31 January 2013

Rabbani sees conspiracy to set up ‘unconstitutional’ caretaker govt

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Senator Raza Rabbani has alleged that a conspiracy was being hatched to set up an unconstitutional caretaker government for the next two to three years.

He added that any steps taken to dissolve the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) would also be against the constitution.

Speaking to reporters in Islamabad, Rabbani said that there was no other way to remove any member of the election commission other than through the process detailed in the Constitution of Pakistan. He said that non-democratic forces wished to derail and delay the election process. He reiterated that efforts were being made to install an unconstitutional set-up for two to three years.

On answer to a question, the senior PPP leader said that efforts were being made to create conditions similar to the 1977 general elections, and that a ‘sword of Damocles’ was ‘hanging over democracy’. Rabbani urged all democratic forces to unite against the ‘non-democratic forces’.

The senior politician’s comments come as the country gears up for general elections, with assemblies expected to be dissolved in mid-March for the election process to begin and a democratic government set to finish its five-year tenure for the first time in Pakistan’s history.

(Pic of Senator Raza Rabbani)

India and Pakistan resume cross-border travel in Kashmir

IndiaandPakistanare resuming cross-border trade and travel in theJammuregion more than a fortnight after ties were suspended following military tensions inKashmir.

The border crossing at Chakan da Bagh point in Poonch district was closed after a spate of deadly shootings in the disputed territory, although a second crossing point inKashmirValley, at Uri, did not shut after the clashes earlier this month.

Chakan da Bagh crossing was opened in 2006 to facilitate trade and travel between the divided Kashmiri families living along the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border betweenIndiaandPakistan.

The violence plunged the neighbours into the worst crisis in relations since the Mumbai attacks of 2008, which were blamed on militants based inPakistan.

The two armies agreed to ‘de-escalate’ tensions along the LoC after a meeting of their chiefs of operations. Both sides denied provoking the clashes in which two Indian and three Pakistani soldiers were killed.

(Pic of Chakan da Bagh crossing)

Hong Kong journalists publish press freedom petition

Hong Kongjournalists have run a petition in newspapers urging the city’s Beijing-backed leader to withdraw a proposed law which they said would infringe press freedom.

Local and foreign journalists have slammed a government plan to restrict access to information about company directors, after such details were used in a series of investigative reports to expose the wealth of Chinese officials.

The petition, which took the form of a full-page advertisement headlined ‘Secrecy breeds corruption’, was published in five local dailies and signed by nearly 1,800 reporters, journalism professors and students who urged the government to drop the plan.

‘Freedom of the press and free flow of information is a cornerstone ofHong Kong’s success,’ the petition read.

It called on the city leader Leung Chun-ying to ‘withdraw this retrogressive regulation which grossly impinges on freedom and openness, and stop pushing for this heinous law to limit press freedom’.

The former British colony, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, maintains a semi-autonomous status with guarantees of civil liberties – including press freedom – not seen in mainlandChina.

Under the proposal, corporate directors could apply to have their residential address and full identity card or passport numbers blocked from public view – a bid the government said was meant to protect their privacy.

But the plan has sparked uproar among journalists as it comes amid concerns overBeijing’s meddling in local affairs and after a number of reports focusing on the wealth and assets ofChina’s ruling elite grabbed headlines.

(Pics (side by side) ofHong Kongcity landscape and city leader Leung Chun-ying)

Sri Lanka’s war likened to wiping out PM’s constituency

British Labour Party member, Siobhain McDonagh, has compared the last phase of the Lankan military offensive (Jan-May 2009) against the LTTE to the massacre of an entire population of Witney, Carterton and Chipping Norton, if they were to be herded into an area smaller than Prime Minister David Cameron’s constituency.

Ms McDonagh, who represents Mitcham and Morden, has alleged that thousands of her constituents had been indirectly affected by the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan military. In a hard hitting letter to Prime Minister Cameron, she has said that his government cannot ignore the Tamil community in theUK, which numbers more than a quarter of a million.

The Labour MP warned Mr Cameron thatUKparticipation at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) this year inColombowould be nothing but an endorsement of the massacre of civilians. She stated in a letter to the prime minister: ‘If a nation had systematically killed every single person you knew in Witney, Carterton and Chipping Norton, raping and murdering in cold blood, I do not think that you would find it acceptable for that government to host an event as prestigious as a Commonwealth summit, or for our government to attend.’

Reiterating her call for an international war crimes inquiry into the conduct of the Sri Lankan military, Ms McDonagh urged David Cameron not to allowSri Lankato host CHOGM 2013 in November.

(Pic of atrocities inSri Lanka, Jan-May 2009)

Islamist rebels torch Timbuktu manuscript library

Islamist fighters fleeing Mali’s ancient Saharan city of Timbuktu as French and Malian troops closed in have set fire to a South African-funded library there containing thousands of priceless manuscripts, the city’s mayor has said.

‘The rebels set fire to the newly-constructed Ahmed Baba Institute built by the South Africans … this happened four days ago,’ Halle Ousmane said fromBamako. He said he had received the information from his chief of communications who had travelled south from the city.

Ousmane was not able to immediately say how much the building had been damaged. French and Malian troops were securing the city on Monday January 28.

The mayor said the Islamist rebels, who had occupied the fabled trading town since a Tuareg-led rebellion captured it on April 1 from government forces, also torched his office and the home of a member of parliament.

The Ahmed Baba Institute, one of several libraries and collections in the city containing fragile ancient documents dating back to the 13th century, is named after a Timbuktu-born contemporary of William Shakespeare and houses more than 20,000 scholarly manuscripts. Some were stored in underground vaults.

Fighters from the Islamist alliance in north Mali, which groups al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) with Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine and AQIM splinter group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), had also destroyed ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Moslems, provoking international outrage.

They had also applied amputations for thieves and stoning of adulterers under sharia law.

Iran cracks down on media before election

Iranian authorities have arrested more than a dozen journalists over their links to ‘anti-revolutionary’ media, Iranian media reported, in what appeared to be a coordinated crackdown on the press.

With a presidential election five months away,Iran’s clerical leadership appears to be tightening its grip on the media to avoid a repeat of the widespread protests that erupted after the disputed election in 2009.

Journalists working for reformist newspapers Arman, Bahar, Etemaad, Shargh, and the Aseman weekly – and Iran’s economy-focused ILNA labour news agency – were arrested on January 27 for cooperating with Persian-language ‘anti-revolutionary’ news outlets, Mehr news agency has reported.

The exact numbers were not known, but several outlets reported the arrests, withFarsnews agency saying around 11 journalists had been arrested on the orders of the judiciary. In addition, the opposition Kalame website said a reporter for Bahar and a journalist for ILNA were detained.

While not calling for outright dissent, the outlets have reported on an economy struggling under Western sanctions imposed overIran’s disputed nuclear programme, and often feature criticism of Iranian government policies.

Shargh was banned for several months in 2012 for publishing a cartoon deemed insulting to veterans of the Iran-Iraq war, while ILNA closely follows news of layoffs inIran’s factories – bad news for the leadership in the run up to June’s election.

The economy has taken a battering since the introduction of US banking sanctions a year ago that virtually severed links to the global financial system. Iranians have seen the price of food and goods soar and their spending power slump, especially on imports that are directly affected by the weakening rial.

(Pic of Iranian reformist newspapers, eg see below)

Clash between Pakistani Taliban and militia – 31 dead

At least 31 people were killed when Pakistan Taliban attacked a pro-government militia, according to reports from the two sides on January 26, but the Taliban were beaten back after hours of fierce fighting.

About 300 Taliban armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades launched the overnight assault in the Maiden area of Tirah, a maze of valleys on a route fromAfghanistanto the city ofPeshawar, a fighter of the pro-government Ansar ul-Islam militia said.

The militia beat the Taliban back, killing 15 and capturing 8, while three villagers, including an elderly woman, were killed in crossfire, he said.

A Taliban fighter said they had killed 13 members of the pro-government militia.

Since 2009, the Pakistani military and pro-government militias have been clawing back territory from the Taliban, who once controlled land a few hours’ drive from the capital ofIslamabad.

Pakistani government officials say the NATO withdrawal of troops fromAfghanistanin 2014 might strengthen the Taliban inPakistan. The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are separate groups but strong allies.

(Pic of Pakistan Taliban fighters)

Anger as India rape case teen to be tried as juvenile

An Indian teenager accused of taking part in last month’s gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old student inNew Delhiwill be tried as a juvenile, facing a maximum of three years in prison if convicted, a special panel has ruled.

The ruling shocked the victim’s father, who said, ‘A sudden current ran through my body in disbelief. I can’t believe this. How can they declare him a minor? Do they not see what they did?’

The teenager has not yet been formally charged because police were hoping he would be declared an adult so they could include him in the main trial of his five co-accused.

He does not have a lawyer and his account of what happened on December 16 is not known.

Lawyers for the five accused men said they would plead not guilty and one has accused police of torturing him, his lawyer said.

The panel’s decision on the youth is likely to infuriate many people, including protesters, some police and political leaders, who have called for the age at which people can be tried as adults to be lowered from 18 to 16.

A government committee examining changes to sexual crime laws, however, has recently ruled out such a move.

Police allege that the 17-year-old and five men gang-raped and severely beat the student on a moving bus in the capital before dumping her and a male friend in the road. The woman was so badly injured that she died of massive organ failure in aSingaporehospital two weeks later.

The case has sparked national debate about rampant crime against women, and President Pranab Mukherjee made an unusual call in a television state-of-the-nation address for the country to ‘reset its moral compass’.

(Pic of gang-rape protests on streets ofDelhi.)

France fears Islamist rise in Syria unless opposition helped

France’s foreign minister has warned thatSyriarisks falling into the hands of Islamist militant groups if supporters of the Syrian opposition do not do more to help it in a 22-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

Addressing the opening of a conference inPariswith senior members of the Syrian National Coalition, Laurent Fabius said the meeting must focus on making the opposition politically and militarily cohesive to encourage international assistance.

‘Facing the collapse of a state and society, it is Islamist groups that risk gaining ground if we do not act as we should,’ he said. ‘We cannot let a revolution that started as a peaceful and democratic protest degenerate into a conflict of militias.’

Western concern over the growing strength of jihadist militants fighting autonomously in the disorganised ranks of anti-Assad rebel forces is rising. This has hindered international aid to the moderate Syrian National Coalition opposition and may push it more into the arms of conservative Muslim backers, diplomatic sources say.

The meeting, which brought together Western and Arab nations and the three vice-presidents of the coalition, aims to tackle the lack of cohesion that has led to broken promises of aid.

Coalition vice-president Riad Seif said ‘time is not on our side’ and that the opposition no longer wanted pledges of support that would not be followed through on.

‘We need an interim or transitional government to provide assistance to millions of Syrians in liberated zones and to help bring the collapse of the (Assad) regime,’ he said.

(Pic of French foreign minister Laurent Fabius)

Obama ‘struggling’ over whether to intervene in Syria

President Barack Obama has said he has been wrestling with the question whether aUSmilitary intervention inSyria’s 22-month-old civil war would help resolve the bloody conflict or make things worse.

In a pair of interviews, Obama responded to critics who say theUnited Stateshas not been involved enough inSyria, where thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced according to UN officials. Transcripts of both interviews were released on January 27.

TheUnited Stateshas called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and has recognized an opposition coalition, but has stopped short of authorizing US arming of rebels to overthrow Assad.

‘In a situation likeSyria, I have to ask: can we make a difference in that situation?’ Obama said in an interview with The New Republic published on the magazine’s website.

Obama said he has to weigh the benefit of a military intervention with the ability of the Pentagon to support troops still inAfghanistan, where theUnited Statesis withdrawing combat forces after a dozen years of war.

‘Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime?

‘And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed inSyriaversus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in theCongo?’ he said.

Obama’s comments come as world leaders gathered in Davos, Switzerland, said they wished the United States were more engaged in geopolitical issues such as the conflicts in Syria and Mali, where France is attacking al-Qaeda-affiliated militants.

(Pics, side by side, of Barack Obama and conflict inSyria.)

North Korea threatens war with South over UN sanctions

North Koreahas threatened to attack rivalSouth KoreaifSeouljoins a new round of tightened UN sanctions, asWashingtonunveiled more of its own economic restrictions followingPyongyang’s rocket launch last month.

In a third straight day of fiery rhetoric, the North directed its verbal onslaught at its neighbour, saying: ‘“Sanctions” mean a war and a declaration of war against us.’

The reclusive North has recently declared a boycott of all dialogue aimed at ending its nuclear programme and vowed to conduct more rocket and nuclear tests after the UN Security Council censured it for a December long-range missile launch.

‘If the puppet group of traitors takes a direct part in the UN “sanctions”, the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will take strong physical counter-measures against it,’ the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said, referring to the South.

The committee is the North’s front for dealings with the South.

Speaking in Beijing, US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies said he found North Korea’s rhetoric ‘troubling and counterproductive’, and that he and his Chinese counterparts had agreed a new nuclear test would be harmful.

‘We will judgeNorth Koreaby its actions, not its words. These types of inflammatory statements byNorth Koreado nothing to contribute to peace and stability on the peninsula,’ he said.

(Pic of flags of North andSouth Korea)

Algeria gas pipeline attack kills two guards

Two security guards protecting a gas pipeline have been killed and seven others wounded in an attack by Islamists southeast of the Algerian capital, local residents have said.

The guards, who were attacked at their quarters in Djebahia, 125 kilometres (80 miles) southeast ofAlgiers, were part of an armed civilian unit protecting a gas pipeline in the Bouira region.

An ‘armed Islamist group’ carried out the attack around 9:00pm (2000 GMT), and after an hour-long fire-fight two guards were found dead, the residents said, citing survivors of the assault.

A medical source said the bodies of the two guards killed were transferred to Mohamed Boudiaf de Bouira hospital, where five of their colleagues were taken for treatment of gunshot wounds.

The army has launched a search operation for the assailants who fled, the residents said.

The attack comes nearly a fortnight after a deadly Islamist attack on a gas plant inAlgeria’s southernSaharadesert, in a hostage-taking siege that ended with the deaths of almost 40 captives, mostly foreigners.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the global network’s North Africa franchise, has its roots inAlgeria, where it is active in the Bouira region and in neighbouring Boumerdes and Tizi Ouzou, regularly carrying out attacks against military outposts there.

The January 16 kidnapping operation was claimed by a group calling itself ‘Signatories in Blood’, directed by former AQIM member Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

These recent attack victims were guarding a pipeline carrying gas from theSaharaDesert’s Hassi R’Mel field to the north of the country.

Gas pipeline attacks by armed Islamist groups were common duringAlgeriacivil war of the 1990s.