Pak officials claim families are fleeing in wake of air strikes

Hundreds of families have fled Pakistani tribal areas near the Afghan border where the air force has been targeting Taliban insurgents and their hideouts, officials said on February 25.`

There is no way to confirm the claim independently as the lawless region is off limits to journalists. The officials spoke anonymously as they were not authorized to talk to media.
Most of the fleeing families are headed from North Waziristan to neighbouring Bannu city, said Lutfur Rehman, an officer with the provincial disaster management authority.

Many of those fleeing have come from Mir Ali town, which being a stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban, has been a target of many of the strikes. Baitullah Wazir and his neighbour Zahir Wazir in Mir Ali arrived in Bannu. They said aircraft and helicopters had been carrying out strikes almost every night, and that they did know who the people being targeted were.

Tens of thousands of Pakistanis have died over the last decade in the Taliban’s war against the state. The militants aim to enforce their harsh brand of Islamic Shariah.

The Waziristan tribal region is home to a mix of local and foreign al-Qaeda linked militants who fight against American and allied NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has long favoured peace talks over military action to end the bloodshed in the northwest, but he is also under pressure from critics to retaliate for any Taliban violence.

Critics say the militants have used the peace talks to strengthen and regroup their ranks, and call for military operations to disrupt the insurgents’ use of their northwestern bases to stage attacks elsewhere in the country.

Death sentences commuted for three in Gandhi killing

On February 18 India’s Supreme Court commuted to life in prison the death sentences for three men convicted of playing minor roles in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, killed as he was campaigning in May 1991 for a return to the prime ministerial office.

The three have served more than 20 years on death row in Vellore Prison in southern Tamil Nadu state.

The attack — orchestrated by Tamil Tiger rebels in neighbouring Sri Lanka — horrified the nation and virtually ended Indian support for the rebels in their decades-long fight for an ethnic Tamil homeland. All of the assassination’s masterminds, who targeted Gandhi for sending Indian troops to Sri Lanka in 1987, were killed during or after the 1991 attack.

Hangings are rare in India, with four in the last 18 years, though there are some 400 prisoners on death row. Amnesty International said the decision ‘shows the judiciary’s willingness to uphold standards it set down for the treatment of prisoners on death row.’

China accuses Japan of being ‘trouble maker’

China on February 25 labelled Japan a ‘trouble maker’ that is damaging regional peace and stability, firing back at earlier criticism from Tokyo over a spike in tensions in northeast Asia.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying was responding to comments by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida that China’s military expansion in the region is a concern, although Kishida stopped short of calling China a threat.

Hua told a regularly scheduled news conference that China’s military posture is purely defensive and Japan is stirring up trouble with its own moves to expand its armed forces and alter its pacifist constitution. She accused Japanese officials of making inflammatory statements aimed at denying or glorifying the country’s militarist past, and said Japan should explain its strategic intentions.

Hua’s comments were the latest in a war of words between the two countries. Never very warm, bilateral ties took a nosedive after Japan in 2012 nationalized a string of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that China claims as its own.

In an interview on February 25, Kishida sought to distance his government from recent right-wing comments on World War II, calling them ‘regrettable’ and saying they don’t represent the government’s views.

China’s growing maritime activities and lack of transparency in military development ‘are common concerns of the entire region’ that Japan will watch closely, Kishida said. Japan is particularly concerned about Chinese attempts to strengthen its claims to the disputed islands by sending ships into waters off the islands and creating a new air defence identification zone that overlaps them.

Asked if he sees China as a threat, Kishida called China one of the most important countries for Japan. ‘If China develops peacefully, it is a benefit and an opportunity for Japan, and for the region. … In that sense, I think China is not a threat to our country.’

India says Italian marines still to be tried in India over fishermen’s deaths

Two Italian marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen will still be tried in India, the foreign ministry said on February 25, a day after the government dropped a plan to prosecute the men under a tough anti-piracy law. The punishment in case of a conviction is ordinarily less stringent than under the piracy law.

The decision underscored that the two-year-old case that has frayed ties between the two countries was far from over – despite the move to drop the more serious charges. Foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said, ‘It is about trying to ensure that those who are charged with crimes against Indian nationals will be held accountable under Indian law.’

Charges have yet to be filed in the case, which spurred Italy to approach the Supreme Court in January demanding a ruling for the marines to return home. Italy has also recalled its ambassador to New Delhi in protest at the delays.

The sailors, part of a military security team protecting a privately owned cargo ship, say they mistook the fishermen for pirates and fired warning shots into the water during the incident in February 2012, off the coast of Kerala state. Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone do not admit to killing anyone. They are on bail, but cannot leave India.

India will still argue that the National Investigation Agency, which handles cases related to national security, should investigate the fishermen’s deaths..

