31 January 2012

Gilani reverses criticism of military

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf raza Gilani has appeared to back down from a confrontation with the military, moving away from remarks made earlier that it had acted unconstitutionally in supporting a court investigation of a controversial memo.

‘I want to dispel the impression that the military leadership acted unconstitutionally or violated rules,’ said Gilani, according to state television.

His comments appeared to be a bid to defuse tensions between the country’s civilian leaders and the powerful military and came a day after a high-level meeting with the military to discuss a possible trilateral summit on the future of Afghanistan.

‘The current situation cannot afford conflict among the institutions,’ he added, before leaving for Davos to attend the annual summit of the World Economic Forum.

He was accompanied by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Sheikh and other officials.

He is scheduled to hold meetings with world leaders who will gather at Davos, the Alpine Resort of Switzerland to deliberate upon the global economic issues.

Gilani had criticised the military earlier this month when he said affidavits submitted to the Supreme Court by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and ISI chief Lt Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha on ‘memogate’ were ‘unconstitutional and illegal’.

In an interview with the People`s Daily Online of China, which was released by the official Associated Press of Pakistan news agency, Mr Gilani said since the COAS and ISI DG had submitted their replies to the court without seeking approval of the competent authority under the rules of business, the statements carried no legal import.

Rockets hit Pak military academy

Attackers have fired rockets at Pakistan’s top military academy, damaging its outer wall in a major security breach near the home where Osama bin Laden lived for years, officials said.

No one was hurt in the January 27 pre-dawn attack and it was unclear who fired the nine rockets from behind a mosque in mountains overlooking the Kakul academy.

The garrison city of Abbottabad was considered one of the safest parts of nuclear-armed Pakistan until American special forces on May 2 found and killed the al Qaeda founder in a compound where he apparently lived for five years.

Three rockets damaged the outer wall of the academy, which is just 500 metres from the site of the US Navy SEALs raid that seriously damaged already turbulent relations between Pakistan and the United States.

‘Nine rockets were fired. Three… hit the boundary wall of the military academy and damaged it. No one was hurt in the attack,’ said Imtiaz Hussain Shah, a top local government official in Abbottabad. ‘We have launched a search operation,’ he added.

Officials blamed terrorists for the attack.

Shah told TV channel Geo that police had recovered nine rocket-launching pads behind a mosque, about 500 metres from the academy.

‘At this stage we cannot say who was involved, but they are terrorists and we are investigating how they managed to reach this place.’

Taliban and other militants are fighting an insurgency against the army, although there has been a marked decline in violence in recent months.

Meanwhile, Pakistani-US ties have reached a new low over US air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November, leading Pakistan to shut its Afghan border to NATO supplies and conduct a review of its alliance with Washington.

China: government to be more open, but internet controls remain

China will be more open about the often secretive workings of the government and ruling Communist Party in the coming year, although strict controls over the internet would remain in place, a senior propaganda official has said.

Officials will expand the use of government spokespeople, boost the overseas reach of state media, and further promote the use of microblogs to interact with the public, Wang Chen told reporters.

Chinese government departments have traditionally been tight-lipped, a result of authoritarian one-party rule in which officials had little accountability to the public and policies were drafted in high-level meetings without input from ordinary citizens.

However, amid rising incomes and increased demand for transparency and efficiency, departments over the past decade have appointed spokesmen to deal with media and the general public, and released an increasing flow of information.

Wang said news and information about government’s day-to-day activities, as well as emergency responses, would be expanded and systematized. Spokesmen would receive intensified training with an emphasis on obtaining first-hand information rather than simply passing on information from other departments, he said.

Much of that public interaction has been driven by the internet, and government departments at all levels now have not only websites but also Twitter-like microblogs on which to post breaking news. China has more people online than any other country – 513 million, nearly 360 million of whom primarily access the web over their mobiles and almost half of whom use microblogs.

The explosive growth of such services has underscored government efforts to rigorously police the internet for content promoting fraud, gambling or content considered politically sensitive information.

