Sunday, August 15, 2010

Afghanistan says finds 1.8 billion barrel oilfield

Afghanistan said on Sunday it had discovered an oilfield with an estimated 1.8 billion barrels in the north of the war-ravaged country, where U.S. and other foreign forces are trying to tame a Taliban-led insurgency.

The discovery of the basin between northern Balkh and Shiberghan provinces was made after a survey conducted by Afghan and international geologists, said Jawad Omar, a spokesman for the ministry of mines.

"I do not know its price in the market. But the initial survey says there are 1.8 billion barrels of oil and I think there will be more than what it is estimated," he told Reuters.

Various estimates of Afghanistan's hidden wealth have been made in recent years, but the challenge of exploiting the resources in a country at war and with little mining infrastructure is daunting for most investors.

Omar gave no more details on how the estimates were made but said the country will offer the reserves for development along with other minerals in the coming months.

Afghanistan hopes that untapped mineral deposits valued at $3 trillion could help reduce the need to rely on Western cash for bankrolling its impoverished economy and for its soldiers to maintain security when foreign troops draw down numbers.

But ravaged by three decades of foreign interventions and civil war, the central government now faces the Taliban insurgency and relies on foreign forces for control of many parts of the vast Central Asian country.

The U.S. Department of Defense estimated earlier this year that Afghanistan's mineral resources could top $1 trillion, but experts say the fragile security situation could delay seeing the benefits of this wealth for years.

Omar said an earlier plan for the tender of a 1.6 billion barrel Afghan-Tajik oil block in early 2011 was still on track.

He said Afghanistan will retender by year-end a deposit of iron of 1.8 billion tonnes it had scrapped earlier this year due to the global recession and changes in the world markets.

The untapped mineral resources include iron ore, copper, lithium, oil gas and gems which Afghanistan hopes to put for developing in coming years despite rising insecurity in recent years, the bloodiest period since U.S.-led troops ousted the Taliban in 2001.

China's top integrated copper producer, Jiangxi Copper Co and China Metallurgical Group Corp, in 2007 became the first major investor in Afghanistan.

They are involved in the exploration of the vast multi-billion dollar Aynak Copper Mine to the south of Kabul. Omar said the actual exploration of the mine will start after three years.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon urges help for Pakistan flood

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged the world to speed up aid to Pakistan after devastating floods which the government says have affected 20 million people.
Mr Ban is in Pakistan to visit PM Yusuf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari, whose handling of the crisis has been widely criticised.
The risk of epidemics in flood-hit areas is now seen as a serious threat.
On Saturday, the UN confirmed at least one case of cholera among the victims. "I'm here also to urge the world community to speed up their assistance to the Pakistani people," Mr Ban told reporters as he arrived.
"We will try to mobilise all necessary assistance and remember that the whole world is behind the people of Pakistan in this time of trial", he said, adding he would report back to the UN General Assembly first thing this week.
Despite the scale of the disaster, Pakistan officials have expressed concern about the international community's response.
On Saturday, Pakistan's UN envoy Zamir Akram told the BBC that the immensity of the devastation was only now being recognised, and that so far there had not been enough help.
The UN on Wednesday launched a $459m (£294m) appeal for emergency Aid, but says billions will be needed in the long term.The US is at the forefront of the relief effort, having donated at least $70m to the country, which is a key regional ally in fighting terrorism.
The US has also sent military helicopters to rescue stranded people and drop off food and water.
Pakistan's government itself has been dogged by accusations that it has been slow to respond to the crisis, and Mr Zardari has been criticised for not cutting short a trip to Europe as the crisis unfolded.
Flood levels are expected to surge even higher along parts of the already dangerously swollen Indus river, with disaster officials saying "major peaks" were expected next week in Punjab and Sindh provinces.
On Saturday, Mr Gilani said 20 million people had been affected by the country's floods, a much higher estimate than the UN's 14 million.
"Unfortunately, the recent unprecedented torrential rains and devastating floods have made more than 20 million people homeless, destroyed standing crops and food... worth billions of dollars, washed away bridges, roads, communication and energy networks," he said.
There were still flood victims to be reached, but the government was leaving no stone unturned, he said.

The UN had previously said the region's worst flooding in 80 years had affected 14 million out of Pakistan's 180 million population and killed 1,600 people.

Afghan attack survivor tells story...

One of the gunmen who killed 10 charitable health workers in northern Afghanistan hitched a ride with the medical team shortly before the murders, the sole survivor of the attack.

"God was good to me," the team's surviving driver, Safiullah, said in an interview punctuated by long pauses and tears for his slain colleagues.

On Aug. 5, the day of the attack, the medical team stopped to give three men a lift — a common courtesy in the rugged, remote area. Soon after, 10 members of the International Assistance Mission — six Americans, three Afghans, one German and a Briton — lay dead.

It was a tragic finale to the team's more than two-week mission covering about 100 miles (160 kilometers) — much of it on foot and horseback — through the Hindu Kush mountains, giving vision and other medical care to impoverished villagers in Nuristan province.

Several times during the interview, 28-year-old Safiullah, clad in jeans and a dark green shirt, stopped to collect himself or wipe away tears that welled up in his eyes. He recounted how the team was rushed by gunmen shouting "Satellite! Satellite!" — a demand to surrender their phones. He explained how the attackers spared his life, then forced him to walk for hours through a forest before releasing him.

Safiullah, seated on gold cushions propped up on red carpeting at his home in Kabul, said the team picked up three pedestrians on their return trip back to Kabul. They climbed atop one of the three four-wheeled drive vehicles. After the team was stopped by a swollen river, two of the men went on their way. The third man "quickly disappeared," Safiullah said in his first media interview since he was released by Afghan authorities this week.

Team leader Dr. Tom Little, an optometrist from Delmar, New York, and another team member waded into the river with long sticks to find a shallow place for the vehicles to safely cross, he said. After successfully crossing, the team stopped to ready themselves for their long trip back through Badakhshan province and onto the Afghan capital.

Then came the attack.

Among the 10 gunmen was the third pedestrian who had a patchy beard, Safiullah said, touching three parts of his own face to describe the only places where the man's facial hair grew.

One gunman shot Little after hitting him in the head with the back of an AK-47 rifle. Another threw a grenade at one of the vehicles, killing two female members of the team who were hiding inside. Then they shot the team's Afghan cook, who had used luggage to barricade himself under the car that was attacked and burned, Safiullah said.

The attackers then murdered the rest of the group — except Safiullah, who raised his arms in the air and recited verses from the Islamic holy book Quran as he begged the gunmen for his life.

Safiullah speculated the gunmen might have shot the team's Afghan cook, who was lying under the vehicle because they thought he might have had a satellite phone. Safiullah said they might have killed a second Afghan, a guard employed at International Assistance Mission since 2007, because he was wearing a head scarf wrapped in a style that made him look like a bodyguard.

After the killings, the gunmen loaded Safiullah with weapons and luggage and took him with them on a seven- or eight-hour walk through a forest.

The attackers took his wedding ring and $50 in cash from his pocket, but Safiullah said the gunmen were not local thieves.

"They had made a plan," Safiullah said. "It was a very organized group. They had leadership. They were well-organized. They were militants."

Safiullah said he believed the commander — a man he described as a "tyrant with a cruel face" — was Pakistani because he yelled "Jaldee! Jaldee!" — a word used in several regional languages that means "hurry up." It is more commonly used in Pakistan and India than Afghanistan.

Safiullah said he believed the rest of the gunmen were from Nuristan province because while they understood Dari and Pashto, the two main languages spoken in Afghanistan, they conversed in Pashaye, a local dialect used only in parts of the northeast corner of the nation where the attack occurred.

He said the gunmen were physically fit. He recalled that one, a tall pale-faced man, wore commando-style garb. Another, he said, was clad in yellow Afghan-style clothing.

"If it's 100 years later and I see them, I'll know them," he said.

Were the attackers linked with the Taliban, which claimed responsibility, or with the Hizb-i-Islami group that operates in the area under the leadership of warlord and former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar?

"What is different between Hizb-i-Islami and the Taliban?" he asked. "Both are killers."

Asked if planned to go back to work for the mission, Safiullah paused in silence and struggled to answer.

Safiullah's father, Mohammad Rahim, who worked for International Assistance Mission in the past and knew Little for 30 years, said Little was the foundation of the Christian organization. "It will take a while for IAM to stand on its feet," he said.

Safiullah, who lives in a neighborhood where goats mingle with schoolchildren as they head home from class, said he knows he needs work, but confessed he wasn't sleeping at night. He said he asked police investigators not to release videotape of his questioning because he feared for his life.

"Psychologically, I am not well," he said, lowering his eyes.

"My concern is about my life," he said, adding he planned to leave Kabul at least temporarily to try to get over the ordeal. "I'm not feeling safe."

During his trek with the gunmen, the group began walking toward a flashing light, he said. There, they met up with another group that seemed to know the attackers. They asked Safiullah if he was a Muslim, his father's name, how many children he had and why he worked for foreigners.

"I have children and have to feed my family," said Safiullah, who has a wife, three sons and one daughter.

Before they let him go, the gunmen warned Safiullah to never work again for foreigners, the Afghan government or join the Afghan National Army.

One of the gunmen kicked him so hard that he fell down. Even though they told him to leave, Safiullah said he feared they would hunt him down and kill him. Still, he took off running in shoes with worn soles. Safiullah said he was exhausted from the ordeal and had not eaten in two days. He rested by a large rock and then met up with a shepherd. The older man, who let Safiullah briefly ride on a donkey, took him to his house in Naw village.

By then, Afghan authorities were investigating the crime. Police came to the village and took him back to the scene of the killings.

Safiullah said he helped police load the bodies into the two four-wheeled drive vehicles that still could be driven.

Flooding forced the party to spend the night in another village before they could escort the bodies to Kuran Wa Munjan district of Nuristan province where they were flown by helicopter back to Kabul, Safiullah said.

"In the history of my life," he said. "I will never forget this."
The Associated Press

Afghan Refugees at Risk in Flood Stricken Pakistan

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says Afghan refugees who are living in flood-stricken Pakistan are among the most vulnerable victims.

U.S. helicopters arrive in Pakistan

Two U.S. Navy helicopters arrived in Pakistan, as part of the U.S. assistance to Pakistan's flood relief effort, the U.S. State Department said.

The two Navy MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters are part of the 19 helicopters urgently ordered to Pakistan on Wednesday by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the State Department said in a statement, adding the remaining aircraft will arrive over the next few days.

The U.S. assistance to the flood-affected areas of Pakistan has totaled 76 million U.S. dollars, the State Department said on Thursday.

Washington is wooing Pakistan's support to salvage its war efforts in Afghanistan, including holding the first bilateral strategic dialogue in March and providing attractive aid packages to Islamabad.

Impact of Pakistan floods

The most serious floods in Pakistan in decades will compound economic and political problems for the nuclear-armed US ally.

Following are some scenarios for what might unfold in coming weeks.

Political Outlook: The government is in no immediate danger of being brought down. The ruling coalition, led by President Asif Ali Zardari's party, has a comfortable majority in parliament and the military, which unlike the government is seen to have responded effectively to the disaster, is not going to stage a coup. But anger with a government already unpopular is likely to intensify. The economic impact of the floods will be severe and food shortages and rising prices could spark protests. The opposition, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has been critical of the government but has not called street protests.

Analysts say the opposition is content to let the government struggle but opposition leaders could come under pressure from their rank and file to take advantage of growing discontent to go on the offensive. A well-organized opposition taking the lead of popular protests over prices and food shortages could be explosive. In a worst-case scenario, the military might feel compelled to step in if protests got out of hand. But analysts say the opposition is loathe to create the conditions which would precipitate military intervention, which would block its bid to gain power through a general election, due by 2013.

ECONOMIC PROSPECTS: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned of major economic harm and the Finance Ministry said the country would miss this year's 4.5 percent gross domestic product growth target though it was not clear by how much. Growth was 4.1 percent last year. Apart from damage to people's homes, the floods have caused extensive damage to roads, bridges and irrigation works. The United Nations has said long-term rehabilitation costs would run into the billions of dollars. Of most concern is damage to agriculture, the mainstay of the economy. About 500,000 tonnes of wheat stocked with farmers has been lost. Sugar output will also be hit by a similar amount, according to initial estimates. Up to 2 million bales of cotton, out of targetted output of 14 million bales, had been lost, industry officials said. That will mean the textile sector, which accounts for about 60 percent of exports, will have to import more cotton to feed mills. With higher transport costs and food shortages, inflation, and the public anger that will spark, is a major worry. The consumer price index came in at 12.34 year-on-year in July and will head higher.

The government has already been struggling to meet an IMF target for a fiscal deficit 4 percent of gross domestic product this year. The flood crisis will mean more strain. One analyst said he expected a fiscal deficit of 8 percent this year. If that is financed by borrowing from the central bank, inflation will be pushed up further.

The government will come under domestic pressure to slide on IMF requirements under its $11.3 billion loan programme.

Moves to cut subsidies, to increase taxes, including introduce a value-added tax, and to reform the public sector enterprises are all likely to be delayed.

Pakistan could also see some capital flight as people move funds to safe havens but that is likely to be off-set by higher remittances from workers abroad, sending more of their pay home to help relatives.


U.N. chief to meet Pakistan leaders over floods

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will meet Pakistani leaders on Sunday to discuss the country's worst floods in decades as popular anger mounts over the government's failure to tackle the crisis.

Nearly 12 percent of the population, some 20 million people, have been affected by one of the worst catastrophes in Pakistan's history. Six million still need food, shelter and water, according to the United Nations.

Ban will meet both Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari, who has been a lightning rod for popular anger after traveling to Europe in the middle of the catastrophe and not cutting short his trip.

The UN leader plans to visit flood hit areas on Sunday.

The floods, triggered by torrential monsoon downpours just over two weeks ago, engulfed Pakistan's Indus river basin, killing up to 1,600 people.

Ban's visit comes as millions of Pakistanis are increasingly frustrated by the government that has already been hit by political bickering and growing militant violence,

Flood victims have complained that not enough government aid is arriving and looting has occurred in many flood hit areas amid increasing signs of lawlessness.

Pakistan's government has been accused of being too slow to respond to the crisis with victims relying mostly on the military and foreign aid agencies for help.

Floodwaters pose new threats to the populous Sindh province and the southwest province of Baluchistan, a region also hit by a decades long separatist insurgency.

In the northwest Swat valley, flour, cooking oil and rice were carried by mules along narrow mountain tracks to 150,000 people in Shahpur, with roads cut off and the weather too bad for helicopters.

Despite the government's perceived failure to tackle the crisis, a military coup is unlikely. The army's priority is fighting Taliban insurgents, and seizing power during a disaster would make no sense, analysts say.

It already sets security policies and influences foreign policy, and is described by some as a state within a state.

The International Monetary Fund has warned of major economic harm and the Finance Ministry said it would miss this year's 4.5 percent gross domestic product growth target.

Any economic downturn would come just as the government aims to fund projects across the country to win hearts and minds in the battle against the Taliban.

Wheat, cotton and sugar crops have all suffered damage in a country where agriculture is a mainstay of the economy.

Pakistan flood crisis raises fears of country's collapse

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The humanitarian and economic disaster caused by the worst floods in Pakistan's history could spark political unrest that could destabilize the government, dealing a major blow to the Obama administration's efforts to fight violent Islamic extremism.

The government's shambling response to floods that have affected a third of the country has some analysts saying that President Asif Ali Zardari could be forced from office, possibly by the military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half its 63-year history.

Other experts caution that the state itself could collapse, as hunger and destitution trigger explosions of popular anger that was already seething over massive unemployment, high fuel prices, widespread power outages, corruption, and a bloody insurgency by extremists allied with al Qaida .

"The powers that be, that is the military and bureaucratic establishment, are mulling the formation of a national government, with or without the PPP (Zardari's ruling Pakistan Peoples Party )," said Najam Sethi , the editor of the weekly Friday Times. "I know this is definitely being discussed.

"There is a perception in the army that you need good governance to get out of the economic crisis and there is no good governance," he said.

The Obama administration stepped up emergency aid this week to $76 million , anxious to counter the influence of Islamic extremist groups that are feeding and housing victims through charitable front organizations in areas the government hasn't reached.

Some U.S. officials worry that those groups could exploit the crisis to recruit new members and bolster their fight to impose hard-line Islamic rule on nuclear-armed Pakistan .

"I think the mid- to long-term radicalization threat accelerates because of the mass migration and the frustration that is coming from this," said Thomas Lynch , a research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington .

Pakistan is battling militant groups led by the Pakistani Taliban, whose strongholds on the country's northwestern fringe also provide bases to al Qaida , the Afghan Taliban and allied extremists fighting NATO and Afghan troops in neighboring Afghanistan .

The Pentagon announced Friday that a three-ship taskforce carrying 2,000 Marines, Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, transport helicopters and relief supplies is sailing for Pakistan . It will replace the U.S.S. Peleliu, an amphibious assault vessel steaming off the port of Karachi that's lent 19 helicopters and 1,000 Marines to the aid operations.

U.S. officials, who requested anonymity so they could speak more freely, downplayed the threat of near-term political upheaval, and they dismissed the danger of a coup, saying that the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani , wants the military out of politics.

"The military is perfectly happy to let the civilian government screw up," one U.S. official said. "The military does not want to take over because they get blamed for all the deficiencies in government."

The potential for serious turmoil, these U.S. officials said, will grow after the floods subside. Then the government must grapple with the task of rebuilding roads, bridges and other infrastructure and caring for millions of impoverished, mostly rural people who've lost their homes, crops and livestock.

"The Pakistani military quickly mobilized to support relief efforts in areas affected by the floods, and . . . seems to be handling things effectively," a second U.S. official said. "The popular ire so far seems directed at the (government). As with any natural disaster, the reconstruction phase can be a challenge, and that's when Pakistan's civilian agencies will need to step up to the plate. That'll be the real test."

The floods have affected 14 million people, of whom at least 1,600 have died and some 3 million have been left homeless. However, the impact will be felt throughout the impoverished country of 180 million.

The World Bank said Friday that an estimated $1 billion worth of crops have been wiped out, raising the specter of food shortages. Damage to irrigation canals, the bank added, will reduce crop yields once the floodwaters are gone.

The situation worsened Friday as authorities ordered the evacuation of Jacobabad, a city of 1.4 million people in southern Sindh province, and forecasters warned that fresh monsoon rains in the mountainous northwest would send a new wave of flooding south down the central Indus River valley over the weekend.

The PPP-led government came to power in 2008 elections that ended the last bout of military rule, which lasted eight years under Gen. Pervez Musharraf .

An economic slide that began just as the Musharraf era was ending has significantly worsened and the current administration is surviving on an International Monetary Fund bailout. It says that the floods could halve economic growth and force it to divert funds from development programs to relief efforts.

Zardari, who went on with a high-rolling official visit to France and Britain while his country grappled with its worst-ever natural disaster, is the focus of much of the anger over the government's inability to cope. He assumed control of the PPP after the assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto , in December 2007 .

Only the courts could legally dismiss him and the government. However, the PPP rules through a minority government, and behind-the-scenes military pressure on its coalition partners could bring it down, forcing new elections, Sethi said.

Another outright coup is considered unlikely, but few people rule it out entirely.

"If the military takes over now, I can assure you that it will be the end of Pakistan , an end which will be punctuated by a very bloody civil war," said Asad Sayeed , a political analyst. " Pakistan is a very divided country right now."

Pakistan has lurched from crisis to crisis. Its most painful episode was the break-up of the country in 1971, when then- East Pakistan seceded and became Bangladesh .

The bloody uprising in East Pakistan received a final push from Islamabad's poor response to a 1970 cyclone that killed an estimated 500,000 people. While there is no equivalent secessionist movement in what's left of Pakistan , some experts worry that the floods could boost popular support for hardline Islamists.

"Within months of Cyclone Bhola, an ideology — Bengali nationalism — feeding off economic deprivation and post-disaster hopelessness took half the country away," columnist Moazzam Hussain reminded readers on Friday in Dawn, the main English-language daily. "This time, a renegade religious ideology — feeding off the consequences of the present disaster — is drooling to take away the remainder."