28 February 2013

Pakistan arrests militant leader over Quetta bombings

Police said they have arrested the leader of a banned militant group in connection with sectarian attacks in the northwestern city ofQuettathat have killed nearly 200 people this year.

Two bombings about a month apart, targeting the minority Shi’ite Hazara community inQuetta, were claimed by the Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). They sparked demonstrations across the country and the dismissal of the local government.

Police said they arrested LeJ leader Malik Ishaq in the town ofRahim YarKhan at his home on Friday February 22.

‘LeJ has accepted responsibility for the recentQuettablast and Ishaq is its supreme commander. That’s why we have arrested him and 24 other LeJ militants,’ said Zafar Chatta, the district police officer.

The LeJ claimed responsibility for a blast that killed 85 people on February 16 in the provincial capital ofQuetta. It also claimed responsibility for blasts on January 9 that killed 96 in the same city.

It was unclear why authorities did not arrest Ishaq, who was living openly at his home protected by gunmen, after the LeJ claimed the first bombing.

Pakistani leaders have done little to contain hardline Sunni Muslim groups, which have stepped up a campaign of bombings and assassinations of Shi’ites in a bid to destabilise the nuclear-armed country and install a Sunni theocracy.

The LeJ, whose roots are in the heartlandPunjabprovince, wants to expel the Shi’ites, who make up about a fifth of the 180 million population. Human Rights Watch says more than 400 Shi’ites were killed in sectarian attacks last year.

(Pic of protestors staging sit-in inQuetta)

‘BirminghamThree’ convicted of bomb plot

Three men fromBirminghamhave been found guilty of plotting a bombing campaign intended to be bigger than the 7/7Londonattacks.

Irfan Naseer, 31, Irfan Khalid and Ashik Ali, both 27, planned to set off up to eight explosive devices in crowded areas, and posed as bogus charity collectors to raise money to fund their plans.

Naseer and Khalid were also found guilty of attending a terrorist training camp inPakistanand Naseer with assisting four younger men to travel there after them.

All three will also face sentencing for trying to recruit others fromBirminghamto join the plot, which Khalid described as being ‘another 9-11’. Naseer talked of ‘spilling so much blood you’ll have nightmares for the rest of your lives’.

The convictions come at the end of a 14-week trial at Woolwich Crown Court. A jury of six men and six women returned unanimous verdicts, finding the defendants guilty of all 12 charges of engaging in conduct in preparation of acts of terrorism.

The judge, Mr Justice Henriques, told them all to expect life sentences with substantial minimum terms. Sentencing will take place at Woolwich Crown Court at a date yet to be set.

(Pics of Irfan Naseer, Irfan Khalid and Ashik Ali)

Hyderabad attacks: the search for evidence

Indian police are investigating whether a shadowy Islamic militant group was responsible for a dual bomb attack that killed 16 people outside a film theatre and a bus station in the southern city of Hyderabad.

The group, Indian Mujahideen, is thought to have links with militants in neighbouringPakistan.

India’s recent execution of an Islamic militant is being examined as a possible motive for the bombings, said an investigator who spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal details of the probe.

Police have not detained anyone in connection with the February 21 attacks, the first major terror bombings inIndiasince 2011.

According to aNew Delhipolice report, two suspected Indian Mujahideen militants who were arrested last year said during questioning that they had done reconnaissance of Dilsukh Nagar, theHyderabaddistrict where the blasts occurred. They had also visited various spots inNew Delhi, Mumbai and Pune.

In a statement inIndia’s Parliament, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said that in response to the ‘cowardly terror attack’, the government will ‘make all efforts to apprehend the perpetrators and masterminds behind the blast and ensure that they are punished as per the law’.

Pakistanhas strongly condemned the blasts. ‘Terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security. All acts of terrorism are unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation,’ the Pakistan Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

(Pic of aftermath ofHyderabadbomb blasts)

Five killed in Mali attacks

Five people have been killed in a remote Malian town in car bomb attacks by Islamists on Tuareg MNLA rebels with close links to French forces, a spokesman for the Tuareg fighters said.

