30 June 2013

Peace talks signal uncertainty ahead

Aanchal Clare

October 7 2001 marked the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, better known as The Afghanistan War. Military retaliation for the 9/11 attacks proceeded after several unsuccessful weeks of diplomatic effort to have Osama Bin Laden handed over by the Taliban. Consequently, military strikes againstAfghanistanwere launched by an international coalition led by theUnited Statesand supported byGreat Britain,Canada,Australia,GermanyandFrance.

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Five Indian troops killed in Srinagar

Eight Indian army personnel were killed and another 19 were injured on Monday June 24 when armed men opened fire on an army convoy on the outskirts of Srinagar ahead of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Jammu and Kashmir, in the second major terror attack in three days.

The attack comes two days after Hizbul Mujahideen militants gunned down two policemen in the heart of Srinagar city.

Armed assailants ambushed the convoy at Hyderpora bypass on the Airport-Lal Chowk road, outside a private hospital. Eight jawans were killed and 19 others sustained injuries, an army spokesman said.

The Hizbul Mujahideen has claimed responsibility for the attack, although the security establishment believe that it was handiwork of the banned Lashker-e-Taiba terror outfit.

Security has been beefed up across the state in view of the attack as intelligence inputs suggested that the militants may try to carry out more such attacks during the VIP visit.

According to sources, unmanned aerial vehicles were also pressed into service to carry out technical surveilance of Pir Panjal and Zabarwan mountain ranges amid inputs that militants armed with rockets had formed their base in the ridges of these mountains.

Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah said such attacks would not shatter the morale of the security forces, while sources in Delhi said that there was no change in Dr Singh’s programme.

(Pic of aftermath of Srinagar attack)

Pakistan suspends expeditions after tourist massacre

Pakistan has suspended expeditions on its second-highest mountain peak, evacuating climbers from Nanga Parbat after ten foreign tourists were shot dead by Islamist gunmen at a Pakistan base camp.

Well-armed and well-prepared attackers dressed in police uniforms stormed the camp at the foot of Nanga Parbat late on Saturday June 22, shooting dead the climbers and a Pakistani guide at point-blank range, officials said.

The victims have been identified as an American with dual Chinese citizenship, three Ukrainians, two Slovakians, two others from China, a Lithuanian and a climber from Nepal.

It was an unprecedented attack on mountaineers drawn to the natural beauty and intrepid climbing of northern Pakistan, which until the shooting was considered immune from Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked violence plaguing other parts of the country.

‘We are really shocked, traumatised and full of anger. Pakistan is known among the mountaineering community. It was a brutal massacre. These people were killed for no reason,’ said Manzoor Hussain, president of the Alpine Club of Pakistan.

Around 40 remaining climbers on Nanga Parbat have been evacuated to the northern city of Gilgit with treks on the peak now unsafe, Hussain added.

Islamic terrorists jailed for EDL attack plot

Six Islamic extremists who plotted a bloody attack on an English Defence League rally have been given lengthy jail terms.

The men travelled to the rally in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in June last year armed with an arsenal of weapons including two shotguns, swords, knives, a nail bomb and a partially-assembled pipe bomb.

They were jailed for between 18 years and nine months and 19½ years.

Judge Nicholas Hilliard QC told the men: ‘How was it that you became involved in a crime of this gravity? At least part of the answer to that question must come in the tide of apparently freely available extremist material in which most of you had immersed yourselves.’

EDL leader Tommy Robinson and his deputy Kevin Carroll called out ‘God save the Queen’ from the public gallery as sentence was passed. Sobs could be heard from other observers, and shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is greater).

The judge said the extremist material was ‘not difficult either to obtain or share’, adding that ‘in this case, it can only have served to reinforce the defendants’ resolve to behave in the hideous way that was planned’.

Jewel Uddin, 27, Omar Mohammed Khan, 31, Mohammed Hasseen, 24, Anzal Hussain, 25, Mohammed Saud, 23, and Zohaib Ahmed, 22, who are all from the West Midlands, admitted planning the attack at a hearing on April 30.

All of the men except Hasseen travelled to Dewsbury where an EDL rally was taking place on June 30 last year, ready to cause mass injuries and deaths. The gang’s plan only failed because the event finished earlier than expected – they arrived at around 4pm but it was over shortly after 2pm.

(Pic of EDL rally)

Whistleblower set to leave Moscow

Whistleblower Edward Snowden is on course to leave Moscow for Cuba – the next step on his journey to evade US justice as he seeks asylum in Ecuador.

Washington has urged Russia to do all it can to expel the former CIA intelligence analyst and send him to the US before he gets the chance to take the expected flight to Havana.

Snowden, who was allowed to leave Hong Kong on June 23 despite his passport being revoked and Washington asking the Chinese territory to arrest him, is wanted on spying charges in the US, which is trying to extradite him.

