31 July 2012

Baloch leaders snub PM’s bid for dialogue

Balochistan’s leaders have rejected the Pakistani Prime Minister’s recent invitation to talk, saying that the Baloch issue can’t be resolved until missing people are recovered and those involved in the custodial killings of 500 Baloch political workers are brought to justice.

National Party Vice President Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo has said that, before dialogue can take place, confidence-building measures must be taken. He said more than 400 mutilated bodies of those who had gone missing have been found, and thousands more people are still missing. Mr Bizenjo said that elements involved in the deaths of political workers must be brought to justice, the killers of Nawab Akbar Bugti must be punished immediately, and cases must be registered against those involved in kidnapping people for ransom.

‘The Baloch are ready to sit at the negotiation table if the PM begins an investigation against all those, whether civilian or military, involved in kidnapping people and dumping their bodies,’ he said, adding that if the federal government is sincere and has the courage to do so, then avenues for negotiation are always open.

Mama Qadeer Baloch, vice chairman for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), said he doesn’t understand the Pakistani government seeking negotiations with the Baloch leadership while the killings continue. He added that, until the military is withdrawn from Balochistan, the Baloch leadership will never sit at the table.

A member of the Baloch Students Organization central committee, Mohammad Jan Baloch, accusedPakistan’s state machinery of killing innocent political workers, journalists, students and others. The Balochistan National Party (Mengal) has long been demanding an end to these atrocities against the people of Balochistan, he said, but to little avail.

In a statement, the Balochistan Republican Party (BRP) leader Sureesh Bugti accused the government of calling for negotiation whilst simultaneously carrying out offensive military operations in Balochistan, such as the huge military operation in the Dasht area of Mastung. Soon after the offer to negotiate, security forces attacked the house of elderly Baloch nationalist Abdul Nabi Bangulzai in Mastung. Furthermore, he claimed that a huge offensive had been started in Rajanpur district against Bugti refugees.

New Afghan laws in limbo

For Afghan mining officials and their Western advisers, revamping the Afghan laws that cover mining and oil drilling looked like an easy sell with a big pay-off: new rules would give foreign investors certainty and, in the process, begin transformingAfghanistanfrom a ward of the international community into a state that could better pay its own way.

Instead, the new laws are now in limbo after a group of Afghan cabinet ministers and senior officials last week objected to the draft legislation as kowtowing to foreign mining interests eager to hijackAfghanistan’s natural resources.

With the end of the NATO military mission inAfghanistanlooming in 2014, the dispute over the legislation reflects growing Afghan unease over how steep a price their country – among the world’s poorest and most corrupt – may have to pay for outside help in the future.

The cabinet’s recent rejection of the draft legislation in a special session caught Western diplomats inKabuloff guard.  The draft legislation is intended to update earlier laws written with World Bank assistance and passed in 2009. Those laws are seen by the mining industry as highly problematic, as, for instance, they give no guarantee that a company that conducts exploration would get to exploit what it found.

Gilgit rights activist ‘illegally detained and tortured’

Baba Jan, a rights activist in Gilgit, has allegedly been subjected to severe physical and mental torture by a joint investigation team after he was implicated in a ‘criminal case’ registered against him under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) on July 20 – at a time when he was in jail. Rights activists and legal experts say the case was registered against Baba Jan after the court accepted his bail petition and ordered his release in another case registered against him in August last year, while he was leading a protest procession, staged by those affected by the Attabad Lake landslide against the government for not compensating them.

‘Baba Jan and another rights activist, Iftikhar Hussain, were abducted from Gilgit jail on July 20 by a joint investigation team (JIT) and are being tortured and kept in illegal detention,’ said LPP spokesman Farooq Tariq. ‘He (Baba Jan) is a member of the Labour Party Pakistan’s federal committee. LPP Youth Secretary Iftikhar Hussain, Rashid Minhas, Amir Khan and Sher Khan have also been imprisoned in various jails in Gilgit since September 2011. They have been charged under the ATA, despite the fact they have not committed any crime. They are being victimised for the support they rendered toAttabadLakevictims last year.’