China also blocks major social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter out of fear they could be used to spread subversive content, or to organize public demonstrations such as those that spread last spring across the Arab world.

Aung San Suu Kyi registers for historic seat in Parliament

January 18: Ecstatic cheers of ‘Long Live Aung San Suu Kyi!’ echoed through the streets of the impoverished Rangoon suburb of Thanlyin as Burma’s most iconic figure registered her candidacy for a parliamentary by-election.

Throngs of flag-waving supporters crowded the local election office to shout support and catch a glimpse of the Nobel Peace laureate.

Suu Kyi’s decision to contest the April polls is the latest vote of confidence for reforms by the country’s new, nominally civilian government. Since taking office in March 2011, authorities have released hundreds of prominent political prisoners, signed ceasefires with ethnic rebels, increased press freedoms and opened a dialogue with Suu Kyi herself.

Even if Suu Kyi’s party wins all 48 seats to be contested April 1, it will have minimal power. The 440-seat lower house of Parliament is heavily weighted with military appointees and allies of the former junta.

But a victory would be historic, as it would give the longtime political prisoner a voice in Parliament for the first time in her decades-long role as the country’s opposition leader.

Suu Kyi registered to run for a seat representing Kawhmu, a poor district south of Rangoon. The Election Commission must still accept her candidacy, a ruling expected to come next month. Her party has so far chosen 44 candidates to contest the 48 seats vacated by lawmakers who became Cabinet ministers.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in 1990 elections but was denied power by the military junta. In 2010, the military held another general election, but Suu Kyi’s party said the rules were unfair and declined to participate.

Reforms since the election have prompted Suu Kyi to change their mind and drawn praise from the international community.

The US announced recently it would upgrade diplomatic relations with the country and send an ambassador to Burma for the first time in two decades. President Obama praised the recent release of hundreds of political prisoners as ‘a substantial step forward for democratic reform’.

Mahmoud to consult with Arab League as dialogue with Israel ends

Exploratory peace talks with Israel have ended with nothing to show for them, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has said, pledging to consult with the Arab League about the next moves and leaving open the possibility of an extension.

After a total break of more than a year, international mediators persuaded the sides to send their negotiators to Jordan to explore the possibility of resuming peace talks. Reflecting the depth of their differences, they could not even agree on when to submit proposals.

Abbas said he would discuss the prospects with the Arab League. Israel wants to keep talking, and Abbas is under mounting international pressure not to walk away.

Visiting EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is scheduled to meet separately with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Two officials involved in the contacts said she is trying to put together a package of Israeli incentives that would keep the Palestinians in the talks.

In the Jordanian-mediated exploratory talks, Israeli and Palestinian envoys have met several times over the past month. The Quartet of international mediators – the US, the UN, the EU and Russia – said last autumn that it expected both sides to submit detailed proposals on borders and security arrangements, in hopes the dialogue would evolve into full-fledged peace talks.

Palestinian officials said they submitted their proposals, but that Israel did not. ‘If we demarcate the borders, we can return to negotiations, but Israel does not want to do that,’ Abbas said after talks in Jordan with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

Israel says it has submitted a document outlining the areas that need to be discussed, but it was not characterized as a proposal.

Nigerian president sacks police chief after Islamist attacks

Nigeria’s president has fired the country’s police chief and all six of his deputies after a wave of Islamist attacks that has fuelled growing criticism of the country’s security policies.

The move came a day after gunmen stormed a police station in Nigeria’s second city of Kano, the latest raid blamed on the Islamist group Boko Haram, who are accused of killing more than 250 people this year alone.

President Goodluck Jonathan appointed Mohammed D Abubakar to replace Hafiz Ringim, ‘as a first step towards the comprehensive reorganisation and repositioning of the Nigeria police force to make it more effective and capable of meeting emerging internal security challenges,’ said a statement.

Hafiz, who was police chief for less than a year, faced scathing criticism after suspected Boko Haram member Kabiru Sokoto escaped police custody while being transferred to a police station near the capital Abuja.

The statement said Jonathan had also approved the ‘retirement’ of six deputy police chiefs with immediate effect.

Jonathan also appointed a committee ‘to oversee the urgent reorganisation’ of the police, following a spate of increasingly sophisticated and bloody attacks blamed on Boko Haram in several northern areas of the country.

In the group’s deadliest onslaught yet, at least 185 people were killed on January 20 in a wave of coordinated gun and bomb attacks that mainly targeted police stations in the main northern city of Kano. Four days later, gunmen converged on a Kano police station, killing one woman.

Suicide bomber kills 31 in Baghdad attack

A suicide bomber has detonated his explosive-filled taxi near a Shi’ite funeral procession in Baghdad, killing 31 people and bringing the death toll from violence since an Iraqi political crisis erupted in December to more than 400.

The bomber exploded his vehicle near the group of mourners passing by a small market street in the mainly Shi’ite Zaafaraniya neighborhood in the south of the Iraqi capital, police officials and hospitals said.

The Shi’ite-led government often blames Sunni Islamist insurgents for attacks targeting Shi’ites, saying they are trying to stoke the kind of sectarian slaughter which killed tens of thousands of Iraqis at the peak of the war in 2006-2007.

The January 27 funeral was for a Shi’ite real estate agent who was killed by gunmen in Baghdad a day earlier, police said. The motive for his murder was not clear.

But the suicide car bomber appeared to target the funeral near Zaafaraniya police station, blowing himself up close to shops and the market, said an official at the office of Baghdad security spokesman Qassim al-Moussawi.

Sunni insurgents also often target local government offices and police stations and patrols as a way to show the authorities are unable to provide security.

More than 320 people have been killed in attacks in Iraq since the start of the year alone and nearly 800 more wounded.

Turmoil in Iraq has wider consequences in a region warily watching neighbouring Syria’s increasingly sectarian crisis, and where Sunni Gulf Arab nations and heavyweight Turkey are trying to counter the influence of Shi’ite Iran.

Iran nuclear secrets to be exposed by inspectors’ visit

Iran must open its nuclear facilities to a team of inspectors heading to Tehran as the full extent of its atomic work remains a mystery, a leading international official has said.

Yukiya Amano, the International Atomic Energy Agency chief, has said that the organisation’s previous efforts to verify whether all its activities were for non-military purposes had been hampered by ‘a lack of cooperation’ from Iran which he hoped would change.

‘We hope they [Iran] will take a constructive approach,’ Amano said. ‘We hope that there will be substantial cooperation.’

However he added that there was the possibility of more nuclear secrets being uncovered in Iran. ‘We are not very sure that Iran has declared everything.’

At the same meeting, Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, said an Iranian nuclear weapon would mean ‘the end of any anti-proliferation regime’

‘Iran is determined to more forward toward a nuclear-military programme,’ Barak told a panel in Davos, Switzerland. ‘They are ready to fight and deceive the whole world to turn into a nuclear-military power.’

A report by the IAEA in November highlighted a range of areas which had raised suspicions that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons, despite its repeated denials. It detailed 12 suspicious areas such as testing explosives in a steel container at a military base and studies on Shahab-3 ballistic missile warheads.

Amano said it was too early to say definitively that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons programme. But he added: ‘We have information that indicates that Iran has engaged in activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.’

Barack Obama kicks off re-election campaign

The battle to claim America began in earnest on January 25 as Democrats and Republicans set out starkly contrasting visions of how to address the nation’s bloated finances and get the country back to work.

Hours after delivering an intensely political and populist State of the Union address, President Barack Obama took to the road on a three-day tour of five politically crucial states that pollsters say will very likely decide the outcome of November’s election.

Speaking at an engineering plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Mr Obama hammered home his message of investing to create a ‘fair America’ by doubling taxes on millionaires who he said were being ‘subsidised’ by tax breaks brokered by elite vested interests in Washington.

‘We’re not going to go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing and bad debt and phoney financial promises,’ he said, repeating his attack on the banks that caused the 2008 financial crisis, “That’s not how America was built and we’re not going to go back to that.’

