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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Snipers halt NTC’s advance in Sirte; rebels deny capture of Qaddafi’s spokesman

Fighters for Libya’s new rulers have been forced to regroup on the edge of Sirte, after pro-Qaddafi snipers halted a two-week old assault on the ousted despot’s hometown.

And in Bani Walid, the only other stronghold of forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi, the National Transitional Council’s (NTC) fighters appeared to have opened another front on Friday.

NTC abuse of prisoners

The detainees reported mistreatment in six facilities, including beatings and the use of electric shock, and some of them showed scars to support the claims. None had been brought before a judge

As the fighting raged, Human Rights Watch called on the NTC to stop militia groups from making arbitrary arrests and abusing prisoners, including with beatings and electric shocks.

The New York-based group said it had visited 20 detention facilities in Tripoli and interviewed 53 detainees.

“The detainees reported mistreatment in six facilities, including beatings and the use of electric shock, and some of them showed scars to support the claims. None had been brought before a judge,” HRW said in a statement.

“After all that Libyans suffered in Muammar Qaddafi’s jails, it’s disheartening that some of the new authorities are subjecting detainees to arbitrary arrest and beatings today,” Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said in the statement.

As the NTC forces faced stiff resistance on the battlefield Friday, doubts grew that Qaddafi’s vocal spokesman Mussa Ibrahim had been captured after reports he had been seized while disguised as a woman, complete with veil.

NTC commanders said late Thursday they received reports from fighters on the ground that Ibrahim had been seized outside Sirte, where his loyalists have been under siege for the past week.

But the fighters’ high command in Libya’s third-largest city Misrata said it had been informed Ibrahim had not been captured, although members of his family were.

AFP correspondents on fronts east and west of Sirte said the former rebels had made no advances.

In the fiercest fighting for days, the NTC fighters pounded Sirte with 106mm anti-tank guns, rocket-launchers and machine guns, while Qaddafi loyalists hit back with mortar, machine-gun and sniper fire.

One NTC fighter was killed and 11 wounded, a medic said, as NATO warplanes and drones flew overhead without striking.

NTC fighters held the line on the eastern outskirts of the city amid some sporadic artillery shelling and gunfire, an AFP correspondent said.

“If we want we can destroy Sirte completely. We have enough ammunition and shells to fight for 10 years,” said Nasser Obeidi, leader of a group operating four Russian-built 130mm artillery cannon.

“But we are allowing civilians to leave the city before we start a big assault. People are leaving the city daily, sometimes in large numbers,” he told AFP.

Fleeing residents

You know, with the snipers. You can't find them. Yesterday there was no ammunition. It was finished. I swear to God. If the Qaddafi people knew that they would have come and taken Sirte from us
Rami Moftah, a rebel

The prolonged battle for Qaddafi’s hometown, besieged from three fronts, has raised concern for civilians trapped inside the city of about 100,000 people.

Cars streamed out of Sirte from the early hours and into the afternoon on Friday. Shelling and tank fire continued from both sides on the eastern and western fronts, black smoke rose from the centre of town and NATO planes flew overhead.

Medical workers at a field hospital near Sirte said four fighters with the interim authorities were killed by pro-Gaddafi snipers and 20 others were wounded.

A Reuters team on the edge of Sirte heard five huge explosions just before sundown. It was not immediately clear what had caused the explosions.

Fighting was particularly heavy near a roundabout on the eastern outskirts of the city, where forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) have been pinned down for five days.

Some fighters again fled the frontline under the fire.

“It’s difficult, difficult," said anti-Qaddafi fighter Rami Moftah. “You know, with the snipers. You can't find them. Yesterday there was no ammunition. It was finished. I swear to God. If the Qaddafi people knew that they would have come and taken Sirte from us.”
Several residents told Reuters they were leaving Sirte because they had not eaten for days.

“I am not scared. I am hungry,” said Ghazi Abdul-Wahab, a Syrian who has lived in the town for 40 years.

Abdul-Wahab said he had been sleeping in the streets with his family after a NATO air strike hit a building next to his house, making him fear his home could also be struck.

“People inside are scared about their houses. People want to protect their houses,” he said, adding that some locals may fight because they have heard the NTC wants to kill them.

At least 15 civilian cars were seen leaving Sirte’s eastern gate, while about 1,000 evacuees were registered 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the city, NTC officials said, adding they were detained 15 suspected Qaddafi supporters.


In Benghazi, Red Cross official Abdelhamid al-Mendi said more than 50,000 Libyans have fled their homes since the war began in February.

“The numbers of impressive, but the situation is under control, thanks to the efforts of the Libyan Red Crescent, aid from the international Red Cross” and other organizations.

Obeidi acknowledged, however, that Qaddafi forces had deployed snipers in the city which was troubling the fighters.

But a former colonel in Qaddafi’s army who is now an NTC fighter supervising cannon outside Sirte said his forces were determined to win.

In Bani Walid, a heavy barrage of rockets and artillery hit NTC positions from the west, joining other fire that has been coming for days from the south.

“Today is the most intense attack we have faced since we came here,” said NTC field commander Abdelbaset Tarhauni, as NATO fighter jets buzzed overhead.

An AFP correspondent saw one dead and six wounded NTC fighters from the attacks.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rebels urge more NATO strikes after heavy losses in Qaddafi’s hometown

Anti-Qaddafi forces on Wednesday urged NATO to intensify its air war as they took heavy losses in a push on the ousted Libyan despot’s birthplace, Sirte, and his other remaining bastion, Bani Walid.

Wednesday’s fighting was so intense that the fighters of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya’s interim ruling body, had to retreat three kilometers (two miles) outside the eastern edge of Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown.

“There were heavy clashes today. Our men came under heavy attack,” said the commander, who asked not to be named.

It is becoming a day-to-day fight. One day we are winning, the next day they are winning
An NTC commander

“Fighting was particularly intense around the port and on the eastern outskirts of Sirte.”

NTC fighters captured the port of Sirte, in the east of the city, two days ago, marking a major victory for them in the battle for the control of Qaddafi’s bastion.

It was unclear late Wednesday whether the port was still under the control of the fighters, but the commander said the NTC troops were still present there.

“It is becoming a day-to-day fight. One day we are winning, the next day they are winning,” he said.

While the fugitive Qaddafi’s whereabouts remain unknown, Libya’s defense ministry spokesman said one of the deposed leader's sons, Seif al-Islam, was in Bani Walid and other, Mutassim, in Sirte.

Along with his father and former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, Seif is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.

NTC commander's death

NATO is here but is not doing enough. They take out the rocket launchers firing at us, but they are immediately replaced. We need more help from NATO
Captain Walid Khaimej

Among those killed in the rocket barrage at Bani Walid was senior commander Daou al-Salhine al-Jadak, whose car was struck by a rocket as he headed towards the front, NTC chief negotiator Abdullah Kenshil told AFP.

Jadak, one of the highest ranking NTC commanders on that front, who hailed from the town, told AFP two days before his death that he had been imprisoned for more than 18 years for helping organise a 1993 rebellion.

An AFP correspondent said that despite heavy use of tanks, rocket launchers and artillery, the NTC forces had not advanced from positions held for the past few days in the desert town 170 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Tripoli.

“There is always incoming missile and artillery fire. We are returning fire with heavy weapons but we are not sending in infantry. We are waiting for reinforcements,” Captain Walid Khaimej told AFP.

