Archive for August 12, 2012

Sep 21, 2011

UNITED NATIONS — Afghanistan, its neighbors and supporters are launching a drive to boost prosperity and peace by linking the country with markets across South and Central Asia, according to US officials.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle will host talks in New York Thursday on what amounts to plans for a “New Silk Road,” they said.

Like the ancient Silk Road, Afghanistan would be at the heart of lucrative trade routes between Asia and the West, but it would involve modern highways, rail links and energy pipelines, senior US administration officials told reporters.

They said the New York talks — which will draw officials from Afghanistan’s neighbors and near-neighbors, including China — will pave the way for meetings in Istanbul on November 2 and in Bonn, Germany, on December 5.

The meetings are designed to promote the “idea that a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan will only really be able to exist inside a secure, stable and prosperous region,” a senior US official told reporters.

“Its part of a wider effort to help to build up the Afghan private sector, to help create sustainable economic development in Afghanistan, to create this economic integration between South and Central Asia,” a second US official said.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to upstage the high-level officials attending the meeting, said the “New Silk Road” builds on projects that are already underway in the region.

One of them includes the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, which was launched in June this year to reduce the costs and delays in transporting goods between the two often tense neighbors.

The second official said the Afghans and Pakistanis have agreed to try to extend the arrangement to central Asia. “We also hope it could be extended to India as well,” the official said.

The officials did not say how the longstanding tension between Pakistan and India would affect the plans, but noted that the Indian and Pakistani commerce secretaries have been engaged for months in trying to increase cross-border trade.

“The ultimate goal is to reduce trade and other barriers so that products from Afghanistan or from any of the Central Asian countries could transit through Pakistan and into India, Bangladesh or even beyond,” he said.

“This is really a truly transformative vision because… India is going to be such an important economic actor for the region,” he said.

The New Silk Road project also calls for building on progress to extend energy pipelines across Central Asia.

The second official recalled progress the governments of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have made in building the TAPI pipeline to bring natural gas from Turkmenistan fields to India’s energy markets.

“It would bring important transit revenues for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he said.

He also cited the example of Uzbekistan, which he said has been “very helpful” working with the Asian Development Bank and others to develop the rail link from its own border to Mazar i-Sharif, in Afghanistan.

Copyright © 2012 AFP. All rights reserved.

By Hassan El-Fekih (AFP)
Sep 20, 2011

BENGHAZI, Libya — Libya’s new rulers on Wednesday declared victory in the key southern city of Sabha and conquered the oasis town of Waddan, but suffered heavy casualties in their offensive in Moamer Kadhafi’s hometown of Sirte.

Officials of the interim ruling National Transitional Council said there were only small pockets of resistance in Sabha, Libya’s largest desert city and home to a strategically vital military base.

The United States prepared to raise the Stars and Stripes Thursday over its Tripoli embassy, after President Barack Obama met Libya’s new leader in New York and pledged support for Libya as it consolidates freedom.

And NATO, whose air strikes have been instrumental in beating back Kadhafi forces, said Wednesday it was extending its air campaign for another 90 days.

“We are in complete control of the city of Sabha. Everybody, including (those who were) pro-Kadhafi, are now with the revolution,” said Abdelmajid Seif Ennasr, who represents the NTC in Sabha.

He admitted, however, that NTC fighters were still encountering some “resistance from some individuals here and there.”

“Sabha is totally under the control of the revolutionaries,” said Mohammed Wardugu, the Benghazi spokesman of the “Desert Shield Brigade” fighting in the region.

The battle for Sabha, a city of 100,000 people in an area dominated by Kadhafi’s clan, first broke out on June 12 after two days of anti-regime protests in the sprawling oasis.

Meanwhile, NTC commander Ahmed Zlitni said that fighters were planning for a three-pronged attack on Kadhafi’s hometown, Sirte.

“We are working on a strategy to go for a big push from three sides, the east, the west and the south. This is a war, the push could happen in a few days or anytime soon,” Zlitni said.

“We are still giving time for Sirte civilians to leave the city. There is resistance to our forces from Kadhafi’s forces from inside the city.”

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said meanwhile coalition warplanes would stay in the air as long as Libyan civilians are under threat.

“We are determined to continue our mission for as long as necessary, but ready to terminate the operation as soon as possible,” Rasmussen said.

At Bani Walid, a Kadhafi bastion southwest of Sirte, doctors said two people were killed and another four wounded.

Previously NTC official Abdullah Kenshil reported the death of an NTC fighter in Bani Walid and said new regime forces were preparing for a “decisive” tank-backed battle for the town in the next 48 hour.

Anti-Kadhafi authorities have admitted they lost three men at Sirte on Tuesday, taking the overall death toll since they moved on the city on September 15 to at least 45 NTC fighters.

Meanwhile, 16 patients, most in critical condition, were evacuated on a Qatari military plane to Malta as doctors said the region’s hospitals were overwhelmed.

NTC forces suspect Kadhafi enjoys a broad base of support in Sirte.

“The majority of residents are with Kadhafi,” said Zuber al-Gadir, spokesman of the Misrata military council, adding their persistent loyalty to the ousted leader was a legacy of his now defunct propaganda machine.

In Harawa, an AFP correspondent saw about nine NTC tanks moving towards Sirte’s eastern front, possibly in a bid to boost defenses in the face of steady artillery and machinegun fire from Kadhafi loyalists.

In the Al-Jufra oasis towns of Waddan and Hun, NATO said it took out Tuesday one military vehicle storage facility, four anti-aircraft guns and one armed vehicle.

On Wednesday witnesses said Kadhafi loyalists shelled Hun, killing and wounding dozens of people. Speaking by telephone to AFP in Tripoli, they said heavy shelling made it impossible to transport casualties out of the town, and that the power plant had been one of the targets.

In Benghazi, an NTC official announced “the total liberation of Hun.” He said Kadhafi loyalists had fled to the town of Sokna eight kilometers (five miles) away.

Kamal al-Hzifeh, the coordinator between the military command in Al-Jufra and the NTC, said there was fighting between Hun and Sokna and that Grad rockets slammed into Hun.

Earlier an NTC official in Benghazi, Mustafa Huni, said NTC forces had seized most of Waddan and were only facing pockets of resistance in other Al-Jufra towns, about 300 kilometres (186 miles) south of Sirte.

“Seventy percent of the Al-Jufra has been liberated. Waddan is freed, our forces entered the town following NATO bombing of Al-Hisha dam, 20 kilometers (13 miles) from the town,” Huni said.

Despite the setbacks, the fugitive Kadhafi told his remaining loyalists in Libya that the new regime is only temporary, in his latest comments aired on Syrian-based Arrai television.

“What is happening in Libya is a charade which can only take place thanks to the (NATO-led) air raids, which will not last forever,” said Kadhafi, who has been at large since NTC forces overran Tripoli on August 25.

As Libya’s new rulers were feted in New York, interim prime minister Mahmud Jibril said the country’s first formal government since Kadhafi’s ouster would be announced within seven to 10 days.

His statement came after a special summit at which Obama met NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil and announced the US embassy would be reopening and the ambassador, Gene Cretz, returning for Thursday’s flag-raising ceremony.

Copyright © 2012 AFP. All rights reserved.


The ethnic Turkish northern half of Cyprus marked its marine borders with Turkey and will issue licenses for offshore oil and gas drilling in response to a similar move by the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot half of the island, state media reported Wednesday.

The southern government began exploratory drilling for oil and gas this week, prompting strong protests from Turkey, which doesn’t recognize the Greek Cypriot administration and says drilling can derail long-running talks to reunify the island. (AP)

Source: Ynet News.

By DIAA HADID | Associated Press
Fri, Aug 10, 2012

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Alongside hundreds of millions of Muslims observing the sunrise-to-sundown fast of Ramadan, a minority in the community goes underground each year during the holy month, sneaking sandwiches and cigarettes when no one is looking.

They include Muslims ambivalent about their faith or outright atheists, nicotine addicts too hooked to quit for 15 hours straight or those who simply don’t want to deal with a day of being hungry.

The Ramadan dodgers indulge in secret — mostly to avoid offending those who are fasting or to avoid embarrassment. Community pressure is powerful. Many say they don’t break the rules openly because they fear the disapproval of wives, neighbors and colleagues, or want to set a good example for their children.

“I tried to fast, but it’s pointless. I need to smoke,” said Ahmed, a 28-year-old electrician, puffing on a cigarette at midday in the privacy of a windowless office in an industrial park in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

He said he didn’t want his fiancee or his mother to know he wasn’t fasting. “I’m saving myself a headache,” he said, laughing.

In some places, authorities enforce adherence.

Saudi Arabia threatens to expel even non-Muslim expatriates seen violating Ramadan. In Muslim-majority Malaysia, officials randomly inspect restaurants and parks and nab hundreds of Muslims every year among those eating or drinking. Usually it means a fine amounting to around $300, but repeat offenders in some states can get a year in prison.

