15 January 2012

Al-Qaeda and Taliban commanders seek Pak militants’ help to fight US forces

Prominent al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban fighters have asked Pakistani militants in a pair of rare meetings to set aside their differences and step up support for the battle against US-led forces inAfghanistan, say militant commanders.

The meetings were held in Pakistan’s tribal region in November and December at the request of the Afghan Taliban’s leadership council.

They could indicate the militants are struggling inAfghanistanor, conversely, that they want to make sure they hit US forces hard as the Americans accelerate their withdrawal this year. That could give the Taliban additional leverage in any peace negotiations.

‘Forget all your differences and give us fighters to boost the battle againstAmericainAfghanistan,’ senior al-Qaeda commander Abu Yahya al-Libi told Pakistani fighters at a meeting in December, according to a militant who attended.

Pakistani militants have long been split over where they should focus their fighting. The Pakistani Taliban have concentrated on toppling their own government, although they have sent some fighters toAfghanistan. Other Pakistani groups based in the tribal region have almost exclusively directed their attacks against foreign forces inAfghanistan.

The Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella organisation set up in 2007 to represent roughly 40 insurgent groups, has also been split by infighting over turf and leadership positions after commanders were killed by the Pakistani military and US drone strikes.

The group has fractured into more than 100 smaller factions, a process that some analysts have suggested would take a toll on militants fighting inAfghanistanby making it increasingly difficult for them to find recruits, as well as restricting territory inPakistanavailable to them.

Balochistan peace not possible with issues unresolved

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s chief Nawaz Sharif has said that peace cannot prevail in Balochistan unless those responsible for the injustices that are taking place in the region are held accountable.

Speaking to a gathering in Quetta, Nawaz lamented that ‘no action’ had yet been taken on the Kharotabad incident, in which five unarmed Chechens, including three women, one of whom was seven months pregnant – alleged by the Pakistan military to be suicide bombers – were gunned down in May 2011.

The PML-N chief also questioned the government’s approach towards the 2006 killing of Akbar Bugti, head of the Bugti tribe of Baloch, and the issue of ‘tortured bodies surfacing from several parts of the province’.

Nawaz said the government should pacify the people of Balochistan, adding that peace could not be established in the province while the longstanding issues pertaining to it remain unresolved.

He further said that the existing Balochistan package was not enough to overcome the miseries of the people of the province and that they should be granted their rights, adding that the PML-N was ready to call an all-party conference to resolve Balochistan’s issues.

The PML-N chief moreover said that public mandate was not being respected inPakistan, which was why the country was lagging behind in the race for prosperity.

US military to focus on Asia Pacific

US President Barack Obama has outlined a new national defence strategy that places a greater focus on the Asia-Pacific region and calls for allies to play a greater role in their own security.

Obama and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta announced the new guidelines during a recent news conference at the Defence Department inWashington.

The plan downsizes the military and cuts the defence budget by roughly $450 billion over the next ten years.

Obama said that despite the overall budget cuts, theUSwill strengthen its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. He also indicated concern overChina’s increasing military power.

Panetta said theUSwill help allies assume a greater role in defending their own territories and interests through diplomacy, development, and security assistance.

Gary Schmitt, an expert on military strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, believes theUSmay askJapanto play a greater role in the East China Sea andSouth China Sea. He noted thatJapanhas expertise in naval warfare, including anti-submarine operations, and may be asked to shift its focus further south.

Fiji leader opens the door to democracy

Fiji’s military government is set to move to lift a state of emergency it imposed in 2009, as the country prepares to open consultation on a new constitution, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said in a New Year’s message.

The Public Emergency Regulations gave police and the military extended powers, imposed tough censorship on the South Pacific nation’s media and tightly controlled public assembly.

The military government of 2006 coup leader Commodore Bainimarama overturned the country’s Constitution in 2009, imposing emergency rule after the nation’s Court of Appeal ruled the military government was illegal.

In a New Year’s Day statement, Bainimarama stressed that public order would be maintained and that he would soon announce nationwide consultation for a new constitution, beginning next month, to establish a democratically elected government.

While Bainimarama gave no details of what will replace martial law, his regime has already created a media council with powers that ensure the state’s continuing control over what is published.

US sentences Pakistani over Taliban smuggling plot

A Pakistani man convicted on terrorism charges has been sentenced to more than four years in jail in the United States over a plot to smuggle a member of the Pakistani Taliban into the country.

On January 5, Irfan Ul Haq, 37 – who last September pleaded guilty along with two other Pakistanis to conspiracy to provide support to a terror organisation – was sentenced to 50 months in jail by a US federal judge in Washington.

The other two men were earlier sentenced to 40 months and 36 months in prison over the same plot, carried out between January and March 2011. All three men have agreed to return toPakistanfollowing their sentences.

‘Haq conspired with others to smuggle into theUnited Statesan individual who was believed to be a member of a foreign terrorist organisation,’ Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said in a statement. ‘Such conduct presents a serious threat to our national security.’

The US Justice Department said undercover law enforcement agents had directed ‘confidential sources’ to contact the three men – then residing in Ecuador – to request help in smuggling a fictitious individual, said to be a member of the Pakistani Taliban, into the United States.

Haq, according to the court documents, told the sources it was ‘not their concern’ what the men ‘want to do in the United States – hard labour, sweep floors, wash dishes in a hotel, or blow up. That will be up to them.’

It said the three men accepted payment for the operation, without specifying how much, and that they produced a false Pakistani passport.

The sting operation was carried out by the US Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the Ecuadorian national police, the Justice Department said.

Syrian opposition pushing Libyan scenario

Syria’s opposition has rounded on the Arab League observer mission whose presence has failed to quell a government crackdown. They say the League is giving succour to Assad’s regime, and are urging the UN to approve a Libya-style no-fly zone.

The Cairo-based body denies its observers are being misled by either side, and says the accusations are pre-emptive. The League claims its mission has madeDamascuscompromise by pulling its tanks out of civilian areas, and releasing more than 3000 prisoners in recent weeks.

Richard Spenser, a founder and co-editor of the online magazine AlternativeRight.Com, says the opposition is taking its lead fromLibyaand using foreign forces to help propel itself

‘This is once again an example of rebels who will want to make a deal with the United States and use their power to topple their enemies,’ he said. ‘In many ways the UN remains a tool of the global American order.’

Spencer noted that the Libyan situation accelerated onceAmericasaid it would enforce a no-fly zone.

‘Once that ball gets rolling, so to speak, it’s ultimately going to eventuate in regime change, war and rebels being lifted up to a new position after their enemy is taken out,’ he said.

Turkey’s former military chief arrested over alleged anti-government plot

A former Turkish military chief has been arrested, accused of leading a terror organization and conspiring to bring down the government, thus becoming the country’s most senior officer to face trial in a series of investigations into alleged anti-government plots.

Gen. Ilker Basbug was placed in a prison nearIstanbulovernight after seven hours of questioning by prosecutors investigating allegations that the military funded dozens of websites aimed at discrediting the Islamic-rooted government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2009.

Some of the suspects already charged in the case, including senior generals and admirals, have said they acted in a chain of command. Basbug, who retired in August 2010, led the military at the time.

The jailing of a former military chief, unimaginable a few years ago, comes as the government, which has won three successive elections, has sharply reduced the political clout of the military. Military leaders have staged three coups and forced an Islamist prime minister to quit in 1997.

Basbug’s lawyer said his client has denied accusations during questioning. NTV television said the former general told court officials the charges were ‘tragicomical’.

‘If I am being accused of bringing down the government with a couple of press statements and one or two Internet stories, this is very bitter,’ the Hurriyet newspaper quoted Basbug as saying. ‘If I had such bad intentions, as the commander of a 700,000-strong force, there would have been other ways of doing it.’

Before being taken to prison, Basbug told journalists: ‘The 26th Chief of Military Staff of theTurkishRepublicis being accused of forming and leading a terror organization. I leave it up to the great Turkish people to decide.’

