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 16, 2008

Texas begins mass post-Ike rescue

Texas begins mass post-Ike rescue

Texas has begun what is being described as the biggest search and rescue effort in its history following Hurricane Ike.

At least 2,000 people have been rescued but many thousands more are believed to have ignored the mandatory order to evacuate before Saturday’s storm.

The death toll rose to 30 as Ike swept on from Texas into the mid-US, with heavy rain causing flooding.

Millions of people are without power and Houston is under a week-long curfew as work continues to restore services.

While many schools remained shut, there were signs of a return to normality on Monday, as the city’s two airports resumed limited services and some shops and restaurants opened for business.

Five people died in Galveston Bay, an island city south-east of Houston which bore the brunt of the storm as Ike swept ashore on Saturday, bringing 13ft (4m) waves and 110mph (175km/h) winds.

‘Stay away’

Rescuers feared the toll could rise as they searched areas awash with sewage for those who did not leave before the hurricane hit.

As many as 140,000 people – some 10,000 in Galveston alone – failed to heed the order to evacuate.

Across Texas, 50 helicopters, 1,500 federal, state and local search teams were looking for stranded survivors, and a US navy ship carrying engineers was heading to Galveston to help with rebuilding operations.

We’ll work as hard and fast as we can to help you get your lives back up to normal
US President George W Bush

Nearly 40,000 evacuees were being housed in 250 shelters across Texas – some with little money and no idea how long they would have to stay.

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas urged residents to stay away until it was safe to return to their homes.

“There’s nothing to come here for,” she said. “Please leave.”

Warning that residents of Texas and Louisiana were in for “tough times”, David Paulison, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), said some people would “be out of their homes for not only weeks, but months”.

Fema has said it will deliver 7.5m meals as well as 5m gallons (20m litres) of water over the next few days.

President George W Bush, who is due to survey the damage on Tuesday, told those affected by the storm: “We’ll work as hard and fast as we can to help you get your lives back up to normal”.

Although Ike weakened to a tropical depression as it headed beyond Texas, the storm’s US death-toll rose to 30 as torrential rain caused severe flooding and power outages in parts of Louisiana, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois.

Ike killed more than 80 people when it tore through the Caribbean late last week.


Have you been affected by Hurricane Ike? Send us your comments and experiences

September 15, 2008

Pakistan soldiers ‘confront US’

Pakistan soldiers ‘confront US’

Map

Pakistani troops have fired shots into the air to stop US troops crossing into the South Waziristan region of Pakistan, local officials say.

Reports say nine US helicopters landed on the Afghan side of the border and US troops then tried to cross the border.

South Waziristan is one of the main areas from which Islamist militants launch attacks into Afghanistan.

The incident comes amid growing anger in Pakistan over US attacks along the border region.

The confrontation began at around midnight, local people say.

They say seven US helicopter gunships and two troop-carrying Chinook helicopters landed in the Afghan province of Paktika near the Zohba mountain range.

US troops from the Chinooks then tried to cross the border. As they did so, Pakistani paramilitary soldiers at a checkpoint opened fire into the air and the US troops decided not to continue forward, local Pakistani officials say.

Reports say the firing lasted for several hours. Local people evacuated their homes and tribesmen took up defensive positions in the mountains.

The incident happened close to the town of Angoor Adda, some 30km (20 miles) from Wana, the main town of South Waziristan.

A Pakistani military spokesman in Islamabad confirmed that there was firing but denied that Pakistani troops were involved.

Diplomatic fury

It emerged last week that US President George W Bush has in recent months authorised military raids against militants inside Pakistan without prior approval from Islamabad.

There have been a number of missile attacks aimed at militants in Pakistan territory in recent weeks.

Pakistan reacted with diplomatic fury when US helicopters landed troops in South Waziristan on 3 September. It was the first ground assault by US troops in Pakistan.

Locals in the Musa Nikeh area said American soldiers attacked a target with gunfire and bombs, and said women and children were among some 20 civilians who died in the attack.

September 14, 2008

Bush warns on hurricane recovery

Bush warns on hurricane recovery

US President George W Bush has warned Texas will take a long time to recover from Hurricane Ike, as a huge search and relief operation gathers pace.

Mr Bush will travel to the state on Tuesday to inspect the relief effort.

Rescuers are trying to get to thousands of people who ignored orders to flee the storm, which cut power to millions and mauled America’s oil hub.

“This is a tough storm and it’s one that is going to require time for people to recover,” Mr Bush said.

Ike has been blamed for four deaths so far, two in Texas and two in Louisiana.

What’s really frustrating is that we can’t get to them
Tommie Mafrei
Galveston police chief

Rescuers are using boats, lorries and helicopters to tackle roads waist-deep in water and blocked by felled trees.The storm made landfall in Galveston early on Saturday with 110mph (175km/h) winds.

It cut a 500-mile (800-km) swathe of destruction across a span of the Gulf of Mexico coast before weakening to a tropical depression on Sunday morning over Arkansas.

Ike severely hit oil and gas production in the region and wreaked at least $8bn (£4.5bn) in onshore damage.

Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison warned that oil refineries disabled by the hurricane could remain idled for a further eight or nine days – and that Americans should brace for possible fuel shortages.

Some coastal residents waded through chest-deep water with their belongings and children in their arms to get to safety on Saturday, but thousands of others ignored evacuation orders.

Mr Bush said the federal government would be delivering 1.5m liters of water and 1m meals daily for the displaced.

Distress calls

Police, paramedics, rescue dogs and structural engineers fanned out at daybreak on Sunday across the coastal city of Galveston, which took the brunt of the storm, hampered by floodwater’s and widespread wreckage.

Galveston police officer Tommie Mafrei said: “What’s really frustrating is that we can’t get to [the stranded]… They are naive about it, thinking it’s not going to be that bad.”

State Governor Rick Perry’s office said 940 people had been rescued by nightfall on Saturday, but that thousands had made distress calls the night before.

Hurricane Ike caused widespread destruction in Galveston, Texas

Officials said another 600 people were rescued in neighboring Louisiana, where flooding ruined tens of thousands of homes and left nearly 200,000 householders without electricity.

More than three million people had no power in Texas at the height of the storm, and the authorities said it could be weeks before supplies were fully restored.

Ike sent fuel prices higher at the pumps and, analysts say, has triggered the biggest disruption to US energy supplies in at least three years.

Production was shut down at 14 oil refineries and 28 natural gas processing plants in the storm’s path.

The hurricane also battered Houston, the fourth-largest city in the US and the nation’s oil hub. Police there had used bullhorns to order people back into their homes.

The BBC’s Rajesh Mirchandani weathered the storm in Houston and described how ferocious winds ripped the glass from many of the city’s skyscrapers.

But officials were encouraged by the fact flooding brought by the storm surge turned out to be much less serious than forecast.

Among those killed by Ike were a woman in Pinehurst, Texas, and a teenage boy in Louisiana’s Bayou Dularge, AP news agency reported.

Last week, Ike caused devastation in Cuba and Haiti, where hundreds of people have died in several tropical storms over the last month.


Are you in the areas affected? Are preparing to evacuate or are you staying in your home? Send us your comments and experiences

September 8, 2008

Cuba hammered by Hurricane Ike

Cuba hammered by Hurricane Ike

Hurricane Ike has been battering eastern Cuba with giant waves and torrential rain but it weakened slightly as it made landfall.

The Category Two storm’s maximum sustained winds are still more than 165km/h (105mph).

Some homes along the coast, where some 800,000 people have been evacuated, have been damaged beyond repair.

Earlier, Ike killed 61 people in Haiti and reportedly damaged 80% of homes on the main Turks and Caicos islands.

The Cuban Meteorology Institute said the eye of the hurricane came ashore near Punta Lucrecia in the state of Holguin about 510 miles (823km) south-east of the capital Havana.

Hurricane Ike’s predicted path

With Hurricane Gustav striking just a week ago, Cuba’s internationally acclaimed emergency services are being stretched to the limit.

Gustav caused serious damage to the western side of the island, damaging almost 100,000 homes.

“In all of Cuba’s history, we have never had two hurricanes this close together,” Jose Rubiera, head of Cuba’s meteorological service, told state TV.

Windows shatter

Ike is forecast to reach Havana early on Tuesday morning.

Rubble blocks a street in Camaguey, Cuba, after the hurricane on 8 September

The storm left rubble strewn in the streets of Camaguey

A direct hit on the densely populated city of two million people with its precarious colonial buildings could be devastating, our correspondent says.

In the city of Holguin, a hotel worker named Carmela told Reuters news agency: “There is lot of worry, windows are beginning to break. There’s a lot of water, it’s raining very heavily.”

Among those evacuated before the arrival of Ike were 15,000 tourists.

RED CROSS APPEAL
The charity is accepting donations to help people in the Caribbean
Donations can be made on 0845 053 53 53 or via its

In the Camaguey region, in the path of the hurricane, resident Ramon Olivera was preparing to leave by motorcycle as municipal workers boarded up banks and restaurants.

“There’s no fear here but one has to be prepared – it could hit us pretty hard,” he told The Associated Press.

Haitian appeal

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, endured the onslaught of four tropical storms in a three week period.

RECENT MAJOR STORMS
Hurricane Ike: September
Tropical Storm Hanna: September
Hurricane Gustav: August, September
Tropical Storm Fay: August

Heavy rains and flooding sparked by the outer bands of the storm killed at least 61 people in Cabaret, to the north of the capital Port-au-Prince.

“The whole village is flooded,” said local civil protection official Moise Jean-Pierre. “The death toll could go higher.”

The destruction in Haiti has been described as catastrophic.

Police said 500 people were confirmed dead from recent Tropical Storm Hanna while others were still missing and the number could rise.

The newly installed Prime Minister, Michele Pierre Louis, has launched a fresh appeal for international aid.

He called in particular for helicopters to bring those left stranded by the floods to safety. Many lived for days on their rooftops to escape the flood waters.

Florida threat

Ike has been moving westwards at 20km/h (13mph) and is expected to make a 30-hour track along the centre of Cuba, although weakening on the way, the US National Hurricane Center says.

It has been downgraded to a Category Two storm, but the NHC said it was still potentially very dangerous.

On its current track the storm could threaten the islands of the Florida Keys by Tuesday. Some residents have received evacuation orders.

Emergency management director Craig Fugate urged them to move soon, or they “may find the escape route blocked by a hurricane”.


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 5, 2008

Malaysia deploys navy to Somalia

Malaysia deploys navy to Somalia

Map

Malaysia is sending three navy ships to the coast of Somalia to protect merchant vessels from piracy.

The ships, carrying troops and helicopters, are expected to begin patrolling in the Gulf of Aden in the next few days.

Two Malaysian tankers from the shipping line MISC Berhad were seized last month by Somali pirates.

The seas off Somalia, close to busy shipping routes, have some of the highest rates of piracy in the world.

The country has been without a functioning central government for 17 years and has suffered from continual civil strife.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said the ships being deployed would provide protection for five MISC Berhad vessels, and would not launch rescue operations.

Counting ships

Officials in the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland say the ships are being held at the port of Eyl, a lawless outpost controlled by gangs.

Puntland’s minister for mines, who is leading a delegation to investigate the hijackings, told from a hill overlooking the port that he could count eight captured vessels.

He said another two were reported to be on their way to Eyl.

The delegation had spoken to local elders, he said, but it had not approached the pirates.

The latest vessel to be hijacked was an Egyptian ship which was reported missing on Thursday.

Earlier this week a French sailing boat with two crew was seized.

Pirates holding that boat are reportedly seeking a ransom of more than $1m (£0.56m).

Puntland’s ports minister said after the capture of the French boat that pirates in the region were well-armed and employ a lot of people.

He said there was little co-ordination between those trying to tackle them.

In June, the UN Security Council voted to allow countries to send warships into Somalia’s waters to tackle the pirates, but the ports minister complained that international vessels “don’t intervene”.

September 3, 2008

India’s belated flood relief operation

India’s belated flood relief operation

Flood victims in Saharsa in Bihar

Hundreds of thousands are still stranded in the floods

Aid is beginning to reach the flood-affected in the Indian state of Bihar, but some say it is too late.

A long convoy of Indian army trucks is driving on the highway between the towns of Purnea and Madhepura in north Bihar.

They are carrying soldiers as well as rescue equipment, including boats.

Further ahead, they will be joined by Indian navy divers who will assist them in evacuating those villagers still stranded in flood waters.

Officials say they expect to bring out everyone in 72 hours.

At the Purnea air force base, two helicopters are being loaded up with emergency supplies – mostly food and medicines in packets.

These will be dropped from the air to the flood victims who are still cut off.

After facing a barrage of criticism for not doing enough, the Indian government has begun responding.

But for some, it is too late.

Sanjay is a migrant worker employed in the northern Indian state of Punjab hundreds of miles to the west.

He has rushed back to Murliganj in Madhepura, to try and save his grandfather who is marooned and very ill.

An army rescue team takes him to his village but by the time he gets there, his grandfather has died.

Overflowing camps

“He needed medicines – but they were unable to get any in the past 10 days because of the floods.”

Wrapped in a white shroud, his body is lifted on to the rescue boat to be taken away.

With the rescue operation in full swing, attention is now shifting to the relief camps which are all overflowing.

C Sridhar, the district magistrate in Purnea who is overseeing the relief effort there, says the government is doing all it can.

Villagers in Bihar gather relief material dropped by an air force helicopter in Madhubani district on 2 September 2008

Many people are still waiting for aid

“The government is prepared to provide assistance to all these people who have nowhere to go,” he tells me in his large colonial-era office where his phone is constantly ringing.

“We are in the process of building a mega-relief camp in Purnea district headquarters which will eventually have semi-permanent tents with roofs made of corrugated iron,” he adds even as he sends out instructions over the phone.

At the moment though, the focus is on just getting people into camps and getting them some immediate assistance.

Aid agencies and government medical teams have begun visiting some camps, where there are already reports of some people suffering from diarrhoea.

They are distributing oral rehydration salts and other medicines.

‘Fairly organised’

But sanitation levels at the camps are poor and there is concern that preventive measures may be too late.

Bjorn Nissen of Medicins Sans Frontieres has visited several camps to assess the situation.

“Aid is getting through and seems fairly organised.

“But yes, there is always a potential for water-borne diseases to affect large numbers of people. We are still trying to see what is needed and what we can do.”

Flood victims scramble for food packets in Saharsa in Bihar

The scale of the floods has overwhelmed relief efforts

India has not asked for international assistance. There is a strong sense here that it is not needed, that the government has enough resources to provide for those affected.

But it is not refusing all offers of help.

“We will certainly welcome international aid particularly those who can offer certain expertise,” says Mr Sridhar.

“Floods are a traumatic experience. Those who have suffered will need help in coping with their situation and eventually rebuilding their lives. This is an area where international groups can offer immense help.”

So why has it taken so long for the relief effort to hit speed?

There was one clue on Monday.

Minutes after the army convoy drove down the Purnea-Madhepura highway, it was followed by a long line of cars with flashing lights.

A senior Indian cabinet minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav, who is also a former chief minister of Bihar, had come visiting.

Bihar is currently governed by his political opponents – and so the state and federal governments have spent a lot of the past week blaming each other for the mess.

In between, the flood survivors wait for someone to take note of them.

August 30, 2008

Capsize in India floods kills 20

Capsize in India floods kills 20

Villagers sit on a makeshift raft in India's Poornia district (29/08/2008)

Many people say they have lost everything in the flooding

At least 20 people have been killed after a boat capsized while carrying dozens of refugees from flooding in the Indian state of Bihar, say police.

More than 70 people have now died in the floods and hundreds of thousands are stranded without food or water.

Indian soldiers are using boats and helicopters to reach several hundred remote villages.

The flooding occurred as water flowing from Nepal caused the Kosi river to breach its banks and change course.

More rain is expected in the next two days so authorities are moving as swiftly as they can to evacuate villages before the waters rise again.

The continuing bad weather is hampering efforts to get aid to about 2.5 million people who have been displaced.

‘National calamity’

Our correspondent says many of those stranded in remote villages are sitting on the roofs of their submerged homes.

map

There is an acute shortage of food and some people are eating uncooked rice and drinking stagnant water to stay alive.

