‘Taliban hunter’ killed in bomb blasts

A senior police investigator known for tracking down and capturing Pakistani Taliban militants has been killed in an explosion. Chaudhry Aslam, who had survived a number of previous attempts on his life, was killed as he travelled through a commercial area in the port city of Karachi. Two of his police colleagues were also killed when a powerful explosion ripped apart the armoured SUV they were travelling in.

Mr Aslam’s death will be a sharp blow to Pakistan’s efforts to crack down on militant groups looking to gain a foothold in the sprawling southern city that is so important to the country’s economy.

The police officer, who was known as one of Karachi’s toughest policemen, narrowly escaped death in September 2011 when a suicide bomber detonated a vehicle packed with explosives outside his home, killing eight people.

At the time, he told a local television station: ‘This is a cowardly act. I’m not scared. I will not spare them.’

The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for Mr Aslam’s death, with a spokesman for the group claiming he had been killed for torturing Taliban members.

The policeman had been criticised for allegedly using too much force on suspects, with human rights activists accusing Pakistani police of torturing and killing some suspects.

The latest death adds to the sharp rise in police killings in Karachi, and increased Taliban activity is said to be partly responsible for the rise.

Pakistan court orders Musharraf to attend future hearings

A special court, set up to try Pakistan’s ex-military ruler Pervez Musharraf for treason, has ruled that he must attend his next court hearing, despite his lawyers’ arguments that he is in poor health.

The court adjourned on January 7 to consider a medical report on his heart complaint, but prosecutors say his medical report provides no reason for him to skip the next court hearing set for January 16.

The 70-year-old has been in hospital ever since suffering chest pains on his way to the tribunal, when he was rushed to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology (AFIC) in Rawalpindi.

Correspondents say many people have viewed reports of his illness with scepticism, as they did the security scares which his defence team say prevented him from appearing in court on 1 January and 24 December.

Rumours have circulated for months that a backroom deal would be struck to whisk him overseas, possibly to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, to avoid a destabilising clash between the government, which brought the charges, and the powerful armed forces. But the former commando has previously insisted he wants to stay and fight the charges.

He is the first former military ruler to face trial for treason in Pakistan, which has a history of army rule. The treason charges relate to his decision in 2007 to suspend the constitution and impose emergency rule. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to death or life in prison. He also faces separate charges of murder and restricting the judiciary.

Musharraf’s camp says the treason allegations are politically motivated and his lawyers have challenged the authority of the tribunal.

Obama meets spy chiefs on NSA reforms

US President Barack Obama met top spy chiefs as he finalized a decision on how to rein in National Security Agency spying sweeps following revelations by Edward Snowden.

Obama met the heads of the NSA, CIA, FBI and the director of national intelligence as part of a string of meetings with advocates on both sides of the debate on balancing privacy and national security.

The meeting included CIA chief John Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, NSA head General Keith Alexander and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey. Obama was joined in the talks by Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder.

The president also held a meeting with members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a watchdog body set up by Congress after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Obama promised that a report the board is preparing will be factored into the administration’s deliberations on how to move forward, the White House said.

On January 9 Obama met with top lawmakers with responsibilities for overseeing the intelligence community — including some critics of NSA mass phone data capture programmes — to discuss how to reform the intelligence community.

Aides say that Obama spent considerable time during his recent vacation in Hawaii mulling over new constraints on US security agencies in the wake of revelations of mass snooping by fugitive intelligence agency contractor Snowden.

The president will deliver his conclusions in a speech within weeks, and definitely before his annual State of the Union Address, which is scheduled for January 28.

Guardian says website blocked in China

Access to the website of the British newspaper the Guardian has been blocked in China, the newspaper has said, adding that it did not know why.

The websites of the New York Times Co and Bloomberg News have been blocked in China for more than a year after they published reports about the wealth of family members of former Premier Wen Jiabao and President Xi Jinping, respectively.

China’s ruling Communist Party, anxious to maintain power and preserve stability, routinely blocks access to foreign news websites it deems inappropriate or politically sensitive.

The Guardian cited an anti-censorship website, greatfire.org, as saying that its website was first blocked on January 7.

‘The reasons for the Guardian block are unclear — no China-related stories published by the Guardian in the past two days would obviously be perceived as dangerous by the country’s leadership,’ the newspaper said in an article on its website.

Access to the Guardian, and other blocked websites, is limited to people with virtual private networks (VPNs) that can bypass China’s internet blocking mechanism, known as the Great Firewall.

When asked about the Guardian’s website being blocked in

Muslim woman convicted for wearing veil

A French Muslim woman has been fined €150 (£124) for wearing a full-face veil.
Cassandra Belin was also given a one-month suspended sentence for insulting police officers who arrested her in the Paris suburb of Trappes last year.