The alleged conspiracy was first reported by a Turkish newspaper in 2009, which printed a photocopy of an alleged plan to damage the reputation of the government by portraying it as corrupt. Investigations into the reported conspiracy were inconclusive because the original document, allegedly signed by a navy colonel, could not be found. The probe was revived last year after an unidentified military officer allegedly sent the original document toIstanbul’s chief prosecutor.

Haqqani: ‘If I leave my house, I fear I will be killed’

Husain Haqqani,Pakistan’s embattled former ambassador toWashington, fears he will be murdered if he leaves his sanctuary in the official residence of the country’s prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.

In a recent exclusive interview with The Daily Telegraph, he said he has been branded a ‘traitor’ and a ‘Washington lackey’ by ‘powerful quarters’ – a reference to the country’s influential ISI intelligence agency – and that he now fears he will be murdered like his friend, the late governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who was shot dead by one of his own security guards last year after being branded a ‘blasphemer’.

Mr Haqqani was forced to resign last year after a Pakistani-American businessman claimed he had asked him to pass on a memo to the American government calling for their help to oustIslamabad’s military leadership.

The businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, said the memo contained an offer, backed by President Asif Zardari, that ifWashingtonhelped to oust the current military leadership, a new ‘national securit’’ team would disband the Army unit which collaborates with the Taliban and other anti-Western militant groups.

He was recalled fromWashingtonand now faces a Supreme Court commission inquiry amid accusations that he betrayed his country by colluding with theUnited Statesto compromise its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Both President Zardari and Mr Haqqani have denied any involvement in the ‘memogate’ controversy and Mr Haqqani has vowed to challenge the allegations in evidence to the commission.

Analysts say the row is part of a feud between the country’s elected political leadership and a military establishment determined to pursue the matter, regardless of how deep it plunges the country into further crisis. Western diplomats fear it could eventually bring down President Zardari’s elected government.

Iran condemns American to death in spy case

A former US Marine has been sentenced to death by an Iranian court for being a CIA spy.

Amir Mirzaei Hekmati was convicted of working with a hostile country, belonging to the CIA and trying to accuseIranof involvement in terrorist activities, Iranian media reported.

The 28-year-old Iranian-American, who served as an Arabic translator in the military, is believed to have been arrested in December, andIranaccused him of receiving training at US bases inIraqandAfghanistan. It is unclear when he was convicted, but according to Iranian Law he has just 20 days to appeal.

‘I was deceived by the CIA,’ he said in an alleged confession, according to the state-run Fars News Agency. ‘Although I was appointed to break intoIran’s intelligence systems and act as a new source for the CIA, I had no intention of undermining the country.’

Hekmati’s father, who lives in theUS, insists his son is not a CIA agent and was only inIranto visit his grandmothers.

‘We have struggled to provide Amir with an attorney inIran. We have sought to hire at least ten different attorneys to no avail,’ Hekmati’s family said in a statement earlier this month in response to his arrest. It said his ‘only advocate inIranwas a government-appointed lawyer who he met on the first day of his trial’.

USofficials have demanded Hekmati’s release and stated he was ‘falsely’ accused. They have also demanded that Swiss diplomats – who act on behalf of theUSinIran– be allowed to visit Hekmati.

Iranian media also reported the arrests of several spies who they say sought to carry out plans by theUSto disrupt the upcoming election.

The conviction comes as tensions between theUnited StatesandIrancontinue to worsen. The two nations have been at odds overIran’s nuclear programme.

China and S Korea: first summit on N Korea after Kim Jong-il’s death

The presidents ofSouth KoreaandChinahave held their first summit since Kim Jong-il’s death opened the chance for major changes inNorth Korea, whereSeoulandBeijingshare vital interests as well as strong disagreements.