Violence in northernMaliunderscores the risk of French and African forces becoming entangled in a messy guerrilla war as they try to helpMali’s weak army counter bombings and raids by al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants.

The February 22 car bomb attacks in In Khalil, 1,700 km (1,000 miles) northeast of the capitalBamako, came a day after a car bomb killed two people in the northern city ofKidaland French and Malian troops killed 15 Islamists on the streets of the city ofGao.

Moussa Ag Assarid, a Paris-based representative of the pro-autonomy MNLA Tuareg fighters, said suspected Islamists had first tried to drive into a building in In Khalil, but the car was destroyed by fighters ahead of impact. A second car then drove into the group’s local operations centre and exploded.

The MNLA swept across northernMaliin April, taking advantage of a power vacuum left by a coup inBamako. But its revolt was eclipsed by a loose alliance of Islamist jihadists, including al-Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM.

Franceis six weeks into an offensive to clear Islamist fighters fromMali’s north, whichParissaid was in danger of becoming a springboard for attacks on the region and the West.

(Pic of French forces inMali)

Iran nuclear talks – world powers to ‘make offer’

Major world powers are meeting Iranian nuclear negotiators inKazakhstanfor the first time in eight months.

It is understood there will be what diplomats are calling a ‘new offer’ to the Iranians to try to make progress in the stalled nuclear stand-off.

A senior diplomat said: ‘We will take an offer with us. It is substantial and serious and will involve significant new elements.’

Tehran insists its nuclear programme is for civilian energy and medical research, but the European Union and members of the UN Security Council, including the US, suspect Iran has a covert atomic weapons programme.

WashingtonandBrusselshave adopted a dual-track approach toIran– pursuing nuclear talks while pressing sanctions to try to forceTehranto make a deal. AUSproposal for a one-on-one meeting withIranon the sidelines of the talks in the Kazak city ofAlmatyremains on the table.

The diplomat told Sky News: ‘Iranhas a great deal to gain from the talks. It wants sanctions lifted. The talks present an opportunity to re-shape relations.

‘The prize is a great one, but the negotiations are difficult and complex. We have a good offer. We hope the Iranians will respond positively.’

Negotiators hope the Almaty talks will give them some sense of whether the Iranians have any interest in genuinely pursuing diplomacy.

Obama: he’ll listen, but no peace plan

US President Barack Obama will not bring a peace plan toIsraeland thePalestinianTerritoriesnext month, but rather intends to listen, Secretary of State John Kerry has said.

Obama’s plan to visit has raised speculation of a new US push to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, stalled since 2010 in a dispute over Israeli settlement expansion in the occupiedWest Bank.

But Kerry, speaking to German students during his first foreign trip asWashington’s top diplomat, played down expectations.

‘We’re not going to go and sort of plunk a plan down and tell everybody what they have to do,’ he said. ‘I want to consult and the president wants to listen.’

Obama, who has a testy relationship with right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, made peace between Israelis and Palestinians a priority in his first term but, four years later, has little to show for it.

In recent months, each side has antagonised the other –Israelby building Jewish settlements on occupied land and the Palestinians by seeking enhanced status at the United Nations.

Kerry said that after Obama’s trip, which also includes a stop inJordan, theUnited Stateswould see how it might pursue peace. He urged all sides to behave calmly and keep the possibility of peace alive.

Tensions have risen in the West Bank, territory that the Palestinians want to be part of a future state including the Gaza Strip andEast Jerusalem, after the recent death of a Palestinian in an Israeli jail in contested circumstances.

A hunger strike by four other Palestinian prisoners has also fuelled violent protests.

(Pic of Obama and Netanyahu)

Delhiparliament attack plotter hanged

A Kashmiri militant sentenced to death over a 2001 plot to attack the Indian parliament has been hanged after his final clemency plea was rejected.

Mohammed Afzal Guru, who had been on death row since 2002, was executed at Tihar jail nearDelhion February 9. Guru had always denied plotting the 13 December 2001 attack, which left 14 dead.

Indiastepped up security and announced a curfew in Indian-administeredKashmir, where news of the execution sparked unrest.

Executions are rare inIndia– Guru’s is only the second since 2004, after Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving attacker from the 2008 Mumbai atrocity was executed last November.

Indiablamed the Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group, which it said was backed byPakistan, for the parliament attack.Pakistandenied any involvement but relations between the two countries nosedived.

Afzal Guru was one of two men sentenced to death for helping to plan the attack, although the sentence of Shaukat Hussain was later reduced on appeal to ten years in jail. Guru was found guilty of arranging weapons for the attackers and of membership of Jaish-e-Mohammed, both of which he denied. Two other people accused in the case were acquitted due to a lack of evidence.

Opinion is divided on the case, as Guru was not actually part of the team that attacked the parliament so some believe his sentence should have been commuted to life imprisonment.

However, others think that democratic processes have been fairly followed, as Guru’s appeal was first refused by the Supreme Court and then the president. ‘This is the law taking its course,’ said Home Secretary R K Singh.

(Pic of Mohammed Afzal Guru)

South Korea swears in first female president

Park Geun-Hye has becomeSouth Korea’s first female president, vowing zero tolerance towards North Korean provocation and demandingPyongyang‘abandon its nuclear ambitions’ immediately.

As leader of Asia’s fourth-largest economy, Geun-Hye, the 61-year-old daughter of late military strongman Park Chung-Hee, faces challenges of slowing growth and soaring welfare costs in one of the world’s most rapidly ageing societies.

Taking the oath of office less than two weeks afterNorth Koreacarried out its third nuclear test, she called on the regime inPyongyangto ‘abandon its nuclear ambitions without delay’ and rejoin the international community.

‘North Korea’s recent nuclear test is a challenge to the survival and future of the Korean people, and there should be no mistake that the biggest victim will be none other thanNorth Koreaitself,’ she said.

‘I will not tolerate any action that threatens the lives of our people and the security of our nation,’ she added, while promising to pursue the trust-building policy withPyongyangthat she had promised in her campaign.

Observers say her options will be limited by the international outcry over the North’s February 12 nuclear test, which has emboldened the hawks in her ruling conservative party who oppose closer engagement.

There was no immediate reaction fromPyongyang, but an editorial in the ruling Workers’ Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun carried a clear message for Geun-Hye to avoid the ‘confrontational’ policies of her predecessor Lee Myung-Bak.

(Pic of Park Geun-Hye)

Syria ready to talk with opposition

Syriais ready for talks with its armed opponents, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem has said, in the clearest offer yet of negotiations with rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

But Moualem said at the same timeSyriawould pursue its fight ‘against terrorism’, alluding to the conflict with rebels in which the United Nations says 70,000 people have been killed.

His offer of talks drew a dismissive response from US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was starting a nine-nation tour of European and Arab capitals inLondon.

‘It seems to me that it’s pretty hard to understand how, when you see the Scuds falling on the innocent people ofAleppo, it is possible to take their notion that they are ready to have a dialogue very seriously,’ Kerry said.

He said US President Barack Obama was evaluating more steps to ‘fulfil our obligation to innocent people’, without giving details or saying whether Washington was reconsidering whether to arm the rebels, an option it has previously rejected.

Obama has carefully avoided deeperUSinvolvement inSyria, at the heart of a volatile Middle East, as he has withdrawn troops fromIraqand extracts them fromAfghanistan.

(Pic of conflict inSyria)

Fidel Castro backs move to younger leadership

Fidel Castro and the Cuban communist party have given the green light for reforms paving the way for a new, younger generation of leaders in the single-party state.

As expected, the February 24 session ofCuba’s National Assembly re-elected Castro’s 82-year-old brother Raul to serve a second and final five-year presidential term.

But the assembly also promoted Miguel Diaz-Canel, 52, already a member of the Council of State, to a senior vice presidency of that panel, making him the number two figure in the regime.

The official newspaper Granma said that the changes were approved at a meeting of the Communist Party central committee, whose members had not been told in advance of the changes.