There is wide public support for the marines in Italy, while in India protestors have marched through city streets to demand harsh penalties.
India’s top court is due to hold its next hearing on the matter in March.

Ex-Guantanamo detainee arrested in UK over Syria terrorism

A former Guantanamo Bay detainee who is a well-known advocate for the rights of terrorism suspects was arrested on suspicion of Syria-related terrorism offenses, British police said on February 25.

West Midlands Police said Moazzam Begg was one of four people arrested in the Birmingham area of central England. Police said Begg is suspected of attending a terrorist training camp and facilitating terrorism overseas.

He was arrested along with three other people, all suspected of facilitating terrorism overseas, but their names were not released. Police in Britain do not usually name suspects until they are charged, but the force said it was identifying Begg to the media ‘as a result of the anticipated high public interest’.

In 2002, Begg was arrested in Pakistan as an ‘enemy combatant’. He was detained by US forces at Bagram in Afghanistan and later sent to the prison camp in Cuba. After his release without charge in 2005 he became a director of the advocacy group Cage, which campaigns against alleged abuses committed in the name of fighting terrorism.

US against supply of shoulder-fired missiles to Syria rebels

The United States is opposed to the supply of shoulder-fired missiles, capable of taking down warplanes, to rebel forces in Syria, a senior Obama administration official said on February 18.

The official, travelling with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Tunisia, was responding to a report in the Wall Street Journal on February 14 which said Saudi Arabia had offered to give Syrian rebels Chinese man-portable air defence systems, or MANPADS, and anti-tank guided missiles from Russia.
The newspaper cited an Arab diplomat and several opposition sources with knowledge of the efforts.

The Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, ‘The administration remains opposed to any provision of MANPADS to the Syrian opposition.’

The paper said that Arab allies of the United States, disappointed with Syria peace talks, had agreed to arm the Syrian rebels with more sophisticated weaponry.

The United States has long opposed supplying rebels with anti-aircraft missiles due to concern they may fall into the hands of forces that may use the weapons against Western targets or commercial airlines.

Chad calls for UN peacekeepers to curb violence in CAR

Chad’s President Idriss Deby has called for the creation of a UN peacekeeping mission to contain violence in Central African Republic, the first time the region’s military heavyweight has publicly sought UN intervention.

Deby also warned that the country, his neighbour, risked partition if there were no talks with the mainly Muslim Seleka force that seized power last year but stepped aside under intense international pressure in January, retreating to their northern rear bases.

The former French colony has been gripped by chaos since Seleka, a loose coalition of northern rebels mixed with foreign mercenaries, launched an uprising in late 2012.

Thousands have died and around 1 million people, a quarter of the country’s population, have fled cycles of violence that continue even though there are now 5,000 African and another 1,600 French peacekeeping troops deployed on the ground.

The rebel retreat has led to Muslims fleeing the south and warnings from a top UN official of ‘ethnic-religious cleansing’.

Regional leaders have previously called for the French-backed African force to be given more time to stabilise the situation, despite pressure from Paris and human rights groups for a fully fledged UN peacekeeping mission.

The European Union has pledged to send 500 troops to Central African Republic and UN chief Ban Ki-moon is due to report shortly on the possibility of a UN mission.

Boko Haram school attack kills 43 in Nigeria

Suspected Boko Haram Islamists killed 43 people on February 25 when they attacked secondary school students as they slept in the latest school massacre to hit Nigeria’s troubled northeast.

The raid targeted the Federal Government College in the town of Buni Yadi in Yobe state and bore the hallmarks of a similar attack last September in which 40 died.

The attackers reportedly hurled explosives into student residential buildings, sprayed gunfire into rooms and hacked a number of students to death. A senior medical source at the Sani Abacha Specialist Hospital in Yobe’s capital Damaturu said the gunmen only targeted male students and that female students were ‘spared’.

Yobe has been one of the hardest hit areas in Boko Haram’s four-and-half year Islamist uprising, which has killed thousands of people. The name Boko Haram means ‘Western Education is forbidden’.

Russia warns against forcing Ukraine to choose between ‘us’ and West

Forcing Ukraine to choose between close ties with Russia or the West is ‘dangerous’, the Russian foreign minister has warned.

Urging the European Union and the United States not to intervene in shaping the country’s future, Sergei Lavrov said: ‘It’s dangerous and counterproductive to try to force upon Ukraine a choice on the principle: “You are either with us or against us”.’

Russia and the West should ‘use contacts with different political forces in Ukraine to calm the situation down’, he added.