The confrontation between Ms Belin, her husband and police when she was stopped and given a ticket for breaking the ban on wearing the face covering triggered riots in the area.

The lower Paris court also rejected a request from Belin’s lawyer for the ban, which has been in place since 2011, to be referred to the Constitutional Court.

Philippe Bataille had argued that the law impinges religious freedoms and unfairly targets Muslims. He pledged to continue his fight to have the ban overturned, saying: ‘I am not throwing the towel in.’

The riots in Trappes reflected tensions between police upholding France’s strict policies of secularism and those who accuse authorities of discriminating against Islam, the country’s second-most followed religion.

French authorities say the ban is needed for security reasons and to uphold the country’s secular traditions. But critics point out that although the ban covers all face coverings, only women in veils have been arrested.

The European Court of Human Rights is expected to rule later this year on a legal challenge brought by a French Muslim who argues that the ban violates her rights to freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

Iran ‘can play helpful role’ in Syria

Iran could improve its chances of playing a role on the sidelines of Syria peace talks this month by working with Damascus to stop the bombardment of civilians and improve humanitarian access, US officials have said.

‘There are… steps that Iran could take to show the international community that they are serious about playing a positive role,’ one of the officials said in Brussels.

‘Those include calling for an end to the bombardment by the Syrian regime of their own people. It includes calling for and encouraging humanitarian access.’ Another official made clear that the comment on bombardment referred to Syria’s biggest city, Aleppo.

However, one US official said Washington still believed it was ‘less likely than likely’ that Iran would play any role at the January 22 peace conference on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, even on the sidelines.

Another official said Iran and the United States had not discussed the matter directly. All the officials declined to be named.

US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated US opposition to Iran being a formal member of the so-called ‘Geneva 2’ talks because it does not support the 2012 international agreement on Syria, dubbed ‘Geneva 1’.

No welcome in Israel for African migrants

More than 10,000 African migrants have been demonstrating outside Israel’s parliament, extending protests into a fourth consecutive day in a quest for recognition as refugees and freedom to work legally without fear of incarceration.

Their presence in a Jewish state that took in survivors of the Nazi Holocaust has stoked an emotional political debate over whether they should be allowed to stay as a humane gesture.

‘I want to say to them that they should not fear us, we are human beings too,’ said one 25-year-old man from Eritrea.

Some 60,000 migrants, largely from Eritrea and Sudan, have entered Israel without authorisation across a once-porous border with Egypt since 2006. Many hope for asylum and say they cannot return home without risking their lives.

Israel says most are illegal job-seekers. It passed a recent law allowing for indefinite detention of migrants without valid visas while it pursues efforts to persuade them to leave or enlist other countries to take them in.

Many of the migrants live in impoverished neighbourhoods of Tel Aviv, Israel’s commercial centre, and work as cleaners and dish-washers. They have gone on strike at restaurants as part of a protest campaign that included a large demonstration in the Mediterranean seaside city.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he views the African influx — since stemmed by an Israeli fence along the Egyptian frontier — as a threat to Israel’s Jewish social fabric.

European Parliament gives go ahead for Snowden hearing

On January 9 a European Parliament committee approved plans to hear US intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden, whose revelations about US snooping on EU leaders has sparked uproar against Washington.

The Parliament’s Civil Liberties committee voted 36 in favour, two against, to hear Snowden by video-link from Russia, where he has found temporary asylum.

Reports based on Snowden’s leaked files have shown Washington running a global system, backed up by allies such as Britain, to listen in on Internet and telephone systems.

This included revelations that the US National Security Agency had even tapped the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The full parliament will vote on the committee’s recommendation in February, with the Snowden hearing possible in April if it wins full house approval.

Iraqi prime minister: ‘victory certain’ as Falluja assault looms

Iraq’s prime minister has vowed to uproot al-Qaeda and said he was sure of victory as his army prepared to launch a major military assault against Sunni Islamist militants in the city of Falluja.

In a televised address on January 8, Nouri al-Maliki also thanked the international community for its support in the fight against al-Qaeda and urged the group’s members and supporters to surrender, promising clemency.

The United States said earlier it would fast-track deliveries of military hardware, including drones and missiles, to Iraq, but ruled out sending back troops two years after Washington ended nearly a decade of occupation.

‘The support… is giving us the confidence that we are moving on the right course and that the result will be clear and decisive: uprooting this corrupted organisation,’ Maliki said on state television. ‘We will continue this fight because we believe that al-Qaeda and its allies represent evil.’

Fighters from the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is also active across the border in Syria, recently overran police stations in Falluja and another city in Iraq’s western Unbar province.

The army deployed more tanks and artillery around Falluja as local leaders tried to persuade militants to leave in order to avert an impending offensive that has echoes of US assaults on the same city in 2004.

‘We don’t want this city to suffer and we will not use force, as long as the tribes announce their readiness to confront al-Qaeda and expel it,’ Maliki said.

Egypt’s army chief Sisi seen edging closer to presidential bid

In Egypt, it no longer appears to be a question of if, but when army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will declare his candidacy for president. For the second time in three days, local media reported on January 6 that Sisi had finally made up his mind.

With no other obvious candidates for the post, the general who deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July has kept Egyptians guessing about his intentions as the clock ticks down to the presidential vote that could happen as soon as April.

Sisi’s candidacy would further deepen divisions between the many Egyptians who believe a firm hand is needed to steer the country through crisis and Islamists bearing the brunt of a state crackdown on dissent.

An official in the security services said Sisi was ‘most likely going to announce that he will run for the presidency’, adding: ‘The army in a recent meeting expressed its support for him to run.’

The question of Sisi’s intentions has become more pressing since the army-backed authorities signalled that the presidential election will come ahead of parliamentary polls — reversing the original timetable.

In public statements, the army has said nothing on Sisi’s intentions — the major outstanding question of the political transition set in train after the military deposed Morsi following mass protests against his rule on June 30 2013.

Responding to a local TV report saying Sisi would run, the army issued a statement on January 4 saying the military did not make declarations via anonymous sources and urging the media to show professionalism in its reporting. But it did not clearly deny the main elements of the report read out during an evening talk show on MBC Egypt: that Sisi will now run and Sedki Sobhi, currently chief of staff, will take his place as defence minister and army chief.

There is little doubt Sisi would win the election, turning the clock back to the days when the presidency was controlled by men from the military — a pattern interrupted by Morsi’s 2012 win and one year in office.

Though Sisi enjoys broad support among those Egyptians happy to see the end of Morsi’s rule, he is reviled by his Islamist opponents, who view him as the mastermind of a bloody military coup against the country’s first freely elected head of state.

The army-backed government has mounted a crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, driving it underground and prompting fears of longer term instability. Prominent secular dissidents have also been arrested in a blow to political freedoms.

But Sisi’s supporters see him as the kind of strong man needed to bring stability after three years of turmoil.

Kenya says 30 Shebab rebels killed in Somalia air strike

Kenya has announced that it has killed at least 30 Shebab rebels, including top commanders, in an air strike on a training camp in Somalia, although the militants quickly denied the claim.

The Kenyan military said the January 9 raid targeted a Shebab camp in Garbarahey in Gedo region, situated around 390 miles northwest of the capital Mogadishu and near the border with Kenya and Ethiopia.

‘KDF (Kenya Defence Force) fighter jets attacked an Al Shebab camp, where a meeting was being held,’ a senior KDF official said. ‘Initial battle damage assessment indicates more than 30 Al Shebab militants killed, including key commanders,’ the official added.

Another military official said the Kenyan armed forces were trying to determine the identities of those killed in the raid.

‘We are yet to establish their identities, but they are definitely big shots in the militant group’s hierarchy,’ the official said, adding that five vehicles and other ‘key assets’ were destroyed in the raid.

Officials said they believed dozens of other militants were also wounded. However, a Shebab military spokesman dismissed the Kenyan claims. ‘We have no troop presence there. There were no Shebab fighters in the area, none of our people were killed,’ said the spokesman, Abdiaziz Abu Musab.
‘The Kenyans are claiming the casualties to please their bosses in the West, who have contracted them for the war in Somalia,’ he added.

Kenya has been battling the al-Qaeda-inspired Shebab on Somali soil since October 2011, and has since joined the African Union force deployed in the country.

Duggan verdict: ‘Mark was executed,’ says family

The family of a man killed by police in London more than two years ago has vowed to fight for justice in his name, saying the 29-year-old was ‘executed’.

The comments come after an inquest found that Mark Duggan was lawfully killed when he was shot by police in Tottenham in August 2011, despite being unarmed at the time.

Speaking outside London’s Royal Courts of Justice, Mr Duggan’s aunt Carole Duggan said: ‘The majority of people in this country know that Mark was executed. He was executed and we still believe that.

‘We’re going to fight until we have no breath in our body: for justice, for Mark… for all of those deaths in custody. We are not giving up. No justice, no peace.’

The conclusion led to angry scenes both inside and outside the court, as supporters of the Duggan family shouted abuse at the jurors and reportedly smashed a door.

Shouts of ‘no justice, no peace’ could be heard as angry supporters walked outside the court following the verdict.

The family’s solicitor Marcia Willis Stewart described the conclusion as ‘a perverse judgment’, adding: ‘The jury found that he had no gun in his hand and yet he was gunned down. For us that’s an unlawful killing.’