Saturday, May 9, 2009

MQM and ANP call off strike

KARACHI:Sindh government on Saturday announced a public holiday on May 12, a day, which Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah said marked a "national tragedy." Talking to a crowded press conference at Chief Minister House Qaim said the decision was taken in view of the rising public concern over a probable poor law and order situation on May 12 in the wake of April 29 bloodshed in Karachi.

"The offshoots of trouble in tribal areas and violence on April 29 that killed some 30 people (in Karachi) are felt here," he added. He said his government after due consultations with the friends from political and media spheres had decided that May 12 should be observed as a "tragic day."

The chief minister, who was flanked by Information Minister Shazia Marri and Food Minister Mir Nadir Khan Magsi, said by declaring May 12 as a public holiday Sindh government would establish a "good tradition" to commemorate the martyrs of the day every year.

"We request all the political parties, particularly MQM and ANP, not to opt for a strike on May 12 and observe the day as a tragic day by holding prayers for the martyrs," he appealed. Being the leader of a rally that was taken out to receive Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry at the airport, Qaim termed the PPP as a biggest looser of May 12 followed by the lawyers and judges fraternity who were also maltreated.

"May 12 (incidents) occurred because the chief justice was coming here on our invitation 27 parties joined us to welcome him on the airport," he said. Without naming Threek-e-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan, who is due in Karachi most probably on Sunday, the chief minister said "those coming from outside should avoid issuing inflammatory statements and also respect Section 144."

The police and Rangers would remain on high alert on May 12 to deal with any untoward situation, he said adding the examination papers in the schools and colleges scheduled for the day would be delayed.

To a query Qaim said a still-inconclusive investigation had long been going on into the bloody incidents on May 12, but if it is delayed further a judicial inquiry could also be launched to ascertain the facts. Talking about agenda of the Prime Minister's visit to Karachi on Saturday, he said diverse issues relating to NFC Award, law and order would be reviewed.

He also told the media persons that his government ensuring the province-wide availability of "bardana" had so far procured 1.1 million tons of wheat and was working on the prices of flour and wheat. Asked if federal government was again interfering in Thar Coal issue, Qaim expressed his ignorance towards any such development and said he would talk to deputy chief Planning Commission of Pakistan in this regard.

Meanwhile, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Awami National Party (ANP), the two coalition partners of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in Sindh, called off their strike on May 12, as the Sindh government declared the day a public holiday to avoid any untoward situation.

Faisal Sabzwari Provincial Minister for Youth Affairs told Business Recorder that his party had withdrawn its support to the Haq Parast Loya Jirga, which had called for strike on May 12. The MQM leader said the decision had been taken by Co-ordination Committee of the party.

"We withdrew our support to the Haq Parast Loya Jirga in view of the Prime Minister's speech and action of the government," he added. He said MQM would also hoist national flags to show solidarity with the armed forces and the people of Pakistan on May 12.

When contacted ANP spokesman Qadir Khan said his party called off the strike call after the Sindh government's announcement to observe public holiday on May 12. "The Sindh government's decision is in line with our demand from the Prime Minister in the last meeting at Chief Minister House," he added.

Khan said that the Prime Minister, Governor and Chief Minister Sindh had also requested ANP to withdraw the strike call. "By announcing a strike we wanted to pay tribute to the martyrs of May 12 and justice for their mourners firstly, secondly as per our manifesto we never believe in the politics of corpses," he said.

73 militants killed in Swat, Dir & SWA

ISLAMABAD:Over 73 militants were killed on the second day of a full scale military operation by Pakistan Army's helicopters in Swat and Dir, said Director-General of Inter-Services Public Relation (ISPR) Major General Athar Abbas said on Saturday. "In the early morning attack, helicopters engaged militants' hideouts in Mingora. Fifteen militants are reportedly killed in the engagement," Abbas said in a statement.

Indefinite curfew remained intact in Swat and Malakand Agency, he said, adding that several militant hideouts were targeted and their main headquarter was destroyed. "Militants' bases in Matta were attacked too," the ISPR DG added. Security forces continued pounding militants' hideouts in Mingora and adjoining areas of Khawazakhela as gunships helicopters hovered over Mingora city, he said.

"Militant hideouts were also engaged in Peochar, Qambar, Banababa, Ziarat, Mushkomai and Chamtalai areas in Khawzakhela. Reportedly, 30-40 militants have been killed," said Abbas. Earlier, at least 10 militants, including a commander Ziaur Rehman, were killed in an operation by security forces in Swat. Helicopters also bombed Nishat Chowk and Tahirabad areas in Mingora and destroyed militants' headquarter in the Swat Valley on Saturday.

The ISPR chief said that all militants would be wiped out from Swat. According to him, about 64,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have so far got themselves registered with the government. Tense situation in restive areas created shortage of food and medicines, he added. On the other hand, search operation continued in Buner and neighbouring areas. Official sources said security forces launched operation in Pir Baba and adjoining areas and several suspected militants were arrested.

APP ADDS: The security forces on Saturday killed 18 militants in exchange of fire in Spin area, 30 km north east of Wana in South Waziristan Agency. According to ISPR, exchange of fire took place when militants attacked a security forces convey. One militant was also apprehended. The bodies of the dead are in the custody of the security forces. One soldier embraced shahadat while two others received wounds during the exchange of fire.

Swat operation a fight for survival of Pakistan: PM

ISLAMABAD: The Federal Cabinet on Saturday endorsed military action in Swat observing that there was no option left after failure of the peace accord.

Speaking at a press conference after an emergency meeting of the Cabinet, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said it was the battle for survival of Pakistan and was the question of future of the people.

He said the militants’ refusal to accept judiciary, parliament and democracy was nothing short of rebellion. He said they were involved in inhuman acts of abductions, killings, loot and destruction.

He said the cabinet observed that the militants carrying out un-Islamic activities in the name of Islam were ‘anti-state elements.’

He said the National Assembly has been convened to meet on Monday (May 11) to discuss the situation in Swat. He said it had not been possible to take the Cabinet and the Parliament into confidence before launching of the operation as it would have provided an opportunity for the militants to go underground.

He said the national leadership had been taken into confidence, however, and thanked them for extending the much needed support. He said the meeting decided that a group of cabinet ministers will meet the political leadership to gather support for the cause. In that connection, it was learnt, Makhdoom Amin Fahim will shortly be meeting JUI Chief Maulana Fazlur Rahman.

Gilani said it was not possible to give any time frame for the completion of the operation as it was guerrilla war and not a normal war. He said that the cabinet expressed the resolve that there should be minimum collateral damage and should be over as soon as possible.

Brushing aside the impression that army action had been launched under international pressure at a time when President Asif Ali Zardari was on a visit to the United States, he pointed out that the government had rejected all pressures to go ahead with the peace deal.

About the Nizam-e-Adl regulation, he said the government respected the mandate of the provincial government and the parliament approved it in national interest.

The Prime Minister said the cabinet created a special fund for the victims of terrorism and contributed Rs200 million from their own pockets, besides a month’s salary.

The cabinet directed all the foreign missions of the country to get activated to help generate funds for reconstruction of area and capacity building of law enforcing agencies.

It also directed the provincial government to be vigilant to any reaction in the wake of army operation and said he had directed the law enforcement agencies and the intelligence agencies to share reports on the issue with provincial governments.

The Cabinet also asked the Chairperson of Benazir Income Support Program to provide full cover to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). It was decided to provide special attention to Balochistan, carry forward the ongoing dialogue and work for removing the province’s sense of deprivation.

The cabinet was of the view that all political forces and civil society groups should hold peace march against terrorists and militants across the country.

The Prime Minister said the government would soon be constituting cabinet committees to carry out day-to day monitoring of IDPs and to ensure transparency in funds management.

The cabinet observed that the terrorists and militants had no religion and were not bothered about any boundaries. ‘Therefore we have decided to contact the ulema to present a true perception of Islam,’ he said. He announced that Imam-e-Kaaba was being invited to visit Pakistan to play a role in removing misperceptions about the religion.

The cabinet also decided to approach the media to realize the gravity of the situation, and seek their help. About convening of the All Parties Conference, Gilani said he had held consultations with other political leaders and would decide the date soon.

Asked whether the government has given up the path of dialogue, Gilani said the government always pursued the policy of dialogue, development and deterrence. ‘We preferred dialogue at first, but when it did not achieve any results we had to look for other option,’ he said, adding that development could not be achieved unless peace was restored.

About the Charter of Democracy and possibility of PML-N induction into the federal cabinet, he said he had very good relations with PML-N leadership and appreciated the support extended by them in difficult times on issues of national security. ‘We would be in a better position to offer them to join the cabinet when we fulfil the pledge of implementing Charter of Democracy including the abolition of 17th amendment.’

Gilani said the government was fully cognizant of the issues of IDPs. ‘This time we made sure that militants were taken by surprise,’ he said defending the government’s policy of not asking the people to leave the area before the launch of the operation.

He also directed the ministers to visit the camps and to ensure that IDPS are being looked after well.

Gilani also made an impassioned appeal to the nation to support the armed forces as they were doing a job for the country’s future. He also asked the locals to ask the ‘the black sheep’ to leave their area.

He said the government will also strengthen the capabilities of its law enforcement agencies and would build bomb proof police stations. Besides the government will also be sending delegation of parliamentarians and the ministers to different parts of the world to apprise them about the real situation.

The Prime Minister denied rollback or capping of nuclear programme and said, ‘there is no such thing.’

Regarding the memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on transit trade with Afghanistan he said all stakeholders were taken on board in vetting the deal. ‘There is no need for any concern. We have taken care of everything,’ he said.

Answering a question he said the provincial government had been asked to be vigilant in view of a possible backlash in reaction to the operation.

Answering another question, he said the salaries of law enforcing agencies in the troubled areas would be increased and bomb-proof police stations would be built.

Pakistan Pounds Taliban, Swelling the Tide of Refugees

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani Army pressed a surprisingly vigorous offensive on Friday against the Taliban militants who had taken control of a broad swath of territory northwest of the capital, sending tens of thousands of Pakistanis fleeing the fighting.

The exodus — by truck, car, foot and horse cart — reached close to 200,000 people, forcing relief workers to erect new rows of tents in camps along the clotted road running south from the Swat Valley, the scene of the heaviest fighting. More trouble loomed: Relief officials said as many as 300,000 people were moving or preparing to flee.

The humanitarian crisis unfolded as the Pakistani Army moved ahead with what it described as an all-out attack on the Taliban militants in Swat, the epicenter of a power struggle over months between government forces and the militants. Army officers said they were confronting a force of about 4,000 militants, who took advantage of a peace agreement in February to seize control of much of the district and its government buildings.

There have been a number of indications over the past week that the Pakistani Army has finally decided to confront the militants forcefully, though previous hopes, dating back five years, have always been dashed. The uncertainties included whether the army, even if it wanted to, was competent enough to deliver a deathblow to the militants or whether defeating them would come at such a high cost to civilians that it would further erode public support.

Pakistanis in the area said the Taliban had so far held on to every neighborhood they had seized in the previous days and months. Witnesses said Friday that the insurgents remained in control of Mingora, the district capital, and many parts of the districts of Buner and Lower Dir.

At the military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas made few claims of territorial progress. He said that helicopters strafed militants in Swat over the previous 24 hours, and that 140 militants and 7 Pakistani soldiers had been killed.

“They are on the run and trying to block the exodus of innocent civilians by preventing their departure through coercion,” General Abbas said.

Militant resistance in neighboring Buner, just 60 miles from Islamabad, has decreased considerably, General Abbas said. He said the military had lifted a curfew in Buner to allow civilians to escape toward Mardan and other areas.

There was no way to verify General Abbas’s account; reporters and most outsiders have been blocked from the areas. The Pakistani government and the military, which has largely stood by as the Taliban insurgency has surged forward in recent months, have been under intense American pressure to take action against the militants.

A government official reached at his home in Mingora said many militants had been killed this week when Pakistani helicopter gunships attacked an emerald mine that sits on the approach to Mingora. Still, the government’s position was unchanged, the official said; it was clinging to only a small corner of Mingora. The mayor’s office and police headquarters were still in Taliban hands.

The official said electricity and water in the district capital were both gone. “Thousands of people are leaving,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear that he would be killed.

A Pakistani who spoke to his family in Mingora on Friday said they had confirmed that the Taliban remained in control of the city. He said the roads into the capital had been booby-trapped with land mines, and that in some places, like Matta, a Taliban stronghold, militants were blocking civilians from leaving.

Another Pakistani in Swat, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Taliban fighters had begun to loot local banks, including three on Thursday.

Some civilians fleeing the area said the Pakistani Army had imposed a round-the-clock curfew across much of the embattled area, preventing thousands of people from leaving. Those people would flee at the first chance, the refugees said.

Pakistani soldiers gave out pamphlets accusing the Taliban of playing into the hands of so-called anti-Pakistan elements. “They are the same as Jewish forces who are against the existence and security of the country and wanted to create disturbance in the region,” read a leaflet, according to a report in Dawn, a prominent Pakistani newspaper.

Thousands of civilians continued to move Friday, many of them to three camps set up in the low-lying areas south of the battlefields. Officials with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed alarm at the growing human tide, saying their workers had set up a series of centers to track the number of refugees and make it easier to help them. “Given the massive influx of people, this is not enough,” the office said in a statement.

The 200,000 people who have fled the stricken areas join the half-million others who have already left parts of the North-West Frontier Province, as well as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, because of fighting between the government and the Taliban, and because of the fear of missile strikes by remotely piloted American aircraft.

Refugees arriving Friday in Mardan had few kind words for the Taliban militants or their own government. One Pakistani woman, stepping from her tent in a camp at the outskirts of the city, said the fighting had succeeded only in ruining the lives of people with no hand in the conflict.

“We have nothing,” the woman said, standing amid a sea of other refugees. She arrived Friday with eight relatives. “We have no blankets and no food. The government is bombing us from the mountains, and the Taliban is shooting at us from the city.

“The army and the Taliban are not killing each other — they are friends,” the woman said. “They are only killing civilians. When civilians are killed, the government says they have killed a bunch of terrorists.”

Operations to continue in tribal areas, Cabinet endorses

ISLAMABAD :The Federal Cabinet on Saturday during its meeting has endorsed the ongoing military operation in Swat and Malakand.

In a media briefing after cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said a fund has been established for displaced persons in which Rs.200 million has already been deposited.

He said Pakistani embassies have been directed to launch a drive for displace people as well as Benazir Income Support Program and health ministry also directed to take care of displaced people.

“A delegation of parliamentarians will be dispatch to different countries in this connection. Provincial governments have also give directives to remain vigilant for terror,” said prime minister.

Premier Gilani said special attention would be given to Balochistan and urged that ongoing dialogue process should be completed.

He rejected the reports of capping Pakistan’s nuclear program. He said political forces and civil society would hold a peace march against terrorists and terrorism. The National Assembly session has been summoned on Monday at 4:00 pm in this connection, he added.

Army targets Taliban positions in Swat, curfew continues

MINGORA: Pakistani helicopter gunships blasted Taliban positions in the militants’ Swat valley bastion on Saturday while a curfew blocked residents from joining hundreds of thousands who have already fled the fighting.

Pakistan's army went on a full-scale offensive on Friday after a government go-ahead to flush out violent militants from the Islamist stronghold, a former tourism centre. The military said late on Friday 143 militants had been killed over the previous 24 hours.

Fighting had already picked up earlier in the week, triggering a mass civilian exodus from the battle zones in recent days, but concerns are growing about the fate of those still trapped and unable to move because of a curfew.

‘We are feeling so helpless, we want to go but can't as there is a curfew,’ said Sallahudin Khan by telephone from Mingora, Swat's main town.

‘We tried to leave yesterday after authorities relaxed the curfew for a few hours, but couldn't as the main road leading out of Mingora was literally jammed with the flood of fleeing people,’ he said as gunship fire boomed in the background.

Helicopters targeted militant hideouts in Mingora on Saturday after insurgents fired rockets at a military base in the town, military officials said, but there were no immediate reports of any casualties on either side.

Swat's top administrator, Khushal Khan, told Reuters the curfew would remain in force throughout the day, although he said could be a break at some point later so those who wanted to go could leave.

The UN refugee agency has said a ‘massive displacement’ is underway. Citing provincial government estimates, it said on Friday up to 200,000 people had left their homes over recent days with another 300,000 on the move or about to move.

They join 555,000 people displaced from other areas because of fighting since August, the agency said.
Many of the displaced stay with relatives or friends or find shelter on their own, but aid agencies and officials fear if the situation is protracted they will join tens of thousands in camps, further straining resources.

‘If the conflict lasts longer, then we expect those living outside camps to come to the camps and that will be a huge problem,’ Khalid Khan Umerzai, an official in North West Frontier Province, said this week, citing funds shortages for care.

The military's top spokesman, Major-General Athar Abbas, said on Friday that while government forces were determined to eliminate militants in Swat, the operation was difficult. He declined to give a timeline for clearing the valley.

While Swat is not next to the border analysts fear it could also become a base for Afghanistan insurgents as well as for efforts to destabilise nuclear-armed Pakistan's government.

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, in talks in Washington this week, assured US President Barack Obama of Islamabad's commitment to defeating al Qaeda and its allies.

Up to 15,000 troops have been pitched against between 4,000 to 5,000 battle-hardened militants in the valley, where residents say insurgents hold sway in most parts.

‘In my area, there is no government, it's all Taliban,’ said Ibrahim Khan, a farmer in the militant stronghold of Matta town. ‘They are in full control.’

Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told a press briefing on Friday that the operation will continue till its logical conclusion and complete elimination of extremists from the area.

He said the security forces had made some advances. He said the militants were on the run and trying to block the exodus of innocent civilians by preventing their departure through coercion, road blocks and making the people hostage.

Answering a question, he said the approximate number of terrorists in Swat was around 4000 and they had also recruited young people from the area without giving them any choice. He said most of them had been provided with arms.

He said 12,000 to 15,000 armed forces personnel were taking part in the operation.

He brushed aside the impression that the operation in Swat had been launched under US pressure and said ‘We analyze the threats keeping in view of the national interest and not on the dictates of external powers.’

General Athar Abbas said the militants in Swat were predominantly from the area, but they included militants from across the border and few Tajiks and Uzbeks. He said drug money coming from Afghanistan was the biggest source of finances received by the militants who also generate funds by kidnapping for ransom.

Giving an update on the security situation in Swat, he said Khawazkhela and Chamtalai area had been secured by the security forces. He said one soldier lost his life while five militants were killed during the operation. Fire exchange took place at Matta Police station and 13 militants were killed. Militants loc at Takhtaband, Qambar Top and Iqbal advocate house were attacked resulting into killing of 10 militants and injuring twelve.

He said militants training camps on the mountain strong holds, ammunition dumps and command and communication centers have been targeted through precision strikes.

The military spokesman said militants’ resistance in Buner had considerably reduced. However, they were maintaining their positions at Sultanwas and Pir Baba.

Today a preliminary operation was launched in Kalapani area, where six militants have been killed and two have been arrested. The operation to clear Sultanwas was in progress and soon militants position in Sultanwas will be eliminated.

He said search and Cordon operations are continuing in Lower Dir and militants’ hideouts were being attacked.

He said the militants abducted over 100 individuals, killed 30 security forces personnel, carried out four suicide and eight improvised explosive device attacks, looted six banks, destroyed three police stations and one grid station and damaged two schools after the peace agreement.