Pakistan: military operation may be launched in March

Pakistan could launch a full-scale military operation against Pakistani Taliban insurgents in the tribal areas near the Afghan border as early as this month, the defence minister said, warning insurgents against violating a ceasefire.

Dashing chances of a peace deal with the Pakistani Taliban, gunmen burst into a courtroom in Islamabad on March 3, killing 11 people in a broad daylight attack in the heart of the heavily guarded capital. The Pakistani Taliban denied any role in the assault and a splinter group accepted responsibility.

Defence Minister Khawaja Asif has said the government would not hesitate to bomb militant hideouts or send forces into the tribal areas if the Taliban did not abide by the ceasefire announced at the weekend prior to the courtroom attack.

Asif, long considered a pro-talks politician, is now one of a growing number of members of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet who believe it is time for tougher military action against Pakistani Taliban strongholds.

Sharif has been under pressure from the United States and hawks within the Pakistani army to send troops into North Waziristan, a tribal region along the Afghan border that is home to a complex web of al Qaeda-linked militant groups.

In February, Pakistan launched talks with the Taliban to find a negotiated settlement. But hopes of a peace deal have been crushed by a series of attacks and counter-attacks by both sides.

For a government long considered soft for pursuing peace talks, Asif said there were now very few takers for the argument that the Taliban are truly committed to dialogue.

‘The Taliban have not even condemned this so-called splinter group after the attack. They are saying, “We have not violated a ceasefire, these are peripheral groups, they are not under our control,”’ Asif said. ‘But we cannot believe this.’

Media say India election a ‘celebration of democracy’

Media in India see the upcoming general election as a ‘celebration of democracy’ and urge citizens and politicians to make it a ‘grand success’.
Most newspapers have published special front pages dedicated to the ‘world’s largest’ election exercise that will take place in nine phases between 7 April and 12 May.

Votes will be counted on 16 May, the Election Commission (EC) announced on March 5.

‘With about 814 million people eligible to vote, India will witness a nine-phase election over a 36-day span covering 930,000 polling stations… the largest and lengthiest democratic exercise in the world,’ says The Hindu newspaper .

The media predicts the country’s youth and women are going to participate in the elections in huge numbers, and this will force parties to make their promises more focused on specific issues.

The Indian Express editorial says this general election will ‘test theories about how Indian voters have changed and how that is mirrored in what they expect from politics and the state’.

Ukraine crisis: Cameron and Merkel warn Russia

Russia will face ‘further consequences’ if Moscow attempts to legitimise any attempt by Crimea to break away from Ukraine, David Cameron and Angela Merkel have warned.

The British Prime Minister and the German Chancellor said the proposed referendum in a week’s time on the occupied peninsula is illegal.

The pair discussed the crisis at a recent dinner during Cameron’s two-day visit to Germany. A Downing Street spokesman said: ‘They both agreed that the priority is to de-escalate the situation and to get Russia to engage in a contact group as swiftly as possible.

‘They reiterated their view that the proposed referendum in Crimea would be illegal and that any attempt by Russia to legitimise the result would result in further consequences. They also agreed that we must keep working to support the Ukraine government, including identifying how the international community can help to stabilise the economic situation.’

Vladimir Putin has assured Cameron that Russia wants to find a peaceful resolution to the Crimea crisis, which was sparked when armed troops wearing uniforms with no identifying insignia seized key military and administrative locations in the predominantly Russian-speaking peninsula.

World diplomats seek to stabilize Libya

World diplomats met on March 6 at a conference in Rome to help Libya create a stable government and more secure environment amid the violence and growing political tensions that have festered since Muammar Gaddafi’s regime crumbled in 2011.

The meeting of foreign ministers, mostly from the West and Gulf states, focused largely on easing disagreements among Libya’s diverse tribal, religious and ethnic populations, looking toward writing a new constitution and holding elections this year. The ministers are also working to secure weapons and ammunition left over from the Gaddafi regime to help bring more security to the country.

Three years after Gaddafi’s ouster and slaying, Libya’s central government is struggling to control well-armed former anti-Gaddafi rebels and Islamist militias, with the military and police in disarray, while at the weekend beginning of March parliament was stormed by protestors who blamed politicians for the growing chaos.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said Libya is at ‘really a pivotal moment’, adding that ‘we will continue to fight terrorism’ and pledged to help the country move toward national reconciliation and elections while it drafts a new constitution.

Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdulaziz pointed to the difficulties of creating a stable political culture in a country that had only recently gone through a civil war after four decades of authoritarian rule.

‘We suffer from the absence of a regime. Libya was kidnapped for more than 40 years. Political parties were forbidden under the former regime.’
But he declared that stability and security could not be the responsibility of Libya alone, which was fundamentally weaker than neighbouring states in North Africa and the Middle East.

Iran holds ‘substantive and useful’ nuclear talks in Europe

A senior Iranian official said on March 7 that expert-level talks between Iran and six world powers on Tehran’s nuclear programme were ‘substantive and useful’.

The March 5-7 meeting at the United Nations complex in Vienna is to prepare for the next round of political negotiations on the issue later this month, also in the Austrian capital.

Seeking to build on an interim agreement reached late last year in Geneva, Iran and the major powers aim to hammer out a final settlement of the decade-old dispute over Tehran’s atomic activities by late July.

Both sides have made clear their political will to reach a long-term accord and have scheduled a series of meetings in coming months. But they also acknowledge that there are still big differences over the future scope of Iran’s nuclear programme and that success is far from guaranteed.

Officials said experts from Russia were taking part in the meeting in Vienna, suggesting there was no immediate fallout on the nuclear negotiations from the crisis in Ukraine.

Western officials want Iran to significantly scale back its uranium enrichment activities to ensure that it would be unable to build an atomic bomb quickly if it ever decided to do so.

Iran wants Western and UN sanctions that are severely hurting its oil-dependent economy lifted, having won limited relief in exchange for curbing its most sensitive nuclear work under the six-month Geneva agreement, which took effect on January 20.

Chief negotiators from Iran and the powers — the United States, France, Russia, Britain, Germany and China — are to begin their next round of negotiations on March 18 in Vienna, with the meeting expected to last two to three days.

China rights advocates rally for Uighurs

Chinese rights activists voiced alarm on the Internet over rising discrimination against ethnic Uighurs in the wake of a deadly attack at a Chinese train station that the government has blamed on militants from the western region of Xinjiang.

Top officials have noted mounting anxiety and resentment between the country’s majority Han Chinese and Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang since an attack in the southwestern city of Kunming on March 1 left 29 people dead and injured about 140 others.

Online accounts describe growing intolerance toward Uighurs across China, ranging from evictions from apartments to taxi drivers refusing to pick them up. After the train station attack, signs appeared in restaurants and hotels in Kunming saying Uighurs were unwelcome.

Rights activists have taken to social networks to decry the reported abuses and challenge the characterisation of Uighurs as dangerous or extremist.

‘Because of the Internet we can learn about the many instances of Uighurs facing discrimination, from being unable to stay in hotels and having their street stalls chased away to being accused of being terrorists,’ prominent dissident Hu Jia said.

While more than 100 people, including several policemen, have been killed in unrest in Xinjiang since last April, the slaughter at the train station in Kunming was one of the worst single acts of what the government has called militant violence. Beijing has not explicitly accused Uighurs, but referred to the perpetrators as Xinjiang extremists.

UK: inquiry ordered over police spying on Lawrence family

The British government has ordered a public inquiry after it was revealed that a secret police spy infiltrated the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, killed in a racist attack in 1993.

The judge-led investigation was announced by home secretary Theresa May following a report by Mark Ellison QC. It said Scotland Yard had planted an undercover officer from the now disbanded Special Demonstration Squad in an activist group close to the family before a public inquiry in 1998.

There was also evidence to suggest one of the detectives on the original murder investigation had acted corruptly, the report added.

Ms May called the findings ‘deeply troubling’ and announced plans to introduce a new offence of police corruption.

Scotland Yard said the report considered ‘some very serious issues’ and, while they were mainly historical, it ‘could have a negative impact on confidence in modern day policing.’

Kerry in Jordan for talks on Middle East peace

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Aqaba, Jordan, on March 7 in an unscheduled visit to discuss Middle East peace with Jordan’s King Abdullah.

Kerry made the three-hour detour to the Red Sea resort of Aqaba from Rome where he attended a conference on Libya and held meetings on the crisis in Ukraine.

Kerry is aiming to win agreement by late April between Israel and the Palestinians on a framework for a peace deal, although he has said a final accord could take another nine months or more.

