News & Current Affairs

September 9, 2008

US to review Afghan attack case

US to review Afghan attack case

US forces in Afghanistan are to review an inquiry into an air raid last month after new video evidence emerged indicating scores of civilian deaths.

The US had earlier said that no more than seven civilians died in the attack on the western province of Herat.

However, the Afghan government and the UN said up to 90 people were killed, including many women and children.

The US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says such attacks are eroding support for the government and foreign forces.

HRW says civilians deaths from international air strikes nearly tripled between 2006 and 2007.

Disturbing footage

The US general in charge of NATO-led troops (Isaf) in Afghanistan said at the weekend that he was requesting the US military’s Central Command to review the investigation into last month’s air raid.

Gen McKiernan said Isaf realized there was “a large discrepancy between the number of civilian casualties reported by US and Afghan National Army soldiers, and local people”.

The US and Nato need to dramatically improve their co-ordination with each other and with the government of Afghanistan
Rachel Reid
Human Rights Watch

The US military subsequently said it would “appoint a senior US military officer to review the investigation into the combined Afghan National Army (ANA) and US forces operation”.

A US military statement said: “This review will consider new information that has become available since the completion of the initial investigation.”

Disturbing video footage – apparently of the aftermath of the raid – has been seen by top military figures and diplomats in Kabul.

The shaky footage – possibly shot with a mobile phone – shows some 40 dead bodies lined up under sheets and blankets inside a mosque.

The majority of the dead are children – babies and toddlers, some burned so badly they are barely recognizable.

The covers are removed for the camera one by one: a little girl of perhaps four with brown curly hair; a boy with his eyes still eerily open; another girl with huge injuries on the side of her head.

Graves being prepared Azizabad for people killed in last month's attack by US forces

Villagers say up to 90 civilians died in last month’s attack by US forces

Another boy has his hand up as if to protect his face which was crushed under the rubble.

Clearly heard on the tape is the crying of relatives and the survivors of the bombing raid.

US forces had originally said seven civilians were killed in a “successful” US raid targeting a Taleban commander in Azizabad village in Herat’s Shindand district.

However, the UN, the Afghan government and an Afghan human rights group said the number of civilian deaths was far higher.

Their estimates of the number of civilians killed varied between 76 and 90, with the UN eventually concluding that children accounted for 60 of the dead.

The dispute over the figures had escalated into a fierce behind-the-scenes battle behind the UN and the Pentagon.

Warning over deaths

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Monday that decreased reliance on ground forces and greater use of air power was leading to “mistakes” that had “dramatically decreased” support for the Afghan government and international troops.

“Civilian deaths from air strikes act as a recruiting tool for the Taleban and risk fatally undermining the international effort to provide basic security to the people of Afghanistan,” Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW, said in a statement.

Hamid Karzai visiting Azizabad

Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Azizabad after the air strike

The group found that in 2007 at least 321 Afghan civilians had been killed in international air strikes – a rise from at least 116 in 2006.

This figure was much lower than the number of civilians killed in militant attacks, the group said. Nearly 950 people were killed by insurgents in 2008, compared with 700 in 2006.

HRW said most of the air strike casualties occurred in unplanned raids, when air power was called to give support to troops on the ground.

“The US and Nato need to dramatically improve their co-ordination with each other and with the government of Afghanistan,” HRW’s Rachel Reid told the BBC.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly warned the US and Nato that civilian deaths undermine his government and damage the reputation of foreign forces in the country.

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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 14, 2008

Protests still unwelcome in Beijing

Protests still unwelcome in Beijing

Courtesy BBC

China has set aside three parks during the Olympics, to allow people to demonstrate. But, as the BBC’s Michael Bristow finds out, the parks are empty and those who apply for permission to protest are even finding themselves arrested.

Model of the Capitol building in Washington DC, Shijie Park

Shijie Park is full of tourists admiring model buildings rather than protesters

Just before the Olympic Games began, officials said ordinary Chinese people would be able to apply for permission to vent their feelings.

But several would-be demonstrators appear to have been detained by the authorities after trying to apply for that permission.

This is just one way in which China is attempting to restrict embarrassing protests during the Olympic Games.

“The protest application process clearly isn’t about giving people greater freedom of expression, but making it easier for the police to suppress it,” said Sophie Richardson, from Human Rights Watch.

One of those detained is Zhang Wei, who was held after applying to stage a protest about her family’s forced eviction from their courtyard home.

map

Her son, Mi Yu, said she was initially supposed to be held for just three days for “disturbing social order”, but that that had now been extended to 30 days.

Ms Zhang, forced to move to make way for redevelopment in Beijing’s Qianmen district, made several protest applications.

“She went every two or three days after seeing a report about the parks. But the police did not give their approval,” Mr Mi said.

His mother was taken away last week. The family have not heard from her since.

Many obstacles

Another activist held after making a protest application was Ji Sizun, who was detained on Monday, according to Human Rights Watch.

