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Brazil presidential candidate dies in plane crash

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 21:10

SAO PAULO: Brazilian presidential candidate Eduardo Campos died Wednesday when his campaign jet slammed into houses in Santos city in bad weather, killing all seven people on board and setting buildings alight.

Campos, a 49-year-old socialist who had been running third in opinion polls for the October election, was flying to Sao Paulo to record a TV segment when his Cessna 560XL came down, breaking into pieces and igniting a large fire after impact.

President Dilma Rousseff, who is standing for a second four-year term, declared a state of national mourning and suspended her campaign for three days.

“All of Brazil is in mourning. We lost a great Brazilian today, Eduardo Campos. We lost a great comrade,” the leftist president said in a statement.

Campos, a popular former governor of the northeastern state of Pernambuco, was married with five children, the youngest just six months old.

His plane was en route from Rio de Janeiro’s Santos Dumont airport to Guaruja airport outside Sao Paulo, according to air force spokesperson Pedro Luis Farcic.

“As it was preparing to land, the plane fell due to bad weather. Air traffic control then lost contact with the aircraft,” he said.

All seven people on the plane died, the air force said.

In addition to Campos, the plane had two pilots, two advisors, a photographer and a videographer aboard.

Pieces of the destroyed aircraft were strewn around the crash site in a bustling residential neighborhood of Santos, a port on the Atlantic about 75 kilometers (45 miles) from Sao Paulo.

Flaming piles of rubble sent up a large column of smoke, and several houses were on fire.

Santos restaurant owner Thiago Fernandes said the impact of the crash had shattered the front windows of his business.

“I was working in the restaurant and there was a very loud boom, like nothing I had ever heard. All the front windows broke,” he told Globo News TV.

The air force said it had launched an investigation into what caused the medium-sized jet to crash.

Campos had been running with eight percent support, according to a survey released on July 22 by polling firm Ibope ahead of the October 5 first-round election.

Rousseff leads the race with 38 percent, while social democrat Aecio Neves has 22 percent, the poll found.

Campos had been campaigning on a platform of change after 20 years of government by Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT) and Neves’s PSDB.

He had been traveling to Sao Paulo, the Brazilian financial hub, to film a campaign-related TV segment with his running mate, ecologist Marina Silva, Globo TV reported.

Silva made a brief, emotional statement after the crash.

“This is a tragedy that brings us great sadness that I know the Brazilian people share,” she told journalists, saying she and Campos had fought for “the hope of a better world.”

The White House was among those to send condolences.

“We were deeply saddened” by the news, National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.

Neves also cancelled his campaign events, saying he was “immensely saddened” by the loss of a friend, while former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whom Campos served as science and technology minister, said the country “has lost a public servant of rare and extraordinary quality.”

Campos’s PSB party said their presidential candidate had died “at the height of a brilliant political career.”

The crash throws the party into uncertainty.

If it picks Silva to replace Campos, she could still conceivably mount a serious challenge for the presidency.

The popular former environment minister, who was born in a rubber-tapping town in the Amazon and only learned to read at 16 years old, came third in the 2010 presidential race with 19 percent of the vote, running on the Green Party ticket.

Opinion polls earlier in the year found that if she ran again she would beat Neves to claim second place in the first round, before losing to Rousseff in the runoff on October 26.

The election uncertainty weighed on the Sao Paulo stock market, which tumbled two percent after the crash but battled back somewhat to close 1.53 percent down.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Israel, Gaza violence defies truce 'deal'

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 20:07

GAZA: Israeli jets bombed targets across Gaza early Thursday in what they claimed was in retaliation to Palestinian rocket attacks in spiralling violence that threatened to scupper a truce extension.

The resumption of hostilities shattered nearly three days of calm over the skies of Gaza and southern Israel, raising fears that a new ceasefire announced in the Egyptian capital could quickly unravel.

More than 1,950 Palestinians and 67 people on the Israeli side have been killed since July 8, when Israel launched an offensive to destroy Hamas rockets and attack tunnels burrowing under the Jewish state.

After days of shuttle diplomacy, the agreement clinched by Egypt had appeared to secure the longest period of calm in the five-week conflict and allow more time for talks on the thorniest issues that separate the two sides, the Palestinians said.

An official at the Palestinian interior ministry reported four air strikes over open ground about 30 minutes into the extension of a new truce, from midnight.

Israel said it was targeting “terror sites across the Gaza Strip” in response to rocket fire.

The military “will immediately respond to any threat to Israel”, it added.

A spokesperson for the Israeli army told AFP that Palestinian militants launched eight rockets towards Israel late Wednesday, six of which hit open areas and one of which was intercepted.

At least two of the rocket attacks were reported after midnight, the expiry of the previous truce and the continuation of the other.

Millions of people had banked on Egyptian mediators to avoid a resumption of the violence.

A previous three-day truce collapsed in a firestorm of violence last Friday.

“It will last for five days,” senior Palestinian negotiator Azzam al-Ahmed had said in Cairo, adding that more time was needed to discuss “some” remaining disputes with Israel over a long-term truce.

An official told AFP that Israel was willing to extend the lull by three days, but also sounded a note of caution, saying that the Palestinians were digging their heels in.

“The way things stand now, it doesn’t look like it’s going to stay quiet,” he said before an Egyptian official announced an agreement.

Hamas, Gaza’s Islamist de facto rulers, denied its militants were responsible for firing any rockets on Wednesday. Israel said the attacks caused no damage or casualties.

Earlier Wednesday, an ordnance blast killed five Palestinians and an Italian journalist in the northern town of Beit Lahiya as a Palestinian bomb disposal squad was trying to disable an Israeli missile.

The Associated Press confirmed that one of its cameramen and a freelance Palestinian translator were killed, identifying them as Simone Camilli, 35, from Italy, and Ali Shehda Abu Afash, 36.

Besides his work as a translator, Abu Afash also worked part-time as an administrative assistant in AFP’s Gaza bureau. He leaves behind a wife and two girls, aged seven and two.

Camilli, who is survived by a wife and three-year-old daughter, had worked for The Associated Press since 2005.

Both men were killed as they covered the story of experts dismantling unexploded ordnance.

One of AP’s Palestinian photographers, Hatem Moussa, was also badly wounded along with another four people, medics said.

The Gaza interior ministry said its top bomb disposal expert in the north had been killed, naming him as Taysir Lahum.

There had been fears on both sides that hostilities could resume.

An AFP photographer reported seeing dozens of tanks and armoured personnel carriers approaching the border area with Gaza.

“We have already sacrified 64 men and it is possible we may have to sacrifice more,” Israel’s chief of staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz said at a military ceremony, his remarks broadcast on army radio.

In Cairo, the chief Palestinian negotiator said there was an agreement “on many points regarding lifting the siege”- referring to the key Palestinian demand to end an eight-year Israeli blockade of Gaza.

The negotiators needed more time to settle “some” remaining disputes, he told reporters.

The joint Palestinian delegation, which includes Hamas and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, will leave Cairo on Thursday to consult with their leaderships, he said.

Mediators proposed that talks on a seaport and airport in Gaza be delayed until a month after a permanent ceasefire takes effect, according to an Egyptian proposal contained in documents seen by AFP.

Negotiations about handing over the remains of two dead Israeli soldiers in exchange for the release of prisoners in Israeli jails would also be postponed, according to the document.

A buffer zone along Gaza’s border with Israel would be gradually reduced and guarded by Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas’s security teams.

Israel has said it will facilitate Gaza’s reconstruction only if the enclave is fully disarmed, a demand rejected by the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at the UN Human Rights Council over a planned probe over alleged Israeli war crimes, charging that it granted “legitimacy to murderous terror organisations like Hamas” by overlooking “massacres” committed elsewhere in the Middle East.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Is China loosening its grip on state media?

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 13:58

As China rises to become a key player in international relations, its iron-fisted control over state media seems to be dwindling. With the Communist Party of China (CPC) struggling to exercise control over content in the wake of increasing Chinese demand for information, its media policy has been described as “schizophrenic,” reported the Council on Foreign Relations

In a recent and, might we add, rare portrayal of political openness in China, the state television is airing a serial on late reformist politician Deng Xiaoping. The state media have trumpeted an unusual depiction of the paramount leader, indicating that the CPC is loosening its reins on officials’ sensitive legacies, Reuters reported.

The 48-part drama series chronicles a period between 1976 and 1984, when Xiaoping began pushing China towards market reforms, which ignited its transition into the world’s second-largest economy. “In recent years, China’s restricted areas of speech have obviously decreased. This series marks significant progress,” stated the Global Times, a tabloid owned by party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily.

But the show has prompted debate about how producers will approach sensitive internal conflicts that have more or less been airbrushed out of official party accounts. More contentious than the show’s central figure is the novel appearance of actors depicting several other controversial politicians, among them the late reformist, CPC chief Hu Yaobang, who Xiaoping ousted.

Yaobang’s death in April 1989 sparked student protests centred on Tiananmen Square, a movement that later turned into pro-democracy demonstrations, which were crushed by the military on orders from Xiaoping on June 3 and 4 that year.

“[The show] is perhaps a signal that events in this era are no longer as sensitive,” said Zhang Ming, a Political Science professor at Renmin University, Beijing. “If it turns out that they reveal certain things, then it could have desensitising benefits,” he added.

In China, all broadcast media and films are pre-screened for approval and anything deemed politically sensitive is banned. China’s government and the party have a track record of covering up embarrassing information. Mention of events such as the Tiananmen protests remains taboo and strict censorship limits the public’s awareness.

A series about Xiaoping’s struggles is expected to be a fresh turn of events for prime-time viewers. Some marvelled that screened episodes of the show deal with the downfall of the Gang of Four, led by Zedong’s widow, an event at the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, which remains one of China’s worst political scandals.

It is evident that the series has propaganda value to the CPC, now led by President Xi Jinping, who has pledged to embark on his own economic reforms to reduce dependence on exports and state investment.

Produced by state broadcaster China Central Television in honour of Xiaoping’s 110th birthday in August, the drama opens with a scene in which the leader draws water in the rain to swab his disabled son during the Cultural Revolution when he was purged.

Hao Jian, a film critic and professor at Beijing Film Academy, said he was sceptical about how far the series would go in loosening the narratives around China’s ruling elite. “I know many people are reading this as a political symbol, but I don’t see it,” said Jian, who was among the activists detained by authorities in May for attending a meeting to commemorate the 25-year anniversary of the Tiananmen protests.

Interestingly, given Xiaoping’s contribution to strengthening the warp and woof of the Chinese economy, broadcasting the television serial may be a carefully orchestrated move, as China embarks upon becoming a potent global economic giant.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 14th, 2014.

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Categories: Pakistan & World News

Pakistan rejects Afghan allegations of cross-border attack

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 10:52

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Wednesday rejected Afghan government’s allegation that Pakistani forces had launched an attacked in a border district of eastern Kunar province.

Top Afghan security adviser Dr Rangin Dadfar Spanta said that the country’s security forces have “repulsed attack by Pakistani forces” in eastern Kunar province this week.

Spanta told the meeting of council of ministers, presided over by President Hamid Karzai on Monday that, “Pakistani forces have increased rockets fire on Afghanistan’s border areas,” Afghan state news agency Bakhtar reported.

“Pakistani forces attacked Nari district in Kunar last night that faced stiff resistance from the country’s security forces and the people. They inflicted losses on the attackers and forced them to retreat,” said Spanta.

“The Council of Ministers tasked the country’s defence and interior ministries to respond at appropriate time to Pakistani rocket attacks,” the official news agency reported.

The foreign ministry spokesperson dismissed the claim.

“Baseless,” was a one word response from Tasnim Aslam when she was approached for a reaction.

Kabul’s allegations come days after Pakistan summoned the Afghan Charge d’ Affaires and a strong protest was lodged over another cross-border attack by terrorists that had killed a Pakistani soldier.

The soldier was killed due to sniper fire from the Afghan side of the border at a Pakistani military post near Ghakhai Pass in Bajaur Agency earlier this month.

Islamabad claims that militants who have fled the on going military operation, have crossed into Afghanistan and regroup fighters and now operate from there.

The TTP Chief, Mullah Fazalulalh, is also believed to be hiding in the Nuristan province.

On Tuesday, Afghan defence ministry said the Afghan National Army is ready to respond to “Pakistani forces.”

The Afghan defence ministry’s spokesperson, General Zahir Azami, said the ministry is working on the Council of Ministers’ decision.

“The Afghan defence and interior ministries will hold a joint meeting on the issue and will take a decision. We are completely ready to defend our soil,” Azami told Radio Azadi on Tuesday.

Afghan officials claimed on Tuesday that 38 missiles landed into eastern Kunar province from the Pakistani side of the border over the past two days. No one was hurt.

Kunar Police Chief Abdul Habib Sayedkhili said the missiles landed in Dangam and Shegal district, Tolo TV reported.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

India talks to buy French fighter jets still on: Minister

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 10:23

NEW DELHI: India’s Defence Minister Arun Jaitley said on Wednesday that talks to buy fighter jets from France’s Dassault Aviation in a 2012 deal worth $12 billion are still underway but are complex.

India chose Dassault for “exclusive negotiations” for 126 Rafale jets, but successive deadlines to complete one of the world’s biggest airline contracts have slipped by.

“Given the complexity of the procurement case, the process of negotiations with Dassault Aviation on various aspects of the commercial proposal and provisions of draft contract is on,” Jaitley told parliament late Tuesday.

The cost of the deal was pegged at $12 billion but media reports have recently put it at around $15 billion.

Jaitley, named defence minister when the new right-wing government took power in May, was replying to a question in parliament about progress on the purchase.

India is in the midst of a $100-billion defence upgrade programme.

Military experts say India urgently needs the twin-engine multi-role fighters to maintain a combat edge against nuclear rival Pakistan, with which it has fought three wars. Indian military and armour is larger than Pakistan’s.

The Rafale, which would replace India’s Russian-made fleet of MiG-21 and MiG-27 planes, beat out bids from rivals such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Jaitley told parliament that the United States has overtaken Russia as the largest arms supplier to India in the last three years, followed by France and Israel.

The new government has raised the foreign investment cap on India’s defence industries to speed up modernisation of the military.

The production-sharing deal agreed by the previous Congress government would see Dassault supply 18 Rafales by 2015 in a “ready to fly” state.

The remaining 108 would be made by state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd under technology transfer agreements with India, which is keen to boost homemade defence manufacturing.

In a boost for Dassault, the government last month said the deal complied fully with technology transfer requirements spelled out in the plane tender offer.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Ordnance blast kills five in Gaza as truce nears end

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 06:57

GAZA CITY: Israeli ordnance exploded in Gaza Wednesday, killing five people including a foreign journalist, as bomb experts tried to disable a missile on the last day of a 72-hour truce.

The deadly incident in the northern town of Beit Lahiya took place as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Cairo tried to thrash out a more permanent end to more than a month of violence ahead of a 2100 GMT deadline.

The missile detonated as bomb squad officers were trying to dismantle it, killing at least five people and wounding another five others, three of them critically, Kamal Adwan hospital spokesperson Muayin al-Masri told AFP.

Interior ministry spokesperson Iyad al-Buzam said a foreign journalist was among those killed.

The journalist was at the scene to cover the work to defuse the unexploded missile. According to New York Times report, the deceased was Associated Press video journalist, Simone Camilli, aged 35.

His fixer was also killed, and another local journalist working with them was also badly wounded, an AFP correspondent said.

The deaths came as Egyptian mediators scrambled to secure agreement from both sides to extend a three-day lull which expires at midnight.

By then, negotiators must either agree on a permanent truce, accept an extension or risk a resumption of five weeks of bloody fighting that has killed more than 1,950 Palestinians, 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians in Israel.

No violations to the ceasefire have been reported, but Israel said Wednesday its navy fired warning shots to halt a motor boat near Rafah as it approached Gaza’s perimeter.

As the skies remained calm for a third day, around a dozen men worked to clear the debris from the bombed-out generator at the territory’s sole power station in Nusseirat in the central Gaza Strip.

But with the end of the ceasefire approaching, residents were fatalistic about the possibility that the fighting could resume.

Sat outside his air conditioning shop in Gaza City’s Rimal neighbourhood, Hussein Abu Haseera said he just wanted the violence to stop.

“We’re all worried, it’s natural. We want this to be finished, for the blockade to be lifted. No one likes dying do they?”

Few details about the substance of the talks in Egypt have been made public, and officials were tight-lipped about the chances of securing an end to the conflict which erupted on July 8.

“There has been progress, but not enough to sign an agreement, the negotiations will resume tomorrow (Wednesday)”, a member of the Palestinian delegation told AFP late on Tuesday.

As on previous days, the Israeli team returned home after talks, for likely consultations with their government.

“The gaps are still very wide. There has not been progress in the negotiations,” an Israeli official told AFP on Tuesday.

The teams gather in separate rooms at the headquarters of the Egyptian General Intelligence and never see each other, with mediators shuttling between them with proposal and counterproposal, a source said.

Hamas wants Israel to lift the blockade it imposed on Gaza in 2006 before it will stop rocket attacks. Israel has said it will facilitate Gaza’s reconstruction only if the enclave is fully disarmed.

Israel and Palestinian negotiators have said they would be willing to see Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas take control of Gaza and assume responsibility for reconstruction.

Egypt, which brokered the three-day truce that came into force in the early hours of Monday, urged the warring sides to make every effort to reach “a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire”.

Efforts to extend a similar 72-hour lull last week collapsed when Hamas refused to hold its fire beyond the deadline, accusing Israel of rejecting a lifting of the blockade.

Both sides said they were ready to resume hostilities if the talks failed again.

Israel has no direct dealings with Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

The head of a UN commission to investigate Israel’s offensive in Gaza, Canadian jurist William Schabas, told Israeli Channel 2 television that it was important for the Jewish state to cooperate in the inquiry.

“It’s in Israel’s interest to be there in that discussion and give its version of the events. If it doesn’t, it leaves an unfortunate one-sided picture of it,” he said.

The Israeli government has accused Schabas of having an anti-Israeli bias.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Iranian is first woman to win 'Nobel Prize of maths'

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 04:36

SEOUL: An Iranian-born mathematician has become the first woman to win a prestigious Fields Medal, widely viewed as the Nobel Prize of mathematics.

Maryam Mirzakhani, a Harvard-educated mathematician and professor at Stanford University in California, was one of four winners announced by the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) at its conference in Seoul on Wednesday.

“This is a great honour. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians,” Mirzakhani said in a press release from Stanford University where she is a professor.

“I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years,” she added.

The award recognised Mirzakhani’s sophisticated and highly original contributions to the fields of geometry and dynamical systems, particularly in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces such as spheres.

Although her work is considered “pure mathematics” and is mostly theoretical, it has implications for physics and quantum field theory, as well as for the study of prime numbers and cryptography.

“Fluent in a remarkably diverse range of mathematical techniques and disparate mathematical cultures, she embodies a rare combination of superb technical ability, bold ambition, far-reaching vision, and deep curiosity,” the ICM said in a statement.

Mirzakhani was born in Tehran in 1977 and earned her PhD in 2004 from Harvard University.

She has previously won the 2009 Blumenthal Award for the Advancement of Research in Pure Mathematics and the 2013 Satter Prize of the American Mathematical Society.

The Fields Medal is given out every four years, often to multiple winners who should not be aged over 40.

The other three winners this year were Artur Avila of France, Manjul Bhargava of Princeton University in New Jersey, and Martin Hairer of the University of Warwick in Britain.

With no Nobel Prize awarded for mathematics, the Fields Medal is seen as the top global award for the discipline.

The medals were presented by South Korea’s first woman president, Park Geun-Hye.

“I congratulate all the winners, with special applause for Maryam Mirzakhani, whose drive and passion have made her the first woman to win a Fields Medal,” Park said.

Before Wednesday’s ceremony all 52 previous recipients had been men.

Born and raised in Tehran, Mirzakhani initially dreamed of becoming a writer, but by the time she started high school her affinity for solving mathematical problems and working on proofs had shifted her sights.

“It is fun,it’s like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case,” she said. “I felt that this was something I could do, and I wanted to pursue this path.”

Although it usually involves abstract concepts of nature that might not have an immediately obvious application, Mirzakhani said she enjoyed pure mathematics because of the elegance and longevity of the questions she studies.

“It is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out,” she said.

Mirzakhani became known on the international mathematics scene as a teenager, winning gold medals at both the 1994 and 1995 International Math Olympiads — finishing with a perfect score in the latter competition.

In 2008 she became a professor of mathematics at Stanford, where she lives with her husband and three-year-old daughter.

“On behalf of the entire Stanford community, I congratulate Maryam on this incredible recognition, the highest honour in her discipline, the first ever granted to a woman,” said university president John Hennessy.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Austrian mountain rescuers deliver high-altitude baby

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 04:02

VIENNA: A team of 15 mountain rescuers accompanied by a gynaecologist had to climb some 2,500 metres above sea level to help deliver a baby, police said Wednesday.

The mother, 30, went into labour in a mountain hut at around 7:00 am on Tuesday but could not be brought down by helicopter due to bad weather in western Austria’s Alps.

“The team managed to bring her down to 2,250 metres where the baby was delivered in a meadow,” a police spokesperson told AFP.

“The weather then cleared and a helicopter was able to take them to hospital.”

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Modi's accusations 'most unfortunate': Foreign Office

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 03:46

ISLAMABAD: A day after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused Pakistan of waging a proxy war in Kashmir, Pakistan’s Foreign Office in a statement released on Wednesday said that the accusations were ”most unfortunate” as Pakistan wanted a good relationship with its neighbour.

“It would be in the larger interest of the regional peace that instead of engaging in a blame game, the two countries should focus on resolving all issues through dialogue and work together to promote friendly and cooperative relations,” the press releases stated.

On August 12, Modi had landed in the remote Himalayan town a day after the two sides traded accusations of ceasefire violations on their border in Kashmir.

New Delhi has repeatedly accused Pakistan of intruding the Kargil area 15 years ago, a move that triggered confrontation between the two countries killing 1,000 on both sides.

Speaking earlier Tuesday to soldiers in Leh, capital of the Ladakh region, where he stopped en route, Modi had condemned what he called a “proxy war by Pakistan” and said troops were “suffering more casualties from terrorism than from war”.

Referring to Modi repeating the baseless rhetoric against Pakistan regarding terrorism, the Foreign Office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam said today that Pakistan has always condemned terrorism of any form.

According to the press release, Aslam said that “Pakistan is the biggest victim of the menace,” adding that the country has lost the lives of 55,000 people because of terrorism.

“The entire world has, time and again, acknowledged Pakistan’s unprecedented sacrifices, rendered by our valiant armed forces with over 5,000 soldiers having embraced Shahadat,” the statement added.

The foreign office further said that the country’s armed forces were always ready to defend its borders.

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Islamic State advances in Syria's Aleppo province: NGO

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 02:42

BEIRUT: Militants from the Islamic State (IS) group have taken control of a string of villages in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo, a monitoring group said on Wednesday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the extremist group had managed to seize the six villages north of the city of Aleppo, and not far from the border with Turkey.

Fighting was ongoing for control of another village in the area, Arshaf, the group said.

The Observatory said the group took the areas “after fierce clashes with rebels and militant battalions that remained in the area after Al-Nusra Front and other militant battalions withdrew at the end of July”.

Al-Nusra Front, which is Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, joined moderate and rebel groups in a coalition that began fighting the Islamic State in January.

But in recent weeks, Al-Nusra has also fought other rebel groups, further complicating the status of the armed opposition in Syria.

The Observatory said the IS capture of the villages was a strategic prize, because it would open the way for the group to attack the towns of Marea and Azaz.

Marea is a stronghold of the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist groups that is among those fighting against IS.

Azaz sits next to the border crossing with Turkey, which would be a valuable asset to IS as it seeks to expand its self-declared “caliphate” in the territory it holds in Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

The Islamic State emerged from Al-Qaeda’s one-time branch in Iraq, and initially fought alongside Syria’s opposition, including moderate rebels and Al-Nusra fighters.

But its abuses against civilians and rival fighters, as well as its bid to dominate control of captured territory, sparked a backlash.

The group was pushed out of much of the territory it held in Aleppo province by the coalition of moderate and Islamist rebels that turned against it in January.

But it has been able to recapture some of that lost ground, and is advancing in Aleppo while consolidating its hold in its stronghold of Raqa province and sweeping forward in Iraq.

The Observatory said its advances in Aleppo had been assisted by the decision of the militant Dawud Brigade to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.

More than 170,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began there in March 2011.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Suicide bombers put women under suspicion in Nigeria's Kano

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 00:58

KANO: Women in north Nigeria’s largest city Kano are abandoning their traditional religious dress after a spate of suicide bombings by young girls with explosives under their hijab.

The commercial city was hit last month by four separate attacks involving teenaged girls, leaving at least nine people dead and scores more injured.

Although no one has claimed responsibility for the bombings, fingers have been pointed at Boko Haram militants blamed for a string of attacks on the city.

But the bombings have cast fear and suspicion on young women wearing the loose clothing, prompting many to dress differently.

“I no longer wear my hijab because people now see any young woman in hijab as a potential suicide bomber because of the recent incidents,” said 17-year old Hajara Musa.

“I now put on my shawl (headscarf) when I go out pending the time the city gets over the trauma of this frightening trend,” the fashion design apprentice told AFP.

Musa said she was recently barred from entering a shopping mall while dressed in a hijab, which covers the hair, neck and upper body, despite agreeing to be frisked.

“I was turned away because of my hijab, which I found very disturbing,” she added.

The hijab is a common sight in conservative Kano, an ancient seat of religious learning where it has become a convention of modesty for women leaving their homes or meeting men who are not relatives.

Many women wear the hijab with a traditional cloth wrapper that goes past their knees.

Adama Habibu, 21, said she preferred to wear the hijab but the recent bombings had forced her to stop to avoid attracting unnecessary attention.

“Wherever a young woman in hijab goes people keep their distance from her out of fear she could be a suicide bomber,” said Habibu, a student at Kano State Polytechnic, where a suicide blast on July 30 killed six people and injured 20 others.

The blasts, one of which targeted an upmarket shopping mall, has prompted increased security around businesses, with more police visible around public buildings and frequent patrols.

Shopping malls in the city have also deployed more security guards at their entrances who sweep shoppers with hand-held metal detectors and peer through handbags for explosives.

“I have stopped carrying a handbag around because of the suspicion it raises. I now carry a small purse wherever I go,” said another Kano resident, Hafsat Yaya, who declined to give her age.

Men in the city also say they are more wary of young women in the hijab, said resident Bala Dawud.

“I shudder with fear when I find myself next to a young woman in hijab because she could be a suicide bomber,” he added.

He recalled how a crowd which queued up at a cash machine melted away when a hijab-wearing woman joined the queue and asked if it was working.

“As soon as she was told yes, she pulled out her mobile phone and called someone, telling him she had found a machine dispensing cash and before you knew it the whole crowd dispersed, leaving the woman alone,” Dawud said.

Women wearing niqab, which covers the whole face except the eyes, draw even more suspicion, said resident Samaila Abdussalam.

Boko Haram, which wants to create a religious state in northern Nigeria, is blamed for killing more than 10,000 people since 2009 and their extreme tactics have been denounced worldwide.

In April, they kidnapped 276 girls from a secondary school in northeast Nigeria, triggering global outrage. A total of 219 are still being held.

And the new tactic of employing young women and girls as bombers has sharpened the concern and outrage.

On July 30, police in northern Katsina state arrested a 10-year-old girl with explosives strapped to her body.

A security source involved in forensic analysis of the Kano blasts cautioned residents against “hasty generalisation”.

“From our preliminary findings, all the female suicide bombers were between 14 and 16 years which gives an idea of the age group of the bombers,” the source said.

“We believe the explosives were remotely detonated which means the girls were sent under duress. So, people should be wary of young women who look nervous or fidgety in a crowd.”

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Bangladesh arrests ferry owner over deadly sinking

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 00:42

DHAKA: Bangladesh said Wednesday it has arrested the owner of a heavily overloaded river boat that sank last week, drowning scores of people.

The ferry was only licensed to carry 85 passengers, but was packed with more than 200 people returning from their villages following the Eid holiday.

Rescuers have so far recovered 48 bodies from the water, but have not been able to locate the wreckage in the fast-flowing river. Around 60 are still missing.

The government has charged A B Siddique Kalu and five others, including the ferry captain, with culpable homicide not amounting to murder over the disaster. If found guilty, they face up to ten years in jail.

“We have arrested him in (the port city of) Chittagong early today (Wednesday),” Ziaul Ahsan of the Rapid Action Battalion, Bangladesh’s elite security force, told AFP.

Bangladeshi rescuers on Monday abandoned their search for the ferry after a week of fruitless efforts amid ongoing bad weather.

Ferry accidents are common in Bangladesh, with overcrowding and poor ship design and maintenance often to blame.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

US assessing how to move civilians from Iraq mountain: Kerry

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 00:38

HONIARA: US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday said Washington was urgently assessing how to move civilians off a mountain in northern Iraq besieged by Islamic State (IS) militants.

Thousands of members of minority groups, including Yazidis and Christians, continue to face a major threat from the IS militant group amid a worsening humanitarian situation.

The UN said Tuesday that 20,000 to 30,000 people were still stranded on Sinjar Mountain, and UN minority rights expert Rita Izsak warned they face “a mass atrocity and potential genocide within days or hours”.

The United States has been leading an increasingly international effort to deliver humanitarian assistance to those trapped in the Kurdish region, and Kerry said ways to evacuate people were being discussed.

“That is exactly what we are assessing,” he said in the Solomon Islands capital Honiara, when asked about further humanitarian aid and how to get civilians off the mountain.

“We will make a very rapid and critical assessment because we understand it is urgent to try to move those people off the mountains.”

After seizing the main northern city of Mosul in early June and sweeping through much of the Sunni heartland, militants launched another onslaught this month.

They attacked Christian, Yazidi, Turkmen and Shabak minorities west, north and east of Mosul, sparking a mass exodus.

The militants also attacked the large town of Sinjar, forcing thousands of mainly Yazidi civilians to hide on Mount Sinjar, where they found themselves trapped on the mountain in the searing summer heat with little to eat or drink.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Clock ticks down to end of Gaza truce deadline

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 23:58

JERUSALEM: Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Cairo will readdress the thorny issue of a ceasefire and Israel’s Gaza blockade Wednesday, as the clock ticks down to a 2100 GMT deadline ending a 72-hour truce.

By that time, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the Egyptian capital must have either agreed on a permanent truce, accepted an extension or risk a resumption of more than a month of bloody fighting.

“There has been progress, but not enough to sign an agreement, the negotiations will resume Wednesday”, a member of the Palestinian delegation told AFP after the latest round of negotiations, without giving further details.

The Israelis flew back to Israel, airport officials said, for likely consultations with their government.

As Gaza’s residents ventured out into the quiet to try to piece together their battered lives, negotiators held a second round of indirect talks Tuesday aimed at finding a durable end to the five-week confrontation.

A senior Israeli official earlier told AFP there was still a long way to go to agree an end to the conflict, which erupted on July 8 when Israel launched military operations to halt cross-border rocket fire from Gaza.

“The negotiations are difficult and gruelling,” a Palestinian official had said of Monday’s opening talks, which lasted almost 10 hours and which were described as “serious”.

Before negotiators met Tuesday an Israeli official played down the chances of success.

“The gaps are still very wide. There has not been progress in the negotiations,” he told AFP.

The teams gather in separate rooms at the headquarters of the Egyptian General Intelligence and never see each other, with mediators shuttling between them with proposals and counterproposals, a source said.

Hamas wants Israel to lift the blockade it imposed on Gaza in 2006 before it will stop rocket attacks. Israel has said it will only facilitate Gaza’s reconstruction if the enclave is fully disarmed.

In Istanbul, a coalition of activists said on Tuesday they would send a flotilla of blockade-busting ships to Gaza by the end of 2014, four years after a similar attempt ended with a deadly raid by Israeli commandos.

“We plan to send the flotilla during 2014,” the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, comprising activists from at least 10 countries, said in a statement.

It did not give a specific date or an estimate on how many vessels or people would participate.

In a sign that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced domestic political battles to sell any deal to his fractious coalition government, he called off a planned meeting of his security cabinet on Tuesday.

Instead, he invited key ministers, mainly hawks, for private meetings, Israeli media reported.

Egypt brokered the three-day truce which took effect from 2101 GMT Monday, and has urged the warring sides to make every effort to reach “a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire”.

Efforts to extend a similar 72-hour lull last week shattered after Hamas refused to hold its fire beyond the deadline, accusing Israel of rejecting a lifting of the blockade.

Both sides said they were ready to resume hostilities if the talks failed again.

Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz warned that without a reasonable outcome to the talks, there could be another ground operation in Gaza.

“Either there will be a reasonable resolution of the situation in Gaza, or, if the fire resumes, we will have to consider… an expansion on the ground, overthrowing the Hamas authorities and the demilitarisation of Gaza by ourselves,” Steinitz told army radio.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid told AFP he was pushing for an international conference on Gaza’s future that would involve regional players as well as Washington, the European Union and Arab states such as Saudi Arabia.

“We think that Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas should take control of Gaza and be active in its reconstruction,” the minister told AFP.

Palestinian negotiators have expressed a willingness to see the PA assume responsibility for Gaza’s reconstruction and implement any deal signed in Cairo.

Israel has no direct dealings with Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, Israel lashed out after the UN Human Rights Council named experts who would be involved in an inquiry into its Gaza campaign.

Canadian international lawyer William Schabas, who will head the commission, is widely regarded in Israel as being hostile to the Jewish state over reported calls to haul Netanyahu before the International Criminal Court.

“This commission’s anti-Israeli conclusions have already been written, all it needs is a signature,” railed foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

Schabas denies being anti-Israel.

Speaking in Caracas, Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki said Tuesday the UN probe would prove Israel committed war crimes and violated humanitarian law during its Gaza offensive.

“We are going to cooperate with this commission when it arrives in Palestine,” he added.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

WHO approves experimental Ebola drugs

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 21:10

GENEVA: The World Health Organization authorised the use of experimental drugs to fight Ebola as the death toll topped 1,000 and a Spanish priest became the first European to succumb to the outbreak.

The declaration by the UN’s health agency came Tuesday after a US company that makes an experimental serum called ZMapp said it had sent all its available supplies to hard-hit west Africa.

“In the special circumstances of this Ebola outbreak it is ethical to offer unregistered interventions as potential treatments or prevention,” WHO assistant director general Marie-Paule Kieny said in Geneva after a meeting of medical experts.

WHO #Ebola ethic panel: It is ethical to offer unproven #Ebola interventions as potential treatment or prevention #alert

— WHO (@WHO) August 12, 2014

UN chief Ban Ki-moon announced plans to step up the global response to the outbreak, while urging governments to “avoid panic and fear” over an easily-preventable disease.

#Ebola: @WHO-convened #ethics panel endorses use of experimental drugs #EbolaOutbreak

— UN News Centre (@UN_News_Centre) August 12, 2014

The epidemic, the worst since Ebola was first discovered four decades ago, has killed 1,013 people since early this year, the WHO said.

The announcement came before West African regional bloc ECOWAS said one of its officials had died from the disease in Nigeria, taking the total number of deaths in the country to three.

Cases have so far been limited to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which account for the bulk of victims, and Nigeria.

Terror has gripped the impoverished west African countries ravaged by the disease, with harrowing tales emerging of people being shunned by their villages as the virus fells those around them.

When AFP visited the Liberian village of Ballajah, some 150 kilometres (90 miles) from the capital Monrovia, 12-year-old Fatu Sherrif had been locked away with her mother’s body without food and water for a week.

Her cries went unanswered as panicked residents fled the village when both her parents fell sick.

Fatu later died and her brother Barnie, 15, despite testing negative for Ebola, was left alone and hungry in an abandoned house.

“Nobody wants to come near me and they know — people told them that I don’t have Ebola,” he told AFP.

Elderly Spanish priest Miguel Pajares, who became infected while helping patients in Liberia, died in a Madrid hospital on Tuesday, five days after being evacuated.

He had been treated with ZMapp, which failed to save him but has shown positive effects on two US aid workers also infected in Liberia.

The Economic Community of West African States said a staff member of its Lagos Liaison Office, 36-year-old Jatto Asihu Abdulqudir, had died.

Abdulqudir, a protocol assistant, was among those who assisted the Liberian delegate to a regional meeting, Patrick Sawyer, who died from Ebola at a Lagos hospital on July 25.

The official had been quarantined since Sawyer was confirmed as having Ebola.

There is currently no available cure or vaccine for Ebola, which the WHO has declared a global public health emergency, and the use of experimental drugs has stoked a fierce ethical debate.

Despite promising results for the ZMapp treatment, made by private US company Mapp Biopharmaceutical, it had only been tested previously on monkeys.

ZMapp is also in very short supply and the company said it had sent all available doses to west Africa free of charge, after an outcry over its use on foreign aid workers.

The WHO’s Kieny said the UN agency had been told three doses were sent to Liberia.

Sierra Leone’s health ministry spokesperson Sidi Yahya Tunis told AFP the country had officially requested a shipment of the serum.

While the ZMapp stock has been exhausted for now, Kieny stressed there were other “potential therapies and vaccines… considered very serious alternatives” and that two possible vaccines were moving rapidly towards clinical trials.

She pointed out that plenty of drugs had been developed “to a point”, but companies had not footed the bill for expensive clinical trials as the virus was “typically a disease of poor people in poor countries where there is no market”.

The use of unauthorised drugs that had proven safe and effective in monkeys could be a “potent asset” in the fight against Ebola, she said.

Drastic containment measures have caused transport chaos, price hikes and food shortages, and are stoking fears that people could die of hunger.

Numerous countries around the globe have imposed emergency measures, including flight bans and improved health screenings.

Guinea-Bissau was the latest West African nation to close its borders with an affected country — its neighbour Guinea. It has also taken a raft of radical measures such as banning group gatherings at weddings and funerals.

Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma meanwhile expressed his “utter dismay” at the “slow pace” of the international community in responding to the outbreak.

Eight Chinese medical workers who treated patients with Ebola have been placed in quarantine in Sierra Leone, but China’s state news agency Xinhua said they showed no signs of Ebola symptoms as yet.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Erdogan seen winning Turkish presidency in election first round

Sun, 08/10/2014 - 11:41

ANKARA: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday was on course for a crushing first-round victory in presidential elections to become a powerful head of state, amid fears his country is creeping towards one-man rule.

Erdogan was set to win 54.1 per cent of the vote, way ahead of his main opposition rival Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu on 37.4 per cent, Turkish television channels said, in results based on a 60 per cent vote count.

The third contender, Kurdish candidate Selahattin Demirtas, was set for 8.5 per cent of the vote.

If the trend is continued, the result will mark a personal triumph for Erdogan, 60, who has promised to be a powerful president with a beefed-up mandate, in contrast to the ceremonial role fulfilled by his recent predecessors.

The polls are the first time Turkey — a member of NATO and longtime hopeful to join the EU — has directly elected its president, who was previously chosen by parliament, and Erdogan is hoping for a massive show of popular support.

“Our people will make an important decision for Turkish democracy,” said Erdogan as he cast his vote in Istanbul alongside his wife Emine and two daughters and two sons.

Erdogan indicated that he planned to revamp the post to give the presidency greater executive powers, which could see Turkey shift towards a system more like that of France if his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) succeeds in changing the constitution.

“This decision has significance in that an elected president, hand-in-hand with an elected government, will lead Turkey to 2023… in a determined fashion,” he said.

If Erdogan serves two presidential terms, he will stay in office to 2024 and already appears to be planning to preside over celebrations in 2023 for the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the modern Turkish state.

Erdogan’s opponents accuse him of undermining the secular legacy of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who established a strict separation between religion and politics when he forged the new state from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

“A ballot paper with only one name does not represent democracy, it does not suit Turkey,” said Ihsanoglu, 70, as he cast his ballot in Istanbul.

He complained that the campaign had been “unfair, disproportionate”, nonetheless predicting that the votes of the “silent masses” would help him to victory.

Erdogan ran a lavish three-month campaign that swamped those of his rivals, his face glaring down at pedestrians in Istanbul from gigantic billboards at almost every street corner.

The campaign of Ihsanoglu — a bookish former head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) whose candidacy was backed by the two main opposition parties — was modest by comparison.

While many secular Turks detest Erdogan, he can still count on a huge base of support from religiously conservative middle-income voters, particularly in central Turkey and poorer districts of Istanbul, who have prospered under his rule.

“I voted for Erdogan because I believe he is the only leader who can run the country properly. He has helped feed the poor and reached out to a larger section of our society,” Zahide, 52, a retired nurse, after voting in Istanbul.

But Ozlem, 24, a university student, said she voted for Ihsanoglu. “Our country is at a turning point. It’s either democracy or dictatorship. Everyone should come to their senses.”

The third candidate Demirtas, 41, from Turkey’s Kurdish minority, hoped to attract votes not just from Kurds but also secular Turks with a left-wing, pro-gay and pro-women’s rights message.

“Today is a beginning. It is a beginning for all those oppressed, marginalised, those earning their bread by the sweat of their brow,” he said as he cast his vote in the city of Diyarbakir.

But even though his charisma, flashing grin and fondness for white shirts with rolled-up sleeves have earned him the moniker “the Kurdish Obama” in some quarters, it would be a major achievement if Demirtas polled above 10 per cent.

Erdogan endured the toughest year of his rule in 2013, shaken by deadly mass protests sparked by plans to build a shopping mall on Gezi Park in Istanbul that grew into a general cry of anger by secular Turks who felt ignored by the AKP.

Later in the year, stunning corruption allegations emerged against the premier and his inner circle, including his son Bilal, based on bugged conversations that enthralled the country like a soap opera.

The future of outgoing president Abdullah Gul, a co-founder of the AKP who appears to have distanced himself from Erdogan, is unclear. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is tipped as a possible choice to be premier.

Recalling that he was the last Turkish president to be elected by parliament, Gul said afer voting that he wished Turkey proceeds “on its path by keeping its democracy and law stronger and consolidating its economy”.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Turkey set to elect Erdogan as strongman president

Sun, 08/10/2014 - 04:02

ISTANBUL: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is Sunday expected to vanquish his two rivals in elections to become the next Turkish president, promising to expand the post with new powers as opponents worry Turkey is creeping towards autocracy.

Erdogan, a pious Muslim, has ruled Turkey as premier since 2003, a period in which he has transformed the country with modernisation projects but also faced accusations of a gradual religious conversion of society and an erosion of civil rights.

Polls opened at 0500 GMT and are due to close at 1400 GMT.

The polls are the first time Turkey will directly elect its president, who has previously been chosen by parliament and in recent decades has fulfilled a largely ceremonial role.

However Erdogan, who is happy to be referred to by followers as the “Sultan”, has made clear he intends to be a head of state who “sweats” and exercises real power.

His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has vowed to seek to change the constitution to give the president more powers, which could give Turkey a presidential system similar to France rather than its current parliamentary democracy.

Yet his opponents accuse Erdogan of undermining the secular legacy of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who based the modern state after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire on a strict separation between religion and politics.

Opinion polls predict that Erdogan will easily win over 50 percent of votes to take Ankara’s Cankaya presidential palace in the first round, with his main opposition rival Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu lagging far behind in second place.

“There really is no uncertainty about this outcome. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Erdogan will win,” said Sinan Ulgen of the Carnegie Centre.

While many secular Turks detest Erdogan intensely, he can still count on a huge base of support from religiously conservative middle-income voters particularly in central Turkey and poorer districts of Istanbul who have prospered under his rule.

“We will write the history of the new Turkey on August 10,” he told tens of thousands of cheering supporters in Ankara in one of his final election rallies.

Out of a population of some 76 million, 53 million voters were to cast their ballots at more than 165,000 pollings stations.

Results are expected to come in rapidly and many suspect Erdogan is already planning a victory speech from the balcony of AKP headquarters in Ankara around midnight.

Erdogan over three months has spearheaded a lavish and immense campaign that has swamped the efforts of his rivals, holding mass rallies in almost 30 Turkish cities as his face glared on gigantic billboards at pedestrians in Istanbul at almost every street corner.

“National will, national power,” reads his main election slogan.

Erdogan’s main campaign advertisement – which had to be edited after a court ruled images of a woman praying violated Turkey’s secular rules – has saturated national TV and shows the “people’s president” leading thousands of ordinary Turks into the Cankaya.

The campaign of Ihsanoglu – a bookish former head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – has been modest by comparison and Erdogan has gleefully belittled his main rival as a dreamy academic who will get nothing done.

The third candidate Selahattin Demirtas, from Turkey’s Kurdish minority, has shown considerably more dynamism and his charisma, flashing grin and fondness for white shirts with rolled-up sleeves have led him to be dubbed the “Kurdish Obama” in some quarters.

Yet Demirtas’ campaign will be considered a success if he musters over 10 percent of the vote.

Erdogan endured the toughest year of his rule in 2013 and was shaken by deadly mass protests sparked by plans to build a shopping mall on Gezi Park in Istanbul that grew into a general cry of anger by secular Turks who felt ignored by the AKP.

Later in the year, stunning corruption allegations emerged against the premier and his inner circle, including his son Bilal based on bugged conversations that enthralled the country like a soap opera.

But Erdogan has come out fighting, denying the allegations and blaming a former ally turned rival, the Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen for launching a plot against him.

He has behaved at rallies as much like a prize fighter as a politician, aiming punches at foes like Gulen or even a critical female Turkish journalist who he denounced as a “shameless” woman.

With the election campaign coming amid Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip, Erdogan caused huge controversy outside of Turkey by saying the Jewish State was behaving even worse than Adolf Hitler.

If he wins, Erdogan will in late August take over as president from Abdullah Gul, a co-founder of the AKP who appears to have taken a distance from the pugnacious premier and whose political future is unclear.

There will be great scrutiny on who Erdogan decides should be the new premier with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu seen as a possible choice.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Four civilians killed in Kabul attack on NATO convoy: Official

Sun, 08/10/2014 - 03:47

KABUL: A suicide attacker targeting a Nato convoy in Kabul on Sunday killed four civilians and wounded at least seven others, officials said, the latest blast in the capital as politicians wrangle over disputed election results.

The Nato force made no immediate comment after the attack, which came as foreign troops rapidly wind down combat operations at the end of a 13-year war against Taliban insurgents.

“At around 11:30am, a convoy of foreign forces was targeted by a suicide bomber in police district 6, killing four civilians and wounding seven,” interior ministry spokesperson Sediq Sediqqi said on his Twitter account.

حوالی 11:30 پیش از چاشت امروز در ساحه حوزه ششم کابل کاروان نیروهای خارجی هدف یک حمله انتحاری قرار گرفت 4 ملکی شهید 7 ملکی مجروح گردیده

— Sediq Sediqqi (@moispokesman) August 10, 2014

A spokesperson for the Taliban said the insurgents claimed responsibility for the attack.

Ahmad Shah, a shopkeeper at the scene, told AFP: “I saw several people covered in blood around the area. The blast was huge, our windows are shattered.

“Several vehicles were damaged.”

US-led foreign troop numbers in Afghanistan have declined from a peak of 150,000 in 2012 to just 44,300 now.

All Nato combat soldiers will depart by the end of the year, though a follow-up support mission of about 10,000 troops is planned if the next president signs security deals with the US and Nato.

Afghanistan’s two rival presidential candidates signed a deal Friday to form a national unity government, opening an apparent way forward in a dispute over the election that threatens to revive ethnic conflict.

Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah vowed to work together – whoever becomes president – after an ongoing audit of all eight million votes finally declares the winner of the June 14 election.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Pakistanis stranded in Libya send out SOS

Sat, 08/09/2014 - 17:02

KARACHI: The roar of heavy gunfire and the sound of rocket fire keep Malik Mumtaz, a Pakistani stranded in Benghazi, Libya, awake all night long.

An employee of the Barga Construction Company near Benghazi, Mumtaz is one of thousands of Pakistanis living in the civil war-torn country who are awaiting help to return home.

“The nights are scary here,” he said, speaking with The Express Tribune by telephone. Just a few days ago, a fighter plane crashed near his home.

“The Pakistan Embassy has asked us to come to Tripoli but how will we get there? The routes are so dangerous and the militants can kill us. Why don’t the officials come and rescue us?”

Mumtaz and 80 other Pakistani employees of the company refuse to leave their project site, fearing they will be mugged and killed by militia men.

There are an estimated 18,000 Pakistanis living in Libya, with 6,000 to 8,000 wanting to return to Pakistan, according to social activist Ansar Burney. “People who want to return are mostly those who went to Libya for work, and now they fear for their lives because of the violent and unstable situation there,” he said.

Since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Libya’s fragile government has been unable to impose authority on groups of former rebels who refuse to disband and are allied with competing political factions battling for post-war dominance. These groups have turned the Libyan capital and Benghazi into battlegrounds.

Families of the Pakistanis stranded in Libya have started approaching organisations for help while also requesting the government to take action to bring back their loved ones safely.

Jahan Afroz, a resident of Orangi, weeps as she speaks of her son Raja Hussain, 35, who is stuck in Tripoli and is trying to find shelter. “I spoke to my son three days ago and he said he can constantly hear men firing. I am so worried about him,” Afroz said.

Hussain, a machine operator, has been jobless since his company closed down few days ago. Afroz says the banks in Tripoli are closed and there is no electricity there for a major part of the day. One of her sons died in the Baldia factory fire in Karachi nearly two years ago. “I don’t want to lose another one,” she said.

Another resident of Karachi, Mrs Rizwan, whose husband is a doctor in Libya, appealed to the government to provide transport to all those stranded men to reach relief camps being set up in the country by the Pakistani government. “My husband has no fuel. He is stuck at home with no transport,” she said. Living in Libya for the past few years, Mrs Rizwan returned to Karachi after Qaddafi’s death but her husband decided to return to Libya.

Foreign Office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam told The Express Tribune that the government is considering sending chartered planes to Libya to evacuate Pakistanis there. “Help lines have been set up where families have been asked to register so that their loved ones can be evacuated.  Relief centres have also been set up in Benghazi and Tripoli,” she said. Those who can return to Pakistan on their own are being helped to reach neighbouring Tunisia.

With the major airports in Libya closed down, Burney said that those who are unable to afford the journey should be helped to return to Pakistan. “Our major concern is to save the 175 Pakistanis stuck in detention centres in Tripoli. They should be released as soon as possible,” he said.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 10th, 2014.

Categories: Pakistan & World News

Obama warns of 'long-term project' in Iraq

Sat, 08/09/2014 - 16:44

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama warned Saturday that the US offensive in Iraq was a “long-term project” to rout out militants and deliver aid to beleaguered civilians.

Recognising there was no US military solution to reverse Islamic State fighters’ advances in Iraq, Obama called on Iraqi officials to urgently form a unity government.

While US air strikes have destroyed the militants’ arms and equipment within striking distance of the autonomous region of Kurdistan, Obama said the operations that began this week could last “months.”

He spoke as Iraqi forces prepared a US-backed counter-offensive.

“We feel confident we can prevent ISIL from going up the mountain and slaughtering the people who are there,” Obama said, using the militant group’s former name of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

“But the next step, which is going to be complicated logistically, is how do we give safe passage for people down from the mountain and where can we ultimately relocate them so that they are safe.”

In a significant boost to efforts to help the civilians stranded on Mount Sinjar, the Obama said British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande have agreed to lend their support following telephone talks.

Risk of genocide

Obama has justified the US intervention by warning of the risk of genocide against the small Yazidi minority, many of whose members have been trapped on the mountain for a week in northern Iraq.

But the president repeated assurances that no US combat troops would be deployed to Iraq in the first American offensive since Washington pulled out its forces in 2011 after nearly a decade of a brutal war that proved costly in both blood and treasure.

“I’m not going to give a particular timetable, because as I’ve said from the start, wherever and whenever US personnel and facilities are threatened, it’s my obligation, my responsibility as commander in chief, to make sure they are protected,” Obama told reporters.

The Islamic State’s march on Kurdistan is placing US diplomats – including at the American consulate – and business people at risk in a region that was relatively safe from the violence.

Calling for unity government

“The most important timetable I’m focused (on) now is the Iraqi government getting formed and finalised, because in the absence of an Iraqi government, it is very hard to get a unified effort by Iraqis against ISIL,” the president said.

Stressing that Iraq’s deep divisions along ethnic and religious lines were undermining the effort to combat IS, Obama said that it would be easier to mobilize Iraqis against the threat and obtain international support once an inclusive government is in place.

“Ultimately, only Iraqis can ensure the security and stability of Iraq, and the United States can’t do it for them, but we can and will be partners in that effort,” he said.

The United States aims to deny a safe haven to the “barbaric terrorists” and help provide a humanitarian corridor to provide aid to thousands of refugees — most from religious minorities — trapped on a mountaintop.

“We will continue to provide military assistance and advice to the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces as they battle these terrorists so that the terrorists cannot establish a permanent safe haven,” Obama said.

He also acknowledged that the movement of the militants, who have captured swathes of the oil-rich country, was more rapid than intelligence estimates and the expectations of policymakers inside and outside Iraq.

“Part of that is, I think, not a full appreciation of the degree to which the Iraqi security forces, when they’re far away from Baghdad, did not have the incentive or the capacity to hold ground against an aggressive adversary,” Obama said.

Thousands of Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking minority, fled their homes when militants attacked the town of Sinjar and many have since been stranded in the nearby mountain range with no food and water.

The first US bombings struck IS positions and at least one convoy of vehicles carrying militants west of Arbil.

Earlier Saturday, the US military air dropped food and water for the second day in a row on Mount Sinjar.

One C-17 and two C-130 cargo aircraft together dropped a total of 72 bundles of supplies, according to the Pentagon. They were escorted by two F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets launched from the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier.

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