15 June 2012

Afghans, Pakistanis training Islamists in Mali

Jihadi fighters fromAfghanistanandPakistanare training Islamist groups in northernMali,Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou has said, as world powers discussed military intervention.

‘We have information on the presence of Afghans and Pakistanis in northernMali… They are believed to be working as instructors. They are the ones who are training those who have been recruited across various west African countries,’ said Issoufou, whose country shares a long and porous desert border withMali.

Mali, once considered a beacon of democracy in western Africa, has plunged into chaos since the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime inLibyalast year scattered mercenaries and weapons across theSahel.

Tuareg rebels rekindled their decades-old struggle for independence in January and conquered the entire northern half ofMalivirtually unopposed in March, after renegade soldiers who accused then-president Amadou Toumani Toure of failing to do enough to fight the rebellion toppled his regime.

The Tuareg rebels fought alongside a previously unknown Islamist group called Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), which is believed to be backed by al-Qaeda’s north African branch.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been active for years in northernMali, where it has launched attacks against government army positions, kidnapped foreigners and allegedly benefited from drug running.

Issoufou said the Islamist groups are part of a global network spanning much of Africa and reaching all the way toAfghanistan.

‘I think all these organisations cooperate amongst themselves, whether the Shebab inSomalia, Boko Haram inNigeria, AQIM inAlgeriaand in the Sahel in general, all the way toAfghanistan,’ he said. ‘Our concern is that the Sahel does not become a newAfghanistan.’

His comments came as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sounded the alarm over the continuing threat posed by al-Qaeda. even in the wake of the killing of its mastermind, Osama bin Laden.

US patience with Pakistan wearing thin

USDefence Secretary Leon Panetta has warnedPakistanthatWashingtonis losing patience over its failure to eliminate safe havens for insurgents who attack US troops in neighbouringAfghanistan.

Panetta lashed out atPakistanand the al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network during a brief visit toKabulovershadowed by fury over a NATO air strike that allegedly killed 18 civilians, an issue that the Pentagon chief did not address in public.

Panetta leftKabulless than five hours after his arrival, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai pledged to cut short a trip toBeijingand head home over the recent deaths of around 40 civilians in the air strike and a suicide bombing.

‘Even though we are seeing an uptick in violence in recent days, the overall level of violence is down from past years,’ said Panetta, who is assessing plans to withdraw US combat troops by the end of 2014.

The Haqqani group, a faction linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda that is believed to be based inPakistan’s lawless tribal district of North Waziristan, is blamed for some of the deadliest attacks inAfghanistan’s ten-year war.

‘We are reaching the limits of our patience here,’ Panetta told a news conference with his Afghan counterpart, Abdul Rahim Wardak. ‘For that reason, it’s extremely important thatPakistantake action to prevent this kind of safe haven,’ he said.

The Afghan and US governments have suggested the war inAfghanistancannot be won unless safe havens inPakistanare dismantled.

Analysts sayIslamabadallows the Haqqanis to operate to hedge against any influence by their arch-foeIndiainAfghanistan, while critics inPakistanaccuse the Americans of deflecting blame for the increasingly deadly war.

Arsalan Iftikhar case: Supreme Court resumes hearing

A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court has resumed the hearing in the suo motu case pertaining to allegations levelled against Arsalan Iftikhar, son of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry.

The apex court bench, comprising Justice Jawwad S. Khwaja and Justice Khilji Arif Hussain, was hearing the case about the bribes allegedly given to the chief justice’s son by property tycoon Malik Riaz.

During the hearing, Justice Khwaja remarked that no other case was being discussed in the country and that the case of allegations against Arsalan was very significant.

At one point during the proceedings, Arsalan said that a recently aired television programme discussed his family and that the court should allow him a few minutes to say something on that. The bench reprimanded Arsalan for speaking in spite of the presence of his counsel.

The suo motu notice was taken after the rumours of the chief justice’s son’s shady business dealings with Riaz had become loud enough to make it to primetime television. After midnight on June 5, the SC had announced the suo motu notice and the first hearing was held on June 6.

Myanmar: unrest threatens move to democracy

Sectarian violence in the west ofMyanmarcould put the country’s transition to democracy in danger if it spread further, President Thein Sein has warned, as state television announced a state of emergency in the affected area.

Thein Sein was speaking after three days of violence in the state of Rakhine between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya, people of South Asian descent who are not recognised as citizens either byMyanmaror neighbouringBangladesh.

State television said the president had declared a state of emergency and military administration inRakhineStatein order to restore law and order as soon as possible. Extra troops had already been flown to the area over the weekend after rampaging mobs had killed at least seven people. Overnight curfews are in force in some towns.

‘If we put the never-ending hatred, desire for revenge and anarchic actions at the forefront, and if we continue to retaliate and terrorise and kill each other, there’s a danger that [the troubles] could multiply and move beyond Rakhine,’ Thein Sein said in a hastily arranged televised address.

‘If this happens, the general public should be aware that the country’s stability and peace, democratisation process and development, which are only in transition right now, could be severely affected and much would be lost.’

The communal violence is the deadliest to hitMyanmarsince Thein Sein’s reformist government replaced a military junta last year and vowed to forge unity in one ofAsia’s most ethnically diverse countries.

India & Pakistan hold talks on Siachen

Indian and Pakistani defence officials have held a fresh round of talks seeking to end decades of dispute over the Siachen Glacier, dubbed the world’s highest battlefield.

Pakistan’s army chief of staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, called for a negotiated end to the stalemate and said the glacier should be demilitarised after an avalanche on April 7 killed 140 people at a Pakistani army camp.

Troops have faced off on the glacier sinceIndiacaptured it in 1984.Pakistanhas since made unsuccessful attempts to wrest control of the hostile battleground, where sub-zero temperatures and high altitude have caused countless deaths.

The two days of talks between the most senior civil servants atIndiaandPakistan’s defence ministries were being held at the Pakistani ministry. The Indian delegation is being led by S K Sharma and the Pakistani side by Nargis Sethi.

‘The two sides will discuss Siachen and other matters related to defence affairs,’ Sohail Aftab, a spokesman for the Pakistani defence ministry, said before the talks started.

It is the 13th round of talks between the nuclear-armed rivals on Siachen. All previous discussions have ended in stalemate.

Six killed, 38 wounded in Iraq mortar attack

Two mortar bombs struck a square filled with Shi’ite Muslim pilgrims inIraq’s capitalBaghdadon June 10, killing at least six people and wounding 38.

Although overall violence inIraqhas dropped, Sunni Islamist insurgents with links to al-Qaeda are still capable of lethal attacks and hit Shi’ite targets to stir up the kind of sectarian pressure that almost led to civil war in 2006-2007.

Sectarian tensions have been high inIraqsince the withdrawal of US forces in December, with the country’s main Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs locked in a political crisis that threatens to wreck a power-sharing deal.

The recent attack occurred inQuraish SquareinBaghdad’s northwestern Kadhimiya district, where pilgrims were gathering ahead of a religious festival to mark the anniversary of the death of mediaeval Shi’ite imam Moussa al-Kadhim.

An Interior Ministry source said security forces had been put on high alert and that a tight security belt was in place around Kadhimiya in a bid to prevent further attacks on pilgrims walking towards the Imam Kadhim shrine.

Syrian forces clash with rebels

Syrian forces have shelled opposition strongholds in the centralprovinceofHomsand eastern Deir al-Zor and clashed with rebels in violence which killed 29 people across the country, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The British-based Observatory, which monitorsSyriathrough a network of sources inside the country, said six members of the security forces were killed in fighting with rebels in the town ofAl-Ashaarain Deir al-Zor. A further five people, including an army defector, were killed in army shelling of the town, it said.