The 58-year-old, from Fujian province, wanted to call for greater participation by ordinary people in the political process.

Citing witnesses, the rights group said Mr Ji was taken away shortly after entering a Beijing police station to ask about his application.

This application process is a taxing one. Would-be protesters even have to tell police what posters and slogans they intend to use.

There have been reports of others who have been prevented from staging protests in the designated areas.

Some have just had their applications turned down, one was sent back to her home province and yet others have been stopped from travelling to Beijing.

Confusion

The parks designated as protest zones – Shijie, Zizhuyuan and Ritan – do not seem to have been inundated with protesters.

Free Tibet

There has been the occasional protest by pro-Tibet campaigners

At Shijie (“World”) Park on Wednesday one worker said there had not been a single demonstration since the Olympics began.

Potential protesters might have been put off by the police car and van parked directly outside the main entrance of the park, which houses large models of famous world sites.

No one seemed to know where a protest could be held, even if Beijing’s Public Security Bureau gave its approval.

“I don’t know anything about that,” said a ticket collector when asked where protesters could express their opinions.

It was a similar story at Ritan Park, where there seems to have been no protests either.

Dissuading people from protesting is just one tactic being used by China’s security forces to prevent demonstrations.

Beijing’s streets are full of police, other security personnel and volunteers, wearing red armbands, on the lookout for trouble.

Eight pro-Tibet demonstrators from Students for a Free Tibet were quickly detained on Wednesday after staging a protest.

Some well-known Chinese activists have also been told to keep a low profile during the Olympics. The friend of one said she had decided to leave the city during the Olympics to avoid trouble.

August 8, 2008

Beijing ready for Olympic opening

Beijing ready for Olympic opening

Olympic volunteers in Beijing, 08/08

Officials are concerned that hazy conditions may affect the ceremony

The Chinese capital, Beijing, is preparing to open the 2008 Olympic Games with a lavish ceremony, amid hazy skies and ongoing pollution concerns.

The event will involve about 10,000 performers, and will be watched on TV by an estimated one billion people.

The lead-up to the Games has been dogged by issues such as China’s rights record, internet access, and pollution.

US President George W Bush was among several world leaders to express concern over a crackdown on dissidents.

Mr Bush told an audience at the US embassy in Beijing on Friday: “We continue to be candid about our belief that all people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose.”

Meanwhile, 40 Olympic athletes wrote to Chinese President Hu Jintao expressing their concerns over Beijing’s handling of anti-Chinese unrest in Tibet.

And Tibetans have held angry protests in Nepal, with hundreds reported to have been arrested in the capital, Kathmandu.

China frequently dismisses criticism over its domestic policies – particularly in Tibet – as interference in its internal affairs.

Muted city

The 2008 Olympics have been described as the most politicised Games since the boycott era of the early 1980s.

Pollution graph

But after a succession of controversial issues in the build-up to the Games, the focus is now shifting to the opening ceremony.

It has taken seven years of planning, and costs are estimated to have hit a record-breaking $40bn (£20bn).

Film director Zhang Yimou has been charged with portraying 5,000 years of Chinese history in one show.

It will be staged at China’s new national stadium – known as the Bird’s Nest because of its steel lattice construction – and some 10,000 performers will take part.

Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, who has repeatedly defended the decision to let China host the Olympics, said he hoped the Games would help the world to understand China, and China to understand the world.

But human-rights groups have continued to condemn curbs on journalists covering the Games.

In a statement issued on Friday, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said: “As the 2008 Olympic Games open in Beijing, foreign journalists in China face a host of severe restrictions, ranging from harassment to a censored internet.”

With the authorities determined to clamp down on any possible security concern, some 100,000 extra troops and police have been deployed in the capital over recent weeks.

The BBC’s Michael Bristow, in Beijing, described the mood in the city as muted.

He said streets had been blocked off, there were few cars on the roads and Olympic volunteers seemed to outnumber ordinary people.

China’s ‘extraordinary’ effort

On the morning of the opening ceremony, a BBC reading suggested Beijing’s air quality remained below World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

Visibility was also very poor on Friday, with one official warning that the cloud could interfere with the ceremony.

HAVE YOUR SAY

We hope the games will show our guests China today, not China thirty years ago

Roc, China

“There are clouds covering Beijing and we are really concerned that will have an influence on tonight’s ceremony,” said Guo Hu, director of the Beijing Meteorological Observatory.

But Mr Guo is predicting that heavy rain over the weekend will clear the skies, and he warned that hazy conditions should not be confused with high levels of pollution.

“If the visibility is not good it does not mean the air quality is not good,” he said.

On Thursday, Mr Rogge said if the pollution was bad, events which lasted more than an hour could be shifted or postponed.

But he also praised China’s “extraordinary” efforts to cut pollution ahead of the Games, saying there was no danger to athletes’ health.

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