Still, the potential chiding from friends and family generally is reason enough to lay low.
In Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, marketing executive Amri said he eats in his car while heading to or from work and hides a water bottle in a work bag for secret sips at the office. He’s an atheist but in the eyes of the law and society, he’s Muslim.

“I’m sure some of my colleagues also don’t always fast, but it’s something that nobody wants to admit. Half of it is the fear of being caught by (the authorities), half of it is the fear that people will look at you negatively,” he said.

Ahmed, Amri and others who acknowledged violating Ramadan spoke with The Associated Press on condition that their full names not be used, another sign of the taboo’s power.

During Ramadan, healthy Muslims must abstain from food, drink and cigarettes during daylight hours. The elderly, the very young, the sick as well as menstruating and nursing women are not required to fast.

Ramadan is typically a joyous time. Families gather for meals at night and sit together to watch the season’s best soap operas. People pray more. There’s a spirit of warmth, a break from routine. For the observant, fasting is a reminder of the deprivations of the poor. It also brings a sense of community, so even many who don’t consider themselves religious or slide on daily prayers throughout the year join in.

But it’s not for everyone.

“I don’t believe in fasting,” said a 59-year-old Palestinian-American supermarket owner from Los Angeles. Raised near Jerusalem in a devout Muslim family, he let go of his faith after moving to the U.S. decades ago.

On a recent trip back, he was reprimanded by his more devout son, 32-year-old Basil, when he unthinkingly ate cake in their car while in a traffic jam of Muslim fasters near Ramallah.

“Basil smacks my hand. He says, Dad, Dad, what are you doing? You can’t do that! Look at the people looking at us!” he recalled.

“I had something in my mouth. I stopped chewing it out of fear. People were looking at me,” he said.

Chain-smoking Palestinian truck driver, Raed, 32, keeps his non-fasting secret from his four children, having his morning coffee and cigarette while they are sleeping.

At the same time, he pays his sons, ages 6 and 11, a dollar for every day they fast.

“I want them to be better than me,” he said, sipping thick black Turkish coffee in an industrial district near Ramallah.

Raed said he doesn’t fast because his job is too difficult.

“That’s empty talk,” countered his wife Nahla, 29. “It’s the cigarettes that are killing him.”
Ramadan violators are expected to pray for forgiveness, fast to make up for lost days and give charity in recompense.

Religious observance in general has increased dramatically since the 1970s in the Arab world and other parts of the Muslim world, as political Islam rose to prominence and secular nationalist and leftist ideologies faded from the scene.

The rise of Islamic political parties in the region in the wake of last year’s Arab Spring protests is likely to reinforce this trend, said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center, a think tank.

The intensity of Ramadan coercion varies.

Most widespread is the closing of restaurants during daylight hours. Alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam no matter what month it is, often disappears during the holy month.

In Ramallah, where devout and secular live side-by-side, some cafes leave their doors coyly half open, a sign that it’s business as usual. One restaurant offers free soup for Muslims wishing to break their fast after sundown. Other customers can order booze. Police allow restaurants to operate normally in areas with a strong Christian minority and foreigners, such as biblical Bethlehem.

Almost all bars in Egypt shut down or stop serving booze. City bylaws in Jakarta, capital of world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, prohibit nightclubs, bars and massage parlors from operating.

In contrast, restaurants serving alcohol operate normally in Lebanon, with its large Christian minority.

And then there are the places where authorities take action.

In West Bank areas under the Palestinian self-rule government, police have detained 10 people for violating the fast in public, said police spokesman Mansour Khazamiyeh. Violators are generally jailed until Ramadan’s end. It’s also an offense in the Gaza Strip, ruled by Palestinian Islamic group Hamas, but police spokesman Ayman Batniji said nobody has been arrested yet.

Egyptian Islamic clerics issued a religious ruling demanding that the government ban public eating in Ramadan, even for the 10 percent Christian minority. Similar requests were made in the past before the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt this year, but so far the Arab world’s most populous country doesn’t enforce the fast.

Anyway, the biggest punishment for some is the guilt.

Abdul-Latif, a 45-year-old Afghan shopkeeper in Kabul, said he and his buddies sneaked some cigarettes — but he didn’t feel good about it.

“It would be such a shame if my family knew,” he said. “It’s also shameful for me. When it becomes time to eat at night, everyone else enjoys it more than me. I know about my shame.”


With additional reporting by Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, Salah Sinan in Baghdad, Aya Batrawi in Cairo, Heidi Vogt and Amir Shah in Kabul, Sean Yoong in Kuala Lumpur and Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta.