News & Current Affairs

November 1, 2008

Crucial battle on Pakistan’s frontline

A tank fires at militant movement detected at the edge of the town of Loi Sam in Bajaur

A tank fires at militant movement detected at the edge of the town of Loi Sam

Entering the combat zone, we drive past mile after mile of flattened buildings, crops and trees, razed to prevent ambushes.

Even still, soldiers are on high alert, watchful for possible attacks.

They race down the road at top speed, firing occasional rounds from the guns mounted on the backs of their vehicles. Cobra attack helicopters circle overhead.

This is the tribal area of Bajaur near the Afghan border, or rather a small part of it.

The Pakistan army has wrested control of a 38km (24-mile) region from the Taleban, and it has given us rare access to the frontline.

We arrive in the town of Loi Sam, now in ruins. Militants here were targeted by the air force and artillery, followed by a ground offensive that lasted five days.

Civilians fled long ago – hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the fighting.

Key crossroads

A tank guards one of the approaches to the town, firing whenever there is movement in the distance.

Already a bulldozer has begun clearing away the blasted shells of buildings.

“You have to either occupy or remove the structures,” says one soldier, “otherwise the militants will return to them once we’ve left.”

For the army, this is a crucial victory: Loi Sam lies at a key crossroads between Afghanistan and Pakistan. From here local and Afghan insurgents could launch attacks in both countries.

“The militant activities from this tribal agency were radiating in different directions, towards Afghanistan, the rest of the border region and [Pakistan’s] settled areas,” says army spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas.

“Now we have this area under control, it will affect militant activities elsewhere, and we’ll capitalise on that.”

“The worst is over,” agrees Maj Gen Tariq Khan, who is in charge of the offensive. “I think we have turned the corner.”

Guerrilla warfare

The battle has been slow and deliberate. It took six weeks for the army to secure the road from the headquarters of the local security forces, the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC), to Loi Sam, a distance of 13km.

Troops fought compound to compound in a terrain ideal for guerrilla warfare.

“There are road bends, there are depressions, there are houses located inside the depressions, trenches prepared, caves, tunnels, everything prepared,” says Col Javed Baloch, commander of one of the posts along the road, “so it was difficult to find them, to spot them, and then take the area.”

The Taleban has made extensive use of bunkers and tunnels which connected different compounds.

One commanding officer, Maj Kamal, took me 5m underground for a tour of the network.

He says his men blocked 20 or 30 passageways, including one that stretched 100m to a stream.

Many in Bajaur trace the roots of the uprising to a suspected US missile strike on an Islamic seminary, or madrassa, in November 2006, which killed around 80 people.

That radicalized local Islamists, they say, who were reinforced by militants from other Pakistani tribal areas. There was also an influx of fighters from Afghanistan.

A soldier keeps watch
Until and unless Afghanistan is made stable, you can do a million development activities in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and there will be no result
Shafir Ullah
Government representative in Bajaur

The battle for Bajaur was triggered when the FC tried to re-establish a check post in Loi Sam in early August. Fierce resistance led to the siege of the FC base before the army was called in.

Like other army officers, Maj Gen Tariq Khan criticises unilateral US air strikes on suspected insurgent targets as deeply counter productive.

But, he says, during the Bajaur operation there has been improved intelligence sharing and co-ordination with coalition forces, which has reduced cross-border militant infiltration from Afghanistan. “We’ve seen practical on-ground adjustments in relevance to our operations,” he says.

“I’ve got a very positive response and I feel we’ve set up some system in which we’re in some kind of regular touch, and I think that’s the way to go.”

Hearts and minds

Now that the fighting has subsided, attention is turning to reconstruction and development: acknowledgement that winning hearts and minds in the impoverished tribal region along the border is essential to fighting the insurgency.

Map

But that won’t be enough, says Shafir Ullah, the government representative in Bajaur who deals with tribal elders.

“The reasons [for the insurgency] are poverty, backwardness and others, but the real problem is linked with Afghanistan,” he says.

“Until and unless Afghanistan is made stable, you can do a million development activities in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and there will be no result.”

The Taleban have been pushed back – the army claims it has killed 1,500 – but they haven’t been defeated.

Two soldiers were killed by rocket fire in Loi Sam shortly after we left the town, bringing the army’s death toll to 75. Nearly 100 civilians have also died, says Shafir Ullah.

One hillside post is so exposed to Taleban fire that the soldiers have dug in for protection.

Forty men can fit in the massive bunker at any one time, a few are saying their prayers and reciting the Koran in a makeshift underground mosque when we visit.

This is not a popular war in Pakistan: some have criticized the military for killing fellow Muslims.

