Pakistan and Iran exchange mortar fire on border

Iran fired mortar shells at a small Pakistani border town to register its growing anger at Islamabad’s failure to curb terrorist attacks in its restive Sistan Baluchestan province.

Iranian border troops fired six shells at Mashkail on October 24, causing widespread panic before Pakistani reinforcements returned fire. The clash Ioccurred a week after Iranian forces were reported to have killed a Pakistan Frontier Corps guard in Mand district and seized Nokundai, another Pakistan border town.

Analysts said the surge in cross-border violence highlights Tehran’s concern at Islamabad’s failure to stop terrorist attacks on its soil and sectarian killings of Pakistan’s minority Shia Muslims. Eight members of Pakistan’s Shia Hazara minority were killed on October 23 when two gunmen boarded their bus and opened fire.

Last year Tehran executed 16 alleged members of the Sunni militant Jundallah group, which has been waging an insurgency from Sistan Baluchestan for several decades, after the group killed 14 Iranian border guards in gun battles in the Saravan region.

A Pakistan military delegation met their Iranian counterparts in Tehran on October 22 and agreed to increase intelligence and police co-operation to curb future attacks. Pakistan had earlier protested against Iran’s incursions across its border. Lieutenant-General Talat Masood, a leading strategic analyst, said the Pakistan Army was already stretched on its borders with India and Afghanistan and could not afford further conflict on its long Balochistan border with Iran.

While Jundallah is believed to have only a few hundred fighters, he said, Pakistan had not taken the group sufficiently seriously and had ‘looked the other way’. Although it is now ‘fully co-operating’, he said, this had fuelled suspicion in Tehran over Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s close ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional enemy. There are concerns that Jundallah’s recent attacks are part of a proxy war between the two rivals.

The retired general added that Pakistan must increase protection for its Shia minority and improve security on its border to reassure Iran: ‘It is not as difficult a problem as the Indian and Afghan borders but it doesn’t give a good impression to have [conflict] on all three borders.’

US/Brit final departure from Afghanistan

Five hundred US marines from Camp Leatherneck and 300 British soldiers and airmen from Camp Bastion were amongst the final combatants to withdraw from the long war in Afghanistan.

On October 26 the Marines turned over to Afghan authorities the keys to Camp Leatherneck, the sprawling base in Helmand that, since 2009, had been the epicentre of President Barack Obama’s surge against the Taliban.

The Marines switched their attention to Helmand from Iraq’s Anbar province, which by 2008 had grown so quiet that some complained of boredom. Large parts of Anbar have now been seized by Islamic State fighters.

The departure comes as the US prepares to complete its combat mission in December and transition to a NATO-organized follow-on mission, called Resolute Support, to train and advise the Afghan forces now in charge. There are still a little over 21,000 American troops in Afghanistan, down from the 2010-11 peak of 100,000.

The British soldiers and airmen departed from Camp Bastion in a carefully choreographed series of flights on ‘B-Day’. Brigadier Robert Thomas said he felt a medley of emotions, and, echoing the sentiments of Marines, said he felt ‘pride for what has been achieved’ in the 13-year conflict that cost 453 British troops their lives.

But some question whether those gains will be sustained after the troops are gone and the Taliban seek another comeback, especially in light of the recent Taliban attack on an attorney general’s compound that left eight people dead in Kunduz.

Funeral for soldier killed in attack on Canadian Parliament

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and hundreds of mourners packed into a cathedral in industrial Hamilton, Ontario, on October 28 for the funeral of the soldier shot dead the week before in an attack on the nation’s seat of government.

Corporal Nathan Cirillo was one of two soldiers killed in a pair of attacks police said were carried out independently by radical recent converts to Islam at a time when Canada’s military is stepping up its involvement in air strikes against Islamic State militants in the Middle East.

The killings have shaken Canadians and prompted a debate on how the nation’s open culture, and particularly the low-key security in its capital city of Ottawa, may need to change.

Cirillo was standing an unarmed, ceremonial watch at the nation’s war memorial on October 22 when he was shot dead by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, motivated by his opposition to Canadian foreign policy. The attacker then charged into the Parliament building and exchanged fire with security officers near a room where Harper was meeting with fellow Conservative lawmakers.

Cirillo had a full military funeral at 12 pm at Christ’s Church Anglican Cathedral in his hometown of Hamilton, west of Toronto, where members of his military unit, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, participated dressed in ceremonial kilts.

It was the first of two funerals for soldiers slain on Canadian soil, to be followed by a service on November 1 in Quebec for Patrice Vincent, a warrant officer who was killed on October 20 when a man ran over him and a fellow soldier with his car. Officials have also described Vincent’s killer, Martin Rouleau, as a man motivated by radical beliefs. Both attackers were shot dead by security services.

Hong Kong activists mark one month of ‘Umbrella Movement’

Hong Kong democracy activists on October 28 marked one month of mass protests as student leaders said they would consider asking senior Chinese Communist party officials to meet them directly, the first time such a request has been made.

