Sunday, May 17, 2009

Pakistan Calls on Taliban Militants in Swat to Lay Down Arms

Pakistan called on Taliban fighters in the northwest to lay down arms as “intense” fighting erupted between the army and militants in the Swat Valley, where hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee.

Security forces entered the towns of Matta and Kanju near Swat’s main city and killed 25 militants in 24 hours, the military said in a statement yesterday.

The operation “is moving in the right direction and is in accordance with a set plan,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters yesterday, according to the official Associated Press of Pakistan. The Taliban “are on the run,” he added.

Pakistani troops are battling an estimated 4,000 insurgents who reneged on a February peace accord and advanced toward the capital, Islamabad, even after the government agreed to impose Islamic law in the region. The United Nations said May 15 that 907,000 people have fled fighting in the northwest since May 2.

Most of the refugees are from the Swat, Lower Dir and Buner districts, Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a telephone interview from Islamabad at the time. Thousands more are reported to have fled Swat’s main city, Mingora, when authorities relaxed a curfew in the area, she said.

The exodus of refugees is Pakistan’s biggest since independence in 1947, according to the government.

Taliban Shave Beards

Some Taliban members have shaved off their beards and cut their hair in an attempt to escape the area undetected, the military said May 15. The same day, the government rejected an offer of peace talks to end fighting with militants.

U.S. officials criticized Pakistan for signing the February agreement with the Taliban and urged the government to crack down on Islamic extremists. President Barack Obama has said a five-year aid package to Pakistan worth $1.5 billion a year would be conditional on the government tackling terrorism.

One soldier was killed and seven injured in the weekend operations in Swat, the army said. The military urged residents to help identify insurgents, saying security forces could only accurately target them “when people rise against them,” according to the statement.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is trying to build cross-party support for the offensive and plans to convene a meeting today to develop a policy for combating insurgents. Nawaz Sharif, the country’s main opposition leader, plans to attend.

Pakistan’s military first deployed in Swat, once a popular tourist destination 250 kilometers (155 miles) northwest of Islamabad, in 2007 in an effort to crush militants who set up Islamic courts. The fighters responded by beheading local officials, burning schools and banning education for girls.

Authorities agreed to appoint Islamic judges to Swat and neighboring districts under the February accord. The Taliban last month advanced to within 100 kilometers of Islamabad.

Obama calls for 'common ground' on abortion at Notre Dame

CNN.COM:President Obama delved into the abortion debate in a controversial Notre Dame commencement address Sunday, calling for a search for common ground on one of the most divisive issues in American politics.

Addressing a sharply divided audience at the storied Catholic university, Obama conceded that no matter how much Americans "may want to fudge it ... at some level the views of the two camps are irreconcilable."

"Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction," he said. "But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature."

The commencement ceremony was boycotted by a number of graduates dismayed by the university's decision both to tap Obama as its commencement speaker and to give him an honorary degree.

The president is a supporter of abortion rights and federally-funded embryonic stem-cell research -- positions that are anathema to traditional Catholic teachings.

Some graduates attended the ceremony, but expressed their disapproval by donning mortarboards marked with a cross and the outline of an infant's footprints. Others countered by wearing mortarboards adorned with an Obama campaign symbol.

Protests by abortion rights opponents before Obama's speech led to 39 arrests, St. Joseph County sheriff's deputy Rachel Zawistowski told CNN. One of those arrested was Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff identified as "Roe" in the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that struck down state laws banning abortion. Watch police arrest anti-Obama demonstrators »

All those arrested were charged with trespassing, and two people taken into custody were also charged with resisting arrest, Redmond said. The charges are misdemeanors, and defendants had to post bail of $250 each before being released, he said.

Inside, several hecklers who interrupted the start of Obama's speech were loudly booed by the audience.

Obama asked the crowd if it's possible "for us to join hands in common effort."

"As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate?" he asked. "How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?"

The president told the audience a story about an e-mail he received during his 2004 Illinois Senate race from a doctor who opposed abortion. The doctor, according to the president, said he voted for Obama during the Democratic primary but felt he might not be able to support him in the general election.

A self-described Christian who "was strongly pro-life," the doctor had been offended by an entry on Obama's Senate campaign Web site that said Obama would oppose "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." Watch Obama discuss abortion »

"The doctor said that he had assumed I was a reasonable person, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable," Obama said.

He said the doctor urged him not to change his views, but rather to speak about the issue of abortion in "fair-minded words."

After instructing his campaign staff to change the wording on his Web site, Obama said he prayed "that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me."

"When we do that -- when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do -- that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground."

The president said that while "maybe we won't agree on abortion ... we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make."

He urged supporters and opponents of abortion rights to "work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term."

He also endorsed the drafting of a "sensible conscience clause" to "honor the conscience" of doctors and other medical workers opposed to abortion.

Let's "make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women," he said.

Obama is the ninth sitting U.S. president to deliver the commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, but none of his predecessors touched off a similar firestorm. Watch how some graduating seniors are taking Obama visit in stride »

"I have no problem with Obama speaking on the campus [but] I do have a problem giving him [this] honor," said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League.

Catholic Bishop John D'Arcy of South Bend, Indiana, was among those who skipped the ceremony.

"President Obama has recently reaffirmed, and has now placed in public policy, his long-stated unwillingness to hold human life as sacred," D'Arcy said in a written statement.

Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins noted in a statement in March that the university has hosted Democratic and Republican presidents, and said the invitation does not mean the university agrees with all of Obama's positions.

Obama carried the Catholic vote in last year's presidential election by a margin of nine percentage points, 54 to 45 percent. A Quinnipiac University poll released last Thursday suggests most U.S. Catholics wanted Notre Dame to allow Obama to speak, with 60 percent of Catholic voters in the survey saying Notre Dame should stand by its invitation to the president.

Observant Catholic voters who attend religious services about once a week said by a 49 to 43 percent margin that Notre Dame should keep Obama on the program. Catholics who attend services less frequently said by a 70 percent to 26 percent margin that Obama should speak, according to the poll.

"Neither Americans overall, nor Roman Catholic voters in particular, think Notre Dame should rescind its invitation to President Obama," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

"The strongest opposition to the president's appearance comes from observant Catholics, but more of them than not say he should be allowed to speak."

The poll, taken April 21-27, surveyed 2,041 registered voters nationwide. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.

"Catholics are not a monolithic group. If you divide between practicing Catholics and nonpracticing Catholics, you'll find that the practicing Catholics for some reason are opposed to Obama getting an honor. They're not opposed to him speaking at Notre Dame. They're opposed to him being honored," Donohue said.

Refugees at risk

Editorial:THE NEWS

The displaced persons turned into refugees in their own homeland face many risks. At camps, outbreaks of sickness are being reported and the 900,000 people now displaced struggle to survive. A new exodus as curfew was lifted in Swat is likely to make things even harder for all those fleeing homes, as more pressure is exerted on existing facilities and more pour into camps. But among these people, the most miserable must be those who have lost children. According to reports, the Taliban have been kidnapping both boys and girls, either to use as human shields or to enrol as fighters. Other stories are even more alarming. Volunteers and activists working with the IDPs say people from Punjab and other parts of the country are visiting camps and ‘buying’ children from desperate, poverty-stricken families, presumably to use in the sex industry. Both girls and boys are said to be in demand.

This trade must stop. The government needs to do more to protect people who are already vulnerable and prone to fall victim to such exploitation. The desperation brought by misery means parents may feel they have no choice but to sacrifice one child in order to save others. Checks need to be put in place. We saw similar efforts to take away children after the 2005 quake, sometimes even from hospital wards. That should have taught us some lessons. Access to camps needs to be restricted; only legitimate representatives of groups which have been registered should be allowed in. Camp authorities too need to be warned about the sex trade now said to be on, so they can be on the alert. And parents who are being told their children will be offered jobs in big cities too need to be warned against falling for this line.

Every crisis, in one way or the other, exposes both the best and the worst of humankind. This is being seen too at the camps. Many well-meaning volunteers are doing all they can to help; ordinary citizens have taken up goods and cash and toys for children. But there are also others whose motives are evil. An effort to protect the refugees from them is urgently needed, before more such cases take place and add to anger against a state that has struggled to come to grips with an immense crisis.

Musharraf on Pakistan

Waziristan next, says Zardari

LONDON: Pakistan is to extend its war on the Taliban beyond Swat into the fiercely independent tribal areas bordering Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda leadership are believed to be hiding.

‘We’re going to go into Waziristan, all these regions, with army operations,’ President Asif Ali Zardari told The Sunday Times in an interview. ‘Swat is just the start. It’s a larger war to fight.’

He said Pakistan would need billions of pounds in military assistance and aid for up to 1.7 million refugees, the biggest movement of people since the country’s split from India in 1947.

To help take on the militants, the Pakistan army is for the first time to accept counter-insurgency training from British and American troops on its own soil.

‘We need to develop our capability and we need much more support,’ said Mr Zardari. ‘We need much, much more than the $1 billion (military aid) we’ve been getting, which is nothing. We’ve got 150,000 troops in (the tribal areas) — just the movement of that number would cost $1 billion.’

The army is planning to open new fronts in Waziristan and Darra Adamkhel. Waziristan is the headquarters of the militant Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, led by Baitullah Mehsud, who has been named as the mastermind behind the assassination of the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.

Mr Zardari appealed for $1 billion in aid for refugees. ‘If we are to win the hearts and minds of these people we need to be able to relocate them back into civil society, rebuild their houses and give them interest-free loans to restart their businesses,’ he said.

‘If we don’t they will turn against the government and we will lose the impetus we’ve managed to create in the country against the Taliban.’

The Taliban were said to be holding out in Sultanwas, a mountainous valley in Buner. All access to Swat, where the army said a house-to-house search was under way for Taliban leaders in Mingora, was banned.

Mr Zardari insisted that the army was committed to defeating the Taliban. ‘I think the casualties speak for that, the displacement speaks for that,’ he said.

He claimed that officers sympathetic to the militants had been purged. ‘I’m confident the army perceives the Taliban as much of a national threat as we do.’

He added: ‘You cannot fight this war only on the battle (field). You also have to fight it on the economic front — you have to offer something to the youth.’

Taliban got free hand under ANP govt: Musharraf

NEW YORK: Former president Pervez Musharraf has expressed the confidence that Pakistan army will prevail over the Taliban who have challenged the writ of the government, but said that ‘winning hearts and minds’ of people may be difficult.

Talking to some Pakistani reporters at a hotel here on Friday, Gen (retd) Musharraf rejected a suggestion that Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan had come to the fore during his watch.

‘This was the consequence of the Feb 18 election and the Taliban got strong then as they got a free hand under the new ANP government,’ he said. ‘In my time they were hiding,’ he claimed. However, he added, ‘I am convinced that our army will drive the enemies of the state away but we have to win the hearts and minds also.’

As to how long could such an operation last, he said it was difficult to predict. Asked about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets, Musharraf said they were ‘absolutely secure’, adding that people of Pakistan would never allow anyone to capture them.

When a reporter suggested that when he was president he did everything according to American wishes, Musharraf said: ‘I never bowed before anybody and did everything in Pakistan’s best interest.’

In reply to a charge that he was involved in the murder of Baloch leader Akbar Bugti and arrest of JSQM (Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz) leader Dr Safdar Saraki, he said: ‘I will not dignify your question with an answer.’

In an interview with CNN, the former president said he would run for office once the two-year restriction expired. According to him, President Zardari with an approval rating of 19 per cent did not have the support to fight Taliban.

‘If Pakistan is in trouble and if any Pakistani, myself included — if you can see that we can do something for it — well ... my life is for Pakistan,’ he told Fareed Zakaria on GPS.

Musharraf said he wished the government well. ‘But one is concerned about Pakistan, certainly,’ he said. ‘One does get concerned about where we are headed and what are we doing.’

Pakistan's northwest reels as army hunts Taliban

stan — Pakistan's northwest was on Sunday reeling from a wave of violence as the toll from a car bomb rose and the army hit Taliban hideouts in an offensive that has sent a million civilians fleeing.

The number killed in a devastating car bomb that hit the northwestern city of Peshawar on Saturday reached 12 after a teenage boy died overnight, a police official said, while 36 people have been reported wounded in the attack.
The blast ripped through a packed street, leaving severed body parts on the road near an ice cream shop and an Internet cafe.
Many of the tide of refugees fleeing a punishing three-week military offensive in swathes of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) had taken refuge from the bombardment in Peshawar, the provincial capital.
"One of the seriously injured of yesterday's blast died in the hospital at night," Peshawar police official Khan Abbas told AFP, adding that four children, two women and six men were killed in the car bombing.
Peshawar is the gateway to Pakistan's troubled tribal belt on the Afghan border, where the United States says Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists have carved out safe havens to plot new attacks on the West.
Under pressure from Washington as Taliban fighters advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad, Pakistan security forces began heavy offensives late last month in the Lower Dir, Buner and Swat districts.
Military officials claim that nearly 1,000 militants have been killed in the bombardment, although such tolls are impossible to independently verify and there is no data yet on civilians casualties in the battle-torn areas.
On Sunday, security officials who did not want to be named said forces were carrying out targeted strikes on Taliban bolt-holes in Swat and Lower Dir.
"Security forces are targeting militant hideouts and helicopter gunships are hovering in the air," said one security official.
"Helicopter gunships shelled militants' hideouts at Matta town (in Swat), the stronghold of the Taliban," another military official added.
A curfew remains in place in most of the areas beset by heavy fighting, leaving hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the conflict area, UN officials have said, without medical care, electricity, food or water.
The UN refugee agency said more than 1.1 million people have fled the fighting and registered with authorities since May 2, in a displacement that officials fear is the worst here since partition with India in 1947.
They join another 500,000 people who fled bouts of fighting in the northwest last year, where extremist Taliban militants have been battling to widen their area of control and impose a harsh brand of Islamic law.
"It is really the worst situation in Swat, the worst I have seen in my life. I have no words to explain it," said Salman Khan -- not his real name -- who arrived in Peshawar from Swat's main town Mingora on Saturday.
"My children are still crying and screaming. I lost my home, my business, my village," the 42-year-old said.
Also Sunday, the death toll from a suspected US missile strike in the northwest's semi-autonomous tribal region of North Waziristan near the Afghan border rose to 28, security officials said.
The United States has put Pakistan at the heart of the fight against Al-Qaeda, but Pakistan publicly opposes drone attacks, saying they violate its territorial sovereignty and deepen resentment among the populace.

ADP to be suspended if NWFP lacks fund for IDPs

PESHAWAR: The NWFP cabinet Saturday authorized the chief minister to suspend the Annual Development Programme (ADP) if funds given for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) fell short of their requirements.

The cabinet meeting, presided over by Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti, took stock of the ongoing military operation in Malakand division and the facilitation process of the displaced people from the affected areas.

The two-point agenda discussed during the meeting included the military action in the affected areas and the facilitation of the IDPs living in camps and off-camps.

Briefing journalists after the meeting, Hoti said that no stone would be left unturned in providing all facilities of life to the people displaced from areas in Lower Dir, Buner and Swat districts.

“I will suspend the coming ADP, minus health and education, if I felt that the provincial government is unable to cope with the requirements of the IDPs in the available funds,” said Hoti while asking the federal government and the international donors to inject more funds for the facilitation of the uprooted people.

According to the fresh figures collected by the provincial government, the number of total registered IDPs in various camps and off camps was 1,367,000 on Saturday.

The chief minister said the provincial cabinet expressed satisfaction over results of the operation in Malakand division so far. “Although no timeframe can be set in such actions, the provincial government requests its conclusion at the earliest possible time,” he added.

Hoti pointed out that peace in settled areas was dependent on peace and security in the tribal region. “There will be no peace in NWFP unless there is peace in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).”

He said there was no contact between the government and the Tanzim Nifaz Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) since the launching of the military operation in Swat.

To a question, the chief minister said that inquiry had been launched against the former commissioner of Malakand division Syed Muhammad Javed and any one found guilty of negligence of duty would be subjected to serious disciplinary action.

To help overcome the financial constraints of the displaced people, the chief minister announced payment of Rs25,000 to each family. In this way, a total amount of five billion rupees would be disbursed among the IDPs. In this connection, he appealed the federal government and the donors to contribute for the cash package for the IDPs.

He said a similar package would be announced for the uprooted families after their return following restoration of peace in their respective areas.

He requested the federal government to waive off at least the interest on loans taken from Agriculture Development Bank (ADP) or House Building Finance Corporation (HBFC) by people of the affected three districts.

To ensure exemplary administration after the restoration of peace in the affected districts, the chief minister said his government would depute the best of its officers in those areas. He said separate community halls for men and women at each IDP camp would be constructed so as the people could gather there in day time. He said additional covers would also be provided to have shade over the tents to reduce the heat.

Taliban getting money, arms from across the border: ISPR

ISLAMABAD Taliban militants are being provided money and armament from across the border by foreign agencies to destabilise Pakistan, while they are getting terrorists reinforcement from the countries bordering Afghanistan, said Inter-Services Public Relations Director General Major General Athar Abbas, here on Saturday.

In his regular briefing about re-dubbed operation "Rah-e-Raast" (previously known as Rah-e-Haq), General Abbas declined to blame India for Swat insurgency saying, "It is the subject of Foreign Office, which is having feedback from different ministries and I don't want to pass any comment on this issue."

Abbas told media that 27 militants of foreign origin have so far been killed in the fighting. Security forces during the operation carried out air and ground assaults against Taliban and killed 47 militants, while three security personnel were injured, Abbas told media.

He said that the operation is successfully under way in Swat, Shangla and Buner districts of Malakand Division while four militants have been arrested from Hayasirai and Shamozai. Security forces conducted search and destroy operation against terrorist hideouts in village Adai, Ramotai Gato Sar Banda and base of Banai Baba Ziarat.

"Main terrorist leader of Shangla sector, Zaman has been killed in Banai Baba Ziarat. While Sher Alam, another important terrorist leader from Malam Jabba was arrested in Shangla," he said, adding that in Mingora, another important terrorist commander Mukhtar alias Rashid Lala has been killed. Abbas said a militant den was destroyed in Shamozai area by targeting a house where militants were hiding.

"Security Forces are consolidating their positions in Udigram. Biadra Markaz, the stronghold of terrorists on Matta - Durushkhel road has been destroyed," DG ISPR said. Abbas said that intense exchange of fire took place between Security Forces at Makan Bagh, Grid Station, Airport, Ayub Bridge and Baniam Bridge.

To a question regarding the foreign help to Pakistan Army in execution of operation Rah-e-Raast, he said Pakistan Army is fully capable of executing the operation against militants and no foreign help was sought for carrying out the operation. Abbas showed journalists' video footage of militant hideouts and ammunition dumps destroyed by security forces during raids in Swat. "We have destroyed a full-fledged training camp in Peochar valley, where firing ranges, residences and ammunition dumps were destroyed," he added.

He said forces were getting closer to Mingora, the main town in the district of Swat, to check on militants trying to flee the area, where residents widely expect the military to launch an assault to retake control. Military spokesman said the Army has cleared the area from Khwazakhela to Shangla from militants and it is safe for residents of the area. "People of these areas, forced to live as Internally Displaced Persons in camps, might return to their homes," he added.

To a question about FM Radios being run by militants, Abbas said that militants were using 36 FM radio transmitters in Swat, however, they are able to continue their transmission only for 2-3 minutes as the military is capable to locate and jam their transmission.

To another question, ISPR chief said that it was impossible to confirm such death tolls independently, which would add up to more than 980 militants dead and there has been no official word on civilian casualties since the military launched its offensive last month.

Monitoring Desk adds: Gunship helicopters pounded militants' hideouts in Orakzai Agency, killing twelve people including a miscreant, Aaj TV reported. According to the channel, gunship helicopters fired shells on militants in Orakzai Agency, killing 12 people including a miscreant and injuring 15 others. Injured people were shifted to Hangu and nearby hospitals, the channel added.