While North Korea is often a topic when Chinese and South Korean leaders meet, the death of its leader last month has pushed it to the centre of the summit, which was to have focused on mending frayed relations over Chinese fishing fleet incursions in South Korean waters and Beijing’s support for Pyongyang.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Chinese President Hu Jintao had ‘an in-depth discussion’ about the situation on the Korean peninsula and agreed to ‘work together for the sake of peace and stability’.

Beijing was expected to offer to open talks on a three-way free trade agreement with Japan, Chinese state media reported, highlighting the robust economic ties China and South Korea share in contrast with the strains on other fronts.

The presidents were expected to emphasize their shared concern for the stability ofNorth Korea– poor but with nuclear weapons programmes – as it makes an uncertain transition to rule by Kim’s son, Kim Jong-un, and a coterie of his father’s advisers.

‘Peace and stability on the Korean peninsula serve the common interests of all parties,’ Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said about the Lee-Hu summit at a daily media briefing. The sentiment was echoed in a nearly identical statement from the presidential Blue House inSeoul.

Beyond that, however, priorities diverge.Chinadislikes even talking in detail about itsNorth Koreaally with other countries, seeing it as an invitation to meddling.

Myanmar army chief visits Thailand, Dawei project in focus

Myanmar’s army chief has held a rare meeting withThailand’s defence minister in which they discussed the opening of new border checkpoints close to a planned multi-billion dollar industrial zone in Dawei.

Min Aung Hlaing, the protégé of formerMyanmarjunta supremo Than Shwe, met for more than an hour inBangkokwith Yutthasak Sasiprapha and outlined plans to improve ties between two countries that have long been at odds over security along a border plagued by ethnic conflicts.

Among the issues discussed was opening additional border checkpoints in Thailand’s Western Kanchanaburi province, which is next to Myanmar’s Dawei, the site of a planned a $50 billion complex that will be Southeast Asia’s largest industrial zone when completed, Yutthasak told reporters.

The 97 sq mile Dawei Special Economic Zone – which will include a $8 billion deep sea port, an oil refinery, a coal-fired power plant and a petrochemical factory – is located in the Tanintharyi region of southernMyanmaron the Indian Ocean, 217 miles west ofBangkok.

Italian-Thai Development Pcl,Thailand’s largest construction firm, is leading the project and has set up a unit, Dawei Development Co Ltd, to operate and construct the port and related infrastructure.

It is seeking partners this year for six projects, including power plants, oil and gas, petrochemical, fertilizer and steel-making plants and plans to retain at least 51 per cent of the unit and sell 25 per cent to theMyanmarprivate sector.

Security is also a major issue for the two countries, which are concerned that separatist rebels from the powerful Karen National Union might try to disrupt the Dawei projects.

Two men sentenced for Lawrence murder

Gary Dobson and David Norris, the two men convicted of killing black teenager Stephen Lawrence nearly 19 years after his death, have been sentenced to a minimum of 15 years and two months and 14 years and three months respectively.

Both men were sentenced as juveniles by the judge at the Old Bailey inLondonon January 4 as they were 17 and 16 when they committed the crime.

Following the sentencing Stephen Lawrence’s father Neville called for the two men to give up information on the other people involved in his son’s death. His mother Doreen said she was ‘grateful’ for the sentences, despite them being ‘low’.

Justice Treacy said the evidence did not prove that either defendant had a knife, but it was used with their knowledge or approval, Sky News reported from the court.

Scotland Yard Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe said police were still hunting the other people involved and warned they ‘should not rest easily in their beds’.

Former Met deputy assistant commissioner and current Lib Dem London mayoral candidate Brian Paddick said ‘many lessons have been learnt’ from the case but added there was ‘much more to be done before all Londoners have trust and confidence in the police’.

Following successful convictions in other cold cases, a team of forensic scientists was called in to look again at the Stephen Lawrence evidence. They discovered tiny amounts of blood, hair and fibres on clothing seized from Dobson and Norris’ homes, which led to a successful prosecution.

However, the pair insisted on their innocence throughout the trial and reading of the verdicts, and some commentators believe that the case has highlighted injustices in the British legal system, including disregard for the principles of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and double jeopardy.