Archive for November 24, 2014

October 09, 2014

DHAMALA HAKIMWALA, Pakistan (AP) — Iram Shazadi was making breakfast for her family when bullets started whizzing through her dusty Pakistani village just a half-kilometer (quarter-mile) from the Indian-controlled area of disputed Kashmir.

Then a mortar shell fired by Indian forces slammed into her home, killing her two young sons and her husband’s mother in the worst spasm of violence in the tense Himalayan region in years. So far, 19 people — 11 on the Pakistani side, eight on the Indian — have died over the past week. Dozens have been injured, and tens of thousands have fled their homes.

“I lost my whole world,” Shazadi said Wednesday while recovering from injuries at a military hospital. She sat crying next to her 6-year-old son, who narrowly escaped the blast. Although minor skirmishes in the tense, rocky region are common, the fierce trading of mortar shells and gunfire that began Sunday night marks the most serious violation of a 2003 cease-fire accord brokered between India and Pakistan. Adding to the sense of shock was that the fighting erupted during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, which families normally celebrate with roast goat and parties.

The clashes — which both India and Pakistan blame the other for starting — come even though both governments say they want to improve ties and even resolve the conflict. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Pakistan’s leader, Nawaz Sharif, to attend his inauguration in May, saying he wanted to engage the archrival more assertively.

But relations remain fragile, even hostile. India in August abruptly canceled talks with Pakistan after its ambassador met with Kashmiri separatist leaders. The mostly Muslim region, divided into zones controlled by India and Pakistan, and even a chunk by China, has seen fighting off and on for decades. Pakistan and India have fought two wars over the mountainous territory.

Modi, a strident Hindu nationalist, seems intent on showing he represents a new, more forceful India. “Pakistan has taken too long to understand that there is a change in the government in India. They are getting to learn it in a hard way,” said Jitendra Singh, a top official in Modi’s office.

For Pakistan, the fighting draws international attention to itself and Kashmir, while also reassuring the many Kashmiris opposed to Indian rule that it continues to support their desire for either full independence or a merger with Pakistan. The Indian-controlled part of Kashmir is to hold elections before December, and Kashmir’s status is a hot-button issue with voters.

“The needless macho-ism on the part of either India or Pakistan is not going to help the situation,” said former Indian security official Rana Banerji. Pakistan may feel that “it can create enough trouble to bring India to the table. It suits Pakistan to raise the issue of trouble in Kashmir at international fora — to signal that Kashmir remains a flashpoint between the two nuclear-powered countries.”

Pakistani analysts suggested India was trying to punish Pakistan for highlighting the dispute and initiating contacts with Kashmiri leaders. “They will not hesitate to punish us if we tried to resolve the issue of Kashmir through international help or if we tried to establish contacts with the Kashmir leadership,” said defense analyst Talat Masood in Islamabad.

Officials on both sides said they were unnerved by the fact that this week’s violence was mainly occurring along the more heavily populated 200-kilometer (125-mile) border between Pakistan’s Punjab province and the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir.

That lower-altitude frontier, guarded by paramilitary border forces, is lined on both sides by agricultural fields and ancient villages that have been there long before Pakistan and India gained independence in 1947 and began wrangling over Kashmir.

Pakistan’s Sharif planned a National Security Committee meeting for Friday, while India held a high-level security meeting behind closed doors on Wednesday. India frequently accuses Pakistan of sparking skirmishes to create a distraction or to provide cover fire for separatist militants trying to infiltrate into Indian-controlled Kashmir — an accusation top army officials repeated Thursday. Pakistan denies providing cover, arms or training for militants, saying it gives only moral and diplomatic support to separatist groups who have been fighting since 1989 for Kashmir’s independence or its merger with Pakistan.

“Prime Minister Modi and his government are trapped in their own rhetoric that they are going to be tough and uncompromising with Pakistan,” said Prof. Noor Mohammed Baba, a political science professor at Kashmir University, in Srinigar, the main city in Indian-controlled Kashmir. “Pakistan obviously will also not compromise and surrender.”

India’s Defense Minister Arun Jaitley accused Pakistan of starting the onslaught as a way to grab international attention, and ruled out any chance of holding talks with Pakistan until the fighting stops.

“Pakistan has to stop this unprovoked firing and shelling if it wants peace,” he said. “It’s an effort to precipitate tension both at the domestic and international level.” Panicked villagers on both sides said they were fed up with the seemingly endless cycle of violence.

Newly married Pakistani villager Baila Mustafa lay wounded alongside her injured husband in the hospital. “Please allow us to live with peace,” she said.

Hussain reported from Srinagar, India. Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, and Ashok Sharma and Katy Daigle in New Delhi contributed to this report.

November 23, 2014

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A veteran politician from the previous regime that ran on a platform of restoring the prestige of the state took the lead in Tunisia’s first free and fair presidential election Sunday, according to exit polls. But there will still likely be a runoff next month.

Beji Caid Essebsi, 87, replicated the success of his Nida Tunis (Tunisia’s Call) party in last month’s legislative elections by taking 47 percent of the vote, with outgoing interim president Moncef Marzouki following with 27 percent, according to one polling company. Other polls gave similar figures, indicating that the two men will go head to head in a second round set for Dec. 28.

Marzouki’s staffers contested the polls, maintaining their candidate had the plurality. Official results are expected in the coming days. The electoral commission said 60 percent of the 5.3 million registered voters participated.

The vote appeared to be a choice between fears over security and the freedoms brought by their revolution, with Essebsi representing the stability of the old ways and Marzouki the fervor of the revolution.

The North African country’s transition has remained on track in sharp contrast to the upheavals brought by the Arab Spring elsewhere in the region, including the brutal military coup in Egypt and the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated Tunisians for the vote, calling the country’s transition “an inspiration to all those in the region and around the world.” It hasn’t been easy for Tunisia, however, and the nearly four years since the revolution have been marked by social unrest, terrorist attacks and high inflation that has voters punishing the moderate Islamists that first came to power.

“The thing I’m worried most about for the future is terrorism. Right now, we don’t know who’s coming into the country, and this is a problem,” said Amira Judei, 21, who voted in the southern city of Kasserine, near the border with Algeria and a point of terrorist attacks. Voting hours in the rural regions along the border were reduced because of security fears.

But Judei insisted that “the most important priority is unemployment.” Tunisia’s revolution began in areas such as Kasserine in the impoverished south, and the country’s 15 percent unemployment rate nearly doubles when it comes to young people.

Out of the nearly two dozen candidates for the presidency, Essebsi clearly captured people’s yearning for a return to stability after the disorder of the last few years. “He is a veteran politician with experience that can ensure security and stability,” said Mouldi Cherni, a driver living in Tunis’ Carthage suburb who voted for Essebsi. “The people are tired, life has grown expensive and Tunisians don’t even have enough to make an ojja,” the local omelet favored by the poor.

The strikes, social unrest and occasional political assassinations have kept away foreign investment and the economy foundered after the revolution as an Islamist-led coalition government struggled with the country’s problems.

In Kasserine, Deputy Mayor Ridha Abassi said his constituents had once voted Islamist but chose Essebsi’s Nida Tunis party in last month’s parliamentary elections — a choice that seems to have been replicated for the presidential contests.

Many of these people voted in 2011 for the Islamist Ennahda Party government “and the result was terrorism and abuse of power,” Abassi said at a cafe near the city’s busy bus station. “Even though they know Nida Tunis has a large number of old regime followers in it, they are voting for them to break the power of Ennahda.”

The Ennahda Party stepped down at the start of the year in favor of a government of technocrats, and chose not to run a presidential candidate, though many of its members are believed to back Marzouki.

There are fears that Essebsi has authoritarian tendencies and that his domination of the parliament and the presidency could bring back the old one-party state. Chakib Romdhani — a 31-year-old filmmaker who participated in Tunisia’s 2011 uprising but had never voted before — described how he was torn between the possibility of a new dictatorship and the unrest of Marzouki’s years.

“I feel a great fear from those of the old regime becoming more and more powerful,” he said as he went to vote in Tunis. “I have another fear that comes from the experience of the three-year presidency of Marzouki and the country slowly falling apart.”

In Tunisia, while the main power resides with the prime minister, the presidency does have some responsibilities for defense and foreign affairs. The polls placed Hama Hammami of the left-wing Popular Front coalition in third place with just 10 percent of the vote, followed by millionaire populist Slim Riahi.

Kimball reported from Kasserine.