News & Current Affairs

July 20, 2009

Enduring allure of Egyptian belly dance

Enduring allure of Egyptian belly dance

Ahlan Wa Sahlan belly dance festival

The Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival has been a big hit this year

Hundreds of women of all nationalities sway their hips and twirl in time to the beat of a drum in a hotel ballroom by the pyramids in Cairo.

Belly dancing is said to have been practised in Egypt since Pharaonic times and now it has caught on around the globe.

It is well-established in Europe and the US and has recently spread to Asia. This year dozens of dancers travelled from China for the Ahlan Wa Sahlan belly dancing festival.

“Because this is the land of dance, women have to come!” declares Raqia Hassan, the festival organiser.

“When she comes she can meet famous dancers and musicians. She can see the pyramids. Anyone who comes to Egypt one time, she cannot stop coming back.”

Japanese belly dance fan

Safa Bakr’s shop attracts women from all over the world

Raqia, who has taught many belly dancing celebrities, leads her large class through the basic moves of the dance putting together a routine.

“It’s fun and you can do this at any age,” says Ewa Horsfield from London. “You can express your own personality. It’s an individual dance. You just listen and respond to the music.”

Many speak of the fitness benefits of belly dancing.

“In China all ladies like for their health,” says Angel from Shanghai.

“This kind of dance began here. Here teachers [are] very, very good so all Chinese ladies want to come.”

Contradictions

Belly dancing is big business in Egypt thanks to the global market.

Designer, Safaa Yasser Bakr, runs a belly dancing costume shop in the historic Khan el-Khalili bazaar.

She helps a Brazilian woman try on a sky-blue sequinned bra and a matching skirt with a split up one side.

“In one show big stars change costume many times,” she tells her. “You need maybe five different pieces.”

Nowadays Safaa sells most of her alluring outfits to foreigners.

Safa Yasser Bakr

Safa sells her wares in Khan el-Khalili – Cairo’s Islamic heart

“I see people coming from France, Italy, United States, Argentina, Spain, Japan,” she says.

But in Egypt at large, many experts fear the dance is losing its appeal.

Society has become more religious and conservative over the past generation and belly dancing is not considered a respectable profession.

“I don’t like belly dancing. I don’t like to see a woman half-naked dancing and moving her body like that,” says one man on the street in central Cairo.

“It has a kind of sexual movement. That’s why I don’t like to watch it,” adds his friend.

An older passer-by remembers the famous dancers of the 1960s with affection but says he would not let his wife or daughters dance in public today.

“I liked the old belly dancer because you could not see a lot of her body,” he remarks. “They were very respectable – not like the new ones now.”

Enduring art

Dance historian, Mo Geddawi, accepts belly dancing is facing a challenging time in Egypt but says this must be seen in perspective.

“Forget about different governments and religion,” he says. “When Christianity and then Islam came the dance was taboo, but people continued to dance.”

“Sometimes in public it is less but the dance never died.”

For now though international devotees help to ensure the dance goes on.

Diana Esposito from New York came to Cairo on a scholarship to study the social and economic reasons for its decline but has become an accomplished belly dancer herself.

“The first time I saw it I thought the movements were so sensual,” she says. “I decided to try something new and it became an addiction.”

“I don’t see the dance being done properly anywhere else in the world. That’s why everyone flocks here – this is the capital of belly dance.”

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July 19, 2009

Man charged over six US killings

Filed under: Latest — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:04 pm

Man charged over six US killings

Jacob Shaffer

Jacob Shaffer was arrested on Saturday at a house in Tennessee

A man has been charged with murder after six people were found dead in the US states of Tennessee and Alabama.

Jacob Shaffer, 30, was arrested after five bodies were found in Fayetteville, about 90 miles (145km) south of Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday.

Another body was found in Huntsville, Alabama. Police said the victims were four adults and two juveniles.

A spokeswoman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said it appeared to be a domestic incident.

“Most of the victims are suspected to be related. The motive of the killings is domestic,” Kristin Helm said.

Five of the bodies were found at two neighbouring homes in the town of Fayetteville.

Map

The sixth was found at a business in Huntsville, in neighbouring Alabama, police said.