“NATO is here but is not doing enough. They take out the rocket launchers firing at us, but they are immediately replaced. We need more help from NATO.”

Under a U.N. mandate, the alliance has been giving air support to the popular revolt that erupted in February and forced Qaddafi out of Tripoli and into hiding last month.

Its daily operational updates suggest it has scaled down the intensity of its strikes: they report attacks on targets in Bani Walid on just one of the past three days.

But Colonel Roland Lavoie, the air campaign's military spokesman, said: “NATO has not reduced its activity in Libya,” noting alliance aircraft had conducted at least 100 sorties per day in the past few days.

“The number of strikes depends on the danger against the civilian population, in conformity with our mandate,” Lavoie told AFP in an email.

In a separate incident, three fighters of Libya’s new rulers were killed in “friendly fire” Wednesday when they were shelled by a tank positioned behind them at the frontline in eastern Sirte, he added.

Thousands of fearful civilians have been fleeing Sirte, 360 kilometers east of Tripoli, as the new regime's forces close in from the east, south and west.

Meanwhile, interim justice minister Mohammed al-Alagi told reporters in Tripoli that Libya’s new authorities were ready to assist if asked to provide people for questioning over the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Prosecutors in Scotland said Monday they have formally asked the NTC to help the probe into the attack on Pan Am flight 103, which killed 270 people when it exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on December 21, 1988.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

PM blames Maran for genesis of 2G spectrum scandal

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has admitted that pressure from the former Telecom Minister, Dayanidhi Maran, forced the pricing of 2G spectrum out of the purview of a Group of Ministers set up to deal with the issue.

“It is certainly true that one draft was prepared, and it included spectrum prices,” Dr. Singh told reporters on Tuesday en-route from New York to New Delhi.

Mr. Maran, the Prime Minister said, then objected, arguing that “spectrum pricing is the bread and butter and the integral part of the terms of the business of his department.” “In any case,” Dr. Singh paraphrased Mr. Maran as saying, “a large group of Ministers sitting here is not going to be able to deal effectively with the complicated and technical aspects involved.”

“I came to the conclusion that by agreeing with the Minister's [Dayanidhi Maran's] point of view would not sacrifice anything which is essential to the success of the process.”

Mr. Maran voiced his concerns in a February 28, 2006 letter to the Prime Minister. In the letter, he complained that the terms of reference for the Group of Ministers on 2G spectrum issues “impinge upon the work normally to be carried out by the Ministry [Department of Telecommunications].”

Back in 2006, the Prime Minister explained, the government's “real concern was how we should persuade the Defence Ministry to release spectrum and how that spectrum should [be made available] to the civilian economy.” Mr. Maran's request was, therefore, acceded to.

In 2007, a note prepared earlier this year by the Finance Ministry for the Prime Minister's Office records, the Department of Telecommunications precluded further involvement of the Department of Economic Affairs in spectrum pricing. The Finance Ministry did not subsequently pursue the issue.

The Hindu

U.S. Listeria outbreak kills 13, infects 72; infections reported in 18 states

A Listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupes from Colorado has infected 72 people in the United States and killed 13, U.S. health officials said on Tuesday.

The food borne outbreak is the deadliest in the United States in more than a decade, exceeding the 2008-2009 salmonella outbreak from tainted peanuts that killed nine and infected more than 700 people in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So far, 18 states have reported infections from one of the four strains of Listeria involved in the outbreak, the CDC said.

Of the 13 deaths, four were in New Mexico, two were in Colorado, two were in Texas, and there was one each in Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

All of the illnesses started on or after July 31.

The CDC has traced the source of the outbreak to cantaloupes grown at Jensen Farms in Granada, Colorado.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed that it found Listeria monocytogenes, the bacterial strain found in the tainted cantaloupes, in samples of melons from Jensen Farms.

The company issued a recall on Sept. 14 of its Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes in response to the outbreak. The fruit was shipped to at least 17 states from July 29 through Sept. 10, 2011.

The FDA has advised consumers to throw out the recalled melons.

Listeria bacteria thrive in low temperatures. Outbreaks are usually associated with deli meats, unpasteurized cheeses and smoked refrigerated seafood products.

The outbreak in melons is the deadliest in the United States since a 1998 multistate Listeria outbreak involving contaminated hot dogs and deli meats that killed 32 people and sickened 101.

According to the CDC, some 1,600 people become sick with listeriosis and 260 of them die from the infections.

People with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable. Pregnant women are 20 times more likely than healthy adults to get listeriosis and people with AIDS are nearly 300 times more likely to get the infection than healthy people, the CDC said on its website.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group, said the outbreak underscores the need for the FDA to issue guidelines and regulations to help keep pathogens out of produce.

According to the group, melons have caused at least 36 outbreaks of food borne disease since 1990, although this is the first attributed to Listeria.

Earlier this year, more than 4,100 people in Europe and North America were infected in two outbreaks of E. coli infection linked with sprouted seeds. The infection killed 48 people in Germany and one person in Sweden.


Qaddafi forces score Sirte’s port but are forced out from Bani Walid

Anti-Qaddafi forces overran Sirte’s port on Tuesday, but in the other stronghold of supporters of the ousted Libyan leader, the new regime’s fighters were beaten back by fierce resistance.

On the political front, a member of Libya’s new ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) said formation of a transitional government, already delayed by disputes over power-sharing, had been postponed until they had won control of the entire country.

In a radio message from the Syria-based al-Rai TV, Muammar Qaddafi hailed the resistance put up in Bani Walid, where the NTC admitted they had been forced back by forces loyal to the toppled strongman.

Fleeing civilians

They are using heavy weapons but we are not, as we want to cause minimum damage to civilians
NTC fighter Fateh Marimri

Capturing the port at Sirte marked a key victory in the battle for control of Qaddafi’s birthplace, but intense fighting carried on inside the city.

Taking Sirte, 450 km east of Tripoli, would bring Libya’s new rulers closer to gaining control of the whole country, something still eluding them more than a month after their fighters seized the capital.

Hundreds of fearful civilians have fled Sirte, a sprawling Mediterranean city, as the new regime’s forces close in from east, south and west.

NTC fighter Fateh Marimri, who drove out of Sirte’s eastern gate in what he said was a captured Qaddafi 4X4, reported fierce fighting around the Mahari Hotel.

“They are using heavy weapons but we are not, as we want to cause minimum damage to civilians,” Marimri told AFP.

“They are now fighting us in civilian clothes and there are African mercenaries everywhere in Sirte.”

Humanitarian crisis in Sirte

There’s no food, no electricity; we were eating just bread
Saraj al-Tuweish, a civilian

The port and university lie on the northeastern side of Sirte but Qaddafi’s compound and military bunkers lie in the center and NTC fighters said they expected the fiercest resistance there.

Fleeing residents said Qaddafi’s forces had been trying to prevent people from leaving.

"There’s no food, no electricity; we were eating just bread," Saraj al-Tuweish, who got out with his extended family on Tuesday, told AFP.

"I've been trying for 10 days to get out and every time the army forced us back.

"We would go the checkpoint and they would refuse, they would shoot in the air. Today we used a dirt road early in the morning and we managed to escape."

The lack of clean drinking water has triggered an epidemic of water-borne diseases. An AFP correspondent saw dozens of children being treated at a clinic in the town of Harawa, 40 kilometers east of Sirte.

We have medicines but no nurses to treat the constant flow of patients, mainly children, suffering from vomiting and gastrointestinal diseases
Dr Valentina Rybakova

"We have medicines but no nurses to treat the constant flow of patients, mainly children, suffering from vomiting and gastrointestinal diseases," said Dr Valentina Rybakova, a Ukrainian working in Libya for eight years.

“This is a big humanitarian crisis. We are trying to get help from everybody but the main problem is that these people have no access to clean drinking water."

As the fighting raged in Sirte, a group of fighters from the Zintan Brigade discovered a huge weapons cache in a village south of the city, one of them told AFP.

"The stock is massive. Around 100 houses in the village were full of all kinds of ammunition," said Maatiz Saad.

"The stock is so big that we would need hundreds of pickup trucks to load it and move it out. Ammunition was stored even in the village hospital. There are bullets for all kinds of guns and hundreds of rockets."

Qaddafi’s radio message

Al-Rai TV station has been broadcasting audio speeches by Qaddafi, reported on Tuesday that the toppled leader had addressed his supporters and urged them to fight in a speech broadcast on a local radio station in Bani Walid.

“You should know that I am on the ground with you,” he said. “Through your jihad, you are imitating the exploits of your ancestors.”

“Heroes have resisted and fallen as martyrs and we too are awaiting martyrdom,” Qaddafi said.

The report by Arrai television could not be independently verified.

Arrai also broadcast footage of what it said was Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, dated Sept. 20, rallying his forces at an unidentified location.

“This land is the land of your forefathers. Don't hand it over,” Saif al-Islam, shouted to a crowd of followers.

NTC forces said the fierce resistance of Qaddafi loyalists had stalled their offensive in Bani Walid.

"NTC fighters pulled out from some areas they control in Bani Walid due to the intensity of fire,” said Abdallah Kenshil, the new government’s chief negotiator in abortive efforts to broker the town's surrender.

In Benghazi, NTC member Mustafa al-Huni said Libya’s new rulers had decided to postpone the formation of a transitional government until they had won control of the entire country.

NATO meanwhile urged Libya's new regime to make plans to destroy stockpiles of chemical weapons and nuclear-related agents amassed by Qaddafi. Washington said Tuesday it was working closely with the new regime to secure all arms stockpiles.

In a letter to the U.N. General Assembly meanwhile, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a staunch supporter of Qaddafi, said the Libyan conflict marked "a new cycle of colonial wars... with the sinister goal of refreshing the capitalist global system."

Meanwhile, Libya’s transitional government delivered 20 million dinars ($16 million) Tuesday to Sabha, a remote southern city beset by Qaddafi loyalists, hoping to bolster support for revolutionary forces.
Al Arabiya

Monday, September 26, 2011

Syrian forces storm Rastan to fight defectors; FM accuses west of sowing ‘total chaos’

Syrian forces backed by tanks and helicopters stormed a strategic town on Tuesday after fighting with army defectors, in a major operation to subdue pro-democracy protests in the center of the country, residents said, as Syria’s Foreign Minister accused western powers of trying to unleash “total chaos” to break up the country.

Tens of tanks and armored vehicles entered Rastan, a town of 40,000 on the highway to Turkey near the city of Homs, after pounding it overnight with heavy machineguns from tanks and attack helicopters following a two-day siege, they said, according to Reuters.

Syria denounced international intervention and accused the West of trying to unleash “total chaos,” as rights activists said troops on Monday shot dead four soldiers who had tried to desert.

How can we otherwise explain media provocations, financing and arming religious extremism? he said. What purpose could this serve other than total chaos that would dismember Syria -- and consequently adversely affect its neighbors?
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said the West wanted chaos that will lead to the break-up of the country. Anti-regime protests were also a “pretext for foreign interventions,” he said at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, according to AFP.

China meanwhile expressed its concern at the wider implications of the violence in Syria, even as the United States pressed Beijing, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, to back stronger U.N. action against Damascus.

Foreign governments were trying to undermine co-existence between Syria’s different religious groups, he added.

“How can we otherwise explain media provocations, financing and arming religious extremism?” he said.

“What purpose could this serve other than total chaos that would dismember Syria -- and consequently adversely affect its neighbors?”

Rejecting the accusations, Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called for U.N. Security Council action.

“The courageous men and women in Syria deserve a clear signal of our solidarity,” Westerwelle told the U.N. assembly, condemning the “brutal force” used by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Damascus does not accept the existence of popular opposition to the authorities, instead blaming “armed gangs” and “terrorists” for trying to sow chaos.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal on Monday reiterated the kingdom’s “condemnation of military operations against the defenseless people in sisterly Syria,” Reuters reported.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the death of the soldiers.

“Four soldiers in Maar Shamsa in (northwestern) Idlib were shot dead while trying to flee the Wadi Deif military camp,” it said. The group also reported gunfire, arrests and killings.

In New York, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi expressed Beijing’s concern over the dragging crisis.

The international community, he said, should “handle the Syrian issue in a prudent way so as to prevent further turbulence in Syria and its repercussions on regional peace.”

And in a call to opposition demonstrators as well as Assad’s forces, Yang said “we hope that parties in Syria will exercise restraint, avoid any form of violence or more bloodshed and conflict, and act quickly to ease tension.”

China has joined Russia in leading opposition to U.N. sanctions against the Assad government in Syria, where the United Nations says that more than 2,700 people have been killed since March.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged China to back strong U.N. action on Syria when she met Yang just before his speech, a senior U.S. official said.

The Britain-based Observatory reported soaring tensions in central Homs province, a hub of protests against the Assad regime.

“The army has deployed in the villages of the Qusseir region (south of Homs), where two unidentified bodies were found in the Assi river.”

“There are also mutilated bodies at the National Hospital” in Qusseir, where 12 people were killed and 15 were reported missing in military operations on Saturday, it said.

North of Homs, “many security checkpoints have been set up on the roads leading to Rastan, where heavy machine-gun fire was heard this morning.”

In northwestern Idlib province, near the Turkish border, security forces stormed villages, setting up roadblocks and arresting 17 people.

The Observatory also said that in the rebel city of Hama, “a civilian died and three others were wounded by gunfire on Sunday night on the Mhardeh-Hilfaya road.”

In the southern city of Dael, in Daraa province, where the first protests ignited in mid-March, there was intense gunfire overnight after the city council building was set on fire, which residents blamed on pro-regime militias.

The state-run SANA news agency reported the seizure of “arms and ammunition” in a house in the Deraa village of Nassib near the Jordanian border, and the discovery of a carload of “Israeli arms and explosives charges in Homs.”

SANA also reported the funeral of four soldiers and security officers, as well as that of a doctor who had been killed in Homs.

Al Arabiya

Iran and Sudan united as ‘defenders of Islam’ in face of ‘pressures’ from West

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Monday that Iran and Sudan stand together as “defenders of Islam” in the face of pressure from Western governments.

“Iran and Sudan will stand together as defenders of the Islamic world and the independence of the region,” he said after meeting Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir during a brief visit to Khartoum.

“Both countries are facing pressure from the colonialists, who want to impose things that affect our people negatively. They are trying to apply pressure on independent states, because they don’t want them to be strong,” he added.

Ahmadinejad headed a delegation of government officials, including the ministers of energy and higher education, and a number of economic advisers, who held talks with senior Sudanese officials.

Sudan’s delegation included the deputy foreign minister, and the ministers of oil, labor, information and presidential affairs.

