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Indonesia's Widodo takes office, reaches out to foes

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 14:27

JAKARTA: Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s first leader without deep roots in the era of dictator Suharto, was sworn in as president Monday and immediately reached out to his political foes to seek support for his ambitious reform agenda.

The inauguration, which was attended by foreign dignitaries including US Secretary of State John Kerry and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, capped a remarkable rise for a softly-spoken politician who was brought up in a riverside slum.

Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi, worked his way up through local politics before securing the presidency in July following a close race against controversial ex-general Prabowo Subianto.

He is the country’s first president from outside an ageing band of political and military figures who have ruled the world’s third-biggest democracy since the end of the three-decade Suharto dictatorship in 1998.

But there are fears that a hostile parliament dominated by parties that opposed Widodo at the election, and the new leader’s status as a political outsider, could make it hard for him to push through reforms aimed at reviving Southeast Asia’s top economy and helping society’s poorest.

At a ceremony in parliament, Widodo, wearing a black suit and traditional cap, stood for the national anthem alongside Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is stepping down after a decade in power, before taking the oath.

During his first speech as president, he called for unity following the most bitterly fought election in Indonesian history.

“Unity and working hand in hand are prerequisites for us to be a great nation,” Widodo, a 53-year-old former furniture exporter who won legions of fans during his time as Jakarta governor, told parliament. “We will never become a great nation if we are stuck with division.”

“This is a historic moment for us all to move together, to work and work,” the president urged, and insisted that the government would help citizens right across the world’s biggest archipelago nation.

The new leader also referred to Prabowo as “my best friend” during the speech, and the ex-general responded by standing up and giving a salute.

It was the latest sign of a thaw between the pair, after Prabowo only grudgingly conceded defeat and his supporters threatened to block the new leader’s reforms in parliament. However, analysts cautioned the reconciliation may be short-lived.

Tens of thousands lined the streets across Jakarta to celebrate the inauguration of Widodo, who was later expected to travel through the capital by horse-drawn carriage with new vice president, Jusuf Kalla, to the presidential palace.

In the evening the new leader, a heavy metal fan, is expected to join rock bands on stage at an outdoor concert.

About 24,000 police and military personnel were deployed to secure the day’s events.

But the euphoria of the inauguration is likely to be short-lived, analysts warn, as Widodo faces up to the task of leading the world’s fourth most populous country, with 250 million people spread over more than 17,000 islands, at a critical moment.

Economic growth is at five-year lows, corruption remains rampant, and fears are mounting that support for the Islamic State group could spawn a new generation of radicals in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

Kerry’s attendance was in part aimed at seeking support from Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations in the fight against the extremists, who have taken over vast swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Widodo’s first test will be to reduce the huge fuel subsidies that eat up about a fifth of the budget, a move economists say is urgently needed but which risks sparking large street protests.

Prospects for his ambitious reforms dimmed in recent weeks after Prabowo’s supporters in parliament used their majority to abolish the direct election of local leaders, a move opposed by Widodo, and win key posts in the legislature.

Prabowo’s appearance at the inauguration and an unexpected meeting with Widodo Friday during which he pledged support have raised hopes that tensions are easing, but observers say the ex-general may still oppose the new leader’s policies.

Widodo is also expected to announce his new cabinet later in the week.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Planet marks hottest September since 1880: US

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 12:25

WASHINGTON: Last month was the hottest September for globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces since record-keeping began in 1880, the US government said on Monday.

“It also marked the 38th consecutive September with a global temperature above the 20th century average,” said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

When combining average temperature over land and ocean surfaces, NOAA found a record high for September at 60.3 Fahrenheit (15.72 Celsius), or 1.3 F (0.72 C) above the 20th century average.

“With the exception of February, every month to date in 2014 has been among its four warmest on record, with May, June, August and September all record warm,” said the NOAA report.

It said most of the land on Earth was warmer than normal last month, except for central Russia, some areas in eastern and northern Canada, and a small region in Namibia.

“Record warmth was notable in much of northwestern Africa, coastal regions of southeastern South America, southwestern Australia, parts of the Middle East, and regions of southeastern Asia.”

When it came to the world’s oceans, the September global sea surface temperature was 1.19 F (0.66 C) above the 20th century average, the highest on record for September.

“This also marked the highest departure from average for any month since records began in 1880, breaking the previous record of 1.17 F (0.65 C) set just one month earlier in August,” said NOAA.

It said record warmth was observed in parts of every major ocean basin, particularly in the northeastern and equatorial Pacific Ocean.

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Pakistan, Afghanistan working on 'roadmap' for tension-free ties: Aziz

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 11:31

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan said on Monday that it was working with Afghanistan on a “comprehensive road-map” to improve bilateral relations between the two countries, which will be free of mistrust and will focus on constructive engagement and economic cooperation.

Adviser to the Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz, who in a day-long visit to Kabul on Sunday, met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other leaders, told reporters in Islamabad that both sides agreed not to allow anyone to use their territories against each other.

“It was agreed during my visit to Afghanistan that Pakistan will not allow its territory to be used and Afghanistan will not allow its territory,” Aziz said.

Pakistan and Afghanistan have nearly 2,200 kilometer border, mostly porous, and both blame each other for loose control that enables the militants to illegally cross it.

For this purpose, Aziz said both sides had also agreed to put in place a mechanism for better border management. Further, discussions will be held on the issue of implementing bio-metric systems, opening of new routes and documentation.

“There will be a mechanism on local level so that local commanders could talk if there is any issue, then higher commanders, then intelligence agencies, then at foreign policy level the political level,” he said.

The adviser said that both countries will devise a comprehensive mechanism through which political interaction military-to-military interaction, foreign policy interaction and people to people interaction will be enhanced.

“This mechanism is being evolved and a draft standing operating procedure for border management has been prepared. These measures will address to mistrust. We will build economic and trade cooperation on their basis,” Sartaj said.

Mistrust and blame game between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the years badly affected bilateral cooperation on security matters between the two neighbouring countries.

He said that these issues will be discussed in coming days and will be finalised when President Ghani visits Pakistan, adding that the dates of the visit are being finalised.

No repeat of 1990s

During the Trilateral dialogue on China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Aziz warned that as Afghanistan enters a transition, there should be no repeat of the 1990s with outside attempts to fill any void in Afghanistan.

“Conscious of the lessons of history, Pakistan has been consistently stressing that there should be no repeat of the 1990s. In our view, every effort should be made to ensure that neither there is any attempt from outside to fill any perceived security vacuum in Afghanistan, nor is there any economic vacuum allowed to emerge.”

Aziz added that the international community’s enhanced engagement for Afghanistan’s economic development and reconstruction remains critical, as it would have “reinforcing effect on efforts for peace and stability.”

Trilateral contribution for Afghanistan

The adviser further listed Pakistan’s vision for trilateral cooperation contributing in the following areas:

i) Supporting Afghanistan’s efforts for peace and stability.

ii) Addressing common challenges of extremism and terrorism.

iii) Strengthening capacity-building of Afghan national security forces (ANSF).

iv) Reinforcing Afghanistan’s economic development, particularly in the mining sector.

v)  Promoting connectivity for trade and energy corridors.

vi) Advancing a regional consensus on non-interference.

vii) Mobilising regional and international support for stability in Afghanistan.

Iran- Pak tensions

Replying to questions about the recent Iran-Pakistan border tension that have led to troop casualties on both sides, the Pakistani adviser said a large number of militant groups, smugglers and criminal elements are operating in the border areas who are responsible for the current escalations.

Iran and Pakistani troops traded fire along their border in Balochsitan which resulted in the killing of at least four troops on both sides.

Aziz said that both countries are working on a mechanism to enhance interaction of local security officials for interaction to ward off such incidents.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Sri Lanka heads for snap presidential poll

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 08:23

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka will hold a presidential election in January, almost two years ahead of schedule, in which Mahinda Rajapakse will seek a third term, the information minister said Monday.

An early election had been widely expected. But the remarks by minister Keheliya Rambukwella were the first confirmation that Rajapakse was seeking a fresh mandate after removing the two-term limit on the presidency soon after winning re-election in 2010.

“The presidential election will be held in January,” Rambukwella said at a public meeting in the district of Kandy.

“I know the date but can’t say it at the moment.”

There had been speculation that Rajapakse, who is also the finance minister, would call a snap election after he brought forward the 2015 national budget by a month to Friday.

His ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance is expected to use the budget to try to boost its popularity after its share of the vote plummeted by over 20 percentage points in local elections held last month.

It was his party’s worst performance since he came to power in 2005, and the main opposition United National Party more than doubled its vote.

Rajapakse gained popularity among Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese community by crushing a Tamil separatist rebellion in May 2009 and ending a 37-year-long Tamil separatist war.

However, he is also is under intense international pressure to probe allegations that his troops killed up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians while battling Tamil rebels in 2009.

Presidential elections are due by November 2016, but Rajapakse has the power to call them at any time.

Candidates need more than 50 percent of the vote to win in a complicated system of preferential voting.

It was not immediately clear how a January election would affect the Pope’s plans to visit the island on January 13-15.

The Catholic church has made it clear that a papal visit would be inappropriate during an election campaign.

There was no immediate comment from the Roman Catholic church in Colombo.

Official sources said Rajapakse may make an announcement of the election date after he completes four years of his current term on November 19, a day after his 69th birthday.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Indian boss gives workers cars, home deposits, jewellery for Diwali

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 08:01

A generous boss in western India has given 1,200 of his workers new cars, deposits for flats and thousands of dollars’ worth of diamond jewellery as rewards for loyalty.

The diamond merchant from the city of Surat presented the lavish gifts to the employees in a ceremony on Sunday before the major Hindu festival of Diwali.

The presents, including those for worker’s wives, were part of Savjibhai Dholakia’s company loyalty programme worth a total of 50 billion rupees ($815 million).

“We have rewarded those employees who have contributed to the development of the company over the years,” Dholakia, chairman of Hari Krishna Exports, told AFP on Monday.

“They have sacrificed their family lives for the progress of the firm and hence they deserve the reward,” Dholakia said from Surat, a diamond polishing and export hub.

Most employees receive presents of some kind from their bosses during Diwali, the festival of lights, but they are usually just boxes of Indian sweets.

Dholakia’s complex loyalty programme, in which employees earn points in 25 criteria, has been in place for five years — but this year the rewards have reached new heights.

“We gave apartments to 207 employees, cars to 491 and jewellery to 500 employees,” Dholakia said.

“The (deposits on) apartments were given to those who did not own one,” he said, while cars were given to those workers who already have their own home.

Jewellery, worth a maximum $5,860 apiece, was given to some employees as presents for their wives because spouses “have also contributed indirectly to the progress of the firm”, he said.

Employee Gaurav Duggal said his two-odd years of working for the company had been “indescribable”

“The jewellery which they have given me is not only priceless, it shows the sentiment that the company has towards me and other employees,” he told the NDTV network.

Dholakia’s firm exports polished diamonds to 75 countries.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

WHO declares Nigeria Ebola-free

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 07:03

ABUJA: Africa’s most populous nation Nigeria was on Monday declared officially Ebola free but warned that it remained vulnerable as long as the virus was raging elsewhere in west Africa.

The country representative of the World Health Organisation, Rui Gama Vaz, said 42 days — or two incubation periods of 21 days — had elapsed without any new confirmed cases of the deadly virus.

“The virus is gone for now. The outbreak in Nigeria has been defeated,” he told a news conference in Abuja alongside the country’s health minister and survivors of the disease.

“This is a spectacular success story that shows to the world that Ebola can be contained.”

Nigeria’s official Ebola-free status comes after Senegal was given the all-clear on Friday, providing rare good news in the world’s worst outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever.

More than 4,500 people have died this year and nearly 10,000 have been infected, most of them in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Senegal had one confirmed case, while Nigeria saw seven deaths from 19 confirmed cases according to latest WHO figures.

Both countries are now coming under close scrutiny as public health specialists around the world look to contain the spread of the disease after cases in Spain and the United States.

The WHO said developing countries and wealthier nations concerned about Ebola “may have something to learn” from the response of Nigeria and Senegal.

But Vaz also said that neither country could lower its guard, given that the epidemic had not been contained elsewhere in west Africa.

“We must be clear that we only won a battle. The war will only end when west Africa is also declared free of Ebola,” he added.

“While the outbreak is now officially over, Nigeria’s geographical position and extensive borders makes the country vulnerable to additional imported cases of Ebola virus disease.”

Continued vigilance was required, as well as “strict compliance” with WHO preparation guidelines in the event of further cases, he added.

Ebola’s arrival in Nigeria — Africa’s leading economy and top oil producer — sparked fears of its rapid spread in the overcrowded megacity of Lagos, which is home to 20 million, and beyond.

The first case involved a Liberian finance ministry official, Patrick Sawyer, who was taken straight to a private hospital from Lagos airport after arriving visibly ill on a flight from Monrovia.

But the doomsday scenario did not happen. Doctors at the hospital physically restrained Sawyer from leaving and potentially spreading the virus across the city.

Once Sawyer was diagnosed and later died on July 25, a comprehensive contact tracing plan — using an existing mapping programme for a mass outbreak of polio — swung into action.

Some 1,800 staff were mobilised and trained to trace and monitor those at risk, as well as decontaminate infected places and care for the sick.

Nearly 900 people at risk in Lagos and the key oil hub of Port Harcourt were tracked down and checked twice a day for signs of the disease. Potential cases were isolated rapidly.

As well as rigorous contact tracing and a massive public awareness campaign, Nigeria introduced stringent health screening checks at all airports and seaports for arrivals and departures.

Cameroon shut its western border with Nigeria as a precaution, but Nigeria itself did not close its frontiers.

Travel bans were not imposed, although leading carrier Arik Air did suspend its scheduled routes to Liberia and Sierra Leone, which with Guinea have been the worst affected by Ebola.

The WHO said “strong leadership and effective coordination” was key to containing the outbreak, despite Nigeria facing an Islamist insurgency and serious health sector challenges.

“If a country like Nigeria… can do this… any country in the world experiencing an imported case can hold onward transmission to just a handful of cases,” said WHO director-general Margaret Chan.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Comet Siding Spring whizzes past Mars

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 06:31

WASHINGTON: A comet the size of a small mountain whizzed past Mars on Sunday, dazzling space enthusiasts with the once-in-a-million-years encounter.

The comet, known as Siding Spring (C/2013 A1), made its closest encounter with Mars on Sunday at 2:27 pm (1827 GMT), racing past the Red Planet at a breakneck 126,000 miles per hour.

At its closest, Siding Spring was 87,000 miles from Mars – less than half the distance between Earth and our moon.

“Signal confirming closest approach has just been received,” the European Space Agency said on Twitter.

Before the comet passed, it could be seen in space racing toward the brightly illuminated Red Planet, trailed by a cloud of debris.

Scientists said the comet’s passing offered a unique chance to study its impact on Mars’s atmosphere.

“What could be more exciting than to have a whopper of an external influence like a comet, just so we can see how atmospheres do respond,” said Nick Schneider, the remote sensing team leader from NASA’s MAVEN mission to Mars.

“It’s a great learning opportunity.”

NASA’s fleet of Mars-orbiting satellites and robots on the planet’s surface were primed for the flyby of the comet, hoping to capture the rare event and collect a trove of data for Earthlings to study.

“Mars Odyssey hard at work now to image #MarsComet Siding Spring, after closest approach & before dust tail hits,” the US space agency said on Twitter, referring to one of its robotic spacecraft.

The ball of ice, dust and pebbles is believed to have originated billions of years ago in the Oort Cloud, a distant region of space at the outskirts of the solar system.

The comet is around one mile wide and is only about as solid as a pile of talcum powder.

As it hurtled through space it created a meteor shower and shed debris – mostly dust and pebbles – which scientists had feared could damage valuable spacecraft.

“All it takes is a little tiny grain of sand traveling at that speed and you’ve got damage to solar arrays, or your propulsion line or critical wires,” said Schneider.

Before the comet entered the red planet’s orbit, NASA moved its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and MAVEN to avoid damage by the comet’s high-speed debris.

“#MarsComet flyby not over yet. Mars passes thru dust tail… while orbiters #duckandcover on far side,” the agency tweeted.

The comet has traveled more than one million years to make its first pass by Mars, and will not return for another million years, after it completes its next long loop around the sun.

The comet was discovered by Robert McNaught at Australia’s Siding Spring Observatory in January 2013.

Its flyby of Mars is not likely to be visible to sky watchers on Earth.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Indian footballer dies after fatal goal celebration

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 06:28

NEW DELHI: A 23-year-old Indian footballer has died from severe spinal cord damage after attempting to celebrate a goal with a somersault, an official told Reuters on Monday.

Bethlehem Vengthlang FC midfielder Peter Biaksangzuala died on Sunday at a hospital in the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram after the incident in Tuesday’s match in the third tier Mizoram Premier League (MPL).

“We are shocked by the case. We at the Mizoram Football Association did all we could but could not save him,” MFA secretary Lalnghinglova Hmar told Reuters by telephone.

After scoring the equaliser against Chanmari West FC, a flipping Biaksangzuala landed awkwardly and was lying unconscious as his team mates surrounded him and gestured for help.

“The association president also being the state health minister, he did all that was possible even though he was out of station.”

“We considered the option to fly him to Delhi but his condition was pretty bad. He was mostly unconscious, occasionally spelling out a few words,” Hmar said.

Bethlehem has decided to retire the number 21 jersey as a tribute to Biaksangzuala while Hmar said MFA would organise a match in his memory.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Israeli firm to sell natural gas to Egypt

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 06:05

JERUSALEM: An Israeli firm will supply Egypt with natural gas, a company spokesman said Monday, more than two years after sabotage halted the flow of Egyptian gas to Israel.

For more than a decade Israel relied on Egypt for roughly 40 per cent of its gas needs in line with an export accord signed in 2005 by the two countries which are bound by a peace treaty.

But in April 2012 Egypt annulled the contract, saying Israel had not met the financial obligations of the agreement, in a decision that came amid a spate of bomb attacks that targeted the pipeline used to transport natural gas to Israel and Jordan.

On Sunday the Israeli owners of the Tamar offshore gas field informed the Tel Aviv stock exchange they had struck a deal to export natural gas to the Egyptian firm Dolphinus Holdings.

A statement said Tamar was in “exclusive negotiations” with Dolphinus Holdings to provide it with up to 2.5 billion cubic metres (bcm) over a seven-year span.

Dolphinus Holdings “represents a consortium of large non-governmental industrial and commercial Egyptian gas customers,” according to Tamar.

The natural gas would be transported to Egypt through the same East Mediterranean Gas pipeline used by Cairo to export gas to Israel and Jordan before it was attacked and crippled the saboteurs.

Experts estimate the deal to be worth over $4 billion.

Tamar holds 250 bcm of natural gas, and lies 80 kilometres  west of the northern Israeli port city of Haifa.

US giant Noble Energy owns 36 per cent of Tamar, with four other Israeli partners holding smaller shares.

Tamar’s discovery, along with the twice-as-large Leviathan gas field, shifted Israel from costly and unreliable imports to a growing self-sufficiency and the potential to become an energy exporter.

Last month, Noble and its partners signed a letter of intent to supply Jordan’s National Electric Power Company Ltd with 487 bcm of natural gas from Leviathan over 15 years.

Egypt’s gas contract with Israel was the largest trade deal between the two former foes who signed a peace treaty in 1979, with the first exports launched in 2008.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Qaeda kills 20 Shia rebels in fresh Yemen clashes

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 05:42

SANAA: Al Qaeda militants have killed at least 20 Shia rebels in fresh clashes for control of parts of central Yemen, tribal sources said on Monday.

The rebels, known as Huthis, have been facing fierce resistance from al Qaeda fighters and Sunni tribesmen as they seek to expand their territory after seizing the capital Sanaa and the Red Sea port city of Hudeida.

Fighting erupted overnight Sunday to Monday in the central town of Rada -a mixed Sunni-Shia area- that has been the scene of frequent clashes.

The rebels were killed in a car bombing that targeted a building where they had gathered and in subsequent clashes, tribal and security sources told AFP, adding that 12 rebels were also captured by al Qaeda militants.

The town was rocked by heavy explosions, with rocket-propelled grenades and artillery used by both sides in several hours of clashes, security officials said.

The al Qaeda militants also attacked rebel positions northeast of Rada and along a road connecting the town in Baida province to neighbouring Dhamar, a Shia-populated province taken last week by the rebels.

The Huthis have seized on chronic instability in Yemen since the 2012 ouster of veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh to take control of large parts of the country.

President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi’s weak Sunni-led central government has failed to stop the rebels, despite a UN-brokered peace deal that was supposed to see them withdraw from the capital.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the extremist network’s powerful Yemeni branch, and Sunni tribesmen have instead fought to halt the rebel advance, leaving dozens dead including 47 Huthi supporters in a suicide bombing in Sanaa this month.

The fighting has raised fears of Yemen – located next to oil kingpin Saudi Arabia and important shipping routes in the Gulf of Aden – collapsing into a failed state.

Hadi’s government is also a key US ally in the fight against al Qaeda, allowing Washington to conduct a longstanding drone war against the group on Yemeni territory.

The rebels faced no resistance when they took control of Sanaa last month and have refused to leave despite appearing to agree to the naming of a new prime minister under the UN deal.

They have since moved south and easily captured Dhamar but have faced heavy fighting in Sunni-majority Ibb province and from al Qaeda in Baida province, where Rada is located.

On Sunday, negotiations hosted by provincial governor Yehya al Iryani to convince all fighters to withdraw from Ibb city “failed”, one of the mediators attending the talks told AFP.

“The Huthis insisted on deploying their fighters alongside security forces in Ibb… to fight al Qaeda and prevent it from taking over the province,” the source said.

The Shia rebels have traditionally been concentrated in the northern parts of Yemen, on the border with Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia.

Yemeni authorities and Saudi Arabia have accused Iran of backing the Huthis in a similar fashion to its support for Lebanon’s powerful Shia militia Hezbollah.

Gulf Arab states have warned that instability in Yemen is threatening regional security.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

US makes first arms drop to Syria Kurds battling for Kobane

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 05:15

MURSITPINAR: Washington made a first weapons drop to Kurdish fighters battling militants in the Syrian town of Kobane Monday that they hailed as a major boost for their nearly five-week resistance campaign.

The US-led coalition has carried out more than 135 air strikes against Islamic State group (IS) fighters attacking Kobane but Washington had previously held off arming the strategic border town’s Kurdish defenders.

The weapons were dropped by air as neighbouring Turkey has repeatedly refused to countenance delivering arms to the Kurdish fighters, who have links with Kurdish rebels who have fought a bloody three-decade insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

Washington has said repeatedly that the main priority in its campaign against the militants remains neighbouring Iraq, where IS seized much of the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad in June.

But a senior administration official said the arms drop was a recognition of the “impressive” resistance put up by the Kurdish fighters and the losses they were inflicting on IS.

Three C-130 cargo aircraft carried out what US Central Command called “multiple” successful drops of supplies, including small arms, provided by Kurdish authorities in Iraq.

The aircraft faced no resistance from the air or the ground, were not accompanied by fighter jets and exited the area safely, a senior US official said, refusing to rule out a repeat of the action if needed, possibly in the near future.

The supplies were “intended to enable continued resistance against ISIL’s attempts to overtake Kobane,” Central Command said, using an alternative acronym for IS.

The main Syrian Kurdish fighting force in Kobane swiftly welcomed the US arms drop, saying it would “help greatly” in the defence of the town.

“The military assistance dropped by American planes at dawn on Kobane was good and we thank America for this support,” said People’s Protection Units (YPG) spokesman Redur Xelil.

“It will have a positive impact on military operations against Daesh and we hope for more,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Xelil declined to detail the weapons delivered but said there was “coordination” between US officials and YPG forces over the drop.

IS fighters launched their offensive on Kurdish fighters around Kobane on September 15, swiftly pushing them back to the town itself and sparking an exodus of 200,000 refugees over the border into Turkey.

But the Kurds have kept up a dogged resistance on the streets of the town, of which they currently control around half.

Kobane would be a prize for IS as the town is strategically located along a long stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border that is largely under the group’s control.

The battle is being fought under the gaze of the world media massed just across the border in Turkey and IS has taken heavy losses in it.

From Saturday into Sunday morning, 31 IS militants died in the battle, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On Friday, IS lost 35 of its fighters, said the Britain-based monitoring group, which has a wide network of source inside Syria.

One senior administration official said that Kurdish fighters had put up an “impressive” effort in the face of IS, but cautioned that the security situation was “fluid.”

IS made a new attempt to advance on the town centre late Sunday but were repulsed with the loss of eight of its fighters, the Observatory said.

“The balance of power could turn at any moment,” it added.

Coalition aircraft carried out 11 air strikes against IS targets around Kobane on Saturday and Sunday, Central Command said, helping Kurdish fighters repulse a new IS attempt to cut their supply lines from Turkey.

Washington has been pressing Ankara to take a more direct role in taking on IS but its efforts have been complicated by Turkey’s concerns about emboldening nationalist sentiment among its own large Kurdish minority.

The YPG has close links with Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is blacklisted as a terrorist group by both Washington as well as Ankara.

Just Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan again described the YPG as “terrorists” and ruled out any arms deliveries to it.

But a senior administration official said Ankara had been informed in advance of the US air drop.

President Barack Obama spoke to Erdogan on Saturday “and was able to notify him of our intent to do this and importance we put on it,” the official said.

“We understand the longstanding Turkish concern with the range of groups, including Kurdish groups, they have been engaged in conflict with and in peace talks with.”

However, IS was “a common enemy” for the United States and Turkey, the official said.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Three more bodies pulled from Nepal disaster zone

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 03:11

KATHMANDU: Emergency workers in Nepal pulled three more bodies from the snow on Monday, as authorities prepared to end the full scale search for survivors of a deadly snowstorm that struck last Tuesday.

More than 500 people have now been airlifted to safety since heavy snow hit Nepal’s popular Annapurna region last Tuesday at the height of the trekking season, triggering avalanches and killing dozens of people.

Six helicopters fanned out over the affected areas on Monday morning to rescue any trekkers still stuck in the region.

“Although smaller, regular rescues may continue, we hope to complete all emergency evacuations from the snowstorm today,” Ramesh Dhamala of the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN) told AFP.

Another TAAN official, Keshav Pandey, said that “a few Nepalese support staff are still unaccounted for”, although the industry body was not aware of any more stranded tourists.

Nepalese officials believe most of those affected have now been pulled to safety or walked out on their own, although it remains unclear how many trekkers were in the area when the storm hit.

Police official Bikash Khanal said 502 trekkers, guides and others have been rescued since operations started on Wednesday, including 299 foreigners.

“We have recovered two bodies from Manang, and another of an Israeli woman from the Thorong Pass,” Khanal told AFP.

It was not immediately clear whether these were included in the death toll of 40 previously given by the TAAN, which included trekkers who were missing and feared dead as well as those whose bodies had been recovered.

The victims include at least 26 hikers, guides and porters on the Annapurna circuit, three yak herders, and five people who were climbing a nearby mountain.

Thousands of people head to the Annapurna region every October, when the monsoon rains clear and the weather is usually at its best for trekking.

The disaster follows Mount Everest’s deadliest avalanche that killed 16 guides in April and forced an unprecedented shutdown of the world’s highest peak.

Impoverished and landlocked Nepal relies heavily on tourism revenues from climbing and trekking.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Trilateral dialogue: Regional cooperation vital for peace, development

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 00:06

ISLAMABAD: Diplomats and academics were of the unanimous view that the destiny of the South Asian states are interlinked and called for stronger economic, cultural, security and societal relations between them.

They saw great opportunities for Pakistan, Afghanistan after the post-2014 drawdown and expressed the desire to strengthen relations between Pakistan, China and Afghanistan.

Afghan Ambassador spelt out major objectives of the new national government in Kabul.

“The new government in Afghanistan will focus on three policy objectives — transforming Afghanistan from a failed state to a functioning democracy; broadening relations with countries in the region and working with its neighbours in strengthening bilateral and multilateral relations,” Ambassador Janan Musazai said.

Addressing a conference, Musazai said Afghanistan and Pakistan were friends and partners connected through inseparable bonds of culture, ethnic and religious commonalities.

He added that the new government in Afghanistan is an opportunity for both Pakistan and Afghanistan to redefine their bilateral relations, improve trust, and increase security, peace, economic cooperation and trade between the two countries.

The two-day conference on “China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Dialogue”, was being organised by Pak-China Institute in collaboration with Konard Adenauer Stiftung, a German security foundation.

“Cooperation among China, Afghanistan and Pakistan will benefit the region as a whole and should be strengthened,” said Chinese Ambassador Sun Weidong while addressing the conference.  “Building mutual trust and friendly consultations among countries should be encouraged to promote regional cooperation”, he added. “It is a unique opportunity for us to extend cooperation and stand against common threats and challenges together and attain common goal of security, stability and prosperity”, said the Afghan ambassador.

“China is also ready to extend cooperation in this regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan to help tackle the confronting issues in an effective way”, the ambassador said.

The Chinese diplomat said that he believes that national reconciliation is inevitable for Afghanistan to achieve its objectives. China is Afghanistan’s traditional friendly neighbour and respects its independence and territorial integrity.

Earlier, in his welcome address, Senator Mushahid Hussain stated that the destinies of the countries were ‘interlinked’, adding with Nato and the United States receding from the region, the destinies of Asia should be decided by Asians.

Eminent scholar and political analyst Dr Hasan Askari-Rizvi observed that there is greater potential for increasing cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. “They cannot function in isolation”, Prof Rizvi emphasised, highlighting the need to develop economic and societal linkages, which according to him were very strong between both the countries.

Representing the Nato perspective, Director School of Politics and International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University, Dr Zafar Nawaz Jaspal highlighted the emerging opportunity for both Afghanistan and Pakistan once US presence is significantly reduced in the region post 2014.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 20th, 2014.


Categories: Pakistan & World News

Ties with Kabul: Afghan president to ‘share his vision with PM Nawaz’

Sun, 10/19/2014 - 16:56

ISLAMABAD: In apparent signs of thaw in Pakistan-Afghan relations marred by a serious trust-deficit, the new Afghan president has accepted an invitation from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to visit Pakistan to ‘share his vision’ for ties between the two neighbours, officials said on Sunday.

The invitation was delivered to President Ashraf Ghani, who took over from Hamid Karzai earlier this month, by PM’s Adviser on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz during a daylong trip to Kabul on Sunday, Pakistan’s foreign ministry said in a statement. President Ghani accepted the invitation and would visit Islamabad in the ‘very near future’.

President Ghani told Aziz that there was a historic opportunity to transform Pak-Afghan relations into a ‘warm and mutually beneficial’ relationship and expressed his keenness to share his vision for Pak-Afghan ties over the next five years with Prime Minister Nawaz.

“A new chapter has been opened in relations between the two countries today and I’m confident this will pave the way for close cooperation,” President Ghani was quoted as saying in a statement issued by the Afghan presidential palace. He underscored the need for better trade relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and called for more bilateral exchanges and talks to enhance cooperation in economic and security areas.

At the same time, the Afghan president called for ending the traditional ‘blame game’ between the two countries. “The time has come for practical steps for the establishment of peace… our countries should no longer depend on only issuing statements about peace,” he added. “We should stop trading accusations and bring about an atmosphere of trust.”

Promoting peace and stability is one of the priorities of Ghani’s government and it will not hesitate to take serious action to achieve this objective, the presidential palace’s statement said. “We will never let Afghanistan turn into a safe haven for terrorists.”

Sartaj Aziz conveyed felicitations on the peaceful transfer of power and formation of the national unity government in Afghanistan. He underscored Prime Minister Nawaz’s desire to build a comprehensive and enduring partnership between Pakistan and Afghanistan, marked by trust, understanding and close cooperation, and the premier’s belief that the two countries had a historic opportunity to move in that direction.

Aziz also underlined the importance of bilateral mechanisms for interaction at different levels in political, security and economic realms. He said Pakistan would fully support and facilitate Afghan efforts for peace and stability. He also emphasised the importance of enhanced trade and economic relations as well as regional connectivity for trade and energy.

Both sides agreed to hold bilateral meetings to enhance cooperation on security and economic issues. They also discussed Pakistan’s role in the peace and stability in Afghanistan and regional issues.

Apart from his meeting with President Ghani, Aziz also called on Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and conveyed Premier Nawaz’s cordial greetings and invitation to visit Pakistan at a mutually convenient date.

Appreciating the invitation, Abdullah said both sides must work closely to realise the opportunities to build a close, cooperative relationship. Matters relating to peace and security, trade and economic cooperation and regional cooperation were also discussed.

Aziz held separate meetings with Afghan Foreign Minister Zarar Ahmad Osmani and National Security Adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar. Apart from bilateral and regional matters, the discussions focused on the preparatory work for the President Ghani’s visit to Pakistan.

Relations between Islamabad and Kabul have remained tense over the past few months due to a growing trust-deficit between the two neighbours over the issue of dealing with militancy. Both countries accused each other for supporting proxies to create instability in each other’s country.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 20th, 2014.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Iran’s envoy summoned over border violation

Sat, 10/18/2014 - 21:29

QUETTA / ISLAMABAD: Islamabad has lodged a strong protest with Tehran over the violation of its border by Iranian border guards on Thursday and Friday that left one paramilitary soldier dead and three critically wounded. Nevertheless, Iranian border guards again fired mortar shells into a border town of Balochistan on Saturday.

Iranian border guards opened ‘unprovoked fire’ in Mand tehsil of Gwadar district which shares a border with Iran’s Sistan-o-Balouchestan province late Thursday night. The firing continued into Friday morning, leaving a subedar of the Frontier Corps dead and three others injured.

“We summoned Iranian Ambassador Ali Raza Haghighian late Friday and recorded our strong protest. We demanded a thorough investigation into the incident,” foreign ministry spokesperson Tasnim Aslam told The Express Tribune.

She said Ambassador Haghighian has been told that the incident was a clear violation of our border and of international law and contravenes the Pak-Iran border agreement. “We have made it clear to the Iranian authorities that a repeat of such border violations will not be acceptable.”

Despite the diplomatic protest, Iranian border guards violated the Pakistani border for the third consecutive day on Saturday, firing three mortar shells into Mashkail, a town in Washuk district of Balochistan.

However, no loss of life or property was reported in the attack. “There were three back-to-back explosions near a border area inside Pakistan. We found three mortar shells exploded in an open area close to the Iranian border,” a senior official in Washuk told The Express Tribune.

“My family woke up to the sound of three explosions at 1am,” Dad Muhammad, a resident of Mashkhail, told The Express Tribune. “It was like there was a bombing in our town. Children were terrified,” he added.

After Thursday’s cross-border firing, more than 30 Iranian border guards also trespassed two kilometres into Pakistani territory from Zero Point, a bordering town with Iran, on Friday and raided a house in the Lashkar-e-Ahb area of Naukundi in Chagai district.

However, the commander of Sistan-o-Balouchestan Border Patrols said that his troops had thwarted an infiltration attempt by rebels at Zero Point on the border with Pakistan. Two senior provincial border guards were killed in the ensuing clash with hooligans that also left several rebels dead, he claimed.

According to official sources in Iran, Iranian border guards have decided to chase their targets in Pakistan since they believe Pakistani security forces have failed to do so. Iran accused Pakistani residents of drug trafficking in the bordering area.


Published in The Express Tribune, October 19th, 2014.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

IS militants execute man for 'filming HQ' in Syria

Sat, 10/18/2014 - 07:09

BEIRUT: Islamic State group militants have executed a man in northern Syria they accused of filming their headquarters and displayed his body on a cross, a monitoring group said on Saturday.

The man was put to death in the Aleppo province town of al Bab on Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

His body was then strapped to a makeshift metal cross and hung with a sign reading “Abdullah al Bushi. Crime: filming Islamic State headquarters for 500 Turkish lira ($222) per video,” the Britain-based group said, citing witnesses on the ground.

“Judgement: execution and crucifixion for three days,” the sign hung around the man’s neck added.

IS has carried out repeated executions of those it accuses of spying or diverging from its harsh interpretation of Islam.

It has publicly beheaded suspects and hung their bodies from crosses in its own version of crucifixions.

Two IS fighters, one just 15, were, meanwhile, themselves executed after being taken prisoner during fighting around the battleground town of Kobane by Arab allies of its Kurdish defenders, the Observatory said.

Members of the Liwa Thuwar al Raqa rebel group carried out the executions in an area west of Kobane, which IS has been trying to seize for more than three weeks.

The prisoners were shot in the head from behind, then their bodies riddled with gunfire, said the Britain-based Observatory, which has a wide network of sources inside Syria.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Anxious wait for Nigeria girls after Boko Haram 'deal'

Sat, 10/18/2014 - 07:07

KANO: Relatives of Nigeria’s kidnapped schoolgirls on Saturday dared voice cautious hope of seeing the teenagers finally freed after officials claimed to have reached a deal with Boko Haram militants.

Senior government and military officials on Friday said they had struck a ceasefire agreement with the extremists ravaging the country’s north.

The deal reportedly included the release of the 219 girls whom the extremists seized from their school in April in a case that drew global outrage and sparked a #BringBackOurGirls campaign that included the likes of US First Lady Michelle Obama and Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai.

“Chibok was thrown into a joyous mood yesterday with people prancing and jumping with happiness when the news was aired on the radio,” Enoch Mark told AFP from the town where the girls, including his daughter and two nieces, were kidnapped.

But Boko Haram’s leader has yet to comment on the deal and a precedent of previous government and military claims about an end to the deadly five-year conflict and the fate of the missing teenagers have left the relatives cautious.

“We hope it is not deception because we have some doubt,” Mark said.

“This is what we have been itching to hear for the past six months,” said Ayuba Chibok, whose niece is among those seized. “My prayer is that the two sides will honour the agreement.”

Friday’s announcement was made by Chief of Defence Staff Air Marshal Alex Badehand and Hassan Tukur, a senior aide to President Goodluck Jonathan.

But the Nigerian government’s own security spokesman, Mike Omeri, said that no deal had yet been reached on releasing the girls.

And Ralph Bello-Fadile an advisor to Nigeria’s National Security Advisor (NSA), cautioned that the NSA has been inundated with fraudsters claiming to represent Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau.

The United States said it could not confirm whether a deal had taken place.

Jonathan is expected to declare his bid for re-election in the coming weeks, and positive news about the hostages and the violence would likely give him a political boost.

Jonathan’s aide Tukur said he represented the government at two meetings with the extremists in Chad, which were mediated by the country’s President Idriss Deby.

“Boko Haram issued the ceasefire as a result of the discussions we have been having with them,” said Tukur.

“They have agreed to release the Chibok girls,” he said.

Leaders of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which has been pressuring the government to act, gave a cautious welcome to a possible release.

“We are really cautious because there have been many times that such optimism has been expressed but did not materialise,” Obi Ezekwesili, a former education minister said in a television interview on Saturday.

“But all the same, we are hopeful,” she said.

Ndjamena refused to comment but security sources in the country said Chad, which Jonathan visited for talks with Deby early last month, had been involved in the discussions.

The source also said a ceasefire agreement was reached as well as the release of 27 hostages, 10 of them Chinese nationals, who were kidnapped in northern Cameroon earlier this year.

The release of the hostages last weekend was “a first strong signal” from Boko Haram to prove their good faith, the source added but did not mention the schoolgirls.

Cameroon announced on Friday that eight of its soldiers and 107 Boko Haram fighters were killed during fierce fighting in its far north region on Wednesday and Thursday.

A police officer told AFP that at least 30 civilians had been killed by Boko Haram before the military ambush.

Doubts about a possible deal were also raised over the man whom the government claimed to have represented Boko Haram at the Chad talks, Danladi Ahmadu.

In an interview Ahmadu gave on Friday on the Hausa language service of Voice of America radio, he claimed not to have met Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau; refered to the group by a name insurgents never use themselves; and did not mention their unwavering demand, the creation of an Islamic state in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has in a series of video messages since 2012 ruled out talks with the government and said northern Nigeria will never know peace until sharia (Islamic law) is strictly enforced.

Envoys from Nigeria’s presidency have made similar ceasefire claims in the past, notably Jonathan’s Minister for Special Duties Taminu Turaki, who led a so-called amnesty commission in 2013 that was tasked with brokering peace.

But nothing materialised from Turaki’s protracted negotiations. Shekau said that he never sent delegates to any talks and attacks continued at a relentless pace.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Storm toll jumps to 43 in Nepal's worst trekking disaster

Sat, 10/18/2014 - 06:59

KATHMANDU: The death toll from a devastating snowstorm in Nepal’s Himalayas climbed to 43 on Saturday, in the worst trekking disaster ever to hit the mountainous country.

Tuesday’s storm, which triggered avalanches, struck at the height of the trekking season, catching hikers unaware on their way up to an exposed high mountain pass along the scenic Annapurna Circuit route.

Officials said on Saturday that 11 more bodies had been found, bringing to 43 the number of those known to have died – with fears that more bodies could be lying under heavy snowdrifts and ice.

“We have located the bodies of nine Nepalese people on the border between Dolpo and Mustang districts,” said Keshav Pandey of the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN), an industry body organising search-and-rescue efforts.

“We have also recovered the bodies of two Japanese tourists at the Thorong La mountain pass.”

At least 19 of the dead are tourists, from countries including Canada, Israel, Poland, Slovakia, India and Vietnam.

Four days after the blizzard hit, all surviving trekkers who were left stranded are now believed to be safe, officials said, with 385 people rescued after frantic calls for help.

“We have not received any further calls for rescue or for information about stranded people,” said Binay Acharya of TAAN.

“We understand all remaining trekkers in the region are safe.”

The focus has now shifted from rescue to the grim prospect of retrieving more bodies feared to be lying on the popular trekking route, which goes as high as 5,416 metres.

Nepalese army choppers circled the upper reaches of the popular trekking region to locate bodies on Saturday, while officials arranged to fly in a team of experts from Kathmandu to assist with the operation.

The dead include at least 26 hikers, guides and porters on the trekking circuit, three yak herders, and five people who were climbing a nearby mountain.

Further details about the nine Nepalese found near the route were not available.

Thousands of people head to the Annapurna Circuit every October, when weather conditions are usually clear.

However, the region has seen unusually heavy snowfall this week sparked by Cyclone Hudhud, which slammed into India’s east coast last weekend.

The disaster prompted Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala to announce plans to set up a weather warning system across the country, which relies heavily on tourism revenues from climbing and trekking.

The Annapurna Circuit is particularly popular among tourists, and has come to be known as the “apple pie” trek for the food served at the small lodges, known as teahouses, that line the route.

But many were unprepared for the conditions on the Thorong La pass, which bore the brunt of Tuesday’s unseasonal snowstorm.

Some industry veterans said trekking firms could have done more to ensure clients’ safety.

A lack of regulation allows companies to take chances with safety, with the added complication that many trekkers ignore warnings, Tashi Sherpa, director of Seven Summit Treks, told AFP after the disaster.

Sherpa had insisted that four dozen clients postpone their trek up the Annapurna circuit, likely saving their lives.

The Himalayan nation has suffered multiple avalanches this year, with 16 guides killed in April in the deadliest ever accident to hit Mount Everest, forcing an unprecedented shutdown of the world’s highest peak.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

It can happen to anyone: Obama's credit card declined

Sat, 10/18/2014 - 04:34

WASHINGTON: Apparently, even the president of the United States can have trouble with his credit card.

Barack Obama on Friday said his card was declined at a New York restaurant he went to while visiting the United Nations.

“I was there during the General Assembly, and my credit card was rejected,” Obama said at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where he unveiled new measures to stem credit card fraud and identity theft.

“It turned out, I guess I don’t use it enough. So they thought there was some fraud going on,” he said to laughter, adding “fortunately, Michelle had hers.”

The president signed an executive order which adds “chip-and-pin” protection for US government cards and payment terminals, at a time when the financial industry is moving in the same direction.

“I was trying to explain to the waitress, no, I really think that I’ve been paying my bills,” Obama said.

“Even I’m affected by this.”

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Pakistan urges UN to play role in defusing LoC tension

Sat, 10/18/2014 - 03:11

NEW YORK: Pakistan’s permanent representative to United Nations urged the body to play its role in defusing tension on the Line of Control (LoC), Radio Pakistan reported on Saturday. 

Pakistani Ambassador Masood Khan called on UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in New York today and informed him about the situation on LoC and the Working Boundary.

Khan urged UN to play its role to end ceasefire violations which have killed at least 12 Pakistanis since October 6.

Unprovoked Indian firing has triggered an exodus of people from the villages near the border.

Clashes occur regularly along the LoC as well as the Working Boundary. However, the latest shelling has been unusual in its intensity and frequency.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

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