As the US national debt passed $15 trillion, Mr Obama’s prescription for a brighter future was greater investment in training, higher spending on infrastructure and tax incentives for American companies and manufacturers to bring jobs back home from abroad.

‘Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans?’ Mr Obama asked in his State of the Union address. ‘Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else – like education and medical research; a strong military and care for our veterans? Because if we’re serious about paying down our debt, we can’t do both.’

Violence escalates as observers leave Syria

Syrian troops backed by tanks have reportedly launched an offensive on the outskirts of Damascus, in order to regain control of the area. Activists say over 60 people have been killed – just over a day after the Arab’s League mission was frozen.

Officials in Moscow said that the decision to halt the mission was going to inflame an already volatile situation in Syria, which has clearly now happened.

On a recent visit to Brunei, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he could not understand why such a useful tool as the observer mission was not used to its full potential.

‘We would like to know why they are treating such a useful instrument in this way,’ he was quoted as saying.

The observer mission has virtually ground to a halt. It has never recovered from the Gulf States’ decision to pull out from the mission, rather than making it more effective. They took this decision, they said, because they felt the mission had failed to hold the Syrian government to its pledge to end the violence.

The move by some members of the Arab League looks particularly surprising because it occurred at exactly the same time as the decision was made to extend the observer mission in Syria.

The Arab League is to brief the UN on January 31 on their findings. Moscow claims it is not yet familiar with the contents of the report but would not support any plan that would potentially or directly leave the door open for foreign military intervention. On top of that, Moscow has called the Western stance – which basically states that it is impossible to hold dialogue with the Assad regime – irresponsible and unforgivable, while pointing out that the Arab League’s mission was the one opportunity to pursue a resolution through dialogue.

The conflict in Syria, meanwhile, is creeping towards the country’s capital.

Democracy ‘threatened’ as Greece on brink of bankruptcy

Greece is facing ‘the spectre of bankruptcy and all the dire consequences that entails’, prime minister Lucas Papademos has warned.

The Greek premier said that unless the country’s international backers agreed to a new bail-out, it would be unable to pay off its loans and be forced out of the eurozone.

EU leaders are due to meet in Brussels amid growing concern that Greece will fail to implement the austerity measures its international backers are demanding as a condition of the latest package of financial support. Without that bail-out, Greece will be unable to repay €15 billion of loans due in March.

Amid doubts about Greek willingness to cut spending and raise taxes, Germany has suggested that a European commissioner should take effective control of Greek fiscal policy to ensure the country accepts austerity. Evangelos Venizelos, the Greek finance minister, rejected that plan, saying it would undermine Greece’s ‘national identity and dignity’.

Philipp Rösler, the German economy minister, insisted that some external control over Greek policies had to be considered. ‘If the Greeks fail to do this themselves, the leadership and monitoring must come in a stronger way from outside, for example via the EU,’ he said.

But Iain Duncan Smith, the British Work and Pensions Secretary, suggested that the German plan was a threat to European democracy.

Afghanistan to press Pakistan for access to Taliban

Afghanistan will press Pakistan for access to Taliban leaders during a one-day visit to Kabul by Pakistan’s foreign minister, with Afghan officials hoping to ease cross-border strains and lay the ground for peace negotiations with the insurgents.

Hina Rabbani Khar will visit Kabul on February 1 to discuss reconciliation and nascent plans for peace talks ahead of a meeting between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban in Saudi Arabia in coming weeks.

Khar’s trip will mark the first high-level meetings between officials from the countries in months.

Pakistan is seen as critical to US efforts to stabilize Afghanistan before foreign combat troops leave in 2014.

‘We hope it will mark a new phase in the relationship between both countries,’ Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai said.

Senior Afghan security sources have said that Afghan officials would use Khar’s visit to press for access to Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban captured in Pakistan in 2010, as well as other members of a Taliban council known as the Quetta Shura, after the Pakistani city of Quetta where the leaders are said to be based.