Mr Tariq added that in August 2011, during the protest by the lake victims, the police opened fire on peaceful demonstrators, killing a student, Afzal Beg. When his father went to recover his body, he too was shot and later died. Instead of charging the officers responsible for these murders, the Gilgit-Baltistan administration registered false cases against more than 100 political activists, including Baba Jan. It is on these charges that he has been imprisoned for the past nine months.

Northeast India clashes kill 35, displace 170,000

The death toll from ethnic violence in northeastIndiahas risen to 35, officials said, as military reinforcements were called in to quell more than four days of clashes.

At least 170,000 villagers have fled their homes inAssamstate to seek shelter in relief camps, government buildings and schools to escape the unrest, which has raged since July 20, with dozens of homes burnt down.

Nine people were killed in overnight clashes raging between indigenous Bodo tribes and Muslim settlers who have fought for years over long-standing territorial disputes in the remote region.

‘The situation is tense and we are getting additional paramilitary troopers,’Assampolice chief J N Choudhury told reporters.

News channels broadcast pictures of homes that had been set ablaze by rioters, and of women and children gathered in the government-run camps where food is handed out and soldiers are on duty to provide protection.

Northeast India, which is linked to the rest of the country by a narrow land bridge, has seen decades of friction among ethnic and separatist groups, though some of the biggest rebel movements have recently started peace talks with the government.

The Press Trust of India news agency reported that the fighting started when two Muslim student leaders were shot and seriously injured in Kokrajhar, leading to revenge strikes on Bodo groups.

A team of senior Indian home ministry officials have arrived inAssamto oversee the security plan.

‘We are trying our best to bring the situation under control and appeal for peace and restraint,’AssamChief Minister Tarun Gogoi said after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for the violence to be controlled.

Syrian armoured column closes in onAleppo

The Syrian army has turned its forces onAleppo, ordering an armoured column to advance on the country’s second biggest city and pounding rebel fighters there with artillery and attack helicopters, opposition activists said.

As hostilities intensified near the Turkish border,Turkeysaid it was closing its crossing posts, although the United Nations said refugees fleeingSyriawould be allowed through.

Two top Syrian diplomats, in theUnited Arab EmiratesandCyprus, have deserted their posts, becoming the latest officials to abandon theDamascusgovernment, rebels said.

The 16-month revolt against President Bashar al-Assad has been transformed from an insurgency in remote provinces into a battle for control of the two main cities, Aleppo and the capital, Damascus, where fighting recently exploded.

Assad’s forces have launched massive counter assaults in both cities. They appear to have beaten rebels back from neighbourhoods in the capital and are turning towardsAleppo, a commercial hub in the north.

On July 25, Syrian forces fired artillery and rockets at the northernDamascussuburb of al-Tel in an attempt to seize it from rebels, causing panic and forcing hundreds of families to flee, residents and opposition activists said.

The 216th mechanized battalion headquartered near Tel started bombarding the town of about 100,000 people before dawn and initial reports indicated residential apartment blocks were being hit, they said.

‘Military helicopters are flying now over the town. People were awakened by the sound of explosions and are running away,’ Rafe Alam, one of the activists, said by phone from a hill overlooking Tel. ‘Electricity and telephones have been cut off.’

Opposition sources also reported helicopters and machineguns were firing on the neighbourhood of Hajar al-Aswad. The slum lies on the southern outskirts of the capital and has been a haven for rebels sneaking intoDamascusfrom the suburbs.

Military experts believe an overstretched Syrian army is pulling back to concentrate on fighting insurgents in Aleppo and Damascus, important power centres for the government, while leaving outlying areas in the hands of rebels.

Gunmen kill Pakistani Taliban commander linked to deadly attack

Gunmen have shot dead a Pakistan Taliban commander linked to an attack on a volleyball tournament in northwestPakistanin 2010 that killed almost 100 people, officials said.

Maulana Ashraf Marwat was killed inPakistan’s Shaktoi area ofSouth Waziristannear the Afghan border on July 24, said mourners at his funeral. The identity of the gunmen who shot him was unclear.

Police blamed Marwat for helping organize the deadly 2010 attack on the Shah Hasankhel village in the northwestern Lakki Marwat district, in which a truck packed with explosives was detonated at a volley ball tournament.

Marwat was linked to the Pakistani Taliban, said a leader of a local pro-government militia.

The police also say Marwat killed another Taliban commander, Maulana Iftikhar Marwat, reportedly because of his association with the Afghan Taliban. The dispute between the two men highlighted tensions within the insurgency.

Iftikhar Marwat had apparently urged militants from his native Lakki Marwat district to focus their fight on foreign forces inAfghanistaninstead of against Pakistani security forces.

That angered Ashraf Maulana, who wanted to continue attacks inPakistan.

Vietnam,PhilippinesslamChina’s garrison plan

Vietnamand thePhilippineshave lashed out atChina’s moves to establish a military garrison in theSouth China Sea, amid escalating tensions in the disputed waters.

Hanoifiled a formal protest withBeijingagainst the plan outlined byChinato station troops in Sansha in the disputedParacelIslands, saying it ‘violates international law’.

Manila, which is involved in a dispute over another archipelago, theSpratlyIslands, also weighed into the row, summoning the Chinese ambassador to lodge a complaint against the garrison announcement.

An intensifying spat over theSouth China Sea– the site of key shipping routes and thought to have vast oil and gas reserves – has seen a barrage of diplomatic moves between the countries with competing territorial claims.

Taiwan, one of several claimants to portions of the Spratly chain, plans to boost firepower at its base on that archipelago’s biggest island Taiping from next month,Taipei’s coastguard said. Longer-range artillery and mortars are to be added to existing weaponry at the site, in a move that could further stoke tensions in the region.

Chinasays it owns much of the South China Sea, whileVietnam, thePhilippines,Taiwan,BruneiandMalaysiaeach claim portions. The disputes have become particularly acrimonious in recent weeks, withVietnamand thePhilippinescriticising what they call Chinese encroachment.

Beijing’s garrison plan ‘violates international law, seriously violates Vietnam’s sovereignty… and is invalid,’ said Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi, adding that China must revoke its ‘wrongdoings’ and urging ‘friendly and cooperative’ relations in order to ‘maintain peace and stability’ in the South China Sea.

ChinaattractedHanoi’s anger – and sparked a series of rare protests in the Vietnamese capital – when it last month designated Sansha as its administrative centre for the Paracels and theSpratlyIslands.

The state-backed China National Offshore Oil Corporation also announced it was welcoming bids to explore oil blocks in the disputed waters, a week after Vietnam adopted a law placing the Spratlys under its sovereignty.

More troops deployed as Games blend sport and diplomacy

Britainhas deployed 1200 extra soldiers in a last-minute effort to bolster Olympic security while global diplomatic tensions have started to play out among athletes and politicians just days ahead of the opening ceremony.

The additional troops, which have taken the military contingent at the 2012 Games to well over 17 000, were called in to cover an embarrassing shortfall left by private security group G4S, the world’s largest by some measures, in the run-up to the Games.

The company caused a scandal by failing to meet its target for the number of guards it could provide. It says it has deployed around 5800 security personnel, still short of its revised objective of 7000. But police stressed that they were content with security arrangements for the greatest show on earth, which kicks off inCardiff,Wales.

‘We’ve done all the planning, we’ve looked at the way in which terrorists have attacked in the past and we try to make sure that none of those could get through our security measures,’ said Chris Allison, Britain’s national Olympic security adviser.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors have descended onLondonand a million extra people are expected in the city each day of the July 27-August 12 event, putting pressure on a creaking transport system, some of which dates from the 19th century.