Castro, 86, attended the meeting, in which the National Assembly that was elected on February 3 with no opposition candidates took up its seats. It chose a new 31-member council of state,Cuba’s top executive body, with Raul Castro again as its president.

Diaz-Canel already had a post, but was promoted to first vice president, sweeping past some Castro revolutionary era veterans who are historic figures of the gerontocracy that now rules the country.

As political heir, Diaz-Canel cuts a starkly different profile from the revolutionary leadership, whose members are mostly in their 80s. If he comes to leadCuba, he would be the first leader of the regime whose entire life has been under the Castro regime that started in January 1959.

Italyat impasse after vote

Italywas at an impasse after an election seen as crucial for the eurozone failed to produce a clear winner and provided a shock debut for a populist anti-austerity party, rattling world markets.

The Milan stock market plunged nearly 5 per cent in early morning trading and Asian markets tumbled after centre-left Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani scraped a razor-thin victory in the lower house of parliament, but the Senate remained up for grabs. Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing forces came a close second, winning 29.18 per cent of the vote to 29.54 percent for Bersani in the lower house.

A majority in both chambers of parliament is required to form a government, leavingItalyin a state of limbo with a hung parliament that is unprecedented in its post-war history.

European capitals fear the lack of a clear winner could bring fresh instability to the eurozone’s third largest economy afterGermanyandFranceand plunge it back into the debt crisis storm.

(Pic of centre-left Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani casting his vote)

Indian is among top Alzheimer’s Young Scientists

A young Indian researcher has been selected for the prestigious Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation’s (ADDF) US Young Investigator Scholarship Award.

The award is presented by the ADDF to 30 outstanding young investigators throughout the world working in the field of Alzheimer’s drug discovery. It recognizes the early achievements of talented young scientists and seeks to encourage the career development of the next generation of researchers.

The International Scientific Advisory Committee selected Dr Mahaveer Golechha for his outstanding research on the neuroprotective properties of Naringin, a bioflavonoid found in grapefruit and other citrus fruits. In his study, Dr Golechha found that Naringin possesses significant anti-Alzheimer activity and acts through multiple mechanisms such as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-beta amyloid and anti-apoptotic.

Naringin would ‘act at a pathological level’ in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, a neurodegenerative disorder that generally affects the elderly population, said Dr Golechha. The global incidence of dementia is estimated to be 24.3 million, with 4.6 million new cases being diagnosed annually, and it is estimated that by 2025 at least 34 million people worldwide will be affected by Alzheimer’s.

Dr Golechha, who is currently pursuing a Master’s in health policy, planning and finance at the London School of Economics and London School of Hygiene, earned his postgraduate degree fromIndia’s premier medical institute, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, graduating in first position.

(Pic of Dr Mahaveer Golechha, below)

Francewill not negotiate withCameroonhostage-takers

Francewill not negotiate with gunmen claiming to be from Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram who have taken a French family of seven hostage, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said.

The three adults and four children were seized in northCameroonnear the Nigerian border. In a video posted online, the gunmen threatened to kill them unless authorities inNigeriaandCameroonfreed Islamist militants held there.

The kidnapping has brought to 15 the number of French citizens held in central and west Africa and highlighted the danger to French nationals and interests in the region sinceParissent troops toMalilast month to help oust Islamist rebels.

Le Drian said the fighting inMaliwas not close to an end and troops were facing stiff resistance from the ‘strongest and most organised’ rebels, underscoring the risk of French and African forces becoming entangled in a messy guerrilla war.

The French defence minister ruled out talks with their captors, saying: ‘We do not play this bidding game because that’s terrorism. We do not negotiate on that kind of basis, with these kind of groups. We will use all (other) possible means to ensure these and other hostages are freed.’

The abduction was the first case of foreigners being seized in the mostly Muslim north ofCameroon, a former French colony. But the region – with typically porous borders – is considered within the operational sphere of Boko Haram, one of a number of al-Qaeda linked groups in the region, and fellow Nigerian Islamist militants Ansaru.