31 March 2013

Blast kills 17 at Pakistani camp for displaced people

At least 17 people were killed by a car bomb as they waited for food at a camp in northwestPakistanfor those displaced by fighting between government forces and Islamist militants, police have said.

The bomb exploded on Thursday March 21 in the Jalozai camp in Nowshera in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, an area borderingAfghanistanand a stronghold for insurgents bent on topplingPakistan’s US-backed government.

The camp is home to people who have fled violence in ethnic Pashtun areas along the border withAfghanistanwhere al-Qaeda and Taliban militants operate.

Local officials belonging to provincial disaster management authorities and a female worker from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) were among the dead, officials said.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled from conflict over the past five years or so, from the tribal areas along the border and from elsewhere, such as the Swat valley, northwest ofIslamabad. Many people have been able to go home, especially those from Swat, but thousands remain in camps.

The Pakistani Taliban denied responsibility for the blast. Spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan said it was ‘inhuman and un-Islamic to target innocents’.

(Pic of exploded car after Jalozai camp bombing)

Afghan army scrapsPakistantrip over cross-border shelling

Afghanistanhas cancelled a military trip toPakistandue to ‘unacceptable Pakistani shelling’ of the country’s mountainous eastern borderlands, the foreign ministry has said.

More than two dozen Pakistani artillery shells were fired intoAfghanistan’s easternprovinceofKunaron March 25 and 26. The cancellation of the trip and days of angry diplomatic exchanges have placed further strain on an already fraught relationship.

Eleven Afghan National Army (ANA) officers had been due to take part in a simulated military exercise at theStaffCollegein the western city ofQuetta, gripped by recent sectarian violence directed at Shi’ite Muslims.

‘This visit will no longer take place due to the resumption of unacceptable Pakistani artillery shelling against different parts of Kunar province from across the Durand Line on Monday (25 March) and Tuesday (26 March),’ the ministry statement said.

The Durand Line is the 1893 British-mandated border between the two countries, recognised byPakistanbut not byAfghanistan.

Pakistani support for the Afghan peace process is considered essential because of the two countries’ long, porous border andPakistan’s history of supporting militant groups.

The neighbours have engaged in days of angry accusations, including a Pakistani official denouncing Afghan president Hamid Karzai as an obstacle to peace and saying he was taking his country ‘straight to hell’.

The Afghan government responded by saying ‘such comments from irresponsible individuals are part of a failed propaganda attempt to undermine the ongoing historic process of transition’.

(Pic of aftermath of Pakistani shelling ofAfghanistan’s easternprovince ofKunar)

China jails 20 on jihad & separatism charges in restive Xinjiang

Chinese courts have sentenced 20 people to up to life in jail on charges of separatism and plotting to carry out jihad in the restive far western region of Xinjiang, the government said.

The courts in Kashgar and Bayingol said the 20 – all ethnic Uighurs judging by their names – had had their ‘thoughts poisoned by religious extremism’, and used cell phones and DVDs ‘to spread Muslim religious propaganda’, the Xinjiang government said on its official news website (www.ts.cn).

Some of them bought weapons to kill policemen as part of their jihad and spread propaganda related to the banned East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the report said, a group whichChinasays wages a violent campaign for a separate state.

Many Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people native to Xinjiang, chafe at Chinese controls on their religion, language and culture.

Chinahas blamed violence in energy-rich Xinjiang – strategically located on the borders ofAfghanistan,Pakistan,Indiaand Central Asia – on Islamic separatists who want to establish an independentEast Turkestan.

Some Chinese officials have also blamed attacks on Muslim militants trained inPakistan. But many rights groups sayChinaoverstates the threat to justify its tight grip on the region.

Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, said the 20 were actually guilty of no more than listening to the US-funded Radio Free Asia and using the internet to discuss the importance of religious and cultural freedom.

Myanmar riots stoke fears of widening sectarian violence

Myanmarhas declared martial law in four central townships after unrest between Buddhists and Muslims stoked fears that last year’s sectarian bloodshed was spreading into the country’s heartland in a test ofAsia’s newest democracy.