Speaking alongside Ahmadinejad after the meeting, Bashir underlined Sudan’s support for Iran’s nuclear program.

“We will work together to build a relationship based on cooperation and respect and mutual benefits, and we are looking forward to closer cooperation with Iran,” he said.

“We confirm that we support the right of Iran to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.”

Iran is under mounting international pressure over its controversial nuclear program, which the West fears masks a drive to acquire atomic weapons capability -- a charge Tehran persistently denies.

Although there was no indication that any agreements were signed on Monday, the visit does appear to have strengthened economic and political ties between the two Islamic governments.

In a joint statement released shortly before Ahmadinejad’s departure, Iran said it was “ready to transfer its experience in the science and manufacturing sectors, especially technical and engineering services, to improve Sudan’s infrastructure.”

Khartoum is urgently seeking foreign support in the face of mounting economic woes, which include soaring inflation, crippling foreign debts and the loss of much of its oil revenues, after South Sudan’s formal secession in July.

Iran is a key ally, pledging $200 million to fund various projects in Sudan’s impoverished eastern region at a donor conference late last year.

The two countries are heavily sanctioned by the United States, which kept them both on its list of alleged state sponsors of terrorism, in an annual report published by the State Department last month.

Mr. Modi's fast : A Mockery

Narendra Modi’s fast reminds us of an old adage common to many Indian fold tales: a cat after devouring hundreds of rats proceeds on a pilgrimage to seek atonement.
Fasting as a means of atonement is an universal value recognized by all religions and cultures. Jews fast on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Christians observe Lent. For Muslims, it is the month of Ramzan. Quran says: “to fast is to do good unto yourselves, if you but knew it”. In our cultures, Hinduism, Jainism are replete with fasts observed for cleansing and repentance. The Mahatma elevated this to a spiritual instrument of struggle affectively used during our freedom struggle.
Mr. Modi’s fast, however, makes a mockery of these lofty values. The 2002 communal genocide in Gujarat has been decried by all the constitutional authorities in the country like the National Human Rights Commission, the Election Commission and a plethora of NGOs. Apart from the deaths, the ghastly rapes and the maiming of thousands, even after nearly a decade, there are 21,448 internally displaced people in Gujarat living in 45 camps over eleven districts today. Without expressing any remorse, Mr. Modi says that he gave “the mantra of development, so that wounds could be healed”. All economic studies point to what a prominent economist has said that there is deep rooted poverty and income inequality in Gujarat. The claims that benefits of development have reached all people, irrespective of their creed, is dispelled by the findings of studies by expert committees that show that the Muslims are most educationally deprived community in Gujarat. There is no Urdu daily published from Gujarat today.
There are various reasons why this fast has been undertaken at this time. The obvious is the effort to break out of the `communal monster’ mould. This is based on a deliberate misreading of the latest Supreme Court decision interpreting it as a `clean chit’ absolving him of his complicity in the communal carnage. The apex court, on the contrary, has directed the trial court to expeditiously proceed with the trial of the Gulbarga society case by handing over all material before to it including the reports of the Amicus Curae and that of the special investigation team, to be considered as evidence. The matter has, thus, gone beyond the filing of an FIR against Mr. Modi. The issue is now of a trial on these charges.

Another reason for this fast is to divert attention from the appointment of the Lokayukta fearing exposure of large-scale alleged corruption.

Mainly this is an effort to declare his entry into the national scene as a potential Prime Ministerial candidate. The BJP President has recently announced that it would contest the 2014 elections on the basis of a `collective leadership’. Soon after Mr. L. K. Advani, virtually declaring his candidature, undeterred by the law of diminishing returns, that has been operating exponentially with him, decided to embark on a sixth yatra since the 1990 rath yatra.

That yatra under the battle cry of “mandir wahin banayenge” led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid – universally considered as the darkest blot in the history of the modern secular democratic Indian Republic. This yatra left behind a bloody trail. Within two months, by December, the media was reporting the death of nearly a thousand people in communal clashes.

Karl Marx had once commented that Hegel had said that history repeats itself. The first time as a tragedy and the second time as a farce. This yatra of Mr. Advani would be a farce of the sixth order.

In the meanwhile, the BJP President himself, according to media reports, underwent a bariatric surgery – recommended only for severely obese people – to loose weight. While his medical condition needs to be sympathized, this move is cynically being seen in some quarters as an effort to be physically fit for any eventuality. Further, it is a well-known fact that the BJP leaders of the opposition in both the Houses of the Parliament are also serious contenders for a future PMship.

Returning to Mr. Advani’s yatra. He has declared that this would be against corruption. Riding on the widespread popular sentiment against corruption glavanised by Anna Hazare’s fast, Mr. Advani seems to believe that this anti-corruption campaign is transferable! Mr. Advani and the BJP will do well to look inwards. The Lokayukta of Chattisgarh has severely indicted the Raman Singh-led BJP government in the state for rampant corruption in every department, equating corrupt officers with “fish in the pond dying to consume more and more water”. This comes soon after the Karnataka Lokayukta’s severe indictment of the BJP state government. After much reluctance, the BJP was forced to ask CM Yedyurappa to step down. Soon followed the arrest of the Reddy brothers, former ministers in the state cabinet, on the issue of large-scale illegal mining. In haste, the BJP has changed its Chief Minister in Uttarakhand before charges of corruption could consume its state government. This is its track record.

The RSS/BJP’s internal bickering over the potential PM candidate is it’s internal affair. However, this reminds us of a saying in Telugu. A person who is neither married nor has a home declares his son’s name as `Somalingam’! There is no general election in the offing and there is no indication of any groundswell of support for the BJP, yet, such a rat race.

Those who argue that `India 2011’ is different from `India 1992’ will do well to realize that at this very moment, communal riots are claiming innocent lives. More than a dozen lives have been consumed in Bharatpur, Rajasthan. Nothing else need be said.

It's the occupation, stupid

Whatever transpires at the UN, the world should focus on what is happening on the ground in Palestine.

It's the show that time and the world forgot. It's called the Occupation and it's now in its 45th year. Playing on a landscape about the size of Delaware, it remains largely hidden from view, while Middle Eastern headlines from elsewhere seize the day.

Diplomats shuttle back and forth from Washington and Brussels to Middle Eastern capitals; the Israeli-Turkish alliance ruptures amid bold declarations from the Turkish prime minister; crowds storm the Israeli embassy in Cairo, while Israeli ambassadors flee the Egyptian capital and Amman, the Jordanian one; and of course, there's the headliner, the show-stopper of the moment, the Palestinian Authority's campaign for statehood in the United Nations, which will prompt an Obama administration veto in the Security Council.

But whatever the Turks, Egyptians, or Americans do, whatever symbolic satisfaction the Palestinian Authority may get at the UN, there's always the Occupation and there - take it from someone just back from a summer living in the West Bank - Israel isn't losing. It's winning the battle, at least the one that means the most to Palestinians and Israelis, the one for control over every square foot of ground.

Inch by inch, metre by metre, Israel's expansion project in the West Bank and Jerusalem is, in fact, gaining momentum, ensuring that the "nation" that the UN might grant membership will be each day a little smaller, a little less viable, a little less there.

How to disappear a land

On my many drives from West Bank city to West Bank city, from Ramallah to Jenin, Abu Dis to Jericho, Bethlehem to Hebron, I'd play a little game: Could I travel for an entire minute without seeing physical evidence of the occupation?

Occasionally - say, when riding through a narrow passage between hills - it was possible. But not often. Nearly every panoramic vista, every turn in the highway revealed a Jewish settlement, an Israeli army checkpoint, a military watchtower, a looming concrete wall, a barbed-wire fence with signs announcing another restricted area, or a cluster of army jeeps stopping cars and inspecting young men for their documents.

The ill-fated Oslo "peace process" that emerged from the Oslo Accords of 1993 not only failed to prevent such expansion, it effectively sanctioned it. Since then, the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank has nearly tripled to more than 300,000 - and that figure doesn't include the more than 200,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.

The Oslo Accords, ratified by both the Palestinians and the Israelis, divided the West Bank into three zones - A, B, and C. At the time, they were imagined by the Palestinian Authority as a temporary way station on the road to an independent state. They are, however, still in effect today.

The de facto Israeli strategy has been and remains to give Palestinians relative freedom in Area A, around the West Bank's cities, while locking down "Area C" - 60 per cent of the West Bank - for the use of the Jewish settlements and for what are called "restricted military areas" (Area B is essentially a kind of grey zone between the other two). From this strategy come the thousands of demolitions of "illegal" housing and the regular arrests of villagers who simply try to build improvements to their homes.

Restrictions are strictly enforced and violations dealt with harshly.

When I visited the South Hebron Hills in late 2009, for example, villagers were not even allowed to smooth out a virtually impassable dirt road so that their children wouldn't have to walk two to three miles to school every day.

Na'im al Adarah, from the village of At-Tuwani, paid the price for transporting those kids to the school "illegally". A few weeks after my visit, he was arrested and his red Toyota pickup seized and destroyed by Israeli soldiers. He didn't bother complaining to the Palestinian Authority - the same people now going to the UN to declare a Palestinian state - because they have no control over what happens in Area C.

The only time he'd seen a Palestinian official, al Adarah told me, was when he and other villagers drove to Ramallah to bring one to the area. (The man from the Palestinian Authority refused to come on his own.)

"He said this is the first time he knew that this land [in Area C] is ours. A minister like him is surprised that we have these areas? I told him, 'How can a minister like you not know this? You're the minister of local government!'

"It was like he didn't know what was happening in his own country ... we're forgotten, unfortunately."

- Na'im al Adarah, from an Area C village

"It was like he didn't know what was happening in his own country," added al-Adarah. "We're forgotten, unfortunately."

The Israeli strategy of control also explains, strategically speaking, the "need" for the network of checkpoints; the looming separation barrier (known to Israelis as the "security fence" and to Palestinians as the "apartheid wall") that divides Israel from the West Bank (and sometimes West Bankers from each other); the repeated evictions of Palestinians from residential areas like Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem; the systematic revoking of Jerusalem IDs once held by thousands of Palestinians who were born in the Holy City; and the labyrinthine travel restrictions which keep so many Palestinians locked in their West Bank enclaves.

While Israel justifies most of these measures in terms of national security, it's clear enough that the larger goal behind them is to incrementally take and hold ever more of the land. The separation barrier, for example, has put 10 per cent of the West Bank's land on the Israeli side - a case of "annexation in the guise of security", according to the respected Israeli human rights group, B'tselem.

Taken together, these measures amount to the solution that the Israeli government seeks, one revealed in a series of maps drawn up by Israeli politicians, cartographers, and military men over recent years that show Palestine broken into isolated islands (often compared to South African apartheid-era "bantustans") on only about 40 per cent of the West Bank.

At the outset of Oslo, Palestinians believed they had made a historic compromise, agreeing to a state on 22 per cent of historic Palestine - that is, the West Bank and Gaza. The reality now is a kind of "ten per cent solution", a rump statelet without sovereignty, freedom of movement, or control of its own land, air, or water. Palestinians cannot even drill a well to tap into the vast aquifer beneath their feet.

Living amid checkpoints

Every Palestinian has a personal, traumatising story of how the occupation has impacted their life [GALLO/GETTY]

Almost always overlooked in assessments of this ruinous "no-state solution" is the human toll it takes on the occupied. More than on any of my dozen previous journeys there, I came away from this trip to Palestine with a sense of the psychic damage the military occupation has inflicted on every Palestinian. None, no matter how warm-hearted or resilient, escape its effects.

"The soldier pointed to my violin case. He said, 'What's that?'" 13-year-old Ala Shelaldeh, who lives in old Ramallah, told me.

She is a student at Al Kamandjati (Arabic for "the violinist"), a music school in her neighbourhood (which will be a focus of my next book). She was recalling a time three years earlier when a van she was in, full of young musicians, was stopped at an Israeli checkpoint near Nablus. They were coming back from a concert.

"I told him, 'It's a violin.' He told me to get out of the van and show him." Ala stepped onto the roadside, unzipped her case, and displayed the instrument for the soldier.

"Play something," he insisted. Ala played Hilwadeen (Beautiful Girl), the song made famous by the Lebanese star Fayrouz. It was a typical moment in Palestine, and one she has yet to, and may never, forget.

It is impossible, of course, to calculate the long-term emotional damage of such encounters on children and adults alike, including on the Israeli soldiers, who are not immune to their own actions.

Humiliation at checkpoints is a basic fact of West Bank Palestinian life. Everyone, even children, has his or her story to tell of helplessness, fear, and rage while waiting for a teenaged soldier to decide whether or not they can pass. It has become so normal that some kids have no idea the rest of the world doesn't live like this.

"I thought the whole world was like us - they are occupied, they have soldiers," remembered Ala's older brother, Shehade, now 20.

A view of a different life

"It was a shock for me to see [Italy]. You can go very, very far, and no checkpoint. You see the land very, very far, and no wall. I was so happy, and at the same time sad, you know? Because we don't have this freedom in my country."

- Shehade Shelaldeh

At 15, he was invited to Italy. "It was a shock for me to see this life. You can go very, very far, and no checkpoint. You see the land very, very far, and no wall. I was so happy, and at the same time sad, you know? Because we don't have this freedom in my country."

At age 12, Shehade had seen his cousin shot dead by soldiers during the second intifada, which erupted in late 2001 after Israel's then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon paid a provocative visit to holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. Clashes erupted as youths hurled stones at soldiers. Israeli troops responded with live fire, killing some 250 Palestinians (compared to 29 Israeli deaths) in the first two months of the intifada. The next year, Palestinian factions launched waves of suicide bombings in Israel.

One day in 2002, Shehade recalled, with Ramallah again fully occupied by the Israeli army, the young cousins broke a military curfew in order to buy bread. A shot rang out near a corner market; Shehade watched his cousin fall. This summer Shehade showed me the gruesome pictures - blood flowing from a 12-year-old's mouth and ears - taken moments after the shooting in 2002.

Nine years later, Ramallah, a supposedly sovereign enclave, is often considered an oasis in a desert of occupation. Its streets and markets are choked with shoppers, and its many trendy restaurants rival fine European eateries. The vibrancy and upscale feel of many parts of the city give you a sense that - much as Palestinians are loathe to admit it - this, and not East Jerusalem, is the emerging Palestinian capital.

Many Ramallah streets are indeed lined with government ministries and foreign consulates. (Just don't call them embassies!) But much of this apparent freedom and quasi-sovereignty is illusory.

In the West Bank, travel without hard-to-get permits is often limited to narrow corridors of land, like the one between Ramallah and Nablus, where the Israeli military has, for now, abandoned its checkpoints and roadblocks. Even in Ramallah - part of the theoretically sovereign Area A - night incursions by Israeli soldiers are common.

"It was December 2009, the 16th I think, at 2:15, 2:30 in the morning," recalled Celine Dagher, a French citizen of Lebanese descent. Her Palestinian husband, Ramzi Aburedwan, founder of Al Kamandjati, where both of them work, was then abroad. "I was awakened by a sound," she told me.

She emerged to find the front door of their flat jammed partway open and kept that way by a small security bar of the sort you find in hotel rooms. Celine thought burglars were trying to break in and so yelled at them in Arabic to go away. Then she peered through the six-inch opening and spotted ten Israeli soldiers in the hallway.

They told her to stand back, and within seconds had blown the door off its hinges. Entering the apartment, they pointed their automatic rifles at her. A Palestinian informant stood near them silently, a black woolen mask pulled over his face to ensure his anonymity.

The commander began to interrogate her. "My name, with whom I live, starting to ask me about the neighbours." Celine flashed her French passport and pleaded with them not to wake up her six-month-old, Hussein, sleeping in the next room.

"I was praying that he would just stay asleep." She told the commander, "I just go from my house to my work, from work to my house." She didn't really know her neighbours, she said.

As it happened, the soldiers had blown off the door of the wrong flat. They would remove four more doors in the building that night, Celine recalled, before finding their suspect: Her 17-year-old next door neighbour. "They stood questioning him for maybe 20 minutes, and then they took him. And I think he's still in jail. His father is already in jail."

Most imprisoned people on earth

"You can't go to Jerusalem to pray. And it's only 15 kilometres away. And you have your memories there."

- Saleh Abdel-Jawad, dean of the law school at Birzeit University

According to Israeli Prison Services statistics cited by B'tselem, more than 5,300 Palestinians were in Israeli prisons in July 2011. Since the beginning of the occupation in 1967, an estimated 650,000 to 700,000 Palestinians have reportedly been jailed by Israel. By one calculation, that represents 40 per cent of the adult-male Palestinian population.

Almost no family has been untouched by the Israeli prison system.

Celine stared through the blinds at the street below, where some 15 jeeps and other military vehicles were parked. Finally, they left with their lights out and so quietly that she couldn't even hear their engines. When the flat was silent again, she couldn't sleep. "I was very afraid." A neighbour came upstairs to sit with her until the morning.

Stories like these - and they are legion - accumulate, creating the outlines of what could be called a culture of occupation. They give context to a remark by Saleh Abdel-Jawad, dean of the law school at Birzeit University near Ramallah: "I don't remember a happy day since 1967," he told me.

Stunned, I asked him why specifically that was so. "Because," he replied, "you can't go to Jerusalem to pray. And it's only 15 kilometres away. And you have your memories there."

He added, "Since 17 years I was unable to go to the sea. We are not allowed to go. And my daughter married five years ago and we were unable to do a marriage ceremony for her." Israel would not grant a visa to Saleh's Egyptian son-in-law so that he could enter the West Bank. "How to do a marriage without the groom?"
A musical Intifada

An old schoolmate of mine and now a Middle East scholar living in Paris points out that Palestinians are not just victims, but actors in their own narrative. In other words, he insists, they, too, bear responsibility for their circumstances - not all of this rests on the shoulders of the occupiers. True enough.

As an apt example, consider the morally and strategically bankrupt tactic of suicide bombings, carried out from 2001 to 2004 by several Palestinian factions as a response to Israeli attacks during the second intifada. That disastrous strategy gave cover to all manner of Israeli retaliation, including the building of the separation barrier. (The near disappearance of the suicide attacks has been due far less to the wall - after all, it isn't even finished yet - than to a decision on the part of all the Palestinian factions to reject the tactic itself.)

So, yes, Palestinians are also "actors" in creating their own circumstances, but Israel remains the sole regional nuclear power, the state with one of the strongest armies in the world, and the occupying force - and that is the determining fact in the West Bank.

"Existence is resistance."

Today, for some Palestinians living under the 44-year occupation simply remaining on the land is a kind of moral victory. This summer, I started hearing a new slogan: "Existence is resistance." If you remain on the land, then the game isn't over.

And if you can bring attention to the occupation, while you remain in place, so much the better.

In June, Ala Shelaldeh, the 13-year-old violinist, brought her instrument to the wall at Qalandia, once a mere checkpoint separating Ramallah and Jerusalem, and now essentially an international border crossing with its mass of concrete, steel bars, and gun turrets.

The transformation of Qalandia - and its long, cage-like corridors and multiple seven-foot-high turnstiles through which only the lucky few with permits may cross to Jerusalem - is perhaps the most powerful symbol of Israel's determination not to share the Holy City.

The Palestinians are said to be the most imprisoned people on earth [GALLO/GETTY]

Ala and her fellow musicians in the Al Kamandjati Youth Orchestra came to play Mozart and Bizet in front of the Israeli soldiers, on the other side of Qalandia's steel bars. Their purpose was to confront the occupation through music, essentially to assert: We're here. The children and their teachers emerged from their bus, quickly set up their music stands, and began to play. Within moments, the sound of Mozart's Symphony No. 6 in F Major filled the terminal.

Palestinians stopped and stared. Smiles broke out. People came closer, pulling out cell phones and snapping photos, or just stood there, surrounding the youth orchestra, transfixed by this musical intifada. The musicians and soldiers were separated by a long row of blue horizontal bars. As the music played on, a grim barrier of confinement was momentarily transformed into a space of assertive joy.

"It was," Ala would say later, "the greatest concert of my life."

As the Mozart symphony built - Allegro, Andante, Minuet, and the Allegro last movement - some of the soldiers started to take notice. By the time the orchestra launched into Georges Bizet's Dance Boheme from Carmen #2, several soldiers appeared, looking out through the bars. For the briefest of moments, it was hard to tell who was on the inside, looking out, and who was on the outside, looking in.

If existence is resistance, if children can confront their occupiers with a musical intifada, then there's still space, in the year of the Arab Spring, for something unexpected and transformative to happen. After all, South African apartheid collapsed, and without a bloody revolution. The Berlin Wall fell quickly, completely, unexpectedly.

And with China, India, Turkey and Brazil on the rise, the United States, its power waning, will not be able to remain Israel's protector forever. Eventually, perhaps, the world will assert the obvious: The status quo is unacceptable.

For the moment, whatever happens in the coming weeks at the UN, and in the West Bank in the aftermath, isn't it time for the world's focus to shift to what is actually happening on the ground? After all, it's the occupation, stupid.

Sandy Tolan is author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. He is associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is at work on a new book, Operation Mozart, about music and life in Palestine. He blogs at

Eurozone rescue plan 'emerging' as IMF and Greece talk

The outline of a large and ambitious eurozone rescue plan is taking shape, reports from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington suggest.

It is expected to involve a 50% write-down of Greece's massive government debt, the BBC's business editor Robert Peston says.

The plan also envisages an increase in the size of the eurozone bailout fund to 2 trillion euros (£1.7tn; $2.7tn).

European governments hope to have the plan in place in five to six weeks.

Turning the present outline into a practical reality will be immensely difficult, our editor says.

But he adds that the price of failure could be a financial crisis that would probably turn anaemic growth into a recession or worse.

Investors have so far been unimpressed with the speed at which policymakers have dealt with the eurozone debt crisis, and analysts say that action, not words, are needed to calm volatile stock markets.

Start Quote

Unless the banks are fixed, there will remain too big a risk that a financial crisis could turn the current global economic slowdown into something more akin to depression than recession”

End Quote

Over the weekend, the G20 reasserted its commitment to "a strong and co-ordinated international response" to the crisis, but analysts warned this would not be enough to satisfy investors.

"Given that there were no details on how [the G20 would combat the crisis], it will not do much to alleviate market stress without some concrete action," said Mitul Kotecha at Credit Agricole.

European markets fell at the start of trade on Monday but then rallied. By mid morning, Germany's Dax index and France's Cac 40 were both up more than 2%.

Earlier, Asian markets had fallen, with Japan's Nikkei index closing down 2.2%, Hong Kong's Hang Seng falling 1.5% and South Korea's Kospi dropping 2.6%.

Key elements

The reports about the emerging rescue plan come after the annual meeting of the IMF in the US capital last week.

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The problem, they said privately, was that ministers couldn't talk openly about a new solution to the crisis when the old one had not even been passed by national parliaments. This was a particular issue, naturally, for Germany.”

End Quote

The package is expected to involve a quadrupling - from the current projected level of 440bn euros - in the firepower of Europe's main bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF).

This would be done by putting in place an arrangement that would allow the European Central Bank (ECB) to lend alongside the fund, our editor says.

The EFSF would take on the main risk of lending to governments struggling to borrow from normal commercial sources - governments like Italy.

In this way, the EFSF would make it less dangerous for the ECB to lend.

What is the EFSF?

  • The European Financial Stability Facility is effectively the eurozone's rescue fund
  • It was created in the summer of 2010 and is AAA rated by all three main credit rating agencies
  • It is allowed to issue bonds up to a total value of 440bn euros
  • Proposals put forward in July would allow the EFSF to buy the bonds of highly-indebted countries, and to make credit available to both them and under-capitalised banks. These proposals have yet to be fully ratified.

It is also thought that private investors in Greek debt are likely to have to accept a 50% reduction in what they are owed, our editor says.

Eurozone leaders agreed a plan in July, which has yet to be ratified, that provided for a reduction in Greece's repayments to banks of about 20%.

After talks with IMF chief Christine Lagarde, Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said that Athens would do "whatever it takes" to reduce its huge level of debt, which is currently about 160% of the country's gross domestic product.

Key events this week

  • The European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund return to Athens to assess Greece's debt reduction programme, to decide whether to release the latest tranche of bailout money
  • On Thursday, Germany is expected to vote on whether to pass proposals to extend the powers of the EFSF
  • Also on Thursday, EU Commissioner for Monetary and Economic Affairs Olli Rehn is scheduled to meet German Economics Minister Phillipp Roesler

Publicly, world leaders have said there is "no plan" for a Greek default, but reports suggest officials are working on a plan to allow Greece to default on some of its debts and remain in the euro.

The third element of the rescue plan envisages a strengthening of big eurozone banks, which are perceived to have too little capital to absorb losses.

But our editor says that MPs in eurozone member-states will be concerned that taxpayers would be taking much more risk, and banks will bolt at raising expensive new capital.

'Back to the 1960s'

In Washington, Mr Venizelos also pledged that Greece would stay within the euro, but denied that the Greek crisis was enough on its own to cause a "domino effect" elsewhere in the eurozone.

Earlier, Greece's minister for international economic relations, Constantine Papadopoulos, said leaving the euro would be "catastrophic" for Greece.

"I personally think [leaving the eurozone] would take us back to the 1960s or 1970s," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr programme.

He later clarified that he was not referring to the political situation at the time, when the military took power in a coup, but the standards of living and the structure of the economy.

This week will see EU and IMF officials return to Athens to examine the country's progress on its deficit reduction plans.

Greece is still receiving money from an initial rescue, agreed in May last year, although it will not receive the next tranche if inspectors rule that it is not keeping up with its spending cut targets.

Analysts say this is a real possibility.

Without this month's loan, Greece will not be able to meet its debt payments by the middle of next month.

A second EU-IMF bailout was agreed for Greece in July of this year but that still has to be ratified by the parliaments of a number of eurozone member states.


A game of chicken

Who will blink first on the latest set of ultimatums from the U.S. to Pakistan on the Haqqani network remains to be seen.

The gloves are off. The United States is delivering what it hopes will be knock-out punches on Pakistan by trying to “name and shame” the country as an “exporter of terror,” even as an attempt has begun, slowly but surely, to financially push Pakistan into submission.

When U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Afghanistan and Iraq on Thursday, they were evidently determined to “call a spade a spade” vis-à-vis Pakistan's institutional links to terrorism.

After describing the Haqqani network as “a strategic arm of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence[ISI]”, Admiral Mullen went on to say: “The actions by the Pakistani government to support them — actively and passively — represent a growing problem that is undermining U.S. interests and may violate international norms, potentially warranting sanction.”

A week of American recriminations had clearly peaked. The build-up had been systematic with even the U.S. Ambassador in Islamabad, Cameron Munter, being roped in — a sharp contrast with his usual task of assuaging frayed nerves in Islamabad whenever Washington begins to tighten the screws.

Angered by the audacity of the recent high-profile attacks inside Afghanistan — which Admiral Mullen described as a tactical shift from direct confrontation with troops by the Taliban to “reap maximum strategic and psychological effect with minimal input” — the U.S. has abandoned its recent policy of “quiet diplomacy”.

This was particularly evident after the September 13 attack on the U.S. mission in Kabul. First off the block was Mr. Panetta, who blamed the Haqqani network for the attack and said the U.S. would do “everything to defend our forces”, suggesting possible unilateral action if Pakistan did not act against the terrorist havens in its territory. Then came Mr. Munter's interview to Radio Pakistan in which he accused the Pakistani government of having links with the Haqqani network which, according to the U.S., has persistently sabotaged attempts to restore normalcy in Afghanistan.

And, hours after the former Afghan President, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who had been leading the Afghan effort to negotiate with the Taliban, was assassinated on Tuesday, Admiral Mullen accused the ISI of using the Haqqani network to wage a proxy war. “The ISI has been doing this — working for, supporting proxies for — an extended period of time. It is a strategy in the country and I think that strategic approach has to shift in the future.” Two days later came his ‘Haqqani-network-is-the-veritable-arm-of-the-ISI' statement at the Senate hearing.

Failed contacts

Throughout the week after the September 13 attack there was a series of contacts at the political, military and intelligence levels between the two countries. Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani met Admiral Mullen in Spain at the NATO Chiefs of Defence meeting, Minister for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar had a three-and-a-half-hour-long session with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session, ISI Director-General Shuja Pasha had a “hush-hush” interaction in Washington with Mr. Panetta and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert S. Mueller met Interior Minister Rehman Malik in Islamabad.

Evidently, the Americans had one litany. Equally evident was Pakistan's reluctance to blink. Islamabad's first official response was that these remarks were not in line with the cooperation the two countries had in counter-terrorism. Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani threw the U.S.' pet phrase, “do more”, back at Washington with the official narrative here being that Pakistan cannot be held responsible for security breaches in Afghanistan.

Also, raising the issue of terrorist havens on the Afghan side of the Durand Line, Islamabad has built a case around the question of how the “militants” got right up to Kabul, or Wardak where five Afghans were killed and 77 U.S. soldiers wounded in a truck-bomb attack on September 10, despite the presence of international and Afghan forces.

Teaser campaign

Given how often the two have been snapping at each other and how seemingly futile the U.S. ultimatums to Pakistan have been, Washington's threats have been likened to ‘last-day-sale' teaser advertisements.

Just how wide the differences are was evident from the conflicting versions on the meeting between Ms. Clinton and Ms. Khar. According to the Americans, the September 13 attack changed the focus of the meeting, which had been planned to allow both sides to hear each other out in an unhurried manner and without the burden of having to attempt a joint statement. “The issue of the Haqqani network was the first thing on the Secretary's agenda and also the last,” the State Department said in a background briefing.

Pakistan, on the other hand, insisted that the meeting had not been “one-dimensional” and that all issues, including “perceptional” ones, were discussed; parrying all questions regarding action against the Haqqani network saying they were operational details that cannot be made public.

Changing lines

While General Kayani's response in Spain was that Pakistan reserved the sovereign right to formulate policy in accordance with its national interest, the change made by the Foreign Office in the reply offered by its spokesperson to a question on whether Pakistan considered the Haqqani network an enemy and a threat to its interests was revealing. At the press conference, the spokesperson's answer was: “Any kind of terrorism is unacceptable. We condemn any act against Pakistan or any other country since we condemn terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.” However, in the transcript of the briefing circulated later, any possibility of inferring from the reply that Pakistan considered the Haqqani network a terrorist organisation was removed. Instead, what was circulated was this: “Pakistan has suffered from terrorism and terrorist attacks. We remain deeply concerned about militant activity from across the border into Pakistan. The Government of Pakistan is committed to peace, reconciliation, stability and development in Afghanistan and the region.”

Apart from its strategic-depth policy and use of terrorists as assets — which many within the country are increasingly questioning as it has backfired — the Pakistani establishment's refusal to fall in line also stems from what it perceives as American dependence on Islamabad for the “endgame” in Afghanistan.

That the U.S. does not plan to cut itself off from Pakistan like it did in the past was made amply clear — twice — by Admiral Mullen this week. At the Senate hearing, he did not mince words. “Despite deep personal disappointments in the decisions of the Pakistani military and government, I still believe that we must stay engaged. This is because while Pakistan is part of the problem in the region, it must also be part of the solution. A flawed and strained engagement with Pakistan is better than disengagement. We have completely disengaged in the past. That disengagement failed and brings us where we are today.”

The price of the carrot

So, as of now, the U.S. intends to continue with its carrot-and-stick policy but from what transpired in the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee this week, Washington may try to exact a heavier price from Pakistan for the carrot. The U.S. Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programmes Appropriations Bill 2012 passed by the Senate on Wednesday has linked economic and security assistance to Pakistan to fighting the Haqqani network.

The European Union and the United Kingdom are also making aid conditional, to cite few instances of how assistance from elsewhere is also becoming dearer. While the U.K. has a new law that links international aid to effective transparency laws in recipient countries and is not Pakistan-specific as such, the EU, after last year's experience during the mega floods that inundated a third of the country, has told Pakistan that financial assistance would be provided solely on the guarantee of direct access to the beneficiaries. Though these are unrelated to terrorism, there is a sneaking suspicion and, of course, the omni-present conspiracy theory that all this is a part of a bid to corner the country.

Anita Joshua - The Hindu

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Libya’s NTC readies new push into Sirte; Qaddafi forces attack town on Algeria border

Fighters backing Libya’s interim rulers prepared to renew their advance into the coastal city of Sirte on Monday after NATO aircraft bombed targets in Muammar Qaddafi’s home town to sap the resistance of the deposed leader's troops.

Anti-Qaddafi forces had pushed to within a few hundred meters of the center of Sirte, one of the last bastions of pro-Qaddafi resistance in Libya, but drew back on Sunday while NATO aircraft launched their attacks.

Sirte lies between the capital Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi, both now held by the National Transitional Council, whose fighters toppled Gaddafi last month, six months into a campaign that is not yet over.

Taking Sirte would be a huge boost for the NTC as it tries to establish credibility as a government able to unite Libya's fractious tribes and regions, and a blow for Qaddafi, widely believed to be on the run inside Libya.

Qaddafi loyalists showed they were still a threat by launching an attack on Sunday on the desert oasis town of Ghadames, on the border with Algeria, NTC officials said.

The NTC said on Sunday its followers had found a mass grave containing the bodies of 1,270 people killed by Qaddafi’s security forces in a 1996 massacre of prison inmates in southern Tripoli.

The mass grave was the first physical evidence found so far of the Abu Salim prison massacre, an event that was covered up for years but created simmering anger that ultimately helped bring about Qaddafi’s downfall.

Survivors have told human rights groups that guards lined up inmates in the courtyards of the Abu Salim prison at dawn on June 29, 1996, and security men standing on the prison rooftops shot them down.

The uprising that toppled Qaddafi was ignited by protests linked to the Abu Salim massacre. In February, families of inmates killed there demonstrated in Benghazi to demand the release of their lawyer.

There was little fighting on Sunday on the ground west of Sirte, where NTC fighters have advanced closest to the center.

On the eastern side, their forces pushed to within 15 km (9 miles) of the city center, an advance of more than 25 km.

A Reuters reporter there said NTC forces had been helped by NATO bombing, and said she could hear artillery fire and see black smoke on the horizon. Doctors at a hospital east of Sirte said one fighter had been killed and 12 wounded in clashes.

Qaddafi’s spokesman contacted Reuters to deny reports that Qaddafi and his family had helped themselves to Libya's oil wealth, giving an insight into his current preoccupations.

“The leader of the revolution and his family are among the poorest citizens,” said the spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim. He spoke by telephone and did not reveal where he was calling from.

Accounts from NTC fighters and people who had left Sirte indicated pro-Gaddafi forces were trying to prevent civilians from fleeing, effectively using them as human shields.

“Qaddafi’s forces have surrounded the area, closed it off, by shooting at people,” said a man called Youssef, driving away from Sirte with his wife. “There are a lot of people who want to get out but can’t.”

A man saying he was a hospital doctor in Sirte told Reuters by telephone it was NTC forces who were making civilians suffer. Wounded people were dying because medical supplies were running out and the hospital had been hit by shellfire, he said.

The doctor, who gave his name as Abdullah Hmaid, used the mobile telephone of the Qaddafi spokesman, Ibrahim, who is a native of Sirte.

The attack by pro-Qaddafi forces on Ghadames underlined the fragility of the NTC’s grip even on parts of the country nominally under its control.

The town, about 600 km southwest of Tripoli, is near a border crossing that pro-Gaddafi Libyans have used to flee into Algeria. Its old town, an intricate maze of mud walls, is a UNESCO world heritage site.

“These militias have attacked our people in Ghadames city,” the NTC’s Bani told a news conference, adding that NTC fighters expected to be in full control of the area in “a matter of days.”

A month after ousting Qaddafi’s forces from Tripoli and most of the country, the challenge to the NTC’s rule is now focused in Sirte and Bani Walid, a town about 170 km (105 miles) southeast of Tripoli.

Until both are captured, Libya’s new rulers say they cannot begin the process of holding elections. Wrangling over ministerial portfolios has prevented them from forming a caretaker government, deepening uncertainty over the country’s future.