The country’s parliament delayed forming a new government until February 27, following the ousting as president of Viktor Yanukovych. He is wanted on suspicion of mass murder following violent clashes in Kiev. His whereabouts remain unknown, although it is thought he may have fled to the Crimean peninsula. The Ukrainian assembly wants Mr Yanukovych to be tried for ‘serious crimes’ by the International Criminal Court in The Hague once he has been captured, although a spokesman for the court said it had not been asked to investigate the deposed leader.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchinov said he will meet with officials to discuss ‘dangerous signs of separatism’ in some areas. There are concerns that culturally divided Ukraine could potentially come apart after the three months of upheaval that forced out the president. Both Russia and the West have emphasised publicly that they do not want this to happen.

Praise for Tunisia’s democratic progress during Kerry visit

US Secretary of State John Kerry made an unannounced visit to Tunisia on February 18 to praise democratic progress in the country where the ‘Arab Spring’ began and discuss the threat of Islamist militants there.

After a crisis last year brought on by the killing of two opposition leaders, Tunisia’s transition got back on track when it adopted a new constitution and the ruling Islamists stepped aside for a caretaker administration to govern until elections.

Kerry’s visit was to highlight progress made since the 2011 uprising that brought down autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali as well as the compromises new Tunisian leaders, unlike Egyptian and Libyan counterparts, have made, US officials said.

‘We are very impressed by the steps that you have been taking, by the rational thoughtful approach to the transition,’ Kerry said after meeting Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki.

The new constitution and steps to full democracy have been praised as a model in a region still widely unstable since popular revolts in 2011 that ousted long-standing rulers in Egypt, Yemen and Libya.

A senior US official told reporters as Kerry flew to Tunis that Washington applauded Tunisia’s ‘demonstrated willingness not to take power, and hold on to it, and see it as a zero sum game, but to find some degree of compromise.’

Sikh Centenary celebrations in Uganda

Uganda recently held its Sikh Centenary celebrations, commemorated by the issue of four postage stamps by Posta Uganda and the release of a book titled ‘The Human Rights of Women in Sikhism’. The stamps depict the Sikh Gurdwara on Sikh Road Kampala, the Khanda, the Nishan Sahib and the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab. The set of four stamps have made history as it is the first time any country in the world has issued four triangular stamps in recognition of the contribution of the Sikh community.

The head of Posta Uganda, Emmanuel Okurt, said that the triangular stamps will market Uganda further, especially to Asians in the Diaspora. Pastor Bosco Odiro said that the history of the Sikhs and their contribution should be reflected in the curriculum of school history books, and High Court Judge Lady Justice Catherine Bagumeriere described the Sikhs as ‘a meek, humble and peaceful community that has existed alongside Ugandans without any conflict’. Sikhs first came to East Africa in the 1880s as soldiers who offered their skilled and semi-skilled labour at a time when East Africa had no infrastructure.

The names of about 40 recipients of the Sikh Centenary gold medals were announced, to be awarded at a gala function at the end of the year. Among the participants at the function was Gurmel Singh, Secretary General of the Sikh Council UK.

 News in Brief :-

Pakistan: Taliban rejects call for ceasefire

The outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has rejected the Pakistan government’s call for an unconditional ceasefire. A TTP spokesman said the government has started the war against the TTP and held intelligence agencies responsible for the recent killing of its senior commander, Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani.

Thai army chief issues warning amid violence

Thailand’s army chief has warned of a possible collapse if violent protests across the country continue. Twenty-one people have now been killed and more than 700 wounded in violence during almost four months of anti-government demonstrations. The army has so far ruled out a coup.

UK Foreign Secretary says international support essential for Ukraine

Emergency support for Ukraine is top of the agenda at a meeting between British Foreign Secretary William Hague and US Secretary of State John Kerry. Mr Hague warned the country faces imminent economic collapse without support from the international community. Speaking to MPs on February 24, Mr Hague said: ‘An economic crisis in Ukraine would be a grave threat to the country’s stability and have damaging wider consequences.’

Merkel advises caution over Swiss immigration vote

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is urging caution in the EU’s response to Swiss voters’ decision to impose immigration curbs, arguing that it doesn’t make sense to rush into retaliation. Switzerland narrowly voted February 9 to introduce immigration quotas for all foreigners, including those from the EU, which the government has three years to implement. The decision raises questions over several bilateral agreements; on February 17, Brussels indefinitely suspended negotiations with Bern about Swiss participation in two research programmes. Merkel said after meeting Swiss President Didier Burkhalter on February 18 that it’s important ‘that contacts don’t break off prematurely.’

Rwandan convicted in Germany over genocide killings

A Rwandan man who sought asylum in Germany in 2002 has been convicted of inciting killings during his country’s 1994 genocide and sentenced to 14 years in prison. A Frankfurt state court ruled on February 18 that Onesphore Rwabukombe, a Hutu mayor of a district in northern Rwanda, was guilty of being accessory to genocide for inciting his followers to kill at least 400 members of the Tutsi minority in the area. He was arrested in 2010 on an international warrant from Rwanda, but was not extradited after authorities concluded he would not receive a fair trial there.