News & Current Affairs

September 22, 2008

Pakistan to target rebel hotspots

Pakistan to target rebel hotspots

Pakistan’s government has pledged to take targeted action against militants, a day after a suicide bomb killed 53 people in the capital, Islamabad.

Interior Ministry adviser Rehman Malik said raids would be carried out in some “hotspots” near the Afghan border.

Earlier, the authorities revealed that a truck laden with 600kg of high-grade explosives had rammed the Marriott Hotel security gate before blowing up.

Rescuers have been combing the wreckage for survivors and bodies.

The blast left 266 people with injuries.

Although most of those killed were Pakistani, the Czech ambassador and two US defense department workers were among the dead.

The attackers had disguised the truck well as it was covered with a tarpaulin and loaded with bricks and gravel
Rehman Malik

A Vietnamese citizen was also killed in the blast, in which at least a dozen foreign nationals were wounded.

The Danish Foreign Ministry said one of its diplomats was missing.

No group has taken responsibility for the attack, but Mr Malik suggested responsibility lay with al-Qaeda and Taleban militants based in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) on the Afghan border.

“In previous attacks, all roads led to Fata,” he said.

The attack might have been retaliation for army bombardments of suspected Taleban targets with jet fighters.

Room-by-room search

The heavily-guarded hotel was attacked at about 2000 (1500 GMT) on Saturday.

CCTV footage of the moments before the blast show a six-wheeler lorry ramming the security barrier at the hotel gate.

Rescuers in Islamabad, 21/09

Rescue teams combed the scene for bodies and survivors

Shots are fired and the vehicle starts to burn. Security guards initially scatter, but return to try to douse the flames.

The footage breaks of at the moment of the blast because the camera was destroyed. It created a crater about 8m (27ft) deep, and triggered a fire which engulfed the 290-room, five-storey building for hours.

Officials said the lorry contained explosives as well as grenades and mortars. Aluminium powder was used to accelerate the explosion and added to the ferocity of the blaze.

“I do not believe this is a breakdown in security. The attackers had disguised the truck well as it was covered with a tarpaulin and loaded with bricks and gravel,” Mr Malik said.

Witnesses described a scene of horror as blood-covered victims were pulled from the wreckage and guests and staff ran for cover from shattered glass and flames.

The fire has now burned out and rescue workers have been searching the building room-by-room, pulling bodies out of the blackened debris.

‘Confronting the threat’

Immediately after the bombing, newly-elected President Asif Ali Zardari vowed to root out the “cancer” of terrorism in Pakistan.

Map

He has now flown to New York to attend the UN General Assembly session, where he will meet US President George W Bush on the sidelines.

The meeting comes amid tension between the two countries over US attacks on militants in tribal areas of Pakistan, close to the Afghan border.

In the wake of the attack, President Bush pledged assistance to Pakistan in “confronting this threat and bringing the perpetrators to justice”.

The Marriott is the most prestigious hotel in the capital, and is located near government buildings and diplomatic missions. It is popular with foreigners and the Pakistani elite.

The hotel has previously been the target of militants. Last year a suicide bomber killed himself and one other in an attack at the hotel.

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September 10, 2008

DR Congo army ‘works with rebels’

DR Congo army ‘works with rebels’

File photo of Congolese soldiers

The DR Congo army is supposed to be attacking the FDLR rebels

The Democratic Republic of Congo army is collaborating with rebels to mine gold and tin, instead of fighting them, says lobby group Global Witness.

Its researchers found that the two groups operated their own mines and even traded with each other.

The army, with the UN, is supposed to be undertaking a huge operation against the FDLR rebels, accused of taking part in the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

The FDLR presence in DR Congo lies at the heart of years of recent unrest.

Rwanda has twice sent troops into DR Congo, saying it wants to stop FDLR attacks on its territory.

The DR Congo government has promised to wipe them out, in conjunction with UN peacekeepers.

But Global Witness says there are frequent reports of Congolese soldiers selling weapons and uniforms to the mainly Hutu FDLR.

“This complicity extends to the exploitation of minerals,” said the group’s director, Patrick Alley.

“Our researchers visited areas where the FARDC [DR Congo army] and the FDLR were operating side by side, each controlling their own territories, trading in minerals from ‘their’ respective mines without interfering with each other’s activities. They depend on this mutual support to continue their trade,” he said.

Fighting

Mr Alley also said that local people had accused the army of forcing people to work in their mines and extorting money – like the numerous other armed groups which operate in eastern DR Congo.

Global Witness says the FDLR’s control of gold and tin mines in eastern DR Congo gives them the money to continue operating.

It says that until this is stopped, the unrest in the area is likely to continue.

There has recently been renewed fighting in the area, between the army and the renegade Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda.

Gen Nkunda has previously refused to disarm, accusing the army of working with the FDLR against Tutsis who live in the region.

Some FDLR leaders are accused of fleeing to DR Congo after taking part in the genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda.

Last month, US and European Union diplomats warned that the situation in eastern DR Congo was becoming increasingly tense and that all sides were rearming.

Human rights groups said that tens of thousands of people were fleeing as the situation in the area deteriorated.

The UN has 17,000 peacekeepers in DR Congo, supposed to monitor a 2003 peace deal to end a conflict that drew in at least eight other African countries.

DR Congo is rich in minerals such as gold, tin and coltan, used in mobile phones, but decades of conflict and mismanagement have left the majority of its population living in poverty.

August 17, 2008

Russian troops ‘start withdrawal’

Russian troops ‘start withdrawal’

Russian tank in Georgia (16 August 2008)

Moscow’s troops continue to operate deep inside the Caucasus republic

The Russian commander of front line forces in Georgia has told that a gradual withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia is under way.

Maj Gen Vyacheslav Borisov said he had given the order for Russian soldiers to be replaced by peacekeepers.

Russian forces in position 35km (22 miles) from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on the road to Gori, close to South Ossetia.

Russia said it did not have a timetable for a full withdrawal from Gori.

Russia still controls almost all of the main arterial highway running east-west through Georgia, and the main towns along the route.

Russia’s claimed redeployment comes a day after Moscow signed a French-brokered peace plan to end the crisis.

Conflict between Georgia and Russia erupted on 7 August when Georgia launched an assault to retake its Russian-backed separatist province of South Ossetia.

It led to a massive counter-offensive by Russia, with Russia moving deeper into Georgian territory.

The US has demanded Russian troops pull out, but Moscow says it will only withdraw from Georgian territory once extra security measures are in place.

International attention

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who mediated the peace deal on behalf of the European Union, has warned Moscow that the ceasefire bars its forces from any “major urban area” in Georgia.

However, in a letter addressed to his Georgian counterpart, Mikhail Saakashvili, Mr Sarkozy said Russian troops did have the right to patrol “a few kilometres” beyond the conflict zone in South Ossetia.

But he underlined that clauses in the agreement permitting Russia to implement additional security measures “in no way limit or put in danger the freedom of movement and travel along the road and rail axes of Georgia” and could not be applied in any towns or cities.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia

“I am particularly thinking of the city of Gori,” he said, which is the largest town close to the South Ossetia border.

There is a much reduced Russian military presence in the town compared with Saturday – though Russian soldiers still control the town’s key entry and exit points.

He says that even if Russian peacekeepers replace soldiers, local residents say it will not make much difference.

Meanwhile, US President George W Bush has reiterated his staunch support for ally Georgia.

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is due to hold talks with Mr Saakashvili in Tbilisi later on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has called on the Russian authorities to immediately take steps to end attacks by South Ossetian militias on ethnic Georgians in Gori and to allow vital humanitarian aid to reach vulnerable civilians.

“The Russian military has effective control of the Gori region, making it responsible for the security and well-being of all people living there,” said Rachel Denber, HRW’s Europe deputy director.

Russian control

The BBC’s Richard Galpin, who has spent the past two days traveling from the Black Sea port of Poti to Tbilisi, says Georgian forces seem to be surrendering control of the highway to the Russians.

Georgian refugee in Tbilisi (16 August 2008)

The UN puts the number of those displaced in the conflict at 118,000

In the western town of Senaki, our correspondent saw large numbers of Russian troops moving around on Saturday.

Further east in Zestafoni, he witnessed the panic of local residents as the word spread that the Russian army was approaching.

Cars sped away from roadblocks set up by the Georgian police, the drivers realizing their hopes of reaching Tbilisi had been dashed.

When the Russians arrived, they stayed only a few minutes after apparently being told there was no military base to take over.

Our correspondent says he then followed the Russian troops as they entered the central town of Khashuri, where they were given an escort by the local police.

He spoke to one Russian soldier who said he believed their final destination would be the Georgian capital, although the Kremlin flatly denied this. Another soldier said he expected to be in Georgia for a year.

Georgia has meanwhile accused pro-Russian Abkhaz separatist fighters of taking over 13 villages and a hydroelectric power plant. There has so far been no independent confirmation.

Security steps

Among the six points in the ceasefire deal, both sides agreed to pull back their forces to their positions before hostilities began on 7 August.

Diplomats have said that the UN Security Council is expected to vote later on Sunday on a draft resolution formalising the ceasefire agreement.

President Bush has said Mr Medvedev’s signing of the truce is “hopeful”, but that there can be no question that South Ossetia and Abkhazia will remain within Georgian borders, which are internationally recognised.

Reports suggest Mr Saakashvili only reluctantly agreed to another of the plan’s clauses – international talks about the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Map of region


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August 16, 2008

Russia signs up to Georgia truce

Russia signs up to Georgia truce

Russian troops

Moscow’s troops continue to operate deep inside the Caucasus republic

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has signed a ceasefire agreement with Georgia after receiving it in Moscow.

The deal calls for all military activity to stop and for troops from both sides to pull back into pre-conflict positions.

The deal was signed on Friday by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

But Russian forces remain deep in Georgian territory, and correspondents say many obstacles remain in the way of full implementation of the peace deal.

At stake is the future of Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

US-backed Georgia has vowed it will not accept any loss of its territory, but Russia insists that following the recent violence, residents are unlikely to want to live in the same state as Georgians.

The crisis, which began nine days ago, saw Georgian forces launch a surprise attack to regain control of South Ossetia, only to be decisively repelled by Russian forces.

Russian ‘advances’

On the ground in Georgia, Russian forces had moved forward overnight.

Russian forces still control Gori, which lies some 15km (10 miles) from the border with South Ossetia.

Several tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen in Kaspi, west of Gori and some 35km north-east of the capital Tbilisi – an advance of some 15km on their previous position. Lorries of soldiers were seen heading towards the town.

Meanwhile, Russian troops were seen patrolling in Zestafoni, some 100km west of Gori along a major highway.

The Russian army brought in a large number of irregulars, mercenaries… They go around drunk, aggressive, armed and do all these atrocities
Mikhail Saakashvili
Georgian president

Georgian officials also said Russian forces remained in the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, the site of a major oil shipment facility, and a major Russian military contingent is further inland, at Senaki.

The crisis began on 7 August, when Georgian forces launched a surprise attack to regain control of South Ossetia, which has had de facto independence since the end of a civil war in 1992.

The move followed days of exchanges of heavy fire with the Russian-backed separatist militias. In response to the Georgian assault, Moscow sent armoured units across the border into South Ossetia to intervene.

Obstacles ahead

Scores of people have been killed by the fighting and tens of thousands displaced.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia

The EU-brokered ceasefire agreement which both sides have now signed includes a pledge to pull all troops back to their pre-conflict positions.

It also contains a plan to begin international talks about the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in Tbilisi on Friday, has demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgian territory.

But Russia argues its forces are there to ensure civilians face no threat from Georgian troops.

Mr Saakashvili has accused the Russians of committing war crimes.

A displaced Georgian woman rests just outside the town of Gori (15/08/08)

The UN puts the number of those displaced in the conflict at 118,000

“The Russian army brought in a large number of irregulars, mercenaries,” he said. “They go around drunk, aggressive, armed and do all these atrocities.”

He criticized the West for not granting Georgia membership of Nato, saying it could have prevented the fighting.

Diplomats have said that the UN Security Council is expected to vote this weekend on a draft resolution formalising the ceasefire agreement.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will meet the Russian permanent representative in New York, possibly on Saturday, because he has so far been unable to contact the Russian president, officials have said.

‘Watching with alarm’

President Bush is set to hold a video conference with some of his most senior staff, including Ms Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, to discuss the crisis in Georgia.

George Bush (file)
President Bush said Russia had to act to end the crisis in Georgia

On Friday, Mr Bush said Russia’s actions in Georgia were “completely unacceptable”.

“The world has watched with alarm as Russia invaded a sovereign neighbouring state and threatened a democratic government elected by its people,” he said.

He called upon Russia to end the crisis or risk its credibility on the global stage.

Mr Bush said he would send his secretary of state to Brussels next week to discuss how to deal with Russia with Nato foreign ministers and EU officials.

But the president did not respond to comments from Russia’s deputy chief of staff, who said Moscow would be justified in launching a nuclear attack if Poland went through with its agreement to base US interceptor missiles on its territory as part of Washington’s controversial defence shield.

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Are you in Georgia or Russia? Have you been affected by the conflict? You can send us your experiences

August 8, 2008

US halt aid over Mauritania coup

US halt aid over Mauritania coup

General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz (r) with unidentified junta members in Mauritania

Gen Abdelaziz has promised to hold fresh elections

The United States has suspended more than $20m (£10m) in  non-humanitarian aid to Mauritania after a coup.

The US state department said it condemned in the strongest possible terms the overthrow of the country’s first democratically-elected president.

But General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, who led the military coup, said the army would safeguard democracy.

Meanwhile, the Arab League and the African Union have demanded the ousted president’s be released immediately.

Diplomats from both organisations are due in Mauritania on Friday to discuss the situation with the coup leaders.

President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was detained by renegade soldiers on Wednesday after he tried to dismiss four senior army officers – including Mr Abdelaziz, the head of the presidential guard.

I’m very worried about his health and his security
Amal Cheikh Abdallahi
President’s daughter

Prime Minister Yahia Ould Ahmed El-Ouakef – who the coup leaders had also detained – was reported to have been taken to a barracks near the presidency.

The whereabouts of the president are still unclear, and his daughter, Amal Cheikh Abdallahi, said she did not know where her father was.

“I’m very worried about his health and his security,” she told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme.

“He doesn’t have the right to move or to call. He doesn’t have a phone. He doesn’t have liberty,” she said.

Joking

The US aid suspended includes $15m (£7.5m) in military-to-military co-operation, more than $4m (£2m) in peacekeeping training, and more than $3m (£1.5m) in development assistance.

A demonstration in support of the coup leaders

Some MPs and parties have expressed support for the military intervention

Gen Abdelaziz said the new military council, which has promised to hold elections, would “solve the country’s problems”.

“The armed forces and the security forces will always stay with the people to deepen the democracy,” he said in the capital, Nouakchott.

“It’s them who brought the democracy here and it’s them who have always protected this democracy and they will always preserve it.”

On Thursday, there were demonstrations for and against the coup in Nouakchott.

But the BBC’s James Copnall, who arrived in the city on Thursday evening, the day after the takeover, says it is remarkably calm and relaxed.

He said some people at the airport were joking about the situation – possibly as it is not regarded as that out of the ordinary given the country’s history of coups.

The military has been involved in nearly every government since Mauritania’s independence from France in 1960.

The president transformed everything into a family business
Morsen Ould Al Haj
Senate vice-president

Presidential elections held in 2007 ended a two-year period of military rule – the product of a military coup in 2005.

Despite the widespread international condemnation of the takeover, many MPs and political parties have expressed their support for it.

Senate Vice-President Morsen Ould al-Haj said that the president had abused his powers and was particularly angered by the influence his daughter and wife wielded.

“He failed completely – he transformed everything into a family business. He became very stubborn; he started by installing his children all parts of the government,” he told the BBC.

“Each of his children consider themselves himself a prince ready to inherit the country. They are a real royal family.”

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