News & Current Affairs

July 20, 2009

Lessons for Karachi sex workers

Lessons for Karachi sex workers

Zeba Raman is a 28-year-old Pakistani sex worker. Born into the profession in Karachi’s red light district of Napier Road, she plies her trade all over the city.

nadia
I did not know that precautionary measures should be taken during sex
Nadia, sex worker

She is celebrating the launch of an initiative to promote health awareness among sex workers.

“We are now revealed to society,” says Ms Rahman.

But prostitution remains illegal and anathema to many in Muslim-majority Pakistan. It is an ever-present fact of life, but never really acknowledged.

The last two decades, given the increasing Islamisation of Pakistani society, have further reinforced stereotypes about such women.

But the profession has only grown.

Karachi alone has at least 100,000 female sex workers, according to data gathered by local welfare organisations.

Lahore has 75,000 sex workers while the military garrison town of Rawalpindi has at least 25,000.

‘Spirit of openness’

Pakistan’s first workshop on health awareness among sex workers has contributed to a new spirit of openness in the profession.

“Earlier we were doing our jobs secretly, but now we can raise our voice for our rights,” Ms Raman says.

ghulam murtaza
It was very difficult to gather sex workers under one roof. Many were simply afraid of being arrested
Dr Ghulam Murtaza

The three-day event was recently held in Karachi by Gender & Reproductive Health Forum (GRHF) – a local social welfare organisation – in collaboration with the United Nations Fund for Population (UNFPA).

“I am very happy that a number of sex workers attended the workshop,” says Ms Raman.

“This has provided us an opportunity to gather and exchange views and experiences.”

She is not the only one to have benefited.

“I became a sex worker five years back,” says Nadia, 26.

Nadia said that she learned about safe sex measures at the workshop.

“I had heard about HIV/Aids, but I thought that it could only be transmitted through blood transfusions.

“I did not know that precautionary measures should be taken during sex as well,” she said.

Before the workshop, most of sex workers who attended did not know about measures for safe sex, Nadia added.

Dr Ghulam Murtaza is the head of the GRHF organisation and the man behind the workshop.

Ziba Raman

Ms Raman said she drew a lot of confidence from the workshop

The man behind the workshop, GRHF head Dr Ghulam Murtaza , said the organisation was working to create awareness of safe sex among female sex workers.

“It was very difficult to gather sex workers under one roof. Many were simply afraid of being arrested,” he said.

“We offered several incentives and assurances and paid them 1,000 rupees ($20) per day for their attendance,” he said.

“Finally, we succeeded in gathering almost 100 sex workers at the workshop held at a local hotel”.

Most of the sex workers who attended avoided the cameramen there., saying they were afraid of being exposed to their families.

Many said their husbands or family members did not know they were sex workers. They told their families that they work for private firms.

Despite these barriers, Dr Murtaza said the workshop had been successful.

“We have trained some female sex workers. They will now go to their community to create awareness among their co-workers.”

‘Reinvigorated’

The international participants at the workshop were of the view that Pakistan was still relatively safe as far as HIV/Aids was concerned.

I can now continue with my profession with more confidence
Zeba Raman

The UNFPA representative, Dr Safdar Kamal Pasha, said at least 100 HIV- positive sex workers had been found in central Punjab. But the number of HIV-positive women was not high among female sex workers in Pakistan.

“It can be controlled by creating awareness about the disease among sex workers and about usage of precautionary measures,” he said.

The workshop was widely considered to be a success and Dr Pasha said they were considering organising a national convention for sex workers next year.

The sex workers themselves were moved by the workshop.

“Having attended the workshop, I feel reinvigorated,” Zeba Raman declares.

“I can now continue with my profession with more confidence.”

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July 19, 2009

Afghan helicopter crash kills 16

Afghan helicopter crash kills 16

Russian-built Mi-8. File photo

Russian media say the aircraft was an Mi-8 similar to this

A civilian helicopter has crashed in southern Afghanistan, killing at least 16 civilians and injuring five, Nato officials have confirmed.

The helicopter crashed at Kandahar airfield apparently as it was trying to take off, though Nato has ruled out the involvement of insurgents.