Others accuse it of fighting “America’s War”. But the army insists it is fighting to defend Pakistan, not just responding to US pressure for action against the Taleban.

Even as dusk falls artillery guns continue to pound militant positions. The war in Afghanistan has spilled over into Pakistan.

This is the other, rarely seen, side of the battle against the Taleban.

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September 7, 2008

New hurricane menaces Caribbean

New hurricane menaces Caribbean

Caribbean nations are bracing for another major storm, Hurricane Ike, coming just days after Tropical Storm Hanna passed through the region.

Ike has regained strength after weakening, with winds of up to 135mph (215km/h) as it nears the Turks and Caicos islands and the Bahamas.

Cuba has issued a hurricane watch for its eastern provinces.

Haitian officials have said that at least 500 people have been found dead as floodwater’s caused by Hanna recede.

That storm has hit the US south-east coast and is dropping torrential rain on North and South Carolina.

Storm warnings are in force along the Atlantic coast from Georgia to New Jersey.

‘Major hurricane’

Hurricane Ike gained strength to Category Four on the Saffir Simpson scale – an “extremely dangerous hurricane” – after weakening slightly earlier on Saturday, said the Florida-based National Hurricane Center (NHC).

As of 2100 GMT, Ike was tracking west south-west, moving at 15mph about 90 miles (145km) east of Grand Turk Island.

SAFFIR-SIMPSON SCALE
Cat 1: Winds 74-95mph (119-153km/h). No real damage to buildings
Cat 2: Winds 96-110mph (154-177km/h). Storm surge 6-8 feet (1.8-2.8 metres) above normal
Cat 3: Winds 111-130mph (178-209km/h). Major hurricane. Coastal flooding destroys smaller structures
Cat 4: Winds 131-155mph (210-249km/h). Large storm surge and widespread damage to smaller buildings
Cat 5: Winds greater than 155mph (249km/h). Small buildings blown away, roofs on large buildings destroyed. All trees and signs knocked down. Widespread coastal flooding.
Source: US National Hurricane Center

The NHC said the storm was expected to pass near or over the Turks and Caicos islands and the south-eastern Bahamas late on Saturday or early Sunday.

After Hanna pummeled the low-lying Turks and Caicos, a British territory to the north of Haiti, earlier in the week, many residents and visitors decided to leave.

Authorities decided to close the airport in Providenciales at mid-day on Saturday.

Ike should hit the northern coast of eastern Cuba by late Sunday or early Monday, according to the NHC forecast.

If it stays on its projected course, Ike will cut across the island from east to west, putting the crumbling colonial buildings of the capital, Havana, at risk.

A storm surge of up to 12ft (3.6m) is expected along with “large and dangerous battering waves” and heavy rainfall, the NHC said.

The center of the hurricane is forecast to pass to the north of Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.

But Haiti, already reeling from three major storms in as many weeks, will not be spared, with up to 12in (30cm) of rain due to fall.

As floodwaters caused by Tropical Storm Hanna receded, Haitian officials said more than 500 people had been killed.

Hurricane Gustav last week and Tropical Storm Fay two weeks ago killed about 120 people.

Hardest hit by Hanna was the city of Gonaives, which was flooded with up to 16ft of water that has only now begun to recede.

The devastation there has been described as catastrophic.

Police said 500 people were confirmed dead but that others are still missing and the number could rise higher.

The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) said hundreds of thousands of people had been displaced by the flooding.

The WFP has begun distributing food aid but a spokesperson said the scale of the disaster was putting their resources to the test.

Other aid workers say people’s spirits are running low after the successive storms.

“Food supplies and water are scarce and the price of the food that’s left is rising,” said Parnell Denis from Oxfam in Gonaives.

“The morale of people staying in the shelters is so very low; I am afraid to tell them that another storm is on its way.”

More bad weather will hamper the aid effort even further.

In the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, there have been no reports of major damage.

However, preparations are under way for the arrival of Hurricane Ike.

“The ground is saturated and some of the dams in the south-east region are fairly close to their maximum capacity,” said meteorological official Gloria Ceballos.

Civil defense director Colonel Juan Manuel Mendez said Dominican troops had been put on alert.

Map of Hurricane Ike's predicted route


Are you in the Caribbean? Have you been affected by the storms? What preparations have you made to deal with the adverse weather? Send us your comments and experiences

September 6, 2008

‘Hundreds’ killed by Haiti storm

‘Hundreds’ killed by Haiti storm

Floods in Gonaives

Floods in Gonaives left people stranded and in desperate need of help

Almost 500 bodies have been found in the port city of Gonaives, Haiti, after floodwaters caused by recent storms receded, according to reports.

