Pakistan’s premier meets army chief amid protest crisis

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has met the country’s powerful army chief as a political deadlock over mass protests to demand the government’s resignation showed no signs of resolution.

Pakistan has been gripped by peaceful anti-government protests demanding Sharif’s resignation this month, with thousands of demonstrators camped outside parliament in a country that has experienced a succession of military coups.

The meeting between army chief Raheel Sharif and the prime minister was one of many the two leaders have held in recent weeks over the impasse, said a senior army source in Rawalpindi. The official, who asked not to be named, said: ‘This situation is very alarming for the army. We are dealing with mobs. What if things get violent?’

Protesters led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and firebrand cleric Tahir ul-Qadri have vowed to occupy the capital, Islamabad, until Sharif resigns — a demand the premier has firmly rejected. Thousands of protesters are now camped out in the heart of Islamabad — the so-called ‘Red Zone’, which is home to parliament, the prime minister’s home, embassies and government offices — but the gathering has a festival-like atmosphere and security forces have not used force to disperse the crowds.

Whether the protests fizzle out or take a more violent course ultimately depends on the stance taken by the military. Sharif has a difficult relationship with the army: in 1999 then army chief General Pervez Musharraf launched a coup against the premier to usher in a decade of military rule and ties soured further when the government prosecuted Musharraf for treason last year, angering officers who despise politicians as corrupt and inefficient.

Despite the sporadic talks to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, Khan has refused to back down unless Sharif quits over accusations that he rigged last year’s general election. On August 25, Qadri too gave the government another deadline to quit by the middle of the week, saying otherwise circumstances might be ‘uncontrollable’.

London Mayor calls for crackdown on British jihadists

 The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has called for the presumption of innocence to be reversed in cases where Britons travel to Iraq or Syria and said he wants the jihadist who beheaded US journalist James Foley to be killed in a bomb attack.

Mr Johnson, who has overall responsibility for the Metropolitan Police, said legislation should be introduced so that anyone visiting those countries would be automatically presumed to be terrorists unless they had notified the authorities in advance.

Writing in his Daily Telegraph column, Johnson said those who ‘continue to give allegiance to a terrorist state’ should lose their British citizenship and called for a ‘swift and minor change’ to the law so there was a ‘rebuttable presumption’ that those visiting war areas without notifying the authorities had done so for a terrorist purpose. ‘At present the police are finding it very difficult to stop people from simply flying out via Germany, crossing the border, doing their ghastly jihadi tourism, and coming back,’ he wrote.

The mayor said that while Britain’s recent military interventions had left the nation reluctant to wade into overseas conflicts, ‘doing nothing is surely the worst of all’. Mr Johnson also suggested a ‘vast and co-ordinated series of American strikes with drones’ was the best way to deal with the militant group.
But former attorney general Dominic Grieve said ending the principle of innocent until proved guilty was ‘draconian’. He added: If you render somebody stateless, then another country may do the same thing to you in respect of its own nationals who happen to be situated in your country, leaving you with a major problem.’

Baluch leaders blast Pakistan in demand for independence

On the occasion of Baluchistan Independence Day on August 11, four Baluch Nationalist leaders have reiterated their demands for Baluchistan’s independence by signing a declaration that is highly critical of Pakistan’s policies in the troubled region.

Nawab Brahumdagh Bugti, President of the Baloch Republican Party, Nawab Mehran Baluch, Baluch Representative to the UNHRC & EU, Mir Javed Mengal and Sardar Bakhtyar Khan Domki all signed a statement that decries the oppressive policies and human rights abuses carried out in the Baluchistan region by successive Pakistani regimes.

The signatories accuse the Pakistani armed forces of multiple crimes, including ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Baluch people, ‘disappearances’ of Baluch nationalists and the systematic kidnapping, imprisonment and extrajudicial executions or murder of Baluch political activists and leaders. They also say that Pakistan has used its occupation of Baluchistan to exploit its mineral wealth and perpetrate other injustices against the Baluch people.

Following the independence of Pakistan in 1947, Baluch leaders had stated a clear intent to remain independent and maintain their cultural identity, but Pakistan responded with military force and illegally occupied Baluchistan on March 27 the following year. Since then, pro-independence Baluch leaders have met on a regular basis to demand complete independence from what they describe as Pakistan’s ‘tyrannical rule’, including the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Pakistani troops from Baluchistan.

In their statement, the nationalist leaders called for human rights organisations to join hands with political forces to address the deteriorating human rights situation in Baluchistan and look into the cases of missing persons. They also called on the international community to support the demand for an independent and democratic Baluchistan and to take immediate steps to end the militarisation and exploitation of the region’s natural resources.

Washington to give Tunisia military aid to battle Islamists

The United States is to give Tunisia $60 million (£36 million) worth of military aid to help it fight Islamist militants who are threatening the country’s nascent democracy.

Speaking after talks with Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, General David Rodriguez, the head of US Africa Command, said some of the money would go on new boats, training and equipment to detect improvised explosive devices.

Underscoring its concern about the security situation in the small North African state, Washington announced that it planned to sell Tunisia a dozen Black Hawk attack helicopters worth an estimated $700 million.

Protests in Tunisia in 2010 sparked subsequent revolutions that have transformed the Arab world and in many ways it is more stable and secure than other Arab Spring countries such as Libya, Egypt and Syria.

But it is facing a militant threat of its own, mostly due to attacks mounted by the al-Qaeda offshoot Ansar al-Sharia, and to a flow of fighters and weapons unleashed by other conflicts in the region.

Since April, thousands of troops have been deployed to Tunisia’s mountainous Chaambi region on the border with Algeria, where fighters fleeing a French military intervention in Mali last year have taken refuge. At least 15 soldiers have been killed in attacks on military checkpoints in the area last month.

Jewish centre reopens six years after Mumbai attacks

Rabbis from across Asia have celebrated the reopening of a Jewish centre targeted by rampaging Pakistani gunmen who stormed through Mumbai on a 60-hour killing spree in 2008.

The attacks on the Chabad centre and other iconic locations in India’s financial capital left 166 people dead, including six people from the orthodox Jewish centre, one of them Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife.

Rabbi Israel Kozlovsky, who now runs the Mumbai centre, said the rebuilt six-storey Nariman House would house a $2.5 million Jewish Museum as well as Mumbai’s first memorial to those killed in the attacks, which also targeted a train station, a popular tourist cafe and the luxury Taj Mahal hotel.

‘This is the day we can celebrate their lives and the message of light that they spread,’ the murdered rabbi’s father, Rabbi Nachman Holtzberg, said through a translator to a roomful of rabbis who had travelled from centres across Asia set up by the orthodox Jewish group Chabad-Lubavitch. The group has a presence in more than 80 countries and has grown rapidly in the last two decades in Asia.

Since the terrorist attacks, the Mumbai Chabad centre conducted spiritual services and social outreach from temporary locations in the western Indian port city. Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky from the Jewish group’s educational arm said the reopening should be seen as a message to the world. ‘You can overcome challenges, even the most horrific of challenges. This project serves as a beacon of light and hope that evil will not prevail.’

Saudi talks ‘positive and constructive’ says Iran’s deputy foreign minister

Iran’s deputy foreign minister said he had held a ‘positive and constructive’ meeting with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister in Riyadh on August 26 as the two rivals seek to counter Islamist militants in Iraq.

Hossein Amir Abdollahian’s visit is the first by a senior Iranian official for talks with the kingdom since moderate President Hassan Rouhani was elected last summer and pledged to improve Tehran’s frosty relations with its Arab neighbours.

Saudi official media had not reported on Abdollahian’s arrival or his talks with Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, a sign of the heightened sensitivities surrounding ties between two of the Middle East’s most intractable foes.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran back opposing sides in wars and political struggles in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain, usually along sectarian lines, and vie for influence across the Middle East.

However, both Tehran and Riyadh were aghast at the rapid advances made by Islamic State in June and July and welcomed the departure of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in August. Maliki was a close political ally of Iran but the country’s leaders came to see him as a liability after many Sunni Iraqis backed the revolt led by Islamic State.

The Saudi ruler King Abdullah believed the outgoing prime minister had failed to fulfil promises he made to rein in the power of Shi’ite militias that targeted Sunnis. However, Saudi Arabia remains wary of the incoming Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi, who is from the same political bloc as Maliki, analysts in the kingdom say, and continue to oppose what they see as Iranian interference in Arab countries.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on August 26 continued his own visit to Iraq, meeting Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, to whose forces Tehran has supplied weapons in response to Islamic State advances.

China vows to respond to US surveillance flights

China says it will keep responding to US military surveillance flights off its coast, rejecting American claims that one of Beijing’s fighter jets acted recklessly in intercepting a US Navy plane on August 19.

Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said that China’s military would closely monitor US flights and adopt appropriate measures to ensure the country’s security.

Yang claimed that US surveillance flights this year have become more frequent, are covering a wider area and are coming closer to the Chinese coast.

However, he wouldn’t say what distance China considers acceptable, saying only that the US should scale back or end such flights entirely if it wants to avoid potential accidents and build mutual trust.

New charges raised against Morsi

Judicial officials say Egypt’s state prosecutor has raised new charges against the country’s ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, accusing him of leaking secret documents to Qatar, an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood group.

The latest charges mark the fourth case underway against Morsi, who was ousted last summer. They also implicate the Doha-based Al-Jazeera TV network.

The officials said the charge sheet accuses Morsi of passing state security files to the Qataris through Al-Jazeera while in office ‘in a way that harms national security’.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to talk to reporters.

Morsi also faces charges of conspiring with foreign groups, inciting murder of his opponents and orchestrating prison breaks during the 2011 uprising that toppled his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

Long-term ceasefire agreed in Gaza

Along-term ceasefire has been agreed between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

The truce, ending seven weeks of fighting that has left more than 2,200 people — mostly Palestinians — dead, was brokered by Egypt and began at 16:00 GMT on August 26.

Hamas said the deal represented a ‘victory for the resistance’.

Israel is to ease its blockade of Gaza to allow in aid and building materials, Israeli officials said. Indirect talks on more contentious issues, including Israel’s call for militant groups in Gaza to disarm, will begin in Cairo within a month.

The US gave the full backing to the deal, with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying: ‘We strongly support the ceasefire announcement’.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also welcomed the truce. But in a statement via his spokesman, Mr Ban warned that ‘any peace effort that does not tackle the root causes of the crisis will do little more than set the stage for the next cycle of violence’.

CDC head calls for international aid on Ebola

Voicing concern over the latest Ebola outbreak in Africa, Tom Frieden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has said that the situation could get worse and called for quicker international help and cooperation to control the spread.

‘The world has never seen an outbreak of Ebola like this. Consequently, not only are the numbers large, but we know there are many more cases than has been diagnosed and reported,’ said Dr Frieden, after visiting some of the Ebola-ravaged parts of West Africa.

Dr Frieden met Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to discuss ways to fight the disease. He said there was a need for ‘urgent action’ and called on Liberians ‘to come together’ to stop misconceptions that have helped the outbreak spread. The medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has called the international response ‘entirely inadequate’.

‘It is simply unacceptable that serious discussions are only starting now about international leadership and coordination,’ said an MSF spokesman, noting that states that have the expertise are more focussed on their protection.

Fear and public distrust of the government have made it tough for Liberia to effectively control the spread of the disease. Liberia has been hardest-hit, with 624 deaths and 1,082 cases from Ebola.

Meanwhile, health ministers from the Economic Community of West African States are meeting in Ghana’s capital Accra to discuss the regional response to the crisis and to devise ways to contain the enormous economic damage as businesses move out.

More than 2,600 people have been infected by Ebola in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria since the outbreak began in December, according to the World Health Organisation. Nearly 1,500 have died.

Russia sees chance to lift Iran sanctions through international talks

Russia has said the possibility of lifting sanctions on Iran has emerged thanks to international talks on Tehran’s nuclear programme, and urged all countries involved to show political will to reach a deal.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on August 29 to discuss the negotiations with six world powers on a decade-old stand-off over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.

The talks between Iran and the United States, France, Russia, Britain, China and Germany failed to yield a deal by a July deadline and were extended by four months in view of remaining wide differences in negotiating positions. They are expected to resume in September, with the aim of reaching a settlement by November 24 that would scale back Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of sanctions that are severely hurting its oil-dependent economy.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it still hoped a deal was possible no later than November.

‘Despite the difficult course of the negotiating process, a possibility is emerging to satisfy in full all integral rights of Iran as a member state of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, including the right to enrich uranium and lifting the sanctions regime,’ it said.

News in Brief

Kashmir: ceasefire violations result in 10 deaths
Indian and Pakistani forces have exchanged gunfire and mortar rounds several times in recent days, with ten deaths of villagers, soldiers and suspected insurgents reported since August 22. Military leaders from both sides spoke by phone on August 26 about the ceasefire violations. India and Pakistan both claim Kashmir in its entirety and have fought two of their three wars over the region.

Ukraine seeks freeze on Russian assets
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk has appealed to the US, EU and G7 countries to freeze Russian assets until Russian forces withdraw from Ukrainian territory, pulling out armed forces, equipment and agents. He also said the finance ministry would sell $340 million (£204.77 million) to the central bank to support reserves and help stabilise the Ukranian hryvnia.

UK’s Deputy PM visits Sikh temple on Indian trip

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has visited a Sikh temple in New Delhi during a three-day trade trip to India. On August 25 Mr Clegg met India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to discuss the prospect of bringing teachers from Britain’s top institutions to work in India. He also suggested lending British expertise to clean up the River Ganges.

France: rebels force new cabinet reshuffle
A new French government is being formed after two rebel ministers on August 26 criticised President Francois Hollande’s harsh austerity measures. The last cabinet was created just four months ago. One of the rebels, economy minister Arnaud Monteburg, demanded new policies and wants more money diverted to hard-up families.

Turkey: head of new ruling party elected
Turkish politician Ahmet Davutoglu was elected to lead the ruling Justice and Development Party, known as AKP, during a recent televised ceremony, The Jerusalem Post reported. Davutoglu is expected to be appointed prime minister on August 27 following the swearing-in of new Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.