Mr Shaffer was found sitting on the porch of one of the two houses in Fayetteville.

The names of the victims and the cause of death have not been released. But Lincoln County Sheriff Murray Blackwelder described the killings as “horrendous”.

Mr Shaffer has been remanded in custody. He has been charged with five counts of murder in Tennessee and faces an additional charge in Alabama, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said.

July 12, 2009

Israel in ‘Sabbath car park’ row

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 4:55 am

Israel in ‘Sabbath car park’ row

Hundreds of ultra-orthodox Jews have clashed with police in Jerusalem for a third consecutive Saturday over a car park which opens on the Sabbath.

Police said the protesters, wearing traditional Hassidic clothing, threw stones and jumped in front of vehicles.

The Sabbath is observed by religious Jews as a day of rest, when working, driving and trading are forbidden.

The protesters say the municipal car park will attract tourists and encourage business on the holy day.

Protesters, praying and chanting “Shabbes” – the Yiddish word for Sabbath – gathered at a police cordon at the entrance to the car park, near Jerusalem’s Old City.

Some lay in the road to prevent cars from entering.

“Hundreds of ultra-orthodox tried to overrun police barricades and threw stones at our men in several sectors of Jerusalem,” police spokesman Schmuel Ben Rubi, told the AFP news agency .

He said there had been no injuries or arrests so far.

However, television footage showed people in religious clothing being moved by police or put into police cars.

One man who had crawled underneath the wheels of a stationary bus was reported to have been taken away by police.

There were also clashes in the nearby ultra-orthodox neighbourhood of Mea Shearim, where police had been deployed.

The car park was opened by the Jerusalem municipality last month to provide extra facilities for visitors to the city.

But the protesters are angry at what they see as a move which will “profane” the Sabbath.

The row has highlighted tensions between Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox Jews, known as Haredim, and the majority secular population.

December 30, 2008

US consumer confidence plummets

US consumer confidence plummets

Shoppers at a J C Penney store

US consumers are increasingly gloomy about economic prospects

US consumer confidence has unexpectedly dropped to a record low in December, in the face of the US economic slowdown and continuing job cuts.

The index fell to 38, from November’s revised 44.7 figure, though it had been expected to rise.

The dismal job market appears to have outweighed falling oil prices in consumers’ minds, analysts said.

Meanwhile, October house prices in 20 US cities fell by a record yearly rate, according to a key home price survey.

Falling confidence

According to the Conference Board, those respondents saying jobs were “hard to get” rose to 42% in December – up from 37.1% in November, while those claiming jobs were “plentiful” dropped to 6.2% from 8.7%.

The proportion of consumers anticipating an increase in their incomes decreased to 12.7% in December from 13.1% in November.

And those claiming business conditions were “bad” increased to 46% in December from 40.6% in November, while those saying business conditions were “good” declined to 7.7% from 10.1%.

The survey is based on a representative sample of 5,000 US households.

Separately, house prices in 20 US cities fell by a record annual rate of 18.04% in October, according to the The S&P/Case-Shiller home price survey.

Record falls

The index shows that prices of homes is continuing to fall across the US with many areas showing record price falls.

David Blitzer, of Standard & Poor’s said that “home prices are back to their March 2004 levels”.

October’s annual fall was more than had been expected by analysts, who had been predicting a 17% drop.

The city which showed the biggest price-fall was Phoenix, where home prices plunged 32.6% in the year to October – followed by Las Vegas, which was down 31.7% and San Francisco, down 31%.

Overall, house prices for the 20 metropolitan areas in the survey fell 18.04% in the year to October, the largest drop since its inception in 2000.

The annual fall in prices for the top 10 metropolitan areas was 19.06%, its biggest decline in its 21-year history.

Both indices have now recorded annual declines for 22 consecutive months.

Prices in the 20-city index have dropped more than 23% since their peak in July 2006, while the 10-city index has fallen 25% since its peak in June 2006.

None of the 20 cities saw annual price gains in October – for the seventh consecutive month.

‘Decline slowing’

Wall Street’s reaction to this latest housing survey was initially muted, as November figures on the depressed state of the housing market have already been published.