The Aeroflot airline said he registered for the Havana flight using his passport amid efforts by America to prosecute him for allegedly revealing highly classified government secrets.

The US state department said the American should not be allowed to travel any further as an international manhunt for him is launched, and his departure from Hong Kong threatens to strain diplomatic relations between the US and Russia and China.

The US said it was disappointed by the territory’s ‘troubling’ failure to arrest the analyst, who was hiding there after apparently leaking information about monitoring by the National Security Agency (NSA) to The Guardian and The Washington Post. Mr Snowden claimed the NSA has been keeping details of millions of phone calls by Americans and monitoring the use by foreigners of internet sites including Google and Facebook.

US Senator Charles Schumer said Russian President Vladimir Putin probably knew of and approved Mr Snowden’s flight to Russia, and predicted ‘serious consequences’ for a US-Russian relationship already strained over Syria and human rights issues.

(Pic of Edward Snowden)

Pakistan PM backs treason charges against former president

Pakistan’s new government intends to put former military dictator Pervez Musharraf on trial on charges of high treason, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said, in a move likely to anger the country’s powerful armed forces.

The charges being considered against Musharraf relate to his declaration of a state of emergency in 2007 and the suspension of constitutional rights that followed. In Pakistan, the maximum penalty for treason is death.

The government ‘firmly subscribes to the view that the holding in abeyance of the constitution on 3 November 2007 constituted an act of high treason,’ Sharif said in parliament, reading from a statement simultaneously presented to the Supreme Court. ‘Musharraf will have to answer for his guilt before the court.’

Musharraf ousted Sharif in a coup 14 years ago, cutting short the prime minister’s second term in office. Sharif was then hounded into exile in Saudi Arabia by the dictator.

Sharif’s decision to move against Musharraf suggests he is determined to take a more assertive stance than the last government in relation to the military, which has ruled Pakistan for much of the nation’s 66-year history.

‘Notwithstanding the fact that the Prime Minister has borne the brunt of Musharraf’s brazen coup, he wishes to assure both this august court and the people of Pakistan that he will act according to the highest standards of justice and follow the due process of law,’ Sharif said.

Musharraf, a key ally of George W Bush in the early years of Washington’s ‘war on terror’, himself spent almost four years in self-imposed exile. He returned to Pakistan hoping to contest May 11 elections but was put under house arrest.

(Pics, side by side, of Pervez Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif)

Conditions for Taliban talks not met yet

US Secretary of State John Kerry has declared that conditions for talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan had not been met yet, after a spat over a new Taliban office in Qatar threatened to derail peace negotiations.

Kerry was speaking at a joint press conference with the Indian foreign minister in New Delhi.

The United States and Taliban insurgents are exploring peace talks in a fresh effort to end Afghanistan’s 12-year-old war, helped behind the scenes by the support of neighbouring Pakistan’s powerful military.

India, which jockeys for influence with arch-rival Pakistan in Afghanistan, recently warned that any reconciliation should not confer legitimacy on insurgent groups.

(Pic of US Secretary of State John Kerry)

Iran’s currency surging in wake of elections

The Iranian rial has strengthened by more than 15 per cent against the US dollar since the victory of moderate Hassan Rohani, who was elected president following the country’s June 14 poll.

The Iranian currency was trading at under 30,000 to the dollar two days after the election, compared to 35,000 a week previously, media and dealers said.

The rial had lost more than two-thirds of its value against the dollar since early 2012 when the United States and the European Union announced new sanctions against Iran’s oil exports and access to the global banking system.

The sanctions have been blamed by the government for most of the problems in Iran, where oil exports plummeted by 40 per cent in 2012, while inflation is officially running at more than 30 per cent. According to the central bank, Iranians have collectively stashed around $18 billion in their homes.

Rohani has promised more transparency in talks with world powers on Iran’s controversial nuclear programme that could help ease the sanctions. Analysts have said that his election, which ended eight years of conservative rule by outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, could soothe tensions with the West.

(Pic of rial and dollar symbols)

France’s far-right steal votes from Hollande’s left

A near win of a third parliament seat by France’s anti-immigrant National Front has sounded a warning to the ruling Socialists over a shift towards the ‘Eurosceptic’ far right by disillusioned voters.

Etienne Bousquet-Cassagne, a 23-year-old with pop star looks who is part of a push by the Front to gain acceptability with fresh young faces, was beaten 53 per cent to 47 by a conservative rival in a recent local by-election runoff. His high score has sparked cries of alarm among mainstream politicians.

The Socialists lost the seat in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, near Bordeaux, when a minister quit his post over a Swiss banking scandal, and its candidate to replace him was knocked out in a first-round vote, in part due to anger over the scandal.