Polie commissioner Ernst Dorfeuille said 495 bodies had been found and the toll could get higher.

A ship carrying 33 tons of UN aid arrived in Haiti on Friday to help an estimated 600,000 people struggling in the wake of tropical storm Hanna.

The storm is heading for the US, while Hurricane Ike threatens the Bahamas.

See Ike’s predicted path

The US National Hurricane Center says Ike is a Category Three hurricane, with winds of up to 185 km/h (115mph).

The smell of the dead is very unpleasant in Gonaives
Commissioner Ernst Dorfeuille

It is expected to pass near or over the Turks and Caicos Islands and south-eastern Bahamas late on Saturday or early Sunday.

By then it could be a major hurricane, forecasters say.

Tropical storm Hanna is causing heavy squalls off the coasts of North and South Carolina and tropical storm warnings are in force along the Atlantic coast from Georgia to New Jersey.

In Haiti, the devastation from the storm in Gonaives has been described as catastrophic.

Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis said her newly-installed government would take the necessary measures to help victims.

Stench of death

Commissioner Dorfeuille told Reuters new agency: “The weather is calm now and we are discovering more bodies. We have found 495 bodies so far and there are 13 people missing.

“The smell of the dead is very unpleasant in Gonaives. The death toll could be even higher.”

Haiti floods

Hanna dumped massive amounts of rain on the country over four days, blowing down fruit trees and swamping tin-roofed houses.

The port city of Gonaives bore the brunt of the storm, forcing thousands of people to seek shelter on rooftops and balconies as flood waters rose.

The UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator in Haiti, Joel Boutrioue, told the it was still difficult to get aid to thousands of people. Roads are cut off and access to some areas is only possible by air – which is limited by the available number of helicopters.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has also launched an appeal, asking for $3.4m in aid.

Haiti was first drenched by Tropical Storm Fay, before Hurricane Gustav wreaked havoc last week, with torrential rainfall over heavily deforested and hilly terrain causing floods and mudslides.

Earlier, Hanna was also blamed for two deaths in Puerto Rico.

In the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, there have been no reports of major damage.

However, preparations are under way for the arrival of Hurricane Ike.

“The ground is saturated and some of the dams in the south-east region are fairly close to their maximum capacity,” said meteorological official Gloria Ceballos.

Civil defense director Colonel Juan Manuel Mendez said Dominican troops had been put on alert.

Map of Hurricane Ike's predicted route


Are you in Haiti? Have you been affected by the storms? Are you based elsewhere in the region? What preparations have you made to deal with the adverse weather? Send us your comments and experiences

August 20, 2008

Tropical storm hugs Florida coast

Tropical storm hugs Florida coast

Tropical Storm Fay is continuing northwards, with northern Florida and much of Georgia set for a drenching, the US National Hurricane Center says.

Fay is following an erratic path, hugging the Florida coastline, instead of heading out over the ocean.

Forecasters say this makes it less likely that Fay will strengthen to a hurricane, but parts of north Florida and Georgia are still on alert.

Fay was blamed for at least a dozen deaths in the Caribbean.

Path of storm

A state of emergency had been declared for what is the sixth tropical storm of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season, but officials dropped the hurricane warning early on Tuesday after Fay made landfall near Naples on Florida’s west coast.The storm brought drenching rain and winds of 65mph (105km/h) across the state.

Several tornadoes were also reported, with one ripping through Brevard County damaging more than 50 homes.

Fay then reached Florida’s east coast at 0200 local time (0600 GMT) on Wednesday, about 15 miles (24km) south-southeast of Melbourne. Its maximum sustained winds remained near 50mph (80km/h).

At 1200 GMT, the centre of Fay was close to Cape Canaveral, moving northwards at 5 mph (8km/h) but its wind speed had lessened to 45mph (70km/h).

However a hurricane watch remained in effect for the east coast north of Flagler Beach, Florida, to Altamaha Sound, Georgia.

In south-east Georgia, Camden County officials sent out teams to clean out storm drains and ditches in preparation for possible flooding.

The Georgia Emergency Management Agency has also started a 24-hour monitoring operation of the storm.

Hope for farmers

A forecast from the National Hurricane Center on Tuesday predicted that the storm’s path would take it through Alabama over the weekend.

However, the heavy rain has not been bad news for everyone. Farmers in drought-hit areas of southern Georgia are hoping for a visit from Fay.

“It’s very seldom we’re hoping for a hurricane, but we are,” said Randy Branch, a cotton and peanut farmer in south-east Georgia. “We need some rain pretty bad.”

Initially, Fay drenched parts of Cuba, but its passage over Haiti and the Dominican Republic was more destructive, with more than a dozen deaths reported.

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