In the centre of the country, where Free Syrian Army rebels have been intensifying attacks on forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, the army shelled Rastan and the city ofHomsand conducted army offensives inHamaand Idlib provinces.

Video posted on the Internet by activists showed what they said were helicopters firing missiles at targets in Rastan.

United Nations efforts to bring peace toSyria– where a 15-month-old uprising against Assad has turned increasingly violent – have largely come to nothing, with both sides blaming the other for breaking the ceasefire.

Soldiers and militias loyal to Assad have killed at least 10,000 people, according to UN figures. The Assad government puts its own losses at more than 2,600 dead. Assad has blamed unspecified foreign-backed terrorists for the violence.

Mexicans protest as presidential candidates hold debate

Mexico’s presidential race has entered a critical phase after the four candidates clashed in a second debate as some 90,000 people protested in the capital against the frontrunner.

The televised debate, held inGuadalajarain the violence-torn state of Jalisco, could help decide the tight race with just three weeks to go before the July 1 vote.

The top two rivals – Enrique Pena Nieto of the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who lost by a narrow margin in 2006 – hoped to get a boost from the event that could take them over the top.

Both Pena Nieto and Lopez Obrador talked about the need to fight poverty, stimulate economic growth and recoverMexico’s leading role inLatin America.

‘There is need for a new course that will translate into better living conditions for Mexicans,’ said 45-year-old Pena Nieto, who now has a commanding lead with 43.6 per cent support in opinion polls to Lopez Obrador’s 29.2 per cent.

Meanwhile, Lopez Obrador urged his compatriots ‘to vote without fear for change’.

The leftist leader blasted the current Mexican government, saying it was ‘rotten, past its expiration date’ and  adding the country needed a decisive renewal.

For Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling centre-right National Action Party (PAN) who is trailing with 25.3 per cent support, the debate offered her a last chance to score big in her quest to becomeMexico’s first woman president.

The ruling party candidate adopted an assertive stance, attacking both Pena Nieto and Lopez Obrador and arguing that both of her main rivals representedMexico’s past.

Libya‘s landmark vote postponed

Libyahas announced that elections for a constituent assembly, the country’s first national vote after four decades of dictatorship under toppled leader Muammar Gaddafi, has been postponed to July 7. The election had originally been slated to be held by June 19.

The president of the electoral commission, Nuri al-Abbar cited ‘logistical and technical’ reasons for the delay.

The vote was postponed due to a delay in adopting a law to organise the elections, in order to give voters more time to register and to allow candidates who have been ruled out by the commission to appeal the decision, Abbar said.

He said that the commission started its duties on February 12 which gave it only ‘128 days to prepare the elections… a very short time, especially for a country that hasn’t seen elections for almost half a century’.

A member of the electoral commission said the postponement had been decided in consultation with UN officials working with the commission.

More than 2.7 million Libyans, or around 80 per cent of eligible voters, have registered to participate in the election.

The ruling National Transitional Council, having declared the country’s ‘liberation’ three days after the October 20 capture and killing of Gaddafi, launched a roadmap to a new Libya with a 20-month countdown to elections.

A transitional government was to organise within eight months the election of a 200-member assembly, or ‘general national congress’. The NTC is to step down once the congress holds its first session.

Dozens of political parties, which were banned under Gaddafi’s iron-grip rule as a ‘Western invention’, have been founded in the months ahead of the Libyan elections. 

Al-Qaeda’s Zawahri calls on Tunisians to defend sharia

Al-Qaeda’s leader has called on Tunisians to defend Islamic law from an Islamist party that won elections in the North African country and promised not to impose sharia.

In an audio recording attributed to Ayman al-Zawahri and released on Islamist websites, the al-Qaeda leader saidTunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, which rules with secular parties, had betrayed itself and the religion.

‘Have you ever seen a hospital that says it’s not in the business of treating the sick, or a pharmacy that says it’s got nothing to do with selling medicine, or an army that says it’s got no business fighting?’ he asked.

