30 April 2013

Boston suspects had ‘spontaneous’ bomb plan for New York

The two brothers suspected of carrying out the deadly Boston Marathon bombing on April 15 decided, after the FBI released photos of them, to drive to Manhattan and detonate more explosives in Times Square, New York City, according to officials.

Their plan unravelled when they realized a Mercedes sport utility vehicle they had hijacked on April 18, three days after the Boston bombing, did not have enough petrol for the journey, said New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

New York has been on heightened alert since the September 11 plane hijackings in 2001 destroyed the World Trade Centre and officials said the plan by the Boston bombing suspects, ethnic Chechens Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, showed America’s most populous city remained a magnet for attackers.

Manhattan’s Times Square was the target of an attempted car bombing by a Pakistan-born US citizen in May 2010.

In the sharpest criticism of President Barack Obama’s security policies since the blasts, a Republican senator said the Boston bombing, which killed three people and wounded 264, illustrated a ‘broken’ national security system.

Law-makers have been demanding answers regarding what the US government knew about the suspects before the bombing, especially Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who Russia had asked the FBI to question in 2011 over concerns he may have been a radical Islamist. He died on April 19 in a shootout with police.

The surviving brother, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is recovering from wounds in a Boston hospital since he was captured on April 19 and told investigators of the alleged Times Square plan. He has been formally charged with crimes that could carry the death penalty.

(Pic of aftermath of Boston marathon bombing)

Ahmadis charged under terror act

The editor and other members of staff at an Ahmadi daily newspaper in Rabwah, Pakistan have been charged under the Terrorism Act.

The daily Al-Fazl is the only regular newspaper of the Ahmadiyya Jamaat in Pakistan, and it is published for the education and well-being of the Ahmadi community. Yet on 10 April, the paper’s editor, Abdus Sami Khan, its printer, Tahir Mahdi Imtiaz Ahmad and another four Ahmadi staff members were convicted under the Ordinance 20 Terrorism Act.

Every issue of the Al Fazl specifically states on the front page that its distribution is restricted to members of the community. But when Khalid Ashfaq, an Ahmadi, went out to deliver Al Fazl to local Ahmadi households and arrived at the house of Tahir Ahmad Shah, two people stopped the men and assaulted them. Under a pre-emptive plan, about 30 mullahs had already assembled outside Shah’s house, which they entered and started beating the children. They then destroyed various items and took two laptops and two mobile phones with them.

After they had left, the police arrived but instead of protecting the Ahmadis and taking legal action against the mullahs, they entered a charge against the Ahmadis.

A group of mullahs in Lahore have been harassing Ahmadis in various localities, yet the police are supporting such mischief-makers and hate-mongers. They falsely accuse Ahmadis of demeaning the Holy Prophet (SAW) but the fact is Ahmadis are the most genuine and true lovers and followers of the Holy Prophet (SAW).

The Ahmadi community in Pakistan has lodged a petition with the Caretaker Chief Minister of Punjab to take notice of such atrocities and have innocent members of the community released.

(Pic of Al Fazl newspaper)

UK terror plot leader jailed for life

The ringleader of a terror plot which could have been more devastating than the July 7 attacks of 2005 has been jailed for life.

Irfan Naseer, 31, must take sole responsibility for ‘sending four young men to Pakistan for terrorism training’, Mr Justice Henriques told London’s Woolwich Crown Court.

The judge said: ‘Irfan Naseer was the leader, driving force and man in charge and he alone must take responsibility for sending four young men to Pakistan for terrorism training.’

Turning to Naseer, who appeared to mutter under his breath during the sentencing hearing, the judge added: ‘Your plot had the blessing of al-Qaeda and you intended to further the aims of al-Qaeda.’

Describing Naseer as a ‘skilful bomb-maker’ Henrique, said: ‘Clearly nothing was going to stop you, short of intervention of the authorities. I have no doubt you would have continued with your plan but for that intervention. Many deaths were planned by a determined team of individuals who were fully radicalised and you, Naseer, were their leader.

‘No lack of assets, skill or manpower was going to stop you.’

Police believe it was the most significant terror plot to be uncovered since the 2006 conspiracy to blow up transatlantic airliners using bombs disguised as soft drinks.

The gang, who are all from Birmingham, planned to set off up to eight rucksack bombs and possibly other devices on timers in crowded places.

