Friday, February 13, 2009

US needs talks with Taliban, says ex-Soviet general

US needs talks with Taliban, says ex-Soviet general
A Russian general who served in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation said the US needed to start talking to the Taliban.A Russian general who served in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation said on Wednesday the United States needed to start talking to the Taliban if it was going to succeed in the invasion there.Ruslan Aushev, who commanded forces in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s and later became president of the Ingushetia region, said the United States was right to send more troops to Afghanistan but would not succeed by military might alone."We made a political mistake and that political mistake led to military mistakes," he said of the 1979-89 Soviet occupation, saying that the more than 70,000 U.S. and NATO troops now serving there should not make the same errors. "Today, the coalition have been there for eight years but what has the average Afghan got from it? Nothing. The rich have remained rich and the poor have remained poor. "When we were in Afghanistan there was no fanatical religious movement called the Taliban. Now the Taliban are very strong and influential... They need to be engaged if their ideas are going to be defeated. "At some point you have to talk," he said, speaking via videolink from Moscow during a discussion to mark the 20th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal, which falls on Feb. 15. The event was hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Russian news agency Ria Novosti.
Negotiation call
Other Russian experts on the panel, which was debating Afghanistan's future with regional specialists in London, agreed that without some form of negotiation it would be impossible to defeat the Taliban insurgency. "I think we should follow the path of dialogue, there is no other way," said Victor Korgun, head of the Afghanistan department at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "The Taliban is not a single entity... there are elements within it with which we can communicate and negotiate. Russia is in favour of dialogue." Former U.S. President George W. Bush, who sent U.S. troops into Afghanistan in late 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks, always ruled out any form of negotiation with insurgents. President Barack Obama has talked broadly about the need for dialogue with enemies, such as Iran, but has said nothing about making contact with groups such as the Taliban, toppled ruling of Afghanistan.U.S. ally Saudi Arabia last September hosted what were described as preliminary talks with former Taliban members about the possibility of more formal discussions, but the initiative petered out before a second round could be held.The Taliban, which has stepped up attacks against foreign troops and its allies throughout Afghanistan in the past year, has rejected the idea of any negotiations as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has hinted at the possibility of talks with "elements" of the insurgency in an effort to draw the poison from a militancy that shows little sign of weakening and is well funded by the drugs trade.

Karzai admits tensions with US

Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, has admitted that there is tension between his government and the new US administration.The acknowledgement came in an interview to Al Jazeera's David Frost as the US special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, met high-level officials of the Afghan government.
Karzai also admitted that he has not heard from the US president since Barack Obama moved into the White House last month.After leading Afghanistan for over eight years, Karzai is now seen by many Western officials as part of the problem rather than one who can force through solutions.Obama is expected to approve the deployment of about 30,000 extra US troops to Afghanistan in the next few days, despite fears in some circles that the mistakes of the Soviet Union are being repeated.The deployment is seen as vital for securing presidential elections - only the second in Afghanistan's history - set for August 20 after being postponed for three months largely because of security concerns.
Karzai's fate
The comments by Karzai to Al Jazeera come as speculation grows over his political fate.Reporting from Kabul on Friday, Al Jazeera's Hamish MacDonald said Holbrooke was due to meet Afghanistan's defence and interior ministers before holding talks with Karzai on Saturday.

House Passes $787B Stimulus Bill

Handing the new administration a big win, House Democrats passed President Barack Obama's $787 billion plan to resuscitate the economy on Friday despite a wall of Republican opposition. The bill was approved 246-183 and sent to the Senate, where a vote was scheduled late Friday afternoon. That vote was to be held open for hours, waiting for Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, who was attending a memorial service for his mother and then flying back to cast the deciding vote. Senate passage would meet a deadline of sending the bill to Obama before a congressional recess begins next week.

The 1,071 page, 8-inch-thick measure combines $281 billion in tax cuts for individuals and businesses with more than a half-trillion dollars in government spending. The money would go for infrastructure, health care and help for cash-starved state governments, among scores of programs. Seniors would get a $250 bonus Social Security check.

Asked for his reaction to House passage of the bill, Obama said "thumbs up" while giving a thumbs-up sign as he left the White House with his family for a long weekend in Chicago.

Told that no Republican backed the measure, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs reacted by citing another number: "3.5 million jobs that we look forward to saving or creating."

Seven Democrats voted against the bill.

Republicans said the package won't work because it has too little in tax cuts and spreads too much money around to everyday projects like computer upgrades for federal agencies. "This legislation falls woefully short," said House GOP Leader John Boehner of Ohio. "With a price tag of more than $1 trillion when you factor in interest, it costs every family almost $10,000 in added debt. This is an act of generational theft that our children and grandchildren will be paying for far into the future."

The final $787 billion measure has been pared back from versions previously debated in order to attract support from three Senate GOP moderates — Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Their help is essential to meeting a 60-vote threshold in the Senate, required to overcome a Republican objection that the bill adds to the deficit.

The bill originally passed the Senate by a 61-37 tally, but Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., suffering from brain cancer, is not expected to vote this time.

Video of kidnapped UN Official


ISLAMABAD — A kidnapped American UN official abducted in Pakistan 11 days ago was apparently shown in a video aired by Pakistani television on Friday, appealing for his release and saying he was unwell.
The video, broadcast by private channel Dunya and rival station Geo, shows a close up of the face of a blindfolded man, apparently John Solecki, although the person was not identified.Solecki, who heads the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Quetta -- the capital of Pakistan's restive southwestern Baluchistan province -- was abducted at gunpoint on February 2 while travelling to work. His driver was killed.
"This is a message to the United Nations. I am not feeling well, I am sick and in trouble. Please help solve the problems soon so I can gain my release," said the person shown in the video.It was not clear if he was speaking under threat, nor was it immediately clear when the video was taken.Dunya announced that the video was shot on a mobile phone and delivered on a memory card to the television station.
The picture on the video was unclear and poor quality, said an AFP correspondent who watched the broadcast. The man was heavily blindfolded but what could be seen of his face looked pale, against a blurred background.Dunya said the Baluch United Liberation Front, which claimed Solecki's abduction in a telephone call to local media, demanded the release of 141 women Baluch detainees apparently in Pakistani custody within 72 hours.The shadowy group also demanded to know the whereabouts of 6,000 young men whom they said went missing during Pakistani military operations to put down an insurgency in Baluchistan.Shah Nawaz, the local police official in charge of the area in Quetta where Solecki was kidnapped, had no immediate comment.
"We are also watching this video tape like others," he told AFP.The United Nations has expressed deep concerned over the fate of Solecki, saying he has a medical condition that requires regular medication.His abduction is the most high profile Western kidnapping in Pakistan since US journalist Daniel Pearl was snatched in 2002 and beheaded by Al-Qaeda militants.A spokesman for the purported kidnappers said in a recent telephone call to the local Online news agency that they snatched Solecki to draw attention to "excesses being inflicted on (the) Baluch Nation".Hundreds of people have died in insurgent unrest in Baluchistan since 2004, when rebels rose up demanding political autonomy and a greater share of profits in the province's rich natural resources.Pakistan has condemned the kidnapping as a "dastardly terrorist act" and offered a reward of one million rupees (12,610 dollars) for information leading to Solecki's rescue.Kidnappings of foreigners in Baluchistan are rare, although they have multiplied in northwest Pakistan, which also borders Afghanistan.

Plane crashes into suburban Buffalo-area home; 49 killed

NEW YORK -- A Continental Airlines plane crashed into a home near Buffalo, New York, late Thursday, killing 44 passengers and four crew members on board, according to New York State police.Authorities said one person in the Clarence Center, New York, home was also killed. Two people in the home suffered minor injuries and were taken to a local hospital, authorities said.Continental Connection Flight 3407, operated by Colgan Air, was en route from Newark, New Jersey, to Buffalo when it went down at around 10:20 p.m. ET. The crash occurred about seven miles from Buffalo Niagara International Airport.Dave Bissonette, Clarence Center's natural disaster services coordinator, said it was "clearly a direct hit" on the house."The only recognizable piece of the plane left is the tail," Bissonette said.The ferocity of the fire was such that officials don't expect the crash site to be safe for investigators until about noon Friday, nearly 14 hours after the crash. Flames rise from crash siteCNN has listened to a tape of communications between air traffic control and the flight crew. The first officer had no sign of stress in her voice. The plane was cleared for approach. About two minutes later, the air traffic controller came back, with stress in his voice. Radar contact was lost.The question goes out: Can other planes see anything? No one responds. The controller says they might have a plane down. The pilot's last comment was "Colgan Flight 3407." There were no sounds of distress.It was not clear whether the mix of sleet and snow in the area played any role in the crash of Flight 3407. Other planes continued to arrive and land safely at Buffalo about the time the flight went down. A Northwest Airlines flight landed at approximately 10:17 p.m.One plane taking off about that time reported rime icing -- a condition in which ice quickly builds up on the leading edge of the wings.Authorities said the plane went down near a local fire hall, so firefighters were quick to respond to the crash site. At least nine volunteer fire departments responded to the scene. Are you there? Let us know .Area resident Keith Burtis said he was driving to the store about a mile from the crash site when he heard the plane go down."It was a high-pitched sound," Burtis said. "It felt like a mini-earthquake." Watch officials on the scene: 'This is not a rescue mission' Shortly after the crash, Burtis said he saw a steady stream of fire trucks rush by him as smoke billowed into the sky. Other witnesses told CNN they saw the plane nose-dive toward the ground.
According to CNN affiliate WGRZ-TV in Buffalo, one of the crash victims, Beverly Eckert, was the widow of 9/11 terror attack victim Sean Rooney, a Buffalo native. Eckert was traveling to Buffalo for a weekend celebration of what would have been her husband's 58th birthday.She also had planned to take part in presentation of a scholarship award at Canisius High School that she established in honor of her late husband, the Buffalo News newspaper reported.Twelve residents were evacuated from the area of the plane crash. Law enforcement officials are asking people not to go to the crash site in fear they may hinder the investigation."I felt the impact ... sounded like a large explosion," said Brendan Biddlecon, who told CNN he lives two blocks from where the plane crashed. Watch report from witness: "All I saw was flames" Biddlecon ran out his home and to within a couple hundred yards of the crash. The smoke was thick and acrid, and the heat was intense, he said.Chris Kausner, who had a sister on the flight, rushed to the Clarence Municipal Center, where he waited for additional information after emergency teams turned him back from the scene.
"My parents are on vacation in Florida and I had to call down there and tell my father what was going on," he told CNN affiliate WIVB.
When asked how his parents were handling the news, a shaken Kausner responded "To tell you the truth, I heard my mother make a sound that I have never heard before.
The Erie County Medical Examiner's Office established a command post at the scene and had investigators there, a statement from the office said. Officials said relatives of passengers aboard the flight should call 800-621-3263 for information.
A statement from the airline said: "At this time, the full resources of Colgan Air's accident response team are being mobilized and will be devoted to cooperating with all authorities responding to the accident and to contacting family members and providing assistance to them."
Continental Airlines confirmed that the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400, a 74-seat turboprop, was operating between Newark Liberty International Airport and Buffalo.
Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) permanently grounded its fleet of Dash 8s after three crash landings during a two-month period in 2007 that were blamed on the aircraft's landing gear.
"Confidence in the Q400 has diminished considerably and our customers are becoming increasingly doubtful about flying in this type of aircraft," Mats Jansson, president and CEO of SAS, said at the time. "I have decided to immediately remove Dash 8 Q400 aircraft from service."
The National Transportation Safety Board said early Friday that was preparing a "go team" to head to Buffalo to investigate the crash.
According to the National Weather Service weather observation for Buffalo, there was light snow, fog and mist shortly before 10 p.m. Flight 3407 was originally scheduled to depart at 7:45 p.m., but it was delayed.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the crew, the passengers and our residents on Long Street," said Clarence Supervisor Scott Blylewski.
Thursday's incident is the first fatal crash of a commercial airliner in the United States since August 2006 when Comair Flight 5191 crashed when it attempted to take off from the wrong runway.