Thursday, July 1, 2010

Punjab govt had intelligence on attack threat

LAHORE: Well-placed sources have confirmed that the Ministry of Interior had informed the authorities concerned in the Punjab government two days ago about the impending terrorist threat in Lahore, Daily Times has learnt. Following the information relayed by the Interior Ministry, sources said, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif also called an important meeting of high-level officials to review the security arrangements in place in Punjab. Moreover, a number of intelligence agencies also communicated to the authorities concerned that they had received reliable intelligence information about terrorists planning to carry out attacks in Punjab, targeting Lahore in particular, the sources added.

41 dead in suicide bombings in Pakistan

Three suicide bombers struck a Sufi shrine in Pakistan's eastern city of Lahore on Thursday, killing at least 41 people and wounding more than 120, officials said, the second major attack in the city in a month. Hundreds of devotees were visiting the marble shrine of the 11th century Persian Sufi saint, Syed Ali Hajwairi, commonly known as Data Gunj Bakhsh, in the heart of the city when the attacks occurred. Muslims in Pakistan visit shrines and mosques in large numbers on Thursday nights and Friday. "Dead bodies are scattered all over the courtyard of the shrine," Reuters photographer Mohsin Raza said from the scene. "There is blood everywhere. Two of the dead were my friends. It's very horrifying," he said in a choked voice. One of the attackers blew himself up at the gate of the sprawling, marble shrine while two other attacks took place in the basement of the shrine where people were washing for prayers. Sajjad Bhutta, a top city administrator, said at least 41 people were killed and 122 wounded. CHAOS Mian Rauf, a witness, said devotees were settling down inside the mausoleum and the courtyard for final prayers when the attacks happened. "First there were three small blasts. People got panicky and started running. But within moments there were big explosions," he said. "It was all chaos. People were screaming for help and running here and there. It was all smoke. Nothing could be seen and only cries could be heard." Taliban militants generally abhor the Sufi strand of Islam and disapprove of visiting shrines, which is popular with many Pakistanis. Militants linked to al Qaeda and Taliban have unleashed a wave of attacks across Pakistan in revenge for the military offensives in their bastions in the northwest of the country near the Afghan border. While most of the reprisal militant attacks have taken place in the northwest, militants have stepped up attacks in the heartland of the country, mainly the central province of Punjab, in recent months. Lahore is the capital of Punjab. Officials have blamed attacks in the province on the "Punjabi Taliban," a term used for the militants drawn from Punjab who have joined ranks with Taliban in the northwest. More than 80 people were killed in twin attacks on the mosques of the minority Ahmadi sect in May. The shrine at Data Darbar is one of the most famous in Pakistan, attracting hundreds of devotees every night, with Thursdays being the most popular nights. The complex includes a mosque and a police station in the basement. Farahnaz Ispahani, spokeswoman for President Asif Ali Zardari, condemned the attack: "This sickening poison of extremism will be driven out of our nation and we will not be cowed." Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said the attack on the shrine showed that "terrorists have no consideration for any religion, faith and belief."

U.S. commander restricts Humvee use in Afghanistan

The once-ubiquitous Humvee may become a rare sight in some parts of Afghanistan following a decision by the senior U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan to restrict the use of the vehicles in the field. Maj. Gen. John Campbell, commander of Joint Task Force-101, ordered this week that the use of Humvee vehicles outside a military base would have to specifically be approved by a colonel -- one of the most senior field grade positions in the military. Prior to this, the use of High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV, or Humvee) had to be approved by a lower-ranking officer, according to Task Force spokesman Maj. Patrick Seiber. Seiber said the decision was not specifically in reaction to a number of deadly IED attacks on troops in recent weeks, but is part of trying to improve protection for the force. The Humvee is heavily armored, but its flat bottom and low-to-the-ground profile has made it particularly vulnerable to attacks using improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. In recent years, the military has fielded a new series of armored vehicles with V-shaped hulls to deflect the blast of roadside bombs, but even some of those have been destroyed in large-scale attacks. Campbell's decision comes amid the release of figures showing that June has been the deadliest month of the war for the coalition across Afghanistan, with 101 coalition troops killed and about 400 U.S. troops wounded. Casualties due to IED attacks continue to skyrocket. The Pentagon reports that in May 2010, the latest data available, the number of coalition forces -- including Afghans -- that were killed or wounded by IED attacks was 284, more than double the 104 killed or wounded in the same month last year. The number of overall IED attacks reached 1,128, compared to 513 in May 2009. The Pentagon statistics on IEDs include Afghan troop casualties because those units are suffering very high attacks rates, according to the Pentagon.

Russian spy confesses

Federal prosecutors say one of the suspects in an alleged Russian spy ring has allegedly admitted he was a spy.

Obama pushes immigration reform

President Obama called for immigration reform legislation that would include a pathway to citizenship for the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants

Pakistan Sufi Shrine Bombing Kills 35, Injures 175 in Lahore

At least two suicide bombers attacked a popular Muslim shrine in the Pakistani city of Lahore late Thursday night, killing 35 people and wounding 175 others, the city's top official said. The attackers struck as thousands of people were visiting the Data Darbar shrine, where a famous Sufi saint is buried. Islamic extremists consider Sufis to be heretics and have often targeted them in attacks. The first suicide bomber detonated his explosives in a large underground room where visitors sleep and wash themselves before praying, said Khusro Pervez, the top government official in Lahore. Minutes later, a second bomber detonated his explosives in a large courtyard upstairs as people tried to flee the first attack, he said. The blasts ripped concrete from the walls, twisted metal gates and left wires hanging from the ceiling, television footage showed. Blood stained the shrine's white marble floor. Police are still investigating the source of a third blast that followed the two suicide bombers. The heads of the two bombers have been found, said Pervez. At least 25 of those wounded in the attacks are in critical condition, said Pervez. Demonstrators gathered outside the shrine in the hours after the attack, protesting the security lapse that allowed the attacks to occur. Police fired into the air and threw rocks to disperse the protesters. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombings — the latest in a wave of deadly attacks to hit the country, where security forces are battling Pakistani Taliban in its lawless regions near the border with Afghanistan. Lahore is Pakistan's second-largest city and capital of its most prosperous province, Punjab. It is a key political, military, and cultural center and has been the scene of some of the most spectacular attacks in the country over the past year. On May 28, gunmen and a suicide squad lobbed grenades and sprayed bullets in attacks on two mosques in the eastern city packed with worshippers from the minority Ahmadi sect. At least 93 people were killed and dozens wounded. The government has been criticized for lacking the will to crack down on militants in Punjab, many of whom are part of now-banned groups started with government support in the 1980s and '90s to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and pressure archenemy India. Many of these groups have formed links with the Pakistani Taliban, which has recruited militants to carry out attacks in parts of Pakistan far from its sanctuary in the northwest near Afghanistan. One of the most high-profile attacks in Lahore came in March 2009, when militants armed with rocket launchers, hand grenades and assault rifles attacked Sri Lanka's cricket team and security detail, killing six police and a driver and wounding seven players and a coach. That assault led to the suspension of international cricket matches in Pakistan. In October 2009, teams of gunmen attacked three security facilities in Lahore, leaving 28 dead. In December 2009, two bombs killed 48 at a market in the city.

Afghan government says donor nations must share blame for corruption, cash trafficking

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his finance minister pushed back Wednesday against allegations of government corruption, saying that their international partners must shoulder some of the blame for waste, graft and the billions of dollars streaming out of the country. Corruption and a weak court system have undermined public trust in Karzai's government. The Obama administration and other donor nations, who need Karzai to be perceived as a credible partner, are pressing him to make reforms. Afghan government officials, however, have become increasingly vocal in condemning the way foreign nations award contracts, which sometimes end up in the hands of politicians and powerbrokers. Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal said the bulk of the $4 billion in cash that has been flown out of the nation in the past three and a half years is from huge contracts that the international community has given to large Afghan and foreign companies. Zakhilwal also squared off against U.S. Representative Nita Lowey, who threatened this week to block billions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan until she was convinced that "U.S. taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords and terrorists." He said Lowey, a Democrat from New York and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the State Department's budget, was wrong to suggest that the Afghan government officials had misused or pocketed donor funds."She is not accurate on the fact to blame the Afghan government for it because it had nothing to do with it," Zakhilwal said, calling for a joint investigation with international partners into cash trafficking. Zakhilwal, who is backed by the West, has acknowledged that there is graft and corruption in the Afghan government, especially in the delivery of government services. But he stressed that there are few, if any, examples of mismanagement of donors' money by the Afghan government, which controls only a small percentage of the funds. His ministry says that since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, 77 percent of the $29 billion in international aid spent in Afghanistan has been disbursed on projects with little or no input from Afghan government officials. "To relate the cash trafficking with corruption in the government of Afghanistan is baseless," Zakhilwal said. "We strongly believe that the bulk of this money is from the huge contracts that our international partners have given out directly to big companies, particularly private security companies, without any involvement from the Afghan government." Corruption was a topic of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's brief visit to Afghanistan. A statement released by Karzai's office said that the president complained to Holder in a meeting at the presidential palace that awarding contracts to government officials, political figures and parliamentarians was helping fuel the "negative phenomenon" of corruption in Afghanistan. Karzai said Holder indicated that the U.S. government planned to review and reform the contract process in Afghanistan. "Giving contracts to such figures is a matter of concern for the Afghan government," the statement said. Karzai also complained that contracts were being awarded to private security firms, which he said undermined efforts to build a strong national army and police force. America's top prosecutor said the U.S. commitment to help Afghanistan create a fair court system and fight terrorism, corruption and drug trafficking would outlast any foreign military presence in the country. He encouraged Karzai to continue efforts to improve governance and law enforcement "as much work remains to be done." In his meeting at the palace, Holder also met with Afghan Attorney General Mohammad Ishaq Aloko who on Tuesday defended himself against allegations that he's being pressured not to pursue cases against powerful figures. Aloko also accused U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry of overstepping his diplomatic authority by suggesting that he step down as attorney general if he wasn't going to charge an Afghan banker in a corruption case. Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for Eikenberry, did not comment on the conversation, saying the ambassador's discussions with Afghan officials were private.

1.3 million unemployed won't get benefits restored

WASHINGTON — More than 1.3 million laid-off workers won't get their unemployment benefits reinstated before Congress goes on a weeklong vacation for Independence Day. An additional 200,000 people who have been without a job for at least six months stand to lose their benefits each week, unless Congress acts. For the third time in as many weeks, Republicans in the Senate successfully filibustered a bill Wednesday night that would have continued unemployment checks to people who have been laid off for long stretches. The House is slated to vote on a similar measure Thursday, though the Senate's action renders the vote a futile gesture as Congress prepares to depart Washington for its holiday recess. A little more than 1.3 million people have already lost benefits since the last extension ran out at the end of May. "It is beyond disappointing that Republicans continue to stand almost lockstep against assistance for out-of-work Americans," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. The measure, however, stands a better chance of passing after a replacement is seated for Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., who died Monday. The measure fell two votes short of the 60 needed to advance Wednesday night, but only because Reid, a supporter of the bill, voted "nay" to take a procedural step that would allow for a revote. "We will vote on this measure again once there is a replacement named for the late Sen. Byrd," Reid said. Byrd's successor will be named by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat. Unable to deliver more stimulus spending for President Barack Obama, Democrats in Congress had hoped to at least restore the jobless benefits. Obama has urged lawmakers to spend about $50 billion to help states pay for Medicaid programs and to avoid teacher layoffs, but Democrats in Congress have been unable to come up with the votes. Many Democrats see state aid and unemployment benefits as insurance against the economy sliding back into recession. However, many Republicans and some Democrats worry about adding to the growing national debt. Some Republicans offered to support the unemployment bill if it was paid for with unspent money from last year's massive economic recovery package. Democrats rejected the offer, saying the money was needed for jobs programs. "The only reason the unemployment extension hasn't passed is because Democrats simply refuse to pass a bill that doesn't add to the debt," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said, "My concern is that the Democrats are more interested in having this issue to demagogue for political gamesmanship than they are in simply passing the benefits extension." The unemployment bill would have provided up to a total of 99 weekly unemployment checks averaging $335 to people whose 26 weeks of state-paid benefits have run out. The benefits would be available through the end of November, at a cost of $33.9 billion. The money would be borrowed, adding to the budget deficit.