Tens of thousands of people have crowded into temporary relief camps.

The boat incident took place on Friday in the worst-affected district, Madhepura, 150km (95 miles) north-east of Bihar’s capital, Patna.

Police said 40 people were saved.

ON Bhaskar, superintendent of police, told the Associated Press news agency: “The boat was overcrowded because people panicked to be rescued and clambered on board.”

Angry villagers in Madhepura said they had no idea where to take shelter and complained they had received no food or aid.

“We have lost everything,” said Bimlesh Yadav, escaping with his family to a nearby town.

August 23, 2008

Russia accused of abusing truce

Russia accused of abusing truce

A Russian soldier, his helmet marked "Peacekeeping Forces", watches combat troops pull out of Georgia on 22 August

Shoulder and helmet badges mark out Russia’s peacekeepers

The US and France have accused Russia of failing to comply with the terms of its ceasefire with Georgia by creating buffer zones and checkpoints.

Russia announced the full withdrawal of combat forces from Georgia proper on Friday but insisted hundreds of other troops could stay under the ceasefire.

France brokered the ceasefire to end fighting over Georgia’s pro-Russian breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Its terms are vague about the extent of any buffer zones, analysts say.

A White House spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said the checkpoints and buffer zones set up by Russia were not part of the ceasefire agreement.

A spokesman for the French foreign ministry, Eric Chevalier, said a United Nations Security Council resolution was needed to clarify exactly what the ceasefire agreement covers.

The Russian military say they intend to maintain a peacekeeping presence in Georgia, controlling buffer zones around both South Ossetia and the other breakaway province, Abkhazia.

The zones include sections of the main highway from the capital Tbilisi to the Black Sea as well as Georgia’s main airbase at Senaki.

‘Clearly stated’

US President George W Bush and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy agreed in a telephone conversation on Friday that Russia was “not in compliance [with the ceasefire] and that Russia needs to come into compliance now”, Mr Johndroe said.

“Compliance means compliance with that plan,” he added.

“We haven’t seen that yet. It’s my understanding that they have not completely withdrawn from areas considered undisputed territory, and they need to do that.”

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 security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

“Establishing checkpoints, buffer zones, are definitely not part of the agreement,” US state department spokesman Robert Wood added.

The French spokesman told that the ceasefire had stipulated that Russia’s forces “should go back to the situation before the hostilities started”.

“The idea is that, yes, for a temporary period some Russian peace forces could stay on… next to the [border] line of Ossetia but it’s temporary, it should be for patrolling and it should be until we have an international mechanism,” Mr Chevalier said.

“It was clearly stated that this presence first has to be through patrolling, no fixed presence and, second, should not have an effect on the freedom of movement on roads and trains in this place.”

The UN Security Council split this week over a resolution, with rival drafts submitted by Moscow, and the US and its allies.

Western diplomats fear that Moscow is determined to define the parameters of the interim security arrangements on its own terms.

Part of the problem, he adds, is the extraordinary vagueness of the EU-brokered ceasefire deal, which speaks only of “additional security measures” in “the immediate proximity of South Ossetia” – proximity being defined as a distance of “several kilometers”.

‘Zone of responsibility’

Moscow intends to maintain a peacekeeping presence of nearly 2,600 troops in the buffer zones for the foreseeable future, backed by armoured cars and helicopters.

Of these, 2,142 will be deployed along Abkhazia’s de facto border and 452 on the de facto border of South Ossetia, the Russian military said.

Russia’s so-called “zone of responsibility” also includes Georgia’s main airbase at Senaki, some 40km (25 miles) from the boundary with Abkhazia, which sits astride vital road and rail links to the Black Sea port of Poti.

Correspondents on the ground say they have seen what appears to be a significant Russian troop movement out of Georgia.

Correspondents in Igoeti – just 35km (21 miles) from the capital, Tbilisi – says he saw Russian troops leave the town, joining a column of hundreds of armoured vehicles on the road towards South Ossetia.

Our correspondent says buses of Georgian police are arriving in Igoeti to take control after Russian troops removed their roadblocks and pulled out.

But another correspondent in the nearby town of Korvaleti says Georgian police vehicles there are still being blocked at checkpoints.

Russia’s four-day war with Georgia began after Tbilisi tried to retake South Ossetia – which broke away in 1992 – in a surprise offensive on 7 August.

Georgia map


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August 22, 2008

Zardari nominated to be president

Zardari nominated to be president

Pakistan People’s Party leaders Asif Ali Zardari (L) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (C) and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad on Tuesday 19 August 2008

The coalition must decide who will be Pakistan’s new president

Pakistan’s biggest party, the PPP, has nominated its leader, Asif Zardari, to be the country’s president.

Pervez Musharraf resigned from the post on Monday in the face of the threat of impeachment by his political enemies.

Mr Zardari’s main coalition partner, Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N, is not in favor of Mr Zardari getting the job.

The two men are also deadlocked over how many of the judges sacked by Mr  Musharraf during emergency rule last November should be reinstated.

Twenty-four hours

PPP spokeswoman Sherry Rehman told reporters in Islamabad that senior PPP members had come to a unanimous decision to nominate Mr Zardari.

“Mr Zardari thanked the Pakistan People’s Party of which he is the co-chairman and said he will announce his decision within the next 24 hours,” she said.

The PPP and the PML-N have been discussing ways to reduce the power of the presidency. But if Mr Zardari gets the job, it is not clear if such reforms will go ahead.

He took over as PPP leader after his wife, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December.

The president is chosen by the two chambers of the national parliament and the country’s four provincial elections. The election will be held on 6 September.

Mr Sharif prefers what he calls a consensus president.

Wednesday deadline

Earlier on Friday Mr Sharif agreed to let parliament hold a debate next week on how to reinstate the judges sacked by Mr Musharraf.

He had threatened to pull out of the coalition government unless it was agreed on Friday that all the sacked judges be restored.

The PPP fears that if former Supreme Court judges, including ex-Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, are reinstated, they could overturn a controversial amnesty that Mr Musharraf granted Mr Zardari Ms Bhutto last year that paved the way for them to return to the country.

That would open up Mr Zardari to prosecution on long-standing corruption charges.

Mr Sharif pulled back from his threat to withdraw his PML-N party from the governing coalition after talks with other coalition parties in Islamabad.

But Mr Sharif is still hoping the resolution will result in Mr Chaudhry and the other judges getting their jobs back.

“Wednesday should be the day for reinstatement of judges,” he told journalists.

Squabbling

The coalition was elected in February but analysts say it has failed to find solutions to Pakistan’s economic crisis and to the militants in its north-western tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistani security officials examine the site of the suicide bombing in Wah

The politicians’ squabbling is hindering any possible plan for tackling militant violence.

The Pakistani Taleban claimed responsibility for Thursday’s suicide bombings on an ordnance factory in the town of Wah, near the capital Islamabad. It was the deadliest attack on a military site in Pakistan’s history.

The militant group promised more attacks in Pakistan’s major urban conurbations unless the army withdrew from the tribal areas.

On Tuesday, 32 people were killed in a suicide attack on a hospital in the northern town of Dera Ismail Khan.

On Friday the Taleban said at least 16 of their fighters were killed in clashes with security forces in the north-western district of Hangu.

In the Bajaur tribal region near the Afghan border, reports said at least one person was killed and eight others were injured when army helicopters fired at a convoy. Locals said the vehicles were carrying civilians who were fleeing the fighting in the area.

Mr Musharraf, a key ally of President George Bush’s “war on terror”, stepped down this week after nine years in power to avoid being impeached.

He sacked about 60 Supreme Court judges during a state of emergency in November to prevent them from overturning his re-election as president.

Analysts say that although the PPP and PML-N worked together to hound Mr Musharraf from office, there is a history of intense rivalry and mistrust between the two main parties.

The parties differ over the future of Mr Musharraf, who has been replaced by a caretaker president, the speaker of the Senate.

Mr Zardari’s party has said it believes Mr Musharraf may have immunity from prosecution.

But Mr Sharif’s party argues he should stand trial for, among other things, abrogating the constitution.

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