State television said President Thein Sein had declared a state of emergency and imposed martial law in the four districts, placing the military, rather than local police, in charge of security. Authorities imposed an overnight curfew on Wednesday March 20.

Twenty people have been killed and dozens wounded since then, said Win Htein, a lawmaker for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

Two camps now held more than 2,000 people displaced by the fighting, he added.

The unleashing of ethnic hatred, suppressed during 49 years of military rule that ended in March 2011, is challenging the reformist government of one ofAsia’s most ethnically diverse countries.

Jailed dissidents have been released, a free election held and censorship lifted inMyanmar’s historic democratic transition. But the government has faced mounting criticism over its failure to stop the bloodshed between Buddhists and Muslims.

(Pic of recent ethnic unrest inMyanmar)

US hopeful of strong Chinese action

The United States is optimistic China will take strong action against North Korea by increasing scrutiny of financial transactions with Pyongyang that could contravene fresh UN sanctions, a senior US official has said.

David Cohen, the US Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said he was confident Chinese banks and regulators would pay attention to the new UN Security Council resolution.

Stopping illicit money flows toNorth Koreais a key part of the sanctions imposed in response toPyongyang’s February 12 nuclear test.ChinaisNorth Korea’s sole diplomatic ally and its major trading partner, although it negotiated the latest sanctions withWashingtonand has said it wants them implemented.

‘We’ve heard nothing but the strong intention to implement the Security Council resolution, and we fully expect to work very cooperatively with the Chinese in the robust implementation of that resolution,’ Cohen told reporters in Beijing.

Chinahas become increasingly frustrated withNorth Korea, Chinese experts have said. Besides the latest nuclear test,North Koreatested a long-range missile in December and has stepped up its rhetoric against theUnited StatesandSouth Korea.

‘From the perspective ofChina, we’ll always attach importance toNorth Korea, and we also have a lot of respect for them (North Koreans),’ said Jin Canrong, associate dean of theSchoolofInternational StudiesatRenminUniversityinBeijing.

‘ButChinahas its own interests and the third nuclear test has damaged [them. Therefore,Chinahas to show its dissatisfaction.’

(Pic referring toNorth Korea’s February 12 nuclear test, eg see below)

Indiaupholds death penalty over 1993 Mumbai blasts

India’s top court has upheld the death penalty for a mastermind of the country’s deadliest series of attacks and ruled a Bollywood star who bought weapons from the bombers must return to jail.

Yakub Memon, brother of the alleged main plotter and fugitive Tiger Memon, was the only one of 11 convicts to see his death sentence upheld by the Supreme Court for his role in the 1993 blasts which killed 257 people in Mumbai.

The judges also handed down a five-year term for the actor Sanjay Dutt for possessing illegal weapons bought from gangsters accused of orchestrating the bombings. Dutt has already served 18 months but is currently out on bail.

Announcing the sentences, Supreme Court judge P Sathashivam said the Memon brothers and another suspect, Dawood Ibrahim, who is said to be living inPakistan, ‘were archers and rest of the appellants were arrows in their hands’.

‘They were the architects of the blasts,’ said Sathashivam, one of two judges presiding over the case.

The remaining convicts who had appealed against the death penalty saw their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

The attacks on March 12, 1993, were believed to have been staged by Mumbai’s Muslim-dominated underworld in retaliation for anti-Muslim violence that left more than 1,000 dead in the city a few months earlier.

(Pic of Yakub Memon)

Egypt prosecutor orders activists arrested

Egypt’s prosecutor general has ordered the arrest of five prominent political activists pending an investigation into claims they had incited the recent violence near the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters, a statement from the prosecutor said.

Those ordered arrested included Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a leading blogger who played a role in the protests that led to the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The five were also banned from travel.

They were accused of inciting ‘aggression against people, the destruction of property and disturbing civil peace in the events that erupted during the protest in front of the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters’, the statement said.

At least 130 people were hospitalized after the violence near the Muslim Brotherhood’sCairoheadquarters on Friday 22 March.

The prosecutor general’s move follows a threat by President Mohamed Morsi to take measures to protect the nation. Morsi said ‘necessary measures’ would be taken against any politicians found to be involved in the violence.

The recent protest was the latest in a series of violent demonstrations targeting Morsi and the Brotherhood, the Islamist group that propelled him to power in last June’s election. The two sides blamed each other for the fighting.

(Pic of March 22 violence near the Muslim Brotherhood’sCairoheadquarters)

US Senate shows united support for blocking Iran access to euros

The US Senate has demonstrated strong support for blockingIran’s access to euros, as Congress continues to push for additional measures to choke funding toTehran’s nuclear programme.

The Senate unanimously passed a non-binding amendment to the budget plan on March 23 that seeks to stopIranfrom using a loophole allowing it use the European Central Bank’s interbank payment system to gain access to euros.

The amendment, sponsored by Illinois Republican Mark Kirk and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, is symbolic, as the budget will not become law. It follows a letter signed last month and sent to the European Union by 36 senators, and could indicate the Senate would introduce legislation later on the issue.

Washington and the EU last year hitIranwith sanctions that slashed its crude exports by half. That led to inflation and pushed down the rial,Iran’s currency. Still,Iran’s government has access to vast foreign currency reserves, including supplies of euros, that senators say helps it stabilize the budget and circumvent the sanctions.

‘Closing the euro loophole in our sanctions policy is critical in our efforts to preventIranfrom acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,’ Kirk said. ‘The US Senate has spoken and now the European Union needs to act.’

Labour’s one-time ‘PM in waiting’ exits politics

Former British foreign secretary David Miliband, once tipped as a potential prime minister, has said he is leaving politics to boost his brother’s chances of leading the opposition Labour party to victory in an election in 2015.

His departure ends speculation he might replace brother Ed Miliband as Labour leader between now and 2015 if his sibling falters. But the move was also seen as a sign he did not think it likely that Ed would win.

David Miliband, 47, had already retreated from frontline politics after narrowly losing a Labour leadership election in 2010 which pitted him against Ed, 43.

The battle between the brothers gripped the British political world. David was viewed as the more gifted politician and most Labour MPs backed him, but the trade union movement, the bedrock of Labour support, tipped the vote in favour of Ed.

Miliband said he was stepping down as a Labour MP to take up a job inNew Yorkas head of the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid organisation. The brothers’ parents were Polish Jewish refugees who fled the Holocaust.

Although Labour is ten points ahead of the ruling Conservative party in polls, many MPs think the lead should be much greater at this stage in the election cycle, given the grim state of the economy.

(Pic of David and Ed Miliband)

Swedish scientist to head UN Syria chemical weapons probe

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has named Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom to head the UN investigation into allegations that chemical weapons were used inSyria.

‘He is an accomplished scientist with a solid background in disarmament and international security,’ UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

It was not immediately clear who else would be on his team.Russiasaid recently that Russian and Chinese experts should be part of the investigation, butMoscow’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin saidRussiawould ‘most likely not’ be represented.

Sellstrom was a chief inspector for UNSCOM, the UN inspection team that investigated and dismantledIraq’s biological and chemical weapons programs in the 1990s.

Nesirky said the investigation would be technical and not a criminal investigation, looking at whether chemical weapons were used and not at who may have used them.

The United Nations said recently it would investigate Syrian allegations that rebels used chemical arms in an attack near the northern city ofAleppo, but Western countries sought a probe of all claims about the use of such banned arms.

FranceandBritainhave written to Ban to draw his attention to an alleged attack nearDamascus, as well as one inHomsin late December. The rebels blameSyria’s government for those incidents as well as theAleppoattack.

US and European officials say there is no evidence of a chemical weapons attack. If one is confirmed, it would be the first use of such weapons in the two-year-old Syrian conflict, which the United Nations says has cost 70,000 lives.

(Pic of December attack onHoms)

Kosovo hopeful on deal with Serbia to end ethnic partition

Kosovo’s foreign minister says he anticipates a breakthrough withSerbiawhen the two countries’ prime ministers meet next week to discuss an end to the ethnic partition of the former Serbian province.

Serbiadoes not recognise Kosovo’s 2008 secession, but is under pressure from the European Union to improve ties and help overcome a split between Kosovo’s Albanian majority and a small Serb enclave in the north.

The two parties failed to reach an agreement on March 21 after lengthy talks between Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci that were hosted by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Brussels.

Talks are set to resume on April 2.

‘This is a dialogue about the normalisation of relations between two countries as separate and independent countries,’ Kosovo Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj said in a recent interview inParis.

‘I think we will have a breakthrough by April 2. We are working on that, but I think the reason why we didn’t have a breakthrough is inBelgradeand not Pristina.’

Ashton has been mediating talks between Dacic and Thaci since late last year, as the EU pushes to establish functional, neighbourly relations betweenSerbiaand Kosovo five years after the former province declared independence with the backing of the West.

(Map of Kosovo & Serbia region)

Mali mission forces Hollande to rethink French defence cuts

French President Francois Hollande is delaying a decision until later in the year on slashing the country’s defence budget as part of cost-cutting measures after meeting stiff resistance from parliament in the aftermath of theMaliwar.

The Socialist government is battling to reduce state spending by 60 billion euros (51.4 billion pounds) over Hollande’s five-year term, and was forced this month to order ministries to save an extra 5 billion in 2014 as its deficit target receded.

The defence ministry has borne the brunt of government cuts in recent years, seeing its annual budget fall from about 2.5 percent of economic output after the Cold War to 1.56 per cent of GDP, about 31 billion euros, in 2012.

Those figures are already in stark contrast with NATO’s recommendation of 2 per cent of gross domestic product, which it says is the minimum to ensure a country’s sovereignty.

The Socialist-dominated lower and upper houses of parliament have both indicated that they could veto any decision to cut the budget to below 1.5 per cent, or 30 billion euros.

‘The finance ministry wants to kill the defence ministry,’ said Patricia Adam, the Socialist president of the National Assembly’s Defence Committee.

According to several members of parliament, the finance ministry is working on two scenarios, ‘Y’ and ‘Z’, which would see the defence budget slashed by 15 billion euros or 30 billion euros respectively between 2014-2019.

Defence analysts say the worst case scenario, which could even include the sale ofFrance’s sole aircraft carrier named after former President Charles de Gaulle, is being floated to soften the blow when Hollande does decide.

(Pic of Francois Hollande)

Italy‘s Bersani struggles to overcome election stalemate

Italian centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani was left with only a slim hope of forming a government after last month’s deadlocked election as talks with rival party leaders ended with a further rejection from Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement.

The impasse inItalyhas been closely watched by investors mindful of the turmoil which brought down Silvio Berlusconi’s government in 2011 and was reflected in rising borrowing costs at a closely watched bond auction on March 27.

Without an agreement, the country could be headed for fresh elections, adding to the uncertainty facing the euro zone which is battling to contain the crisis inCyprus.

The rebuff by 5-Star was expected as the anti-establishment group has always said it will not back the parties it blames for Italy’s social and economic crisis but it was given added spice by an insulting blog post put up by the fiery ex-comic Grillo.

Bersani called on all parties to ‘accept their responsibilities’ and allow a government to be formed, but there was little sign of movement from the other parties.

(Pic of Pier Luigi Bersani)

A seminar on Jome-Grown Terrorsim organized by The Democracy Forum on 25th March 2013 at The Commonwealth Club

Dr Clutterbuck said ” Most of those who receive training in Pakistan were then convinced in thier own minds that they were going to go on to Kashmir, Afghanistan or even Iraq to carry out thier actions.”

(Pic: Dr Lindsay Clutterbuck can be seen in conversation with Peter Luff MP, chairman of The Democracy Forum, along with other speakers and journalists.)