Naseer was told he must serve at least 18 years before being considered for release.

(Pic of Irfan Naseer)

US seeks to ease Af-Pak tensions in Brussels talks

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistan’s army chief and a foreign ministry official have held ‘productive’ talks on easing tensions between the two neighbouring states, said US Secretary of State John Kerry, who hosted the meeting.

Kerry cautioned, however, that any results of the Brussels talks would have to be measured in improving relations as NATO winds down its Afghanistan mission.

‘We had a very extensive and… a very productive and constructive dialogue… But we have all agreed that results are what will tell the story, not statements at a press conference,’ Kerry told reporters, without disclosing any details of what was discussed.

Afghanistan has grown increasingly frustrated with Pakistan over efforts to pursue a peace process involving the Taliban, suggesting that Islamabad is intent on keeping Afghanistan unstable until foreign combat forces leave at the end of 2014.

Kerry hosted the meeting between Karzai and Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and senior Foreign Ministry bureaucrat Jalil Jilani, with the aim of calming tensions over border disputes and the stalled peace process.

‘I think that everybody here agreed today that we will continue a very specific dialogue on both the political track as well as the security track,’ said Kerry, flanked by Karzai and Kayani after more than three hours of talks.

‘We have a commitment to do that in the interests of Afghanistan, Pakistan and peace in the region.’

After talks over lunch, Kerry, Kayani and Karzai strolled together in the sprawling garden of the residence of the US ambassador to NATO on the outskirts of the Belgian capital.

Kerry told reporters at the start of the meeting that Afghanistan was in ‘a critical transformational period’.

(Pic of Karazi, John Kerry and General Kayani)

Myanmar’s Buddhist-Muslim conflict reaches into Indonesia

On April 5, a brawl broke out between Muslims and Buddhists at an Indonesian detention centre, leaving eight of the latter group dead.

Indonesia, an archipelago that straddles the equator, has long been a way-station for people fleeing troubles in their homelands, including Afghans or Iraqis hoping to make it to Australia.

But in this case, the trouble is much closer to home. In Myanmar, months of mostly Buddhist-instigated violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority have left tens of thousands homeless and hundreds dead. The country is in the middle of a transition process from a long military dictatorship to something resembling civilian rule, but that has meant more trouble, not less, for the Rohingyas.

Ethnic-Burmese champions of the long struggle against military rule there, chief among them Aung San Suu Kyi, have largely avoided speaking out over the targeting of the Muslim minority, creating fears that recent spasms are just the beginning.

Thousands of Rohingyas have fled to neighbouring Thailand, and hundreds at least have sailed to Muslim-majority Indonesia in makeshift boats, setting the stage for the recent violence.

(Pic of April 5 fighting in Indonesia)

Al-Qaeda in Iraq ‘merges’ with Syria group

The most prominent jihadist group involved in the Syrian conflict is reported to have merged with the Iraqi wing of al-Qaeda, according to a leading figure in the terror network.

An online audio message, attributed to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State in Iraq, announced that his group has joined forces with the al-Nusra Front in Syria.

According to the US intelligence monitoring group SITE, he said: ‘It is time to declare to the Levant and to the world that the al-Nusra Front is simply a branch of the Islamic State of Iraq.’

It is understood the groups will now operate under the title of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

The al-Nusra Front has gained notoriety in Syria for its use of suicide bombings and other forms of attacks against President Bashar al Assad’s regime.

It has claimed responsibility for deadly bombings in Damascus and Aleppo, and has joined other rebel brigades in attacks on Mr Assad’s forces.

The reported merger comes a day after a suicide car bomb, bearing all the hallmarks of an al-Nusra-style attack, hit a central area of Damascus, killing at least 15 people and injuring 146 others.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the blast.

(Pic of aftermath of April 8 suicide car bomb in Damascus)

‘Iron Lady’ both mourned and decried

Following her death on April 8, admirers of Margaret Thatcher have been mourning the ‘Iron Lady’ who, as Britain’s longest serving prime minister in over a century and the only female PM to date, pitched free-market capitalism as the only medicine for her country’s crippled economy and the crumbling Soviet bloc.

World leaders past and present, from former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to US President Barack Obama, led tributes to the grocer’s daughter who sought to arrest Britain’s decline and helped Ronald Reagan broker an end to the Cold War.

‘The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend,’ said Obama.

But while world leaders praised the most powerful British prime minister since her hero Winston Churchill, the scars of bitter struggles during her rule left Britain divided over her legacy. Thatcher crushed trade unions, privatised swathes of British industry, clashed with European allies and fought a war to recover the Falkland Islands from Argentina.

Her funeral took place in London on Wednesday April 17, with thousands of supporters turning out to pay their respects. But protesters voiced strong objections to the estimated £10 million cost of the funeral, borne by the hard-pressed British tax-payer, and several turned their backs in disgust as her coffin passed by.

(Pic of Margaret Thatcher)

Maduro wins Venezuela election

Nicolas Maduro has been elected Venezuela‘s president after pledging to deepen 14 years of the late Hugo Chavez‘s socialist revolution that cut poverty by half.

The 50-year-old former bus driver received 50.7 per cent of the votes, the national electoral council said after about 99 per cent of ballots were counted. Henrique Capriles Radonski, who temporarily stepped down as governor of Miranda state to run for president, had 49.1 per cent.

‘We had a fair and constitutional victory,’ Mr Maduro said after the results were announced. ‘This is another victory, an homage to our Comandante Hugo Chavez.’

As a candidate, Mr Maduro benefited from a wave of sympathy for Mr Chavez’s March 5th death; as president, he faces accelerating inflation, shortages of consumer goods and slowing growth. Investors will be looking to see if he adopts policies that are more friendly to businesses, after he resorted to anti-capitalist rhetoric during the campaign to galvanize Chavez’s followers, said Alberto Ramos, senior economist at Goldman Sachs and Co in New York.

Venezuelan bonds, last month’s worst-performing Latin American securities, erased losses as polls showed Mr Maduro would win the elections, reducing the likelihood of a power struggle that could hurt investors.

Mr Maduro has vowed to follow the steps of his mentor Mr Chavez, who increased state control over the economy by nationalizing more than 1,000 companies or their assets and introduced currency and price controls.

(Pic of Nicolas Maduro)

China’s president calls for stability in Xinjiang

Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for stability in the ethnically-divided region of Xinjiang after recent clashes killed 21 people, state media have reported.

Xi’s comments came after 15 police and social workers were killed in violence on April 23, as well as six members of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority suspected of ‘terrorist plotting’, local officials said.

Xi gave instructions on ‘how to handle the case, deal with the aftermath, and maintain stability in Xinjiang’, the state-run Global Times said on its website, citing a local report and without quoting Xi’s remarks directly.

The comments from China’s leader reflect high-level worries about long-standing unrest in the region, which authorities often blame on ‘terrorism’ – claims that rights groups say are used to repress minorities.

A specialised anti-terrorism unit of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) carried out drills in the province this month, the PLA Daily reported.

The attack prompted a heated exchange between China and the United States after Washington said it was ‘deeply concerned’ by accounts of discrimination against Uighurs and other Muslims in China.

China, meanwhile, accused the US of a ‘double standard’ for not condemning the attack, despite being a victim of terror itself.

Riots between Uighurs and members of China’s Han ethnic majority in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi in 2009 killed around 200 people, leading the ruling Communist Party to tighten surveillance and boost investment in the region.

Xinjiang, a region about twice the size of Turkey, is home to around nine million ethnic Uighurs, accounting for 46 per cent of the local population. Another 39 per cent are members of China’s Han majority.

(Pic of Chinese President Xi Jinping)

Israel urges US action over Syrian chemical weapons

The United Statesshould consider military action to curb Syrian chemical weapons after Washington went public with suspicions they have been used in the country’s civil war, Israel‘s deputy foreign minister has said.

The challenge by Zev Elkin, a confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, recently underscored tension over the allies’ assessments on Syria, as well as longer-running disputes about how aggressively to confront Iran’s nuclear programme.

The White House said the Syrian government had probably employed chemical arms on a small scale against rebels. The disclosure created a bind for President Barack Obama, who has declared such use a ‘red line’ that must not be crossed.

It was also a shift from Washington’s sceptical response to the recent publication by the Israeli military of intelligence findings that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons repeatedly in recent months.

‘The Iranians are watching, the whole world is watching too, and we should also see what happens,’ Elkin told Israel’s Army Radio, when asked how US strategy on Syria might unfold.

‘There is a question here of when you set a red line, do you stand behind it?’

Israel has threatened to strike Syria, an enemy with which it previously maintained a decades-old truce, to prevent Assad’s chemical arsenal falling into the hands of jihadi insurgents or of Hezbollah guerrillas in neighbouring Lebanon.

There has been similar Israeli sabre-rattling against Iran. But the Jewish state, with its military and diplomatic clout limited in a volatile region, has made clear it would prefer Washington to take the lead on any major offensive.

(Pic of possible chemical attack in Syria)

UN to send peacekeepers into Mali conflict

The UN Security Council has unanimously agreed to send a 12,600-member international force to Mali to take over from French and African troops battling Islamist guerrillas.

The United Nations is aiming for a July 1 start by the new force, but the 15-nation council will decide later whether the conflict has eased enough for the handover.

‘We know it’s going to be a fairly volatile environment,’ UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters after the vote.

Mali called French troops into the country in January to halt an Islamist advance on the capital Bamako. French and African troops have since pushed the al-Qaeda-linked militants into desert and mountain hideouts, from where they are now staging guerrilla attacks.

France is winding down its force from its peak of nearly 4,500 but is to keep up to 1,000 troops in Mali and they will maintain responsibility for military strikes against the Islamists.

UN Resolution 2100 authorizes France to intervene if the UN troops are ‘under imminent and serious threat and at the demand’ of UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

‘Our soldiers still in Mali will be able to come to the support of the peacekeeping operation if circumstances demand,’ France’s President Francois Hollande said in a statement welcoming the UN resolution.

France vows to bring Libya embassy attackers to justice

France has promised that those behind a devastating car bomb attack on its embassy in Libya – which wounded a girl living nearby and two guards – will pay for the atrocity.

‘The terrorists who wanted to attack France and Libya and undermine the friendship between them will pay’ for the attack, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned, speaking shortly after a visit to the wrecked embassy in Tripoli in the hours following the bombing.

Libya’s authorities have pledged to track down and punish the ‘terrorists’ behind this ‘cowardly’ attack, he added.

Standing at his side was Libya’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdel Aziz, who earlier had also condemned the ‘terrorist act’, though he declined to speculate on who carried out the attack or what the motive was.

French President Francois Hollande called on Tripoli to act quickly to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Tripoli’s security chief Mahmud al-Sherif said the blast occurred when a car parked outside the mission’s front door exploded at 7:10 am (0510 GMT) on April 23. It had not been a suicide bombing, he added.

Since the fall of Gaddafi, Libya has been plagued by persistent insecurity, especially around Benghazi, where bombings and assassinations have forced many Westerners to leave. The violence is often blamed on radical Islamists persecuted under Gaddafi who now want to settle old scores, and armed jihadist groups hurt by the French intervention in northern Mali have threatened retaliation by attacking French interests across the world.

(Pic of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at site of car bomb attack)

Bangladesh building tragedy down to West’s cost squeeze

Major western clothing retailers squeezing Asian suppliers and a flawed approach to ensuring even basic working standards are fuelling conditions for tragedies like the latest factory collapse in Bangladesh, NGOs have said.

At least 260 people, mainly female workers, were killed and more than 1,000 were injured when the eight-storey Rana Plaza factory building in Savar, 20 miles outside the capital Dhaka, collapsed on Wednesday April 24.

‘What we’re saying is that bargain-basement (clothing) is automatically leading towards these types of disasters,’ said John Hilary, executive director at British charity War on Want.

He said western clothing retailers’ desire to undercut rivals has translated into increasing pressure on foreign suppliers to reduce costs. ‘If you’ve got that, then it’s absolutely clear that you’re not going to be able to have the right kind of building regulations, health and safety, fire safety. Those things will become more and more impossible as the cost price goes down.’

War on Want and its partner in Bangladesh, the National Garment Workers’ Federation (NGWF), called on major international buyers to be held to account.

‘This negligence must stop. The deaths of these workers could have been avoided if multinational corporations, governments and factory owners took workers’ protection seriously,’ NGWF president, Amirul Haque Amin, said in a statement.

(Pic of building collapse in Bangladesh)