‘They are inventing an Islam acceptable to the US State Department, the European Union and the…Gulf,’ he said. ‘An Islam…that permits gambling parlours, nude beaches and usurious banks, secular laws and submission to international law.

‘Come to the aid of your prophet’s customs, and accept no substitute for sharia.’

While Islamists did not play a major role in the revolution that brought down Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the struggle over the role of religion in government and society has since emerged as the most divisive issue in Tunisian politics.

Puritanical Salafi Islamists want a broader role for sharia in the newTunisia, alarming secular elites who fear they will seek to impose their views and ultimately undermineTunisia’s nascent democracy.

Obama backs Philippines over South China Sea

TheUnited Statesand the Philippineshave called for freedom of navigation in the tense South China Sea as the White House offered a robust show of support for President Benigno Aquino.

President Barack Obama welcomed Aquino to the White House in the latest high-profile gesture to put a focus on US ties to Asia, where a number of countries are embroiled in territorial conflicts with a rising China.

Addressing reporters next to Aquino in the Oval Office, Obama said the two leaders spoke about ‘trying to make sure that we have a strong set of international norms and rules governing maritime disputes in the region’.

In a joint statement released afterward, the two leaders ‘underscored the importance of the principles of ensuring freedom of navigation, respect for international law and unimpeded lawful commerce’.

Aquino and Obama also called for diplomacy to resolve territorial disputes ‘without coercion or the use of force’.

Chinaclaims virtually all of the South China Sea up to Southeast Asian nations’ shores and tensions have soared in recent years with both thePhilippinesandVietnam.

ThePhilippinesandChinarecently pulled back vessels after a standoff over the Scarborough Shoal, which lies near the main PhilippineislandofLuzon.

Aquino’s visit to theUnited Stateswas closely watched inChina, where some policymakers suspect – despite officialUSdenials – that theUnited Statesis seeking to encircle the growing Asian power.

French Socialists poised to take charge of parliament

President Francois Hollande’s Socialists and their allies are on track to win a strong parliamentary majority after a first-round election that cementedFrance’s swing to the left.

A week ahead of a crucial run-off vote, the Socialists and other left-wing parties won about 46 per cent in the June 10 first round ahead of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party and its allies with 34 per cent, official results showed.

With pollsters predicting the Socialists may win a majority of the National Assembly’s 577 seats on their own, party officials urged voters to keep up the momentum in the second round on June 17.

‘The essential thing is that the president has a strong majority,’ Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry said.

The vote also saw a surge in support for Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front, which wants to ditch the euro and battle against what she calls the ‘Islamisation’ of France.

Aubry urged the UMP to withdraw its candidates in constituencies where the far right could win to ensure victory for centrist candidates.

‘I call on the UMP to be clear… Many are watching inFranceand inEuropeand I believe we must be clear in defending certain values,’ she said.

Hollande defeated Sarkozy in last month’s presidential election and now wants voters to give him a strong mandate to enact left-wing reforms asFrancebattlesEurope’s crippling debt crisis, rising joblessness and a stagnant economy.

However, after a high turnout in the presidential election, voters were less enthusiastic on June 10, with participation rate at only 57 per cent, a record low for a first round.

Liechtenstein prince faces vote over veto power

Campaigners for more democracy in the tiny, arch-conservative principality ofLiechtensteinare facing sinister opposition as they confront the last monarchy inEuropewith any real power.

Activists who want to end the monarchy’s right to veto popular referendums say they have received threatening letters and seen far-right vandals deface campaign posters with Nazi slogans like ‘Heil Fatherland’ and ‘Democrats are the death of the people’.

Given the charged atmosphere in this state of just 36,000 people, few dare to speak out against billionaire Prince Hans-Adam von und zuLiechtenstein, whose family has ruled the 62-square-mile principality since 1699 and is credited with turning a rural backwater into a wealthy banking centre.

But democracy campaigners still managed to gather just enough signatures to call a referendum on the prince’s veto right – set for July 1 – by canvassing support in private and assuring voters that their names would be kept secret.