Meanwhile, British PM David Cameron may use the Games, which unite world leaders, businessmen and celebrities as well as more than 16 000 athletes and 20 000 journalists, to press Putin over his ties to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Sources said he would accompany Putin to an Olympic judo match if the Russian leader attends the Games, and may urge him to drop his support for Assad’s regime which is engaged in a violent conflict with rebels seeking to topple him.

And in a reflection of the world they have left behind for the duration of the Games, participants fromLibyaandEgyptwill represent the new face of the ‘Arab Spring’ after uprisings ousted the old regimes.

Successor sworn in following Ghanaian president’s sudden death

Ghana’s President John Atta Mills has died just hours after being taken ill and months before he was due to seek re-election in a country seen as a bastion of democracy in west Africa.

The 68-year-old Mills, who oversaw the start of large-scale oil production inGhanain December 2010, had recently travelled to theUSfor medical checks. His cause of death was not given.

In accordance withGhana’s constitution, Vice President John Dramani Mahama was sworn in as president before an emergency session of parliament, pledging to maintain stability as he serves out the remainder of Mills’ term.

‘I wish Ghanaians to be assured that all is well,’ said the 53-year-old, who has also served as communications minister and recently published a memoir. ‘We are going to maintain the peace, unity and stability thatGhanais noted for.’

He declared a week of national mourning, with flags to be flown at half-mast.

Mills died in a hospital in the capitalAccrawhile receiving treatment, his office said. While the cause was not specified, he had shown signs of illness, including a gradual loss of weight. There were unconfirmed reports in local media that he had suffered throat cancer, while false rumours of his death had also previously spread.

Presidential elections are set for December in a country seen as a rare example of a stable democracy in west Africa and which recently joined the ranks of the world’s large-scale oil producers.

Condolences poured in for the late leader, including from US President Barack Obama, who choseGhanafor his first visit to sub-SaharanAfricaas president in 2009.

‘President Mills tirelessly worked to improve the lives of the Ghanaian people,’ Obama said in a statement. ‘He helped promote economic growth inGhanain the midst of challenging global circumstances and strengthenedGhana’s strong tradition of democracy.’

UK&Franceagree on more military co-operation

BritainandFrancehave signed two agreements for further cooperation on the use of military drones, the British Ministry of Defence said.

British Defence Minister Philip Hammond and his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, pledged closer military ties and called the countries’ cooperation as ‘natural as it is necessary’.

‘We will continue to draw on each other’s strengths and respective investments to get the best possible support for our Armed Forces,’Hammondsaid in a statement.

The agreements came as Le Drian made his first visit toLondonsince taking office in May, following the presidential victory of Francois Hollande.

The first agreement represented the initial phase of a collaborative ‘demonstration programme’ for a Future Combat Air System, or FCAS, unmanned air system. The other agreement enables cooperation between the two nations on the Watchkeeper Tactical unmanned air system, which provides the British armed forces with surveillance and reconnaissance.

The neighbours already have a close defence relationship, and the latest agreements signal Hollande’s intention to maintain the defence and security cooperation treaty signed last year by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Prime Minister David Cameron.

Russia: fresh EU sanctions onSyria‘counterproductive’

Russiahas said fresh European Union sanctions againstSyriaare ‘counterproductive’, and said it would not recognise measures it viewed as a de-facto blockade of the country.

The Foreign Ministry expressed dismay over measures requiring EU member states to inspect sea and air cargoes headed forSyriafrom third countries if they suspect weapons may be on board.

‘Russia does not recognise (the EU sanctions) and views them as counterproductive, not capable of resolving the situation in Syria,’ the statement said, adding it went against the letter and the spirit of a peace plan set out by international mediator Kofi Annan.

WikiLeaks’ Assange hires Spanish jurist Garzon

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has hired Spanish jurist Baltasar Garzon as a legal adviser as he seeks political asylum inEcuador, the country’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, has said.

Assange has been taking refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy inLondonsince June 19. The Australian anti-secrecy campaigner, who enragedWashingtonin 2010 when his WikiLeaks website published secretUSdiplomatic cables, is wanted for questioning inSwedenover sex crime allegations.

Assange broke his bail terms and requested asylum inEcuador. He denies any wrongdoing inSwedenand says he fears that if extradited there, he could be sent on to theUnited States, where he believes he could face criminal charges punishable by death.

The Ecuadorean government has said it will take as long as needed to make a thorough analysis of Assange’s asylum application before making a decision.

‘Mr Assange has requested the services of lawyer Baltasar Garzon to deal with his case. Of course he has the right to hire…the legal advice that he needs or may need for the asylum request,’ Patino told reporters inQuito.

Human rights investigator Garzon is best known for ordering the arrest of former Chilean military leader Augusto Pinochet in 1998.

Al-Qaeda:Iraqbloodshed marks new campaign

Al-Qaeda’s front group inIraqhas said that a recent wave of attacks that killed 113 people marks the launch of a new offensive, as officials said seven people died in new unrest.

The spate of nationwide violence, which also wounded more than 250 people, was the worst to hitIraqin more than two and a half years and shattered a relative calm that had held in the lead-up to the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

The Islamic State of Iraq claimed the attacks in a statement posted on jihadist forum Honein.

‘As part of the new military campaign aimed at recovering territory given up by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the war ministry has sent its sons and the mujahedeen on a sacred offensive during the month of Ramadan,’ the group said. ‘The operation by the jihadists has stunned the enemy and made him lose his head. It has demonstrated the failings of the security and intelligence services.’

The group recently said it would look to retake territory, and appealed for Sunni tribes to provide support and send fighters, in an Internet audio message purportedly left by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The message posted on various jihadist forums said the ISI would begin targeting judges and prosecutors, and try to help its prisoners break out of Iraqi jails.

‘We are starting a new stage,’ said the voice on the audio message, purportedly that of Baghdadi.

Al-Qaeda inIraqis regarded by Iraqi officials as significantly weaker than at the peak of its strength in 2006 and 2007, but it is still capable of spectacular mass-casualty attacks across the country.

US Senate approves bill for ‘terror’ label on Haqqani network

The US Senate has stepped up pressure on the Obama administration to declare the Haqqani network a terrorist group.

According to US media, the Senate passed a bill by voice vote on July 26, though it will require the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to report to Congress in 30 days’ time.

According to the text of the bill, the Secretary of State has been asked to report on whether the Haqqani network meets the criteria to be declared a terrorist group and, if not, to explain why.

The bill – which the US House of Representatives had approved on 18 July – will be forwarded to US President Barack Obama for final approval.

India’s new president: focus on growth

India’s new president, Pranab Mukherjee, has taken the oath of office and described his nation as so focused on achieving prosperity that it would not be distracted by ‘noxious practitioners of terror’ and, by unstated extension, the long-running rivalry with Pakistan.

He described terrorism as a ‘fourth world war’ that followed the cold war, and said thatIndiafaced it long before many other nations understood its scope. Yet President Mukherjee also appeared to be declaring victory and nudging India off a war footing, laying out peaceful prosperity as the challenge ahead and describing terrorism as a ‘trap’ for those who overreact.

‘Peace is the first ingredient of prosperity,’ Mukherjee said in a speech before Parliament after ascending to the mostly ceremonial post. ‘I am proud of the…steely determination of our armed forces as they have fought this [terrorism] menace on our borders; of our brave police forces as they have met the enemy within; and of our people, who have defeated the terrorist trap by remaining calm in the face of extraordinary provocation.’

He added: ‘Indiais content with itself, and driven by the will to sit on the high table of prosperity. It will not be deflected in its mission by noxious practitioners of terror.’

The speech fits well with howIndiainterprets its current place in the world: The longtime rivalry withPakistanhas essentially been won, withIndiapulling ahead in terms of economic development and global stature. In this view, the sharpest threat comes from the recent slower-than-expected economic growth, notPakistanand its Islamic militant proxies.