While US officials have declined to say what might go into such a framework, it appears likely to be an outline of possible outcomes on the core issues of borders, security, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in Washington this week he wanted an accord, but he put the onus on Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state — something they have long refused to do.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem is the main obstacle to a deal to create a Palestinian state.

Women activists stage sit-in at Cairo airport

More than 40 women on their way to Gaza as part of a delegation for World Women’s Day on March 8 are staging a sit-in inside the Cairo International Airport after being refused entry into the country since March 5, airport officials in Egypt and activists have said.

Among the participants from the US-based anti-war group Code Pink’s delegation are US, French and Belgium citizens. At least three activists had been deported, including Mairead Maguire, a 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Ann Wright, the US delegation’s organizer, said on March 6 that the group had planned to take a bus from Cairo to the Rafa crossing and walk across the border. Egypt’s border with Gaza has been closed since last month as authorities combat smuggling and Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula. Relations between Egypt and Gaza also remain tense after the military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July.

On March 4 an Egyptian court banned all activities of the Palestinian militant group Hamas and ordered the closure of any Hamas offices. Hamas, which rules the neighbouring Gaza Strip, is the Palestinian branch of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group. Authorities accuse Hamas, in cooperation with the Brotherhood, of training and arming the al-Qaeda-inspired group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which has carried out a string of bombings and attacks on police and the military. The Brotherhood and Hamas both deny the accusation.

India-UK future is bright

The future of India-UK ties is bright but much more remains to be done, Indian High Commissioner to Britain Ranjan Mathai has said.

Expressing confidence in growing India-UK cooperation across different fields, he said, ‘Our two countries have charted a long course through history but I believe we have as much ahead of us as we have had in the past.’

The former Foreign Secretary, who officially assumed the post in London in December 2013, added: ‘There is much that remains to be done but I think together we can get there.’

The envoy said he looked forward to the day when both countries will go ahead with ‘some really important projects like the rupee-denominated bonds and other initiatives, which might lead to the globalisation of the Indian Rupee in years to come’.

Mathai was addressing a recent welcome event in London organised by the Indian Journalists’ Association (IJA).

‘The fact is we have come to take for granted a level of cooperation and a level of mutual understanding of each other’s concerns and interests, which would have been remarkable even ten years ago. And that is a testament to just how much we have been able to do and also a testament of how much remains to be done.’

Referring to the proposed cooperation on the Bangalore-Mumbai Economic Corridor, he said: ‘The BMEC is a very path-breaking serious initiative taken between our two countries. It is not merely a corridor linking two cities, it is a way of thinking anew about how to increase investments, how to increase the interaction in a globalised India.’

Paying tribute to the contributions of the Indian Diaspora in Britain, Mathai said, ‘India has come of age and is now an actor, like other major actors, on the world stage. Looking at it from the perspective of this country, I would like to pay tribute particularly to the Indian community who have done so much to build the image of India not only here but globally.’

News in Brief

Malaysia: investigation into stolen passports continues
Officials’ investigations into two of the passengers on missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 who used stolen passports to buy their tickets together is still ongoing. Amid concerns of a possible terrorist attack, officials cautioned that it is too soon to have arrived at any conclusions, and a US intelligence official said no link to terrorism has been found yet. The use of fake or stolen passports can often indicate illegal immigration or drug smuggling, rather than terrorism.

Al-Jazeera journalists appear in Cairo court
The parents of an Australian journalist jailed in Egypt have said they were haunted and depressed by images of their son caged in a Cairo courtroom. Peter Greste is one of three Al-Jazeera English journalists who appeared in a Cairo court on March 5 along with 17 other defendants on charges of joining and aiding a terrorist group and endangering national security.

Dalai Lama opens US Senate session with peace prayer
With lawmakers listening raptly, the Dalai Lama on March 6 opened the US Senate session with a prayer of peace as congressional leaders set aside partisan differences to receive the Tibetan spiritual leader together. Two weeks after President Barack Obama angered China by inviting the Nobel laureate to the White House, the Dalai Lama was warmly welcomed on Capitol Hill, where he paid tribute to America as a ‘champion of democracy and freedom’.

Thailand: rights group demands probe into migrant trafficking
A leading international rights group has called on Thai authorities to investigate the navy’s alleged role in the trafficking of desperate migrants from Myanmar instead of charging journalists for reporting on the subject. Thailand’s navy filed criminal defamation charges late last year against the English-language Phuketwan website for publishing stories alleging military involvement in the trafficking of Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya.