-Qaeda where he became a key figure, the BBC’s Aleem Maqbool inIslamabadsays.

He is thought to have trained new fighters and planned numerous suicide attacks, including one againstPakistan’s Ahmadi Muslim minority inLahorein which about 90 people died, our correspondent adds.

The drone attack was the second inNorth Waziristanin as many days. On February 8, ten suspected militants were killed, Pakistani security officials said.

Drone attacks cause huge anger inPakistan, which has previously complained that they violate its sovereignty. However, correspondents say the authorities are believed privately to give their support to theUSfor the attacks.

Last month,USPresident Barack Obama defended the use of drones to target militants inPakistan’s tribal areas.

TheUSdoes not normally comment on drone operations, which have killed hundreds of people in recent years. The dead include senior al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, as well as an unknown number of other militants and civilians.

Republican Rick sets sights on ‘Super Tuesday’

USpresidential hopeful Rick Santorum has hailed his hat-trick of caucus and primary wins, saying his campaign now has crucial momentum – and more cash.

In an interview with CNN, Mr Santorum said he had raised $250,000 (£157,000) in one night, after beating Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.

He vowed to campaign hard in states voting in February and early March, and said his team was well-organised.

On 6 March, popularly known as ‘Super Tuesday’, 11 states will hold contests.ArizonaandMichiganwill hold their primaries on 28 February.

‘We thinkMichigan’s a great place for us to plant our flag,’ Mr Santorum told MSNBC.

The two February primaries have been seen as favourable to Mr Romney, in part because of their more moderate Republican electorates.

Mr Romney’s father, George Romney, also served asMichigan’s governor during the 1960s.

While the candidates had previously focussed during the early weeks on the primary season on only one or two states at time, the upcoming schedule will see the Republican hopefuls scatter across the country in search of strategic wins.

Mr Santorum began campaigning inTexason February 8, meeting with religious leaders there.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who came second in Minnesota, is targeting Super Tuesday’s caucus states, where he believes his organisation and enthusiastic volunteer base can win him delegates.

Newt Gingrich had already moved onto delegate-richOhiobefore Tuesday’s vote after failing to make it onto theMissouriballot. He also fell to fourth place inMinnesota.

The eventual nominee will face Barack Obama in November’s election.

Al-Shabab bombs Mogadishu cafe

At least 15 people have been killed and more than 20 people injured when a car bomb exploded near a cafe inSomalia’s capital,Mogadishu, officials say.

The vehicle was parked close to the Hotel Muna, often frequented by Somali politicians and itself the target of an attack by militants in August 2010.

The al-Shabab group said it carried out the blast, which happened in the afternoon of February 8. But the militant Islamists denied that it was a suicide attack, as earlier reported by the police.

The violence is the latest in a series of suicide attacks staged by the al-Qaeda-linked group inMogadishu, after it was pushed out last August by the Somali government and African Union troops.

The attack took place on the day of a visit to the city by the European Union’s new special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Alexander Rondos.

William Hague was also recently inMogadishu, the first visit by a British foreign secretary in 20 years. TheUKgovernment is holding a conference inLondonon 23 February to try to find a political solution, and tackle piracy and extremism.

Mr Hague said it would mark the beginning of an enduring engagement to endSomalia’s crisis and announced a series of new approaches. The mandate of the current transitional government could not be extended after seven years of minimal progress, he said.

But the international community would provide support for internal political discussions now underway between Somalis inside the country on how to replace the government, whose mandate expires in August, theUKforeign minister said.

Argentina to go to UN over Falklands

Argentinais to make a formal complaint to the United Nations about British ‘militarisation’ around the disputedFalkland Islands.

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner made the announcement at a meeting of MPs, senior officials, and veterans of the 1982 warArgentinafought withBritainover the islands.

Tensions between the two countries have been increasing in recent weeks. Last month, theUKsaid it was sending a destroyer to the region.

The status of the islands, known inArgentinaas the Malvinas, is still a highly sensitive issue forBuenos Aires. In December 2011, Mercosur, a South American trading bloc, closed its ports to ships flying theFalkland Islandsflag.

Then, last month, theUKsaid it was sending one of its newest destroyers, HMS Dauntless, to the South Atlantic, off theFalklands.Londondescribed the move as ‘routine’.

Prince William, grandson ofBritain’s Queen Elizabeth II and second in line to the throne, was also deployed to the islands in his role as a search and rescue helicopter pilot.

In her address, Ms Fernandez accused theUKof ‘militarising theSouth Atlanticone more time’.

‘We will present a complaint to the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, as this militarisation poses a grave danger to international security,’ Ms Fernandez said. ‘We cannot interpret in any other way the deployment of an ultra-modern destroyer accompanying the heir to the throne, who we would prefer to see in civilian attire.’

She askedUKPrime Minister David Cameron to ‘give peace a chance’.

The UK Foreign Office later issued a statement that said: ‘The people of theFalkland Islandsare British out of choice. They are free to determine their own future and there will be no negotiations withArgentinaover sovereignty unless the islanders wish it.’

President Fernandez’s government has gained the political support of nations such asBrazilandUruguay, which have banned ships flying theFalklandsflag from visiting their ports.Chile’s foreign minister also recently declared his support for Argentine sovereignty over the islands.