Reports from Moscow say the helicopter was a Russian-built Mi-8.

The crash is the second in a week. Six passengers died when a helicopter came down in Helmand province on Tuesday.

‘Not shot down’

Russia’s Interfax agency quoted a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Air Transportation Agency (Fata) as saying the aircraft was a Russian-built Mi-8 transport helicopter.

Map

Fata said it was owned by the Russian air company Vertical-T.

The nationalities of the dead are not yet known.

A statement from Nato’s International Security Assistance Force said: “A civilian contracted helicopter crashed during take-off from Kandahar airfield.

“Emergency personnel are on the scene. There was no indication of the cause of the accident but insurgent action has been ruled out.”

Kandahar airfield is Nato’s largest air base in southern Afghanistan but the BBC’s Martin Patience in Kabul says a lot of civilian aircraft fly in and out so there is no surprise this was a civilian crash.

A Nato spokeswoman, Lt Cmdr Sam Truelove, told the AFP news agency it had been confirmed that all the dead were civilians and no military personnel were involved.

RECENT HELICOPTER CRASHES
14 Jul 2008: Six Ukrainian civilians and Afghan girl die in crash in Helmand. Suspected enemy fire
6 Jul 2008: One UK and two Canadian soldiers die in crash in Zabul province. Enemy fire not suspected
15 Jan 2008: Afghan general and 12 other soldiers die in crash in Herat province. Bad weather blamed
30 May 2007: Seven killed as Nato Chinook crashes in Helmand. Cause unclear

The condition of the injured was not known, she said.

Vertical-T was founded in 1992 and started to work abroad in 1998 in Italy. It has worked in countries including Germany, East Timor, Cyprus, Yemen and Greece, according to the company’s website.

The company’s helicopters are currently carrying out operations in the interests of the UN in Afghanistan and a number of other countries including Congo, Sudan and Pakistan.

The dead in Tuesday’s crash in Helmand were all civilians.

That helicopter crashed near the Sangin military base, with local people saying it had been shot down by insurgents.

Six Ukrainian crew members of the Mi-26 helicopter died, along with an Afghan girl on the ground.

US soldier shown in Taliban video

US soldier shown in Taliban video

The Taliban have released a 28-minute video showing a US soldier captured in Afghanistan last month.

In the video, the soldier, in grey clothes and with shaved head, says being a prisoner is “unnerving”.

He says the US public has the power to bring troops home to be “back where we belong and not over here, wasting our time and our lives”.

The US military identified him as the missing soldier and named him as Pte Bowe Bergdahl, 23, from Ketchum, Idaho.

The spokesman condemned the Taliban for issuing “propaganda” footage.

‘Against international law’

Pte Bergdahl, who went missing on 30 June in Paktika province, eastern Afghanistan, says in the video the date is 14 July and that he was captured as he lagged behind while on a patrol.

Please bring us home. It is America and American people who have that power
Quote from video

It is not possible to verify the time and date the video was made.

Pte Bergdahl, interviewed in English, says he has “a very, very good family” in America.

“I miss them and I’m afraid that I might never see them again, and that I’ll never be able to tell them that I love them again, and I’ll never be able to hug them,” he says.

When asked about his condition he replies: “Well I’m scared, scared I won’t be able to go home. It is very unnerving to be a prisoner.”

A voice off camera asks if he has a message for his “people”.

“To my fellow Americans who have loved ones over here, who know what it’s like to miss them, you have the power to make our government bring them home,” he says.

Map

“Please, please bring us home so that we can be back where we belong and not over here, wasting our time and our lives and our precious life that we could be using back in our own country.

“Please bring us home. It is America and American people who have that power.”

US military spokesman in Kabul, Capt Jon Stock, condemned the use of the video.

He told Reuters news agency: “The use of the soldier for propaganda purposes we view as against international law.

“We are continuing to do whatever possible to recover the soldier safe and unharmed.”

Leaflets have been distributed and a reward offered for his safe return.

The US military said the soldier disappeared after walking off base with three Afghan colleagues.

He is believed to be the first soldier seized in either Iraq or Afghanistan for at least two years.

July 15, 2009

Breaking silence on Gaza abuses

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 6:15 pm

Breaking silence on Gaza abuses

Destroyed house in Gaza

Soldiers are quoted saying they opened fire at any “suspect places”

A human rights group founded by Israeli veterans has collected what it says are damning testimonies from soldiers who took part in the offensive in January against Hamas fighters in Gaza. \

Standing by the ruins of his home in Gaza, Majdi Abed Rabbo explained how Israeli troops had used him as a human shield.

“The Israeli soldiers handcuffed me and pointed the gun at my neck,” he said. “They controlled every step.”

In this manner, Mr Abed Rabbo said, he was forced to go in ahead of Israeli soldiers as they cleared houses containing Palestinian gunmen.

This same incident was described by one of the Israeli soldiers who spoke to Breaking the Silence.

Majdi Abed Rabbo

Israel’s military is now looking into Majdi Abed Rabbo’s claims

“A Palestinian neighbour is brought in,” he says. “It was procedure. The soldier places his gun barrel on the civilian’s shoulder.”

If true, that was a clear breach of the international laws of war – which say soldiers have a duty of care to non-combatants – and of Israeli law.

The Israeli Supreme Court outlawed the so-called “neighbour policy”, of using Palestinians to shield advancing troops, in 2005.

Until now, the Israeli army always had a ready answer to allegations that war crimes were committed during its offensive in Gaza.

Such claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda.

Now, though, the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.

Testimonies collected

The common thread in the almost 30 testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence is that orders were given to prevent Israeli casualties, whatever the cost in Palestinian lives.

Writing the report’s introduction, the Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard says: “All the witnesses agreed that they received a particular order repeatedly, in a way that did not leave much room for doubt, to do everything, everything, so that they – the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) soldiers – would not be harmed.

“The soldiers tell in their testimonies how this unwritten message, which came from brigade, battalion, and company commanders in morale-building conversations before entering Gaza, translated into zero patience for the life of enemy civilians.”

Israeli troops return from Gaza 19.1.09

Israel denies its soldiers broke the laws of war

The lawyer adds: “Violations of the laws of war are liable to be war crimes.”

Here are just a few quotes which give a flavour of the soldiers’ testimony. The accumulation of detail is convincing and, in the eyes of Israel’s critics, damning.

“Things are happening in his battalion of which he (the commander) has no idea. There are people who deserve to go to jail…

“When your company commander and battalion commander tell you, ‘Go on, fire!’ the soldiers will not hold back. They are waiting for this day, the fun of shooting and feeling all that power in your hands…

“Fire power was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad. The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places. You see a house, a window, shoot at the window. You don’t see a terrorist there? Fire at the window. In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents.”

Israeli military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich dismissed the testimonies as anonymous hearsay, designed to embarrass the army rather than lead to serious investigations.

She questioned why Breaking the Silence had not handed over its findings earlier, before the media were informed.

“We are investigating many of the requests from NGOs and other groups,” she said. “But when you have a report that is based on hearsay, with no facts whatsoever, we can’t do anything with it.”

In the past, says the Israeli military, some allegations of wrong-doing in Gaza have turned out to be second or third-hand accounts, the result of soldiers recycling rumours in the battalion rather than describing what they themselves witnessed.

Credible record

But Breaking the Silence has a long – and to many, credible – record of getting soldiers to talk about experiences which might not reflect well on the Army.

The group is funded by the British, Dutch and Spanish governments, as well as the EU.

It says the testimony is anonymous because of orders to Israeli soldiers not to speak out publicly.

Some of the collected testimony is highly specific.

In the case of Majdi Abed Rabbo, the Israeli military police have now opened an investigation, lending at least some credibility to the soldier who said the “neighbour policy” was in widespread use.

The military maintains it went to extraordinary lengths to ensure civilians were not harmed in Gaza.

The soldiers’ testimony does describe in detail how leaflets were distributed in areas they were about to enter – warning people to leave.

But it is what happened after that, says Breaking the Silence, which calls into question the morality of the Israeli army’s actions.

Israel soldiers speak out on Gaza

Israel soldiers speak out on Gaza

Israeli soldiers deployed on the Israel-Gaza border 28 Decmeber 2008

Soldier testimonies appear to contradict official Israeli statements

A group of soldiers who took part in Israel’s assault in Gaza say widespread abuses were committed against civilians under “permissive” rules of engagement.

The troops said they had been urged to fire on any building or person that seemed suspicious and said Palestinians were sometimes used as human shields.

Breaking the Silence, a campaign group made up of Israeli soldiers, gathered anonymous accounts from 26 soldiers.

Israel denies breaking the laws of war and dismissed the report as hearsay.

The report says testimonies show “the massive and unprecedented blow to the infrastructure and civilians” was a result of Israeli military policy, articulated by the rules of engagement, and encouraged by a belief “the reality of war requires them to shoot and not to ask questions”.

One soldier is quoted saying: “The soldiers were made to understand that their lives were the most important, and that there was no way our soldiers would get killed for the sake of leaving civilians the benefit of the doubt.”

Paul Wood
From Paul Wood,Courtesy
BBC Middle East correspondent:

Until now, Israel always had a ready answer to allegations of war crimes in Gaza. Claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda. Now the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.

The common thread in the testimonies is that orders were given to prevent Israeli casualties whatever the cost in Palestinian lives.

The Israeli military says past allegations of wrong-doing in Gaza were the result of soldiers recycling rumours.

But Breaking the Silence has a long – and to many, credible – record in getting soldiers to talk about experiences which might not reflect well on the army.

Another says: “People were not instructed to shoot at everyone they see, but they were told that from a certain distance when they approach a house, no matter who it is – even an old woman – take them down.”

Many of the testimonies are in line with claims made by human rights organisations that Israeli military action in Gaza was indiscriminate and disproportionate.

Amnesty International has accused both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group in charge in Gaza, of committing war crimes during the 22-day conflict which ended on 18 January.

Israeli officials insist troops went to great lengths to protect civilians, that Hamas endangered non-combatants by firing from civilian areas and that homes and buildings were destroyed only when there was a specific military need to do so.

‘Ill discipline’

Other allegations in the testimonies of the 14 conscripts and 12 reserve soldiers include:

• Civilians were used as human shields, entering buildings ahead of soldiers

You can’t identify too much at night and anything that moves you engage in order not to take risks. It was not defined this way officially, but it was obvious
Anonymous Israeli soldier

• Large swathes of homes and buildings were demolished as a precaution or to secure clear lines of fire for the future.

• Some of the troops had a generally aggressive, ill-disciplined attitude

• There was incidents of vandalism of property of Palestinians

• Soldiers fired at water tanks because they were bored, at a time of severe water shortages for Gazans

• White phosphorus was used in civilian areas in a way some soldiers saw as gratuitous and reckless

• Many of the soldiers said there had been very little direct engagement with Palestinian militants.

The report says Israeli troops and the people who justify their actions are “slid[ing] together down the moral slippery slope”.

“This is an urgent call to Israeli society and its leaders to sober up and investigate anew the results of our actions,” Breaking the Silence says.

Israel said the purpose of Operation Cast Lead had been to end rocket fire from Gaza aimed at its southern towns.

Palestinian rights groups say about 1,400 Palestinians died during the operation. Thirteen Israelis died in the conflict, including 10 soldiers serving in Gaza.

According to the UN, the campaign damaged or destroyed more than 50,000 homes, 800 industrial properties, 200 schools, 39 mosques and two churches.

Investigations

Reacting to the report, Israeli military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich said:

“The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] regrets the fact that another human rights organisation has come out with a report based on anonymous and general testimony – without investigating their credibility.”

She dismissed the document as “hearsay and word of mouth”.

“The IDF expects every soldier to turn to the appropriate authorities with any allegation,” Lt Col Leibovich added. “This is even more important where the harm is to non-combatants. The IDF has uncompromising ethical values which continue to guide us in every mission.”

There have been several investigations into the conduct of Israel’s operation in Gaza, and both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs the territory, have faced accusations of war crimes.

An internal investigations by the Israeli military said troops fought lawfully, although errors did take place, such as the deaths of 21 people in a house that had been wrongly targeted.

A fact-finding team commissioned by the Arab League concluded there was enough evidence to prosecute the Israeli military for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that “the Israeli political leadership was also responsible for such crimes”.

It also said Palestinian militants were guilty of war crimes in their use of indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians.

July 6, 2009

US and Russia agree nuclear cuts

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:16 pm

US and Russia agree nuclear cuts

US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have reached an outline agreement to cut back their nations’ stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

The “joint understanding” signed in Moscow would see reductions of deployed nuclear warheads to below 1,700 each within seven years of a new treaty.

The accord would replace the 1991 Start I treaty, which expires in December.

Mr Obama said the two countries were both “committed to leaving behind the suspicion and the rivalry of the past”.

Separately, Russia also agreed to allow the US military to fly troops and weapons across its territory to Afghanistan, allowing it to avoid using supply routes through Pakistan that are attacked by militants.

On a range of issues, differences remain between us
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

The two countries also will set up a joint commission to co-operate over energy, and fighting terrorism and drug-trafficking. Military co-operation, suspended since last year’s conflict between Russia and Georgia, will be resumed.

However, on the contentious issue of US plans to base parts of a missile defence shield in Eastern Europe, the presidents merely said they had agreed to a joint study into ballistic missile threats and the creation of a data exchange centre.

‘Frank’ discussions

After three hours of talks at the Kremlin on Monday, Mr Obama and Mr Medvedev publicly signed a joint understanding to negotiate a new arms control treaty that would set lower levels of both nuclear warheads and delivery systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles and bombers.

US-RUSSIA NUCLEAR DEAL
Each country to cut deployed nuclear warheads to 1,500-1,675 (currently 1,700-2,200)
Delivery systems to be within 500-1,000 range (currently 1,600)
Reductions so be achieved within seven years of new treaty
Treaty to be signed before Start I expires in December and include “effective” verification measures

“Within seven years after this treaty comes into force, and in future, the limits for strategic delivery systems should be within the range of 500-1,100 units and for warheads linked to them within the range of 1,500-1,675 units,” the document said.

Under the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, each country is allowed between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed nuclear warheads and 1,600 delivery systems – meaning each side might only be required to decommission a further 25 warheads.

Correspondents also point out that the proposed cuts would still leave the US and Russia able to destroy each other many times over.

A White House statement said the new treaty would “include effective verification measures” and “enhance the security of both the US and Russia, as well as provide predictability and stability in strategic offensive forces”.

Afterwards, Mr Medvedev said the talks had been “very frank and very sincere”, but that they had been, “without any doubt, the meeting we had been waiting for in Russia and the United States”.

“I would like particularly to stress that our country would like to reach a level of co-operation with the United States that would really be worthy of the 21st Century, and which would ensure international peace and security,” he said.

Russians spell out their hopes for Obama visit

But the Russian leader cautioned that there remained “differences on many issues”, most notably on the proposed US missile defence shield.

Mr Obama said he and Mr Medvedev were countering a “sense of drift” and were now resolved “to reset US-Russian relations so that we can co-operate more effectively in areas of common interest”.

“We must lead by example, and that’s what we are doing here today,” he said.

The US president said he was confident a legally binding disarmament treaty would be signed by the end of the year, when Start I expires.

On Tuesday, Mr Obama will meet Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

He said last week that he thought the former Russian president had “one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new”.

“I think that it’s important that even as we move forward with President Medvedev, that Putin understands that the old Cold War approaches to US-Russian relations is outdated, that it’s time to move forward in a different direction,” he told the Associated Press.

Mr Putin responded: “We stand solidly on our own two feet and always look into the future.”

Graph showing US and Russian nuclear weapon stockpiles

July 3, 2009

Deadly military crash in Pakistan

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 6:32 pm

Deadly military crash in Pakistan

Pakistani military MI-17 helicopter (3.6.09)

Pakistan uses military helicopters widely in the rugged north-west region

Up to 26 Pakistani security personnel are feared dead after an army transport helicopter crashed in the tribal region of Orakzai, military officials say.

Maj Gen Athar Abbas told the news the helicopter crashed on the border of the Khyber and Orakzai tribal region.

The cause of the crash is unclear, although officials said the most likely explanation was a technical failure.

The crash comes as a suspected US drone strike in South Waziristan killed at least 10 militants, officials said.

The Mike Wooldridge in Islamabad says it is understood the MI-17 helicopter had been flying back to Peshawar from the Afghan border region when the pilot put out a Mayday alert.

Map locator

The helicopter then came down “in a hostile area” where it was fired upon by militants, according to officials.

Troops were sent in and exchanged fire with the insurgents.

Military officials said that an investigation into the crash would be carried out.

But our correspondent says it is a serious blow for the Pakistani military as it prepares for the next phase of its offensive against Taliban militants in the north-west tribal belt along the Afghan border.

In the latest fighting, military jets are reported to have attacked suspected Taliban positions in South and North Waziristan.

Unnamed intelligence officials said the drone attack in South Waziristan had targeted a militant training facility.

The region – on the Afghan border – is controlled by Pakistan’s most senior Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.

July 2, 2009

US opens ‘major Afghan offensive’

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:36 am

US opens ‘major Afghan offensive’

The US army says it has launched a major offensive against the Taliban in south Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

The US military says about 4,000 Marines as well as 650 Afghan troops are involved, supported by Nato planes.

Brigadier General Larry Nicholson said the operation was different from previous ones because of the “massive size of the force” and its speed.

The offensive is the Marines’ first major operation since their recent deployment to Afghanistan.

It is also the first such operation under President Barack Obama’s presidency.

The operation – codenamed Khanjar or Strike of the Sword – began when units moved into the Helmand river valley in the early hours of Thursday.

Afghan map

Helicopters and heavy transport vehicles carried out the advance, with Nato planes providing air cover.

UK-led forces in Helmand launched their own operation to combat the Taliban insurgency last week, in what the Ministry of Defence described as one of the largest air operations in modern times.

Thousands of British forces under Nato command have been fighting the Taliban in Helmand since 2006, but there has been criticism that they have been overstretched and under-resourced.

Security aim

Southern Afghanistan is considered a Taliban stronghold.

The security forces will build bases to provide security for the local people so that they can carry out every activity with this favourable background, and take their lives forward in peace
Gulab Mangal
Helmand Governor

“Where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces,” said Brig Gen Nicholson in a statement.

At a briefing at the US military’s Camp Leatherneck last week, he told personnel and embedded reporters: “One of the most critical things is to tell people why we’re there, and we are going to have a limited opportunity to gain their trust.”

The operation would have an initial highly aggressive stage lasting 36 hours, AFP news agency reported.

It aims to improve security ahead of presidential elections on 20 August, allowing voter registration where before there was none, Gen Nicholson said.

US soldiers in Afghanistan, 27 June, 2009

US troops are working to flush out Taliban from Helmand province

A US military spokesman, Captain William Pelletier, told the news there had been “no enemy contact” in the first hours of the operation, but one marine was slightly injured when an improvised explosive device detonated in the village of Nawa.

Nawa and nearby Garmsir – south of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah – are key targets in the operation, as the area is considered a refuge for militants and no US or Nato troops have previously operated there in large numbers.

Capt Pelletier said the US military was prepared for casualties, but stressed that “it is absolutely essential that no civilians be harmed”.

Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal predicted the operation would be “very effective”.

“The security forces will build bases to provide security for the local people so that they can carry out every activity with this favourable background, and take their lives forward in peace.”

Troop numbers

I am convinced that the addition of those [US] troops is going to improve the security situation
General Jim Dutton
Commander of UK forces

As of June 2009, Nato’s International Security Assistance Force had 61,130 personnel from 42 countries including the US, Canada, European countries, Australia, Jordan and New Zealand.

The US is the largest contributor, providing 28,850 soldiers.

It also has troops under Operation Enduring Freedom – mostly in the east of Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan – that are not under Isaf’s command.

In December 2008 they numbered 17,100.

President Obama has pledged to send an additional 21,000 extra soldiers to Afghanistan, many of them redeployed from operations in Iraq, to help with training Afghan security forces and to tackle the insurgency.

Last week the commander of UK troops in Afghanistan, General Jim Dutton, denied that the battle against the Taliban was “a losing campaign”.

Gen Dutton welcomed the planned increase in US troop numbers.

“I am convinced that the addition of those [US] troops is going to improve the security situation,” he said.

June 30, 2009

US soldiers leave Iraq’s cities

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 11:28 am

US soldiers leave Iraq’s cities

Iraqi soldiers carry the national flag and a banner that reads in Arabic "Parade to Mark the Iraq Pride day" in the city of Karbala

US and Iraqi commanders say Iraqi forces are ready to take over security

US troops have withdrawn from towns and cities in Iraq, six years after the invasion, having formally handed over security duties to new Iraqi forces.

A public holiday – National Sovereignty Day – has been declared, and the capital, Baghdad, threw a giant party to mark the eve of the changeover.

Hours before the midnight deadline, four US soldiers were killed in combat.

US-led combat operations are due to end by September 2010, with all troops gone from Iraq by the end of 2011.

The US military said the four soldiers served in Baghdad, but did not provide further details before families had been notified. They died as a “result of combat related injuries”, the military said.

Iraqi and US troops have been on the alert for insurgent attacks during the handover.

Despite the pullback from cities and towns, due to be completed on Tuesday, US troops will still be embedded with Iraqi forces.

We think Iraq is ready and Iraq thinks Iraq is ready
Christopher Hill
US Ambassador to Iraq

Both American and the Iraqi commanders say they are expecting al-Qaeda in Iraq and other groups to attempt to re-ignite sectarian tensions.

BBC defence and security correspondent Rob Watson says that while the pullback is significant, the actual withdrawal of US combat troops in 2010 will pose a greater challenge.

The success of that depends on Iraq’s political leaders and their ability to tackle the country’s many outstanding problems and tensions, he says.

Some 131,000 US troops remain in Iraq, including 12 combat brigades, and the total is not expected to drop below 128,000 until after the Iraqi national election in January.

‘Now is the time’

Iraqi soldiers paraded through Baghdad’s streets on Monday in vehicles decorated with flowers and Iraqi flags, while patriotic songs were played through loudspeakers at checkpoints.

Signs were draped on some Baghdad’s concrete blast walls reading “Iraq: my nation, my glory, my honour”.

US commanders have said security and stability is improving, and that Iraqi forces are now ready to take over security operations.

The US Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, said there would be no major reduction in forces until 2010 but the pullback was a “milestone”.

“Yes, we think Iraq is ready and Iraq thinks Iraq is ready,” he said.

“We have spent a lot of time working very closely with Iraqi security services… and I think there is an understanding that now it is the time.”

Mr Hill stressed that there would still be “a lot of US combat capabilities in Iraq for months to come”.

“After 30 June, with US combat forces out of cities and villages, localities, we’ll still be in Iraq,” he said.

“We will still have a very robust number of US troops in Iraq and, in fact, those troops will not begin to withdraw from Iraq until probably several months from now.”

The pullback comes two years after the US “surge” of extra troops between February and June 2007, which took US troop levels in Iraq to 168,000.

There was a decline in violence, but recent months have seen an upsurge.

In the past 10 days nearly 170 people have been killed and many more injured in three attacks in Baghdad and Kirkuk.


Did you attend Monday’s celebrations in Iraq? Send your comments or pictures

June 22, 2009

Missing for 50 years – US nuclear bomb

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 1:38 pm

Missing for 50 years – US nuclear bomb

Colonel Howard Richardson

Colonel Howard Richardson ditched the bomb off Tybee Island

More than 50 years after a 7,600lb (3,500kg) nuclear bomb was dropped in US waters following a mid-air military collision, the question of whether the missing weapon still poses a threat remains.

In his own mind, retired 87-year-old Colonel Howard Richardson is a hero responsible for one of the most extraordinary displays of aeronautic skill in the history of the US Air Force.

His view carries a lot of weight and he has a large number of supporters – including the Air Force itself which honoured his feat with a Distinguished Flying Cross.

But to others, he is little short of a villain: the man who 50 years ago dropped a nuclear bomb in US waters, a bomb nobody has been able to find and make safe.

‘Top-secret flight’

Shortly after midnight on 5 February 1958, Howard Richardson was on a top-secret training flight for the US Strategic Air Command.

It was the height of the Cold War and the young Major Richardson’s mission was to practise long-distance flights in his B-47 bomber in case he was ordered to fly from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida to any one of the targets the US had identified in Russia.

Colonel Howard Richardson
We thought maybe it was something from outer space, but it could only be another plane
Colonel Howard Richardson

The training was to be as realistic as possible, so on board was a single massive H-bomb – the nuclear weapon he might one day be instructed to drop to start World War III.

As he cruised at 38,000 feet over North Carolina and Georgia, his plane was hit by another military aircraft, gouging a huge hole in the wing and knocking an engine almost off its mountings, leaving it hanging at a perilous angle.

At his home in Mississippi, Colonel Richardson said: “All of a sudden we felt a heavy jolt and a burst of flame out to the right.

“We didn’t know what it was.

“We thought maybe it was something from outer space, but it could only be another plane.”

The colonel thought his number was up. His bomber started plummeting to earth and he struggled with the flight deck to get any kind of response.

“We had ejection seats – I told ’em: ‘Don’t hit the ejection seats just yet. I’m gonna see if we can fly.'”

As he dropped to 20,000 feet, he somehow got the damaged craft under control and levelled out.

He and his co-pilot then made a fateful decision which probably saved both their lives and the lives of countless people on the ground.

B-47 bomber wing

The B-47’s engine was left hanging from the plane

Colonel Richardson told me that the decision was instantaneous – and he still has no doubt it was the right thing to do.

They would ditch their nuclear payload as soon as possible in order to lighten the aircraft for an emergency landing and also to eliminate the danger of an enormous explosion when they made their unsteady arrival at the nearest available runway.

“The tactical doctrine for Strategic Air Command gave me the authority to get rid of it (the bomb) for the safety of the crew – that was the number one priority,” Colonel Richardson said.

He managed to direct the B-47 a mile or two off the coast of Savannah and opened the bomb doors, dropping the bomb somewhere into the shallow waters and light sand near Tybee Island.

He then managed a perfectly executed descent from which he and his crew walked away unscathed.

The pilot of the other aircraft, an F-86 fighter jet, also survived, after his ejector seat shot him clear of his aircraft.

I’ve been living with it now for 51 years
Colonel Howard Richardson

Immediately after the crash, a search was set up to find the unexploded nuclear weapon, buried somewhere too close for comfort to the US’s second-largest seaport and one of its most beautiful cities.

Numerous other searches have followed, both official and unofficial, and each of them has also proved unsuccessful.

So the bomb remains tucked away on the sea-bed, in an area which is frequently dredged by shrimp fishermen, any one of whom could suddenly find that they have netted something a touch larger and scarier than a crustacean.

How dangerous the bomb is after all these years is a matter of hot debate.

The US Air Force insists it is safest to leave it wherever it is, and Colonel Richardson is adamant that it is incapable of a nuclear explosion because it lacks the vital plutonium trigger.

‘Practice mission’

He said these were routinely left out of the bombs used on training flights.

“This was just a practice mission. We were continually working out any problems, that’s why we had to practise – we wanted to be perfect,” he said.

But his case has been vigorously contested by opponents who raise apocalyptic fears of a thermonuclear explosion which could destroy much of the US eastern seaboard.

Fears have also been expressed that the bomb could be located and recovered by a terrorist group, and are even some who believe that may already have happened.

For Colonel Richardson, the event which shaped his life has not ended quite the way he thought it would.

“I’ve been living with it now for 51 years.

“We had an accident and I landed the aircraft safely… I did get a Distinguished Flying Cross from a general for that.

“I thought that would be the story. That’s not the story – everything’s about the nuclear weapon.”

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