Yet it was the latest in a series of by-elections to show that support for President François Hollande has slid since he won power a year ago, as low-income workers who rallied behind him have grown angry at his failure to rein in rocketing unemployment or end the decay in industry.

The shift in sentiment raises the spectre of street protests as Hollande readies spending cuts and social reforms under the gaze of the European Commission, and it suggests the Socialists will lose ground in municipal and European elections next year.

(Pic of Etienne Bousquet-Cassagne)

G8 Summit tackles key issues

Leaders of some of the world’s most powerful countries met in Northern Ireland at the G8 summit in County Fermanagh on Monday June 17.

The eight G8 prime ministers and presidents were joined by European Commission and Council presidents Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman van Rompuy at the end of the first day of the summit.

Syria was high on the agenda, with calls for peace talks to be held in Geneva ‘as soon as possible’.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron said the leaders had managed ‘to overcome fundamental differences’, though no timetable for the Geneva talks was given, and Cameron’s statement did not mention what role Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could play in the future.

The G8 leaders also agreed new measures to clamp down on money launderers, illegal tax evaders and corporate tax avoiders, and an agreement was reached to ‘stamp out’ ransom payments to terrorist groups.

(Pic of G8 leaders)

American satirist’s show of solidarity

US satirist Jon Stewart has gone on Egyptian TV to defend the man known as ‘Egypt’s Jon Stewart’, who is being investigated for allegedly insulting Islam and the country’s leader.

Stewart was brought onto the set of Al Bernameg (The Programme) – modelled on his own programme The Daily Show – wearing a black hood and introduced by presenter Bassem Youssef as a captured foreign spy.

As the studio audience gave him a raucous welcome, he said briefly in Arabic: ‘Please sit down, I am a simple man who does not like to be fussed over.’

Youssef, one of Egypt’s most popular TV presenters, was interrogated earlier this year by prosecutors on accusations of blasphemy and insulting President Mohammed Morsi. The move drew criticism from Washington and free speech advocates.

During the show, Stewart expressed admiration for Youssef. ‘Satire is a settled law,’ he said. ‘If your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime.’

Youssef was released on bail after being questioned and the TV channel he appears on was threatened with having its licence revoked.

(Pic of a hooded Jon Stewart being brought onto the set of Al Bernameg)

Deadly shootout mars crucial Albania vote

A shootout that killed an opposition activist has cast a shadow over Albania’s crucial June 23 general election, with both sides claiming victory in a vote that could determine whether one of Europe’s poorest countries has a chance of joining the EU.

The first official preliminary results for the election of the lawmakers for the 140-seat assembly were expected on June 24 or no later than 72 hours after the polls close, as mandated by the law.

But the electoral commission – the agency in charge of certifying results – remains paralysed as it has not yet replaced three of its seven members who quit in April over a dispute between the government and the opposition.

In the absence of preliminary results, the ruling coalition of outgoing Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his rival Socialist leader Edi Rama both told supporters they had won.

‘The Renaissance has won,’ said Rama, the 48-year-old former mayor of Tirana, of his leftist coalition.

The Socialists based their claims on the exit poll released by a private TV station which said that Rama’s coalition was leading the vote with 55.5 per cent compared to 43.5 won by Berisha’s bloc.

But just a few blocks away, Berisha told reporters in his Democratic party headquarters that he was ‘convinced of our great victory’, according to an exit poll carried out by a private research group which said their coalition led the vote with 48 per cent, compared to their rivals with 46 per cent.

(Pic of Albanian votes at polling booths)

Syria says rebels will take years to match army’s strength

A decision by Western and Arab countries to arm rebels fighting to topple Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad poses a danger to peace talks, the Syrian foreign minister has said.

Walid al-Moualem told a news conference in Damascus that the opposition had little hope of matching the Syrian army’s strength, despite a pledge by the states that make up the ‘Friends of Syria’ to increase military support to the rebels.

‘If they expect or fantasize that they can create a balance of power, I think they will need to wait years for that to happen,’ he said during the televised news conference.

Western and Arab countries, as well as Turkey, who have thrown their weight behind the opposition, said their decision to arm the rebels was to rebalance the conflict in which more than 93,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians.

Assad is seen as having gained momentum, seizing a strategic town near the Lebanese border which helps him cement control between the capital Damascus and his stronghold on the Mediterranean coast.

Moualem said that a move towards openly giving military support to the rebels would encourage terrorism and that radical Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda would benefit the most.

‘The decision in Doha is dangerous…because it aims to prolong the crisis, to extend the violence and the killing, and to encourage the terrorists to carry out their crimes,’ he said.

The United States and Russia are planning a peace conference in Geneva between the opposition and Assad’s government.

‘Arming the opposition will obstruct Geneva. Arming the opposition will kill more of our people,’ Moualem said. ‘We head to Geneva not to hand over power to another side. Whoever on the other side imagines this, I advise them not to go to Geneva.’