Pakistan: bomb and gun attacks kill nine in volatile northwest

Nine people, including policemen, have been killed and dozens wounded in two separate bomb and gun attacks in Pakistan’s volatile northwest. The attacks happened on April 22, police said, a week after the Taliban refused to extend a ceasefire with the government.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took power last year, promising to end years of fighting with Taliban insurgents through peace negotiations. Talks began in February but have achieved little.

Three people were killed and 33 others, including 12 policemen, were wounded in a bombing in the Charsadda district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province during the morning rush hour on April 22.

Six people, including five policemen and an ambulance driver, were killed in a separate attack on a police patrol on the outskirts of the regional capital of Peshawar overnight. Three others were wounded when militants opened fire.

Senior police officer Shafiullah Khan said unknown people had planted a bomb on a motorcycle and parked it near police headquarters in Peshawar.

On April 16, the Pakistani Taliban formally ended a 40-day ceasefire, saying government forces had continued to arrest their men and killed more than 50 people associated with the insurgency.

The first round of talks collapsed in February after less than a week when the Taliban bombed a bus full of police and executed 23 men from a government paramilitary force they had kidnapped.

The Taliban have been fighting for years to overthrow the democratically elected government of Pakistan and impose strict Islamic law on the nation of 180 million people.

US jurors hear Abu Hamza’s praise for September 11 attacks

A video of radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, shown to jurors at his trial on April 21, reveals him praising the September 11 2001 attacks on the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.

‘Everyone was happy when the planes hit the World Trade Center,’ Abu Hamza told a television interviewer in the undated film played in a US court where the former imam of the Finsbury Park Mosque in London faces terrorism-related charges.

Prosecutors have accused the one-eyed, handless Abu Hamza of trying to set up a jihadist training camp in Oregon, giving assistance to militants who took 16 Western tourists hostage in Yemen in 1998, a kidnapping that ended with the deaths of three Britons and an Australian, and raising money and supplies for al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

If convicted of the most serious charges, the Egyptian-born Abu Hamza would face life in prison. He previously served several years in prison in Britain for inciting his followers to kill non-believers.

Extradited from Britain in 2012 under the condition that he would be tried in civilian court and not face the death penalty, Abu Hamza is expected to testify in his own defence in Manhattan federal court. The trial is expected to last about a month.

Defence lawyers have argued that Abu Hamza, known for his fiery sermons in London, is responsible only for using inflammatory words, not for any overt criminal acts.

Prosecutors intend to use his rhetoric against him via video and audio recordings that show him denouncing non-Muslims and preaching Islamic fundamentalism and encouraging followers to become militants. Some of the tapes were seized from the Finsbury Park mosque or from Abu Hamza’s residence.

Abu Hamza lost both hands and one eye in Afghanistan in the 1980s and was known in London for wearing a prosthetic metal hook on his right arm. In court, he has taken notes with a pen wedged in his hook.

Pakistan says short-range missile test-fired

Pakistan’s military says it has successfully test-fired a short-range missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

A military statement says the Hatf III Ghaznavi missile with a range of 290 kilometres (180 miles) was launched April 22 from an undisclosed location. It says the test was conducted during a field training exercise and that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Gen. Rashad Mahmood and other officers were present. Afterward, Mahmood congratulated scientists and engineers involved for the successful launch.

Pakistan, which became a nuclear power in 1998, routinely test-fires what it claims are indigenously developed missiles.

The international community closely watches its weapons programme as Pakistan has fought three wars with its nuclear-armed archenemy and neighbour India after gaining independence since 1947.

Sri Lanka to deport Brit with Buddha tattoo

The Sri Lankan authorities have ordered the deportation of a British tourist because of a Buddha tattoo on her arm.

Named as Naomi Michelle Coleman, she arrived on a flight from India on April 21 and was arrested at the airport after the tattoo of the Buddha and a lotus flower on her right arm was seen. She is being held at an immigration detention camp until her deportation. The British High Commission in Colombo said: ‘We are aware of the case and are providing appropriate consular assistance.’

The authorities are tough on perceived insults to Buddhism, the religion of the island’s majority ethnic Sinhalese. Sri Lanka is particularly sensitive about images of Buddha and the authorities regularly take strict action with regard to the treatment of the image.

