Threat to supply routes from Russia to Afghanistan

A Russian official has proposed severing some parts of the transport corridor NATO uses to move soldiers and supplies into Afghanistan. The corridor, known as the Northern Distribution Network, is a web of roads and railways running from northern Afghanistan through a host of countries, with three of the four main routes passing through Russian territory. Beginning in early 2012, the Northern Distribution Network, in conjunction with strategic airlifts, bore most of the logistics burden for the war in Afghanistan, including 85 per cent of fuel supplies.

A Russian official has proposed severing some parts of the transport corridor NATO uses to move soldiers and supplies into Afghanistan. The corridor, known as the Northern Distribution Network, is a web of roads and railways running from northern Afghanistan through a host of countries, with three of the four main routes passing through Russian territory. Beginning in early 2012, the Northern Distribution Network, in conjunction with strategic airlifts, bore most of the logistics burden for the war in Afghanistan, including 85 per cent of fuel supplies.

If Russia denies access to the Northern Distribution Network, transportation costs would rise significantly – though NATO has alternatives and a disruption of the network would not pose a significant threat.

However, NATO would be forced to revert to an older route that was largely abandoned because of differences with the host country, Pakistan. After the initial invasion of Afghanistan, supply routes primarily involved transit by truck across two main routes through Pakistan from the port of Karachi, which gave Pakistan enormous leverage over US military policy in Afghanistan. When Pakistan’s interests diverged from those of the US, Pakistan could threaten to cut off access to the supply routes to bring the United States to the negotiating table. In addition, although the Pakistani routes are the shortest and cheapest of all the land route options, they run through regions with a high risk of militant attacks. The United States had no ability to enforce security in these regions.

These factors prompted US planners to develop the Northern Distribution Network as an alternative in 2008. Loss of this route would lead to a return to the problems of the old route and Pakistan might, at least temporarily, reclaim some of the leverage it lost when it was no longer the sole supply route for coalition forces.

Cross-border Taliban alliance growing stronger

Taliban militants in Pakistan have established an increasingly close relationship with insurgents from across the border in Afghanistan, supplying them with explosives and well-trained fighters, a senior Afghan army commander has said.

The Taliban in Pakistan have always operated separately from their Afghan namesakes, fighting to topple the democratically elected government in Islamabad and establish a strict Islamic sharia state in the nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people.

But in recent weeks the two groups have secretly agreed to work together, with Pakistani militants announcing a ceasefire with their government in order to preserve militant bases used to stage cross-border attacks.

Major General Muhammad Shareef Yaftali, in charge of several eastern provinces on or near the Afghan border with Pakistan, said this relationship was growing stronger.

‘They are working together now. They are going to hold this relationship. It helps them,’ Yaftali, commander of the 203rd Corps, said at a military base in Afghanistan’s Paktia province.

‘The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have the same ideology. They are the same people. They are of the same school.’

The alliance complicates the picture for Yaftali’s troops as they try to bring law and order to some of the most violent and inaccessible areas of Afghanistan where militants linked to al-Qaeda are believed to be holed up in remote mountain lairs.

India election sees first key voting day pass peacefully

Millions of Indians voted on April 10, the first big day of the general election, which passed off peacefully despite predictions of violence.

Polling was held in 91 seats in 14 states and union territories, including in the capital Delhi and the key state of Uttar Pradesh. Officials say the voter turnout in all states has been higher than in 2009. The nine-phase vote began on April 7 and will conclude on 12 May. Votes will be counted on 16 May.

More than 814 million Indians are eligible to vote in the polls, with more than 110 million voters eligible to cast their votes on April 10 and almost a fifth of the parliament’s 543 seats up for grabs.

Brisk voting was reported through the day in Delhi, Bihar, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh. Voting was also held in the states of Maharashtra, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Haryana. Election Commission officials said the voter turnout was 64 per cent in Delhi, 65 per cent in Uttar Pradesh, 73 per cent in Kerala, 66 per cent in Jammu and 73 per cent in Haryana. Despite fears of violence attending the elections in Delhi, UP and Haryana, the elections all proceeded peacefully without incident.

In the politically crucial northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which sends the most number of MPs – 80 – to parliament, some 16 million voters were eligible to cast their ballots in 10 constituencies.

The main contest in the elections is between the Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi, and the BJP, led by the Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi. Mr Modi, who is ahead in all the pre-election opinion polls, is the leader of Gujarat state, which witnessed one of India’s worst anti-Muslim riots in 2002.

The BJP has promised to improve the economy and infrastructure and curb corruption if it wins in the general elections. The Congress party has promised ‘inclusive growth’ if it returns to power, with a raft of welfare schemes, including a right to healthcare for all and pensions for the elderly and disabled.

Any party or a coalition needs a minimum of 272 MPs to form a government.

West must resign itself to Syria stalemate

Bashar al-Assad’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah has said his Western foes must now accept he will go on ruling Syria after fighting rebels to a standstill – a ‘reality’ to which his foreign enemies seem increasingly resigned.

Echoing recent bullish talk coming out of Damascus, Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy leader of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia which is supporting Assad in combat, has said that the president retained popular support among many of Syria’s diverse religious communities and would shortly be re-elected.

‘There is a practical Syrian reality that the West should deal with – not with its wishes and dreams, which proved to be false,’ Qassem said.

He added that the United States and its Western allies were in disarray and lacked a coherent policy on Syria – reflecting the quandary that Western officials acknowledge they face since the pro-democracy protests they supported in 2011 became a war that has drawn al-Qaeda and other militants to the rebel cause.

UN approves force for Central African Republic

The UN Security Council on April 10 unanimously approved a nearly 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping force for Central African Republic, where mounting violence between Christians and Muslims has brought killings, torture and sexual violence.

The 10,000 UN troops and 1,800 police will take over from 5,000 African Union soldiers — but not until September 15. A separate 2,000-strong French force in CAR was authorized to use ‘all necessary means’ to support the new UN force.

How much protection UN troops will be able to offer is an open question and on the streets of CAR’s capital, Bangui, reactions to the UN deployment were muted. Keeping civilians safe throughout CAR, especially in rural areas, is already proving a difficult, if not impossible, task. The country is the size of Texas, many roads have not been repaved since independence from France in 1960, and many of the people escaping violence have fled into the bush.

The country has been in chaos since a March 2013 coup, when mostly Muslim rebels seized power and set up a brutal regime. Christian militiamen then attacked rebel strongholds in early December. As the rebel government crumbled in January this year, the Christian militiamen stepped up the violence, forcing tens of thousands of Muslims to flee.  The most recent clashes on April 8 in the central town of Dekoa have left at least 30 people dead.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an end to the killings, and speaking at UN headquarters in New York, Toussaint Kongo-Doudou, CAR’s foreign minister, said the new resolution ‘lays the foundation for a solution and a way out of the crisis’.

Israel imposes ‘tit for tat’ sanctions against Palestine

Israel has imposed economic sanctions against the Palestinians in retaliation for their leadership signing international conventions, moves that further complicate US efforts to keep peace talks from collapsing before an April 29 deadline.

An Israeli official said on April 10 that the Jewish state would deduct debt payments from tax transfers which the Palestinian Authority routinely receives, and limit the self-rule government’s bank deposits in Israel. The revenues which Israel collects on goods bound for the Palestinian market amount to about $100 million (£59.5 million) a month and accounts for about two thirds of the Palestinian budget.

On April 9, Israel said it was limiting its contacts with Palestinian officials, citing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s signing of UN human rights conventions the previous week. Israel viewed that move as an attempt by the Palestinians to assume the trappings of statehood outside the framework of the US-backed negotiations.

Abbas has accused Israel of violating a commitment to release two dozen prisoners at the end of March, the last group of about 100 Israel pledged to free, including Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis.

Even before the latest flurry of tit-for-tat measures, the talks, aimed at creating a Palestinian state and ending a decades-long conflict, had stalled over the issue of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the Palestinians refusal to formally recognise Israel as a Jewish state.

Most countries view the settlements, built on land captured in the 1967 Middle East War, as illegal.

Anti-Russia sentiment threatens Europe stability claims Moscow

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that European stability was being threatened by rising anti-Russian sentiment over the Ukraine crisis.

‘The current inflaming of anti-Russian sentiments takes place against the background of a spike of racism and xenophobia in many European countries, an increase in the number of ultra-radical groups and turning a blind eye to neo-Nazi phenomena, whether in Ukraine or elsewhere,’ he said in an April 10 statement, adding that this ‘carries an obvious threat to European stability’.

Lavrov spoke after US President Barack Obama threatened a third round of sanctions against Moscow if it escalates tensions over Ukraine, whose government it does not recognise.

Washington has already imposed targeted sanctions on some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies over Moscow’s takeover of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking peninsula of Crimea last month.

Speaking at a meeting with Russian non-governmental organisations, Lavrov said attempts to ‘legitimise the Maidan government at any cost’ should be stopped in order to deescalate the crisis in Ukraine.

A pro-Western popular uprising often called the Maidan after the name of Kiev’s central square in February ousted Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, who has since taken refuge in Russia.

Moscow does not recognise the new authorities in Kiev, accusing them of supporting neo-Nazis and pursuing anti-Russian policies.

 Adams slams Tebbit ‘shooting hope’

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has angrily accused Lord Norman Tebbit of publicly encouraging the assassination of Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

Responding to the former Conservative Party chairman’s controversial remarks, Mr Adams said it was unacceptable for a member of Britain’s House of Lords to openly support the shooting of a political leader.

‘I fully understand that Norman Tebbit has himself been a victim of the political conflict and I regret that he has suffered grievously,’ said Mr Adams, a former West Belfast MP and now TD for Louth. ‘However, to publicly advocate the assassination of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is a shocking throwback to a violent past from which we are seeking to move on.

Mr Adams said his party colleague and ex-IRA commander Mr McGuinness has worked tirelessly to ensure the success of the peace process at considerable risk to himself.

‘To now have this type of activity encouraged by a member of the British House of Lords is unacceptable, and should be rejected by all right-thinking people. Political leaders on both sides of the Irish Sea should reject the sentiments expressed by Mr Tebbit.’

Outspoken Lord Tebbit, who was injured with his wife during the 1984 IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, said he hoped Mr McGuinness is shot in the back for attending a state banquet at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth.

Pakistan: Ludhianvi given parliament seat despite party ban

Pakistan’s electoral commission has granted a parliamentary seat to the leader of a banned sectarian group that has long been accused of inciting violence against minority Shiites.

At the conclusion of a dispute that started with last year’s general election, the commission ruled that Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, the leader of the banned group Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, should represent the Jhang district in Punjab Province.

Jhang has a long history of sectarian violence, and Mr. Ludhianvi’s group, formerly known as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, is considered the ideological umbrella organization behind much of the violence against Shiites in recent decades.

Mr. Ludhianvi lost the seat during the May 2013 election by a margin of 4,000 votes but appealed on the basis that the incumbent, Sheikh Muhammad Akram, had rigged the vote and defaulted on bank loans. On April 9 the national election commission upheld Mr. Ludhianvi’s appeal and granted him the seat.

Mr. Ludhianvi says he has renounced violence and embraced electoral politics, but his supporters continue to stir up anti-Shiite sentiment in a country where militant groups – some with links to Sipah-e-Sahaba – have killed hundreds of Shiites in recent years.

Younas Qasmi, a close aide of Mr. Ludhianvi’s, said that the party’s parliamentary priority would be to pass anti-Shiite legislation and to distance Pakistan from Iran, a majority-Shiite nation.

In 2002, Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan’s leader, banned Sipah-e-Sahaba, which later resurfaced under its new name, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, and Mr. Ludhianvi fielded 130 candidates in last year’s election. None of them were elected.

UK says Sri Lanka ‘country of concern’

 While claiming that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka has not improved during the past three months and placing Sri Lanka as ‘a country of concern’, the 2013 Human Rights and Democracy Report released by the Foreign Commonwealth Office said there was some progress in the investigation into the 2011 murder of British national Khuram Shaikh.

 ‘The human rights situation in Sri Lanka has not improved during the past three months. Reports from the north of detention and harassment of activists continued,’ said the report, which was officially released by Foreign Secretary William Hague on April 10.

 However, the report also stated that ‘Positively, there was some progress in the investigation into the 2011 murder of British national Khuram Shaikh. The trial commenced in the Colombo High Court on 26 March and is due to continue in the coming months.’

 There was also no improvement in the situation for freedom of expression during the last three months. Sri Lanka dropped three places to 165 out of 180 in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index.

News in brief

United Baloch Army claims responsibility for Islamabad attack

 The outlawed United Baloch Army claimed it was responsible for the April 9 blast in Islamabad, Geo News TV reported. The group said the blast was in retaliation for the actions of security forces in Balochistan. At least 15 people were killed and dozens injured in the explosion.

 US & Russia leaders urge peaceful solution to Ukraine crisis

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have agreed on the need to resolve the security situation in eastern Ukraine peacefully. Speaking by telephone on April 9, Kerry and Lavrov discussed the importance of dialogue and rejected the use of force to obtain political objectives. Officials from the European Union, Russia, the United States and Ukraine are to meet in mid-April for talks on the crisis. Meanwhile, pro-Russia activists continue to occupy state buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv.

China urges US to halt arms sale to Taipei

Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan, following a visit with his US counterpart, Chuck Hagel, has urged Washington to stop a bill that reaffirms US commitment to Taiwan and backs continued arms sales to the island, the South China Morning Post has reported. China’s development cannot be contained, Chang said, adding that the country’s armed forces were ready to step in when needed. Ties between China and Taiwan have been warming, but as recent student protests in Taipei show, the window for Taiwan’s integration with the mainland is closing fast as the last generation of Taiwanese born on the mainland passes and a new generation that sees itself as wholly Taiwanese rises. (pic of Chang Wanquan, Chinese defence minister)

Hints at Iran-Saudi breakthrough

An Iranian diplomat has said there has been a breakthrough in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Such a breakthrough would have positive effects throughout the region, the diplomat said, although there was no reported confirmation of such a breakthrough from the Saudi side. There is a consensus within the Iranian regime that regional rival Saudi Arabia is trying to undermine Iranian influence and stability in response to the US-Iranian diplomatic engagement.

S Korea: soldiers find third suspected drone

South Korean soldiers found a drone that had crashed on a mountain in Samcheok, roughly 180 miles east of Seoul, Defence Ministry officials have reported. The drone is believed to be North Korean and is the third to have been found in recent weeks (the other two were discovered in Paju and on Baengnyeong Island). The balance of power between the Koreas currently favours the South – a trend that will continue to degrade Pyongyang’s position.

Protesters rally against military plans

About 3,000 people have demonstrated in Tokyo against the government’s plans to revise Japan’s constitution in order to give its military a more active role. The protest follows a national opinion poll that showed growing public opposition to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to bolster the military. According to the poll of more than 2,000 adults nationwide, 63 per cent oppose the process of eliminating restrictions on the military due to regional security threats.