Last week, figures from the Commerce Department showed that sales of new homes in the US had slowed to their lowest level in 17 years in November, while new home prices had dropped by the biggest amount in eight months.

Tim Ghriskey of Solaris Asset Management in Bedford Hills, said this survey was “pretty much right in line with expectations but very depressed”.

“There are signs we believe that the decline in housing prices is slowing and we’re in a bottoming process but clearly this does show that housing prices continue to decline significantly,” he said.

The US housing market is in the worst downturn since the Great Depression as a huge supply of unsold homes, the credit squeeze and record mortgage foreclosures has pushed down home prices.

Economists believe the market will not begin to recover until home prices fall far enough to stimulate demand, which has dropped off precipitously.

December 27, 2008

Massive Israeli air raids on Gaza

Massive Israeli air raids on Gaza

Israeli F-16 bombers have pounded key targets across the Gaza Strip, killing more than 200 people, local medics say.

Most of those killed were policemen in the Hamas militant movement, which controls Gaza, but women and children also died, the Gaza officials said.

About 700 others were wounded, as missiles struck security compounds and militant bases, the officials said.

Israel said it was responding to an escalation in rocket attacks from Gaza and would bomb “as long as necessary”.

They were the heaviest Israeli attacks on Gaza for decades. More air raids were launched as night fell.

Map

The operation came days after a truce with Hamas expired.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said “it won’t be easy and it won’t be short”.

“There is a time for calm and a time for fighting, and now the time has come to fight,” he said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate halt to the violence, condemning what he called Israel’s “excessive use of force leading to the killing and injuring of civilians” and “the ongoing rocket attacks by Palestinian militants”.

Middle East envoy Tony Blair and the French EU presidency also urged an immediate ceasefire.

Palestinian militants frequently fire rockets against Israeli towns from inside the Gaza Strip; large numbers of rocket and mortar shells have been fired at Israel in recent days.

In a statement, Israel’s military said it targeted “Hamas terror operatives” as well as training camps and weapons storage warehouses.

Hamas bases destroyed

A Hamas police spokesman, Islam Shahwan, said one of the raids targeted a police compound in Gaza City where a graduation ceremony for new personnel was taking place.

At least a dozen bodies of men in black uniforms were photographed at the Hamas police headquarters in Gaza City.

Hamas will continue the resistance until the last drop of blood
Fawzi Barhoum
Hamas spokesman

Israel said operations “will continue, will be expanded, and will deepen if necessary”.

It is the worst attack in Gaza since 1967 in terms of the number of Palestinian casualties, a senior analyst told the BBC in Jerusalem.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni defended the air raids, saying Israel had “no choice”. “We’re doing what we need to do to defend our citizens,” she said in a television broadcast.

Israel hit targets across Gaza, striking in the territory’s main population centres, including Gaza City in the north and the southern towns of Khan Younis and Rafah.

Hamas said all of its security compounds in Gaza were destroyed by the air strikes, which Israel said hit some 40 targets.

Mosques issued urgent appeals for people to donate blood and Hamas sources told the BBC’s Rushdi Abou Alouf in Gaza that hospitals were soon full.

In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – whose Fatah faction was ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007 – condemned the attacks and called for restraint.

But Hamas quickly vowed to carry out revenge attacks on Israel in response to the air strikes, firing Qassam rockets into Israeli territory as an immediate reply.

One Israeli was killed by a rocket strike on the town of Netivot, 20 kilometres (12 miles) east of Gaza, doctors said.

“Hamas will continue the resistance until the last drop of blood,” spokesman Fawzi Barhoum was reported as saying.

The air strikes come amid rumours that an Israeli ground operation is imminent.

Calls for ceasefire

World leaders urged both sides to halt the violence.

Palestinians flee the scene of an air strike in Rafah

Civilians were caught up in the air strikes in heavily-populated Gaza

A White House spokesman said the United States “urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza”.

“Hamas’ continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop,” the spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, added.

The UK Foreign Office said: “We urge maximum restraint to avoid further civilian casualties.”

At least 30 missiles were fired by F-16 fighter bombers. Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that about 60 warplanes took part in the first wave of air strikes.

Egypt opened its border crossing to the Gaza Strip at Rafah to absorb and treat some of those injured in the south of the territory.

Most of the dead and injured were said to be in Gaza City, where Hamas’s main security compound was destroyed. The head of Gaza’s police forces, Tawfik Jaber, was reportedly among those killed.

Residents spoke of children heading to and from school at the time of the attacks, and there were fears of civilian casualties.

Israeli security officials have been briefing about the possibility of a new offensive into Gaza for some days now.

But most reports centred on the possibility of a ground offensive, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was not expected to authorise any operation until Sunday at the earliest.

Although a six-month truce between Hamas and Israel was agreed earlier this year, it was regularly under strain and was allowed to lapse when it expired this month.

Hamas blamed Israel for the end of the ceasefire, saying it had not respected its terms, including the lifting of the blockade under which little more than humanitarian aid has been allowed into Gaza.

Israel said it initially began a staged easing of the blockade, but this was halted when Hamas failed to fulfil what Israel says were agreed conditions, including ending all rocket fire and halting weapons smuggling.

Israel says the blockade – in place since Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007 – is needed to isolate Hamas and stop it and other militants from firing rockets across the border at Israeli towns.

November 27, 2008

Troops confront Mumbai attackers

Troops confront Mumbai attackers

Employees and guests of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel are rescued by fire crews

Employees and guests of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel are rescued by fire crews

Indian security forces have been exchanging fire with gunmen holding dozens of hostages in two luxury hotels in the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay).

Troops surrounded the premises shortly after armed men carried out a series of co-ordinated attacks across the city, killing 101 people and injuring 287.

The hotels were among several locations in the main tourist and business district targeted late on Wednesday.

Police say four suspected terrorists have been killed and nine arrested.

The situation is still volatile in two of the most high-profile targets of Wednesday’s attacks – the Taj Mahal Palace and Oberoi Trident hotels, where armed men are believed to be holding about 40 hostages.

Flames and black smoke billow from the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, Mumbai

There are reports of intermittent exchange of fire between security forces and the armed attackers barricaded inside both hotels.

Correspondents say security personnel have so far not stormed the premises perhaps for fear of endangering the lives of hostages, some of whom could be Westerners.

There are also unconfirmed reports that five gunmen have taken hostages in an office block in the financial district of Mumbai.

The city’s main commuter train station, a hospital, and a restaurant were among at least seven locations caught up in the violence.

In other developments:

• Fire crews evacuate people from the upper floors of the Taj Mahal Palace, where police say a grenade attack caused a blaze

• Israel says it is concerned for the safety of its citizens in Mumbai, as a rabbi and his family are feared captured by gunmen

• The head of Mumbai’s anti-terrorism unit and two other senior officers are among those killed, officials say

• The White House holds a meeting of top intelligence and counter-terrorism officials, and pledges to help the Indian government

• Trading on India’s Bombay Stock Exchange and National Stock Exchange markets will remain closed on Thursday, officials say.

Gunmen opened fire at about 2300 local time (1730 GMT) on Wednesday at the sites in southern Mumbai.

“The terrorists have used automatic weapons and in some places grenades have been lobbed,” said AN Roy, police commissioner of Maharashtra state.

Local TV images showed blood-splattered streets, and bodies being taken into ambulances.

One eyewitness told the BBC he had seen a gunman opening fire in the Taj Mahal’s lobby.

“We all moved through the lobby in the opposite direction and another gunman then appeared towards where we were moving and he started firing immediately in our direction.”

One British tourist said she spent six hours barricaded in the Oberoi hotel.

BOMB ATTACKS IN INDIA IN 2008
30 October: Explosions kill at least 64 in north-eastern Assam
30 September: Blasts in western India kill at least seven
27 September: Bomb blasts kills one in Delhi
13 September: Five bomb blasts kill 18 in Delhi
26 July: At least 22 small bombs kill 49 in Ahmedabad
25 July: Seven bombs go off in Bangalore killing two people
13 May: Seven bomb hit markets and crowded streets in Jaipur killing 63

“There were about 20 or 30 people in each room. The doors were locked very quickly, the lights turned off, and everybody just lay very still on the floor,” she said.

Eyewitness reports suggest the attackers singled out British and American passport holders.

If the reports are true, our security correspondent says it implies an Islamist motive – attacks inspired or co-ordinated by al-Qaeda.

A claim of responsibility has been made by a previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen.

Our correspondent says it could be a hoax or assumed name for another group.

There has been a wave of bombings in Indian cities in recent months which has left scores of people dead.

The timing and symbolism of the latest attacks could not have been worse.

By choosing to target the richest district of India’s financial capital in such a brazen and effective manner, he says those behind the attacks have perhaps dealt the severest blow to date to the morale and self esteem of the Indian authorities.

The attacks have come amidst elections in several Indian states and exposes the governing coalition to the charge that it has failed to combat terror, our correspondent says.

Aerial map of Mumbai showing sites of shootings


Are you in the region? Have you witnessed the attacks? Send us your comments

November 4, 2008

No apathy as US election day looms

No apathy as US election day looms

After nearly two years of digesting speeches and slogans, of being bombarded with adverts and requests for money, of coming to terms with the possibility of the first non-white or female president, Americans are nearly there.

Pedestrians walk along a pavement that is lined with dozens of election signs

One thing is certain: Americans are ready for this election

They voted in record numbers in the primary elections and now look poised to do the same in the general election. In fact, they already have been.

In more than 30 states, early voting began several weeks ago. It has not been uncommon to see large lines snaking around entrances to libraries, community centres and other voting locations.

If there is one thing that can confidently be said, it is that Americans are ready for this election.

At a time of economic crisis, with opinion polls consistently showing that large numbers of people are unhappy with the direction their country is taking, there is little sense of apathy.

‘Mind-boggling’ costs

And, after eight years of an increasingly unpopular Republican presidency, the advantage is with the Democratic Party – and the party’s candidate, Barack Obama.

Barack Obama campaigns in Ohio

Mr Obama has mustered a record-breaking fundraising operation

He has raised mind-boggling amounts of cash – far in excess of even the most generous estimates – enabling him to compete across the country and to afford extravagant amounts of advertising in these final few weeks, culminating in the half hour “infomercial” which aired at prime time on several US networks last week.

Of course, it’s not just the money. Throughout the months that I’ve covered this election, the levels of excitement and enthusiasm at Obama rallies have consistently outstripped those of his opponents, both Democratic and Republican.

Only Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin – both historic candidates, in their differing ways, have managed to inspire crowds, in a similar fashion.

Transformational

But the question is: Will this enthusiasm, enhanced voter registration and substantial financial advantage be carried over into the polling stations?

If it is, Sen Obama has a real chance of winning many of the states, which have crossed from safe Republican territory into the “toss up” column; places like Indiana and Virginia, which last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate when the current one was just three years old.

The election could be transformational, not just in terms of bringing a non-white president to the White House, but in re-drawing the electoral map, at the same time.

John McCain campaigns in Florida

Behind in the polls, Mr McCain insists will be the comeback kid

There are plenty of potential obstacles, though. Some are visceral.

When it comes down to it, how many Americans will find it hard to put a cross next to a man with an exotic name and mixed-race background?

Will Mr Obama, for all his inspiring rhetoric and calm demeanour be seen as too aloof and professorial?

Will Americans prefer the earthier, more “familiar-looking”, Mr McCain; a feature of public life for several decades, with an inspiring story of war time heroism – and reputation for bridging partisan divides?

And what of the polls, which have shown a fairly consistent Obama lead for the past few weeks? Will that keep Democratic voters away, through a sense of complacency, or, perhaps, discourage Republicans?

Palin effect

Certainly, the McCain campaign has made much of the tightening numbers in recent days and in places, such as Pennsylvania – a must win state for the Republican candidate.

There, the Arizona senator’s argument that Mr Obama is too inexperienced in foreign affairs and too left-wing in his economic views is gaining traction.

WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
Higher than usual number of voters leads to long queues
First-time voters are confused by the process, adding to delays
Voters are challenged over their registration or identity at the polls
Polling stations experience problems with voting machines
High turn-out leads to shortage of ballot papers
Householders with a repossession notice denied right to vote

Another big unknown is the Palin effect. Mr McCain’s running mate has inspired and disappointed in equal measure. She is likely to be a reason for many on both sides to turn out.

So, will the pro or anti forces be the most energised?

And whose get out the vote efforts will be the most successful? The Republicans have a good track record in this and the McCain camp seems to have kept cash aside for the final push, but the Obama campaign has broken new ground in its organisational powers.

The experience of the long primary campaign is likely to come in very handy.

Undecided voters

And what of those undecided voters? The sense I get, is that many are people who voted for President Bush four years ago, but are still unconvinced by Mr McCain – either for reasons of ideology or temperament.

If that’s the case, Mr Obama doesn’t need to win them over. He’d be happy if they simply stayed at home.

At this point, the odds remain in favour of an Obama win. But it’s not the bookmakers who will decide the result of the election; it’s the American people.

And after the longest, most expensive – and, according to many veteran observers – most inspiring election campaign in living memory, they are about to make that decision.

Rarely can their choice have seemed so consequential for the country, or the world.

Alaska ethics probe clears Palin

Alaska ethics probe clears Palin

Sarah Palin campaigns in Dubuque, Iowa, 3 Nov

Sarah Palin has always denied any wrongdoing over the affair

Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has been cleared by a new report of abuse of power in firing Alaska’s top law enforcement official.

An independent investigator appointed by the Alaska Personnel Board said she had violated no ethics law.

Mrs Palin, governor of Alaska, was accused of sacking Walt Monegan because he failed to dismiss her ex-brother-in-law, state trooper Michael Wooten.

An earlier report for Alaska’s congress found that she had abused her office.

Mrs Palin has always denied any wrongdoing, and her supporters say the charges were motivated by her political opponents.

The Alaska Personnel Board report, led by investigator Timothy Petumenos, said there was “no probable cause to believe that the governor, or any other state official, violated the Alaska Executive Ethics Act in connection with these matters”.

Walt Monegan, pictured on 28 Jan 2008

Walter Monegan says Mr Wooten did nothing to warrant his dismissal

According to a copy of the report posted on the Anchorage Daily News website, the board concluded that there was no need to hold a hearing on “reputational harm”, as Mr Monegan had requested.

The report did say that the use of “private e-mails for government work” needed to be addressed, an apparent reference to Mrs Palin’s use at times of her personal e-mail account for state business.

Mrs Palin referred the matter to the personnel board herself.

The earlier report for the state legislature, released last month, said Mr Monegan’s refusal to fire Mr Wooten was not the sole reason for his dismissal, but a contributing factor.

However, it added that the actual sacking of Mr Monegan was a “proper and lawful” exercise of Mrs Palin’s rights as governor of Alaska.

Indian Moon probe pictures Earth

Earth (ISRO)

The terrain mapping camera will eventually help compile an atlas of the Moon

India’s Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft has sent back its first images.

The probe was launched on 22 October to embark on a two-year mission of exploration at the Moon.

Ground controllers in Bangalore instructed the probe to take pictures with its Terrain Mapping Camera as the spacecraft made a pass of the Earth.

Chandrayaan also fired its engines for three minutes to carry out an orbit raising manoeuvre which takes the probe closer to the lunar body.

That was the fourth manoeuvre of its type made by the spacecraft, extending its orbit to more than half the distance to the Moon.

Just one more like it is required to take Chandrayaan into the Moon’s vicinity, at a distance of 384,000km from Earth.

Keeping up

The first images, taken at an altitude of 9,000km, show the northern coast of Australia while others, snapped at a height of 70,000km, show Australia’s southern coast.

Earth (ISRO)

The camera takes black and white images at a resolution of 5m

The Terrain Mapping Camera is one of the eleven scientific instruments aboard Chandrayaan 1. The camera takes black and white pictures at a resolution of about 5m.

Once Chandrayaan reaches the Moon, it will slip into orbit to compile a 3D atlas of the lunar surface and map the distribution of elements and minerals.

The mission is regarded as a major step for India as it seeks to keep pace with other spacefaring nations in Asia.

The health of Chandrayaan 1 is being continuously monitored from the ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) in Bangalore with support from Indian Deep Space Network antennas at Byalalu.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) – the country’s space agency – says that all systems have been performing well.

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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