Last March another British tourist was denied entry at Colombo’s international airport because immigration officials said he had spoken ‘disrespectfully’ when asked about a tattoo of the Buddha on his arm. Two years ago, three French tourists were given suspended prison sentences for kissing a Buddha statue.

Over the past year monks belonging to certain hardline Buddhist groups have led violent attacks against Muslims and Christians, a trend which has given rise to considerable concern among religious minorities in Sri Lanka.

Afghan campaign worker shot dead

A prominent campaign worker in Afghanistan’s presidential election was shot dead outside his home in the country’s east, officials said April 22.
Campaign worker Esmatullah, who like many Afghan men uses only one name, was returning home from visiting a friend on the afternoon of April 21 when unknown gunmen opened fire outside his house in Logar province. Esmatullah — known as Commandor Tor for his role in the struggle against the 1990s Soviet occupation — was killed instantly while his two bodyguards were wounded.

Esmatullah worked as an election observer for presidential candidate Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, a prominent Islamic cleric who is currently running fourth in the race for the top post, according to the partial results that have been released.

A spokesman for Sayyaf’s campaign, Mohammad Fahim Kadamani, confirmed that Esmatullah was an election observer and blamed the Taliban for his death. But the Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, denied involvement, saying that Esmatullah was ‘respected’ because of his high status as a former mujahedeen fighter against the Soviets.

The Taliban have unleashed a wave of attacks during the election to replace President Hamid Karzai, who under Afghan law cannot serve a third term. Candidates, campaign workers and government offices have all been targeted with bombings and armed attacks, although the insurgents failed to disrupt election day itself on April 5, which saw some 7 million Afghans turn out to cast votes.

German minister urges China to help solve Ukraine crisis

Germany’s Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, on a visit to Beijing, called on China to play a more active role in helping to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, including using its influence with Russia.

Gabriel, accompanied by a large delegation of business chiefs on a two-day visit to China, is leader of the Social Democrats (SDP) and minister for the economy and energy in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet. He said shortly before meeting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang that he would address the subject of Ukraine in his talks.

‘Of course we will ask the Chinese to do justice to their increased international responsibility and to engage in (solving) conflicts, like the one we are experiencing at the moment in Europe between Ukraine and Russia,’ said Gabriel.

China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has adopted a cautious, low-key response to the crisis. It has not wanted to alienate key ally Russia or comment directly on the referendum in which Crimea voted overwhelmingly to join Russia, lest it set a precedent for its own restive regions, like Tibet. But China has also said it would like to continue to develop ‘friendly cooperation’ with Ukraine and that it respects Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

An international agreement to avert wider conflict in Ukraine looked to be faltering as pro-Moscow separatist gunmen showed no sign on April 21 of surrendering government buildings they had seized.

Obama’s ‘Asia pivot’ trip seeks to reassure allies

President Barack Obama’s multi-country trip through Asia in April aimed to reassure partners about the renewed US commitment to the region, with an eye both to China’s rising assertiveness and the fast-growing markets that are the centre of gravity for global growth.

Obama’s failure to prevent Russia from annexing Crimea has sharpened concerns that America lacks the will or wherewithal to follow through on its much-touted ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific.

The United States has been stepping up regional military deployments, but has made less progress on rebalancing through broader diplomatic and economic initiatives, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Pacific Rim free trade agreement.

Obama’s April 23 visit to Tokyo marks the first state visit to America’s closest ally in Asia by a US president since Bill and Hillary Clinton visited in 1996. He will be the first sitting US president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson in 1966. Allies South Korea and the Philippines, the two other stops on his agenda, are also keen to shore up security ties.

A report released by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee urged that more effort and money be devoted to upgrading alliances in the Asia-Pacific. ‘A successful rebalance must underscore the strategic message that the policy represents an enduring US commitment to the region, assuring our partners that we are in it for the long haul,’ it said.

Ukrainian premier accuses Russia of trying to ‘start World War Three’

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk accused Russia on April 25 of wanting to start World War Three by occupying Ukraine ‘militarily and politically’.

‘The world has not yet forgotten World War Two, but Russia already wants to start World War Three,’ Yatseniuk told the interim cabinet in remarks broadcast live. In some of the strongest language he has yet used in a war of words between the former Soviet neighbours, as both sides have deployed troops close to their frontier, Yatseniuk accused Moscow of acting like a ‘gangster’ supporting ‘terrorists’.

‘It is clear that Russia’s goal is to wreck the election in Ukraine, remove the pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian government and occupy Ukraine politically as well as military,’ added the premier.

Yatseniuk took office in February after pro-European protests prompted the Kremlin-backed president to flee to Russia.

Ukraine plans to hold an election to replace Viktor Yanukovich on May 25, but the Russian-speaking east of the country has been disrupted by pro-Moscow militants who have taken over the city of Slaviansk and public buildings elsewhere, demanding to follow Crimea into being annexed by Russia.

Russia denies involvement but has denounced the Ukrainian government, which it says is illegitimate and backed by ‘fascist’ Ukrainian nationalists, and has threatened to move in to protect ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine.

Nigerians mark Easter amid mourning and fear

With little to celebrate, Nigerians marked Easter Sunday with heightened security against a spreading Islamic uprising, mourning the deaths of at least 75 bomb blast victims and fearful of the fate of an officially reported 85 abducted schoolgirls.

The homegrown terrorist network Boko Haram claimed responsibility on April 19 for the previous week’s rush-hour explosion at a busy bus station in the capital, Abuja, and threatened more attacks. In a new video Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, taunted Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, saying: ‘Look at us, we are right within your city (Abuja) and you don’t even know how to find us.’

Nigeria’s military have twice claimed that Shekau was dead, only to have him resurface in a video. The United States has placed a $7 million ransom on his head.

At church services around the country, Nigerians mourned victims of four attacks in three days. At the Vatican, Pope Francis prayed for a halt to the ‘brutal terrorist attacks’ in parts of Nigeria.

There has been increasing politicization of the 5-year-old Islamic uprising that has seen the two main political parties accusing each other of backing the terrorist network as the country gears up for elections in February 2015.

But President Jonathan vowed there will be no breaking apart of Nigeria, which in January celebrated the 100th anniversary of the amalgamation of north and south, under British colonizers. And on April 24 leaders across Nigeria appealed for a united front against Boko Haram, saying the Islamist insurgents were waging war on Christian and Muslim Nigerians alike.

News in Brief

Pakistan’s Geo TV calls for inquiry into Mir assassination attempt
Pakistan’s largest private news channel, Geo TV, has called for a robust investigation into the assassination attempt on one of its leading talk show hosts, Hamid Mir. Mr Mir was shot and wounded on April 19 in a gun attack his family alleges was orchestrated by Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the ISI. The Pakistani army has denied the charges as misleading. In a BBC interview, the President of Geo TV, Imran Aslam, said the alleged role of the ISI in targeting journalists needs to be probed and debated openly.

Suspected rebels kill three in Indian Kashmir villages
Suspected rebels in India-controlled Kashmir gunned down two village elders and one victim’s son in attacks that police said were aimed at scaring off voters in the country’s general election. The attacks late April 21 led the ruling Congress party to cancel a nearby election rally, said Ghulam Nabi Monga, a lawmaker with the party. April 24 is one of several voting days in Kashmir. But rebels and separatist politicians have urged Kashmiris to boycott the vote, saying they do not recognize India’s sovereignty over the disputed Himalayan region.

Biden assures Ukrainian leaders of US support
US Vice President Joe Biden warned Russia April 22 at a meeting with Ukrainian officials in Kiev that ‘it’s time to stop talking and start acting’ to reduce tension in Ukraine. He encouraged Ukraine leaders to root out government corruption and announced the US will provide an additional $50 million to help Ukraine’s beleaguered government with political and economic reforms, including $8 million in nonlethal military assistance for the Ukrainian armed forces.

South Korea and US pledge firm response to North Korea
South Korean President Park Geun-hye said on April 25 that the United States and South Korea had agreed to do what it takes to contain North Korean ‘provocations’. She was speaking after talks with visiting US President Barack Obama. In March, the North warned it would not rule out a ‘new form’ of nuclear test to boost its nuclear deterrent, after the UN Security Council condemned Pyongyang’s launch of a mid-range ballistic missile into the sea east of the peninsula.

Iranian lawmakers seek probe into prison beatings
Several Iranian lawmakers have demanded a probe into alleged beatings of political prisoners held at Tehran’s Evin prison. Families of the inmates met with the lawmakers on April 20, seeking clarification on what happened to their kin, according to the report. The meetings came after families members of a group of political prisoners being held in ward 350 of the notorious facility gathered in front of the parliament to voice their concerns that some inmates were injured during a prison inspection on April 17, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported.