Tuesday, July 14, 2009

At least 23 Taliban killed in clashes with local militias

At least 23 Taliban militants have been killed in fresh fighting, most of them in overnight clashes with Pakistani village militias, officials said on Tuesday. Islamabad is increasingly relying on local lashkar militias to help rout Taliban forces.
Fighting in Pakistan's lawless tribal belt killed at least 23 Taliban militants and destroyed an oil tanker supplying NATO forces posted across the border in Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday.

The deadliest clashes involved a village militia, officials said, reflecting the state's increasing reliance on local tribesmen to battle Islamist radicals allegedly plotting attacks in this region and in the West.

The worst violence occurred Monday and overnight in the village of Anbar in Mohmand district, 15 kilometres (nine miles) southwest of the Islamist hotspot of Khar, in neighbouring Bajaur district.

"According to reports received here, a lashkar (traditional tribal militia) killed 23 militants and several others were wounded," local administration official Asad Ali Khan told AFP.

Administration official Mohammad Rasul Khan said three villagers were missing after the clashes between a 150-strong village force and militants.

"The lashkar has fought very well and militants are now on the run," he said, adding that villagers had gone into the mountains to take on the rebels.

Islamist insurgents routinely escape into the mountains after gunfights in built-up areas, and authorities are frequently criticised for not mobilising adequate manpower into terrain where guerrillas can easily disappear.

Intelligence and security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to release information to the media, confirmed the fighting and the death toll.

In the infamous Khyber region, militants ambushed a tanker carrying fuel for NATO forces in Afghanistan and an ensuing gunfight killed two civilians and wounded three others, said an official with the Khyber regional administration, Rehan Gul Khattak.

The attack took place near the town of Landi Kotal on the main highway which links Pakistan to landlocked Afghanistan.

"Militants first fired a mortar on the oil tanker and then set it on fire. Meanwhile a gunfight broke out with paramilitary troops which left two civilians dead and three others wounded," Khattak said.

The ambush was staged by around 30 militants, who fled after the exchange of fire, he said. The highway was temporarily closed, but NATO supply convoys were halted even after the road re-opened, Khattak said.

Pakistani troops have led campaigns against Taliban militants in recent years, in a bid to counter a deadly Islamist backlash that has killed about 2,000 people in bomb attacks in the last two years.

Hundreds of Islamist fighters are believed to have fled Afghanistan into Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas to carve out safe havens after the US-led invasion toppled the hardline Taliban regime in Kabul in late 2001.

Pakistan is encouraging locals to organise lashkars against militants in several northwestern regions, where the country's traditional army, hampered by equipment shortages, has found it difficult to operate.

Security forces launched a huge operation against Islamist militants in Bajaur and Mohmand last August. In February, they said the area had been cleared after months of fierce fighting, but unrest has rumbled on.

Zardari to meet Karzai, Medvedev in Tajikistan

DUSHANBE: The leaders of Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan are scheduled to meet in the Tajik capital Dushanbe later this month in an effort to boost regional cooperation, the Tajik authorities said on Tuesday. Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, Emomali Rakhmon of Tajikistan, Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan are scheduled to meet on July 29 and 30 ‘for discussions of closer economic cooperation,’ said a Tajik foreign ministry spokesman. ‘Preparations for the meeting of the leaders are under way. The meeting’s main theme is cooperation in energy, communications and transportation,’ said the spokesman Davlat Nazriyev, adding that regional security might also be discussed. The get-together would come on the heels of a three-party meeting between Medvedev, Karzai and Zardari last month in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where the men pledged to join efforts in the fight against terror and expand economic cooperation. Russia and Tajikistan have traditionally had strong ties since the fall of the Soviet Union and the Kremlin has also been keen to increase its role as a mediator in the region. Medvedev will travel to Tajikistan to launch the Sangtuda-1 hydro plant, controlled and operated by Russia, while Zardari was scheduled to arrive in Dushanbe on an official visit on the eve of the four-party meeting. ‘Tajikistan boasts rich hydro energy resources and during the meeting the leaders will pay special attention to the Central Asia South Asia electricity transmission project,’ said Nazriyev. The multimillion dollar project aims to supply surplus power from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama Throws a Wobbly First Pitch

ST. LOUIS — After President Obama was introduced at the All-Star Game on Tuesday night, he trotted out of the first-base dugout at Busch Stadium wearing a black White Sox jacket. Obama stopped before throwing the ceremonial first pitch to shake hands with Stan Musial, a Hall of Famer for the St. Louis Cardinals, who was sitting in a red golf cart.

Once Obama made it to the mound, he eased into his motion and softly floated a pitch to Albert Pujols. Pujols, the current Cardinals icon, reached in front of home plate to catch Obama’s wobbly pitch. The fans cheered for Obama, who then hugged Pujols halfway between the mound and the plate.

Besides Musial, the other five living Cardinals who are in the Hall of Fame were behind the plate to welcome Obama. Lou Brock, one of the retired players, saluted Obama, who saluted back. Obama waved to the fans several times as he retreated from the field through the dugout.

On Monday, Pujols said he would be emotional about standing 60 feet 6 inches from Obama. “Obviously, it’s an honor to catch the first pitch from the president,” Pujols said. “He’s our leader.”

When Obama visited the National League clubhouse before the game, he hugged Pujols. Obama also spoke with Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard, whose lockers were side by side.

After Air Force One landed in St. Louis at 5:19 p.m, Obama, dressed in jeans, sneakers, a white shirt and a black jacket, descended the stairs with the Hall of Famer Willie Mays.

Mays, who wore a Giants cap while he traveled here from Detroit as a guest of Obama, offered the president one snippet of advice.

“I’m telling him follow through,” Mays said. “He’s going to do fine, I guarantee you. He’ll be fine. I just want to make sure he follows through.”

Obama was scheduled to sit with Hank Aaron, another Hall of Famer, in a private box at Busch Stadium.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said the president had “been throwing a little bit” with Reggie Love, his aide and a former basketball player at Duke. Gibbs noted that Obama, an ardent White Sox fan, last threw out the first pitch at a game during the 2005 American League Championship Series. The White Sox went on to win the World Series title that season.

Commissioner Bud Selig said he sent Obama a letter inviting him to become the first sitting president since Gerald Ford in 1978 to throw out the first pitch at an All-Star Game. Selig said the White House responded in less than 24 hours and that Obama was “really happy to” attend the game.

“No matter what one thinks politically, right or left or whatever, it’s a big thing,” Selig said. “The players will enjoy it, the fans will enjoy it. It’s another test to the meaning of this sport.”

Sotomayor denies bias in ‘wise Latina’ remark

WASHINGTON - Sonia Sotomayor pushed back vigorously Tuesday against Republican charges that she would bring bias and a liberal agenda to her seat as the first Hispanic woman on the Supreme Court, insisting repeatedly she would be impartial as GOP senators tried to undercut her with her own words from past speeches.

Obama says 'all of us want' effective Afghan strategy

WASHINGTON :President Barack Obama said on Tuesday 'all of us want an effective exit strategy from Afghanistan' in which Afghan authorities are able to take more responsibilities.

Obama made the comment after talks with Netherlands Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende that centered on the current situation in Afghanistan as well as the global economy and climate change.

"All of us want to see an effective exit strategy where increasingly the Afghan army, Afghan police, Afghan courts, Afghan government are taking more responsibility for their own security," Obama said.

Around 4,000 US Marines and hundreds of Nato and Afghan forces are taking part in an offensive in various parts of Helmand province against Taliban.

The operation comes ahead of next month's presidential election, which is crucial both for Kabul and for a US administration that has identified Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan as its top foreign policy priority.

"If we can get through a successful election in September and we continue to apply the training approach to the Afghan security forces and we combine that with a much more effective approach to economic development inside Afghanistan, then my hope is that we will be able to begin transitioning into a different phasee in Afghanistan," Obama said.

Refugees From Region in Pakistan Trickling Home

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Hundreds of people who fled a military offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley began trickling back home on Monday after the Pakistani government announced the first stage of a three-part plan to return them.

They represented a tiny fraction of the nearly two million refugees who have been displaced by the fighting in Swat, which started after the collapse of a February peace deal that handed the Taliban effective control of the district, and a military campaign to uproot the militants began. The refugees, tens of thousands of whom have spent months in government camps, are eager to return home, but many have expressed trepidation about their safety.

Buses and trucks provided by the government began shuttling hundreds of families to Swat on Monday from three camps in the Mardan and Charsadda districts, south of the valley.

Mohammad Shumon Alam, the spokesman in Pakistan for the aid agency Oxfam, said many families were sending one or two people as scouts to check the area and their homes before putting everyone, including children, into vehicles to return.

“It’s not a big wave,” Mr. Alam said. “It’s limited. People want to go back, but they are extremely skeptical and concerned.”

The government of North-West Frontier Province announced over the weekend that 23,040 displaced families would receive assistance returning to Swat in three phases. The provincial government plans to complete the process in two weeks.

Ahmad Rajwana, the chief coordinator of refugee camps for the government of the North-West Frontier Province in the Swabi district, said 800 families were scheduled to return to Bari Kot in Swat on Tuesday as part of the first stage.

“To be honest, people in the camps wanted to go back for a long time,” Mr. Rajwana said of the mood of the displaced people in the camps. “The government is not forcing them. The refugees have signed a declaration that they are not being forcibly returned.”

Two weeks ago, about 4,000 refugees voluntarily left the Chota Lahore camp in Swabi, he said.

Ishaq Khan, a resident of Saidu Sharif, a town in Swat, said that the military had divided the return by area, with those whose homes were closer to the camps returning first. Mr. Khan, a graphic designer, said he was scheduled to depart on Friday.

“They said it was quiet, no shooting, no violence,” he said by telephone from Rawalpindi, where he has been living since early May, citing what others who had returned on Monday were finding. Early accounts of those who returned today were cautiously good, he said, but added that he was glad that he was scheduled to return later to be able hear the experience of others first.

The camps have been shrouded in stifling summer heat, and some aid agency officials have warned that keeping them in camps longer than absolutely necessary would only breed resentment of the government.

Elsewhere, at least nine people, including seven children, were killed when a blast ripped through a house in a farming village in the southern part of Punjab Province, police officials said. At least 60 people were injured in the explosion, which occurred in the house of a member of an outlawed militant group who had stored explosives, officials said. The blast destroyed half of a village near the town of Mian Channu in the Khanewal district, residents reached by telephone said.

The police said that the house where the explosion occurred belonged to Riaz Kumboh, who, according to local residents and the police, had set up a private religious school and had hidden explosives.

He belonged to a banned militant organization, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and had received militant training from Afghanistan, a resident said.

Police officials said that Mr. Kumboh had hidden explosives in the house. What set off the blast remained unclear.

“The blast was so loud that it was heard over a distance of six miles,” Ghulam Jilani, 36, a resident of Mian Channu, said by telephone. “Half of the village is destroyed. Most of the houses were made of mud and bricks.”

Rescue teams from nearby towns headed to the village after the blast. Local television news networks broadcast images showing people rummaging through the rubble to pull out the injured.

The blast raised concerns about the ease and ability of the militants to operate quietly and unnoticed in the rural areas of southern part of Punjab. Militant groups in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, have joined forces with the Taliban in the country’s west, and have been jointly conducting attacks in major cities, a trend that has worried Pakistani authorities.

But Muhammad Aslam Bodla, an opposition politician and member of Parliament from Khanewal, said in a telephone interview that Mian Channu was a peaceful town not known for any extremist or militant activity. “The blast today is the first incident of its kind in Mian Channu,” he said.

Taliban defeated in Swat, claims interior minister

ISLAMABAD: Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said that militants in Swat have been defeated and security forces were in control of the region, several militant commanders had been killed and Swat Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah injured.

Talking to reporters after launching the FM radio channel of Islamabad traffic police, he said the militants had nefarious designs, but their activities were being closely watched.

Mr Malik said Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and other provincial governments were trying their best to curb terrorists.

He said that a man named Zubair, a suspect in the attack on Sri Lankan cricket team belonged to Dera Ghazi Khan but he had and his accomplices had been traced in Makeen area of Waziristan.

Some arrests had also been made in Buner and Rawalpindi division. ‘All roads lead to South Waziristan,’ he added.

Earlier, addressing the ceremony, Mr Malik said the enemies had been flushed out of Swat, but a few pockets of militants existed in other areas of the Frontier province.

He said that 31 people, among them would-be suicide bombers, their handlers and a mastermind, had been arrested in Islamabad and six suicide attacks had been averted. He said the suspects were on a mission to attack important installations.

The minister said conspiracies against Pakistan had been foiled because of national unity and bravery of the armed forces and law-enforcement agencies.

He said international conspiracies to weaken the country had been hatched 30 years ago.

‘The cancer of terrorism has affected our economy and law and order, but we are determined as a nation to root out the menace,’ he added.

Meanwhile, police announced on Monday to have arrested two terrorists who were allegedly involved in four suicides attacks and were planning more terrorist activities in the capital.

Mohammad Ovais, 34, of Adyala Road, and Obaidullah Khan, 30, of Westridge, were picked up from Sector I-11 on July 5 by a joint team of city police and intelligence agencies.

According to sources, they were traced when they contacted another alleged terrorist, Fidaullah, in Adyala jail and delivered Rs100,000 and a mobile phone to him.

They and their accomplices were involved in planning suicide attacks on personnel of the special branch on March 23 and Frontier Constabulary on April 4. There was also information about a suicide attack on a lawyers’ rally.

The alleged terrorists had close links with militants of Miramshah, Batagram and Buner and were trained in operating modern weapons and making explosive devices.

They were also involved in recruiting teenagers for suicide attacks on security forces.

According to the sources, the accused have confessed to having sent over a dozen youths to militant training camps from Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Azad Kashmir.

The suspects also had links with one Shoaib of Lahore who arranged funds for terrorist activities.

Ovais, hailing from Poonch district, and Obaidullah of Attock worked for one Tipu who was affiliated with a militant group named Ghazi Force. Ovais had earlier received militant training as a member of Harkatul Mujahideen.

Deputy Inspector General of Police (Operation) Bani Amin said Ovais was an expert in electronics and communication technology and he had got a diploma in navigation from Karachi, but he drove a taxi in the twin cities.

He also worked for the banned Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan to scan communication of security forces.

Obaidullah had a diploma in associate engineering and taught in a computer college in G-9/3.

The DIG said that police had arrested dozens of people allegedly affiliated with the Ghazi Force, Baitullah Meshud’s TTP, Buner group, Momin Khan group, Ilyas Kashmiri group and Al Qaeda.

Both the accused were handed over to Aabpara police on Monday for interrogation in connection with suicide attacks in Aapbara Market in July 2007 and at special branch headquarters on March 23 this year.