Thousands gathered for an evening rally at the main protest camp, unfurling umbrellas to mark the moment a month ago when police fired tear gas at largely peaceful crowds — kickstarting the most concerted challenge to Beijing since the bloody 1989 Tiananmen protests.

As protesters streamed into the site Alex Chow — president of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) — said he would seek a meeting with China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang if the Hong Kong government failed to deliver their demands to the mainland authorities.

Parts of the semi-autonomous Chinese city, an Asian financial hub, have been paralysed by a month of mass rallies and roadblocks.

Protesters want China to rescind its decision in August that all candidates in elections for the city’s leader in 2017 must be vetted by a loyalist committee — an arrangement demonstrators deride as ‘fake democracy’.

Tentative talks between the government and student leaders recently made little headway. The government offered to write a report to Beijing on events since protests began and to set up a committee with demonstrators to discuss further constitutional reform.

But Chow said on October 28, ‘If the Hong Kong government has difficulty meeting our demands, we sincerely hope that arrangements could be made for us to directly meet with premier Li Keqiang as soon as possible.’

It is the first time students have officially broadcast the idea of going straight to Beijing to negotiate.

Sikh Council UK develops plans re inter-faith marriages in gurdwaras

The Sikh Council (UK) has developed a consistent approach towards marriages in gurdwaras where one partner is not of Sikh origin.

The guidelines have been developed through a comprehensive consultation which has taken place over a two-year period. In developing the guidelines, the Sikh Council UK consulted with gurdwara sahib committees, Sikh organisations and individuals. Consultation methods included mail shots to gurdwaras across the UK, regional meetings, workshops and face-to-face discussions.

The purpose of the document is to progress towards agreeing a consistent approach to anand karaj (Sikh marriage) ceremonies across gurdwaras in adherence to the Sikh rehat maryada (the Sikh code of conduct & conventions) for circumstances where one partner is not of Sikh origin.

Issues considered in the document include weddings in which one partner claims to have accepted Sikhism and undergoes a sham wedding in a gurdwara in order to appease the parents of the Sikh partner, and the responsibility of both individuals and gurdwaras to ensure that there has been a formal acceptance of the Sikh religion.

China’s VP meets delegation of Japanese governors

China’s vice president met October 28 with a delegation of governors from Japan amid strained bilateral ties, a rare high-level meeting that points to Japan’s hopes of a summit between the two countries’ leaders at a regional conference next month.

Vice President Li Yuanchao told the group, led by the president of Japan’s National Governors’ Association, Keiji Yamada, that China hopes for an improvement in relations that have been soured over an islands dispute.

A brief account of the meeting from China’s official Xinhua News Agency also said Li referred to ‘the spirit of drawing lessons from history’, pointing to China’s displeasure with statements from Japanese politicians seen as minimizing Japanese responsibility for its brutal World War II invasion and occupation of much of China.

A major deterioration in ties occurred two years ago after Japan nationalised a group of uninhabited islands claimed by both countries.

The sides are also feuding over Japanese leaders’ visits to a Tokyo shrine to the spirits of the country’s war dead, including executed war criminals, as well as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new interpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution that allows the military to defend the US and other allies under what is known as collective self-defence.

The disagreements have cast a shadow over possibilities for a first-ever meeting between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping during an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing in November.

World condemns Jabbari hanging

Iran has carried out the execution of a young woman, despite questions over the conviction and an international campaign urging a reprieve.
Reyhaneh Jabbari, 26, was hanged in a Tehran prison at dawn on Saturday 25 October. She had been convicted of killing a man she said was trying to sexually abuse her.

Jabbari was arrested in 2007 for the murder of Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi, a former intelligence ministry worker. She had met him in a cafe and he had convinced her to visit his office to discuss a business deal. While there, Sarbandi allegedly drugged and attempted to rape her and she grabbed a pocket knife and stabbed him. Jabbari maintained until her death that another man who was present at the time killed him.

The execution was condemned by the US State Department, the British government and by human rights groups including Amnesty International.
‘This is another bloody stain on Iran’s human rights record,’ said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Programme.

‘Tragically, this case is far from uncommon. Once again Iran has insisted on applying the death penalty despite serious concerns over the fairness of the trial.’

However, some commentators in Iran have said that evidence of attempted rape was non-existent, and that had Jabbari asked Sarbandi’s family for forgiveness, she would most likely not have been executed.

Pressure to halt aid to Pakistan mounts as hanging imminent

Britain is under pressure to suspend aid to Pakistan as the country prepares to end a six-year moratorium on the death penalty and open the door to the executions of thousands on death row following the October 27 scheduled hanging of convicted murderer Shoaib Sarwar.

Britain will spend £310 million in Pakistan this year, making Pakistan one of the largest recipients of overseas aid in the world. The aid includes millions of pounds to support anti-drug trafficking operations by the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF), under a United Nations scheme to halt the flow of drugs from Afghanistan. British aid has also provided extensive training and paid for the maintenance of helicopters, as well as buying equipment, vehicles and body scanners.

Drug possession is a capital offence, and drug offenders on Pakistan’s death row include British nationals convicted in trials which critics argue fell short of international standards.

Reprieve, the charity that campaigns against the death penalty, said, ‘British aid for executions breaches the government’s own human rights rules and makes a mockery of its commitment to fight capital punishment abroad.’

A Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘We are concerned by any suggestion that executions might resume in Pakistan. The UK opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and continues to urge the government of Pakistan to abolish the death penalty, and as a minimum to maintain its de facto moratorium on executions.’

UK won’t pay 2 billion euros

Britain will not pay ‘anything like’ the £1.7 billion which is being demanded by the European Commission in additional contributions to the EU budget, prime minister David Cameron has told MPs.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Cameron made clear that he believes the row triggered by the recent request for more cash is undermining support for British membership of the EU, and warned that Brussels must change if it is to regain taxpayers’ trust.

But the prime minister was accused of being ‘asleep at the wheel by Labour leader Ed Miliband, who said Mr Cameron should have been aware for at least two years that changes to Britain’s contribution to the EU budget were in the offing.

And Tory MP Kenneth Clarke — until July a member of Mr Cameron’s Cabinet — cast doubt on the prime minister’s claim that the demand took the government by surprise, telling MPs that the Foreign Office and Treasury must have known for at least five months that it was on its way.

Mr Cameron’s statement came shortly after a senior Brussels official warned that British efforts to renegotiate the figure risked opening a ‘Pandora’s box’ which could put the future of the UK’s £3 billion-a-year EU rebate in question.

Tunisians reject Islamist party in favour of stability

Tunisia’s well-organised Islamists have been defeated in parliamentary elections, paying the price for the turbulent years they ruled after the Arab Spring that saw the rise of terrorist groups in the North African nation.

Voters sought security and stability with familiar faces from Tunisia’s more authoritarian past, but the Islamists’ substantial weight in the new parliament will make them a player in any future government.

Results from the official election commission are just starting to come in, with only three Tunisian districts reported by the morning of October 28. But exit polling and statistical sampling of voting station results by observer groups have produced a remarkably uniform picture.

The party Nida Tunis (Tunisia Calls) led by an 87-year-old veteran politician from the previous regime took around 35 per cent of the parliament seats, giving it the right to present a prime minister and form a governing coalition. The Islamists trailed with just 25 per cent of the seats.

Nida Tunis presented itself as the answer to the moderate Islamists of the Ennahda Party, which had struggled to guide the country through post-revolutionary turmoil after dominating the 2011 elections. Critics charged the Islamists with being soft on terrorists and incompetent managers.

News in Brief

Radicalised teacher admits to IS terror charges
A chemistry teacher who planned to fight alongside IS in Syria is facing jail after admitting terror charges. Jamshed Javeed, a family man from Manchester, believed Britain was not doing enough in Syria and helping IS was an ‘honourable’ thing to do. His family had hidden his passport to try to stop him going, but he was determined and was arrested in December 2013 by counter-terrorism officers who feared he was preparing to fly out with battlefield equipment. He pleaded guilty at Woolwich Crown Court to two counts of engaging in conduct in preparation of terrorist acts and will be sentenced on December 12.

UK: Lord Singh supports amendment to extend turban exception
In a House of Lords debate on October 27, Lord Singh, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, gave his support to government proposals in the De-regulation Bill. The proposed legislation aims to extend the existing exemption for turbaned Sikhs to wear hard hats on construction sites, to other less hazardous places of work. He said: ‘Sikhs are already free to wear turbans on building sites. This measure is simply a tidying-up exercise to ensure that Sikhs are not harassed by insensitive health and safety zealots in offices and workshops where there is a minimal risk of injury. … Sikh teachings of tolerance and respect for the beliefs of others are a powerful antidote to the extremism and persecution of minorities all too evident in our world today.’

Iraqi Kurdish fighters to head to Syria
A spokesman for Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga fighters said dozens of them would fly to Turkey and from there cross into the Syrian border town of Kobane on October 28. The previous week the local Iraqi Kurdish government had authorised the peshmerga forces to go to neighbouring Syria and help fellow Kurds combat Islamic State militants in Kobane. A total of 150 peshmerga fighters were authorised to go to Kobane through Turkey. Islamic State launched its offensive on Kobane and nearby villages in mid-September, with fighting having killed more than 800 people, according to activists. The extremists captured dozens of Kurdish villages around Kobane and now also control parts of the town.

Coalition looks likely as Ukraine ballot count gets underway
About 45 per cent of the votes from Ukraine’s parliamentary elections have been counted, indicating a probable victory for pro-Western parties. Early results showed that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s bloc and the party of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk each earned more than 21 per cent of the vote, making it likely the pair will form a coalition together and possibly with other parties. Furthermore, Yatsenyuk will likely retain his post as prime minister. The parliamentary makeup and broader political system of Ukraine have changed significantly since the February uprising against the government of former President Viktor Yanukovich but, under Ukraine’s new government, Russia will continue to be the primary factor driving the country’s foreign policy decisions.