Archive for December 6, 2014

August 22, 2014

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The party of Pakistan’s famed cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who has led a week of anti-government protests in the capital, resigned from parliament on Friday in its latest bid to drive Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from power over alleged election fraud.

The move came a day after parliament presented a united front against Khan, with opposition parties backing a resolution rejecting his calls for Sharif’s resignation as unconstitutional despite the presence of thousands of protesters just outside.

Khan and popular cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have led twin protests over the past week calling on Sharif to step down. Thousands of their supporters have gathered in the heart of Islamabad, in the so-called Red Zone housing government buildings. They accuse Sharif of rigging the May 2013 election, which brought him to power in the first democratic transition in Pakistan’s history.

The election also saw Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party win 34 seats in the 342-member National Assembly, making it the third largest bloc in the lower house of parliament. Khan and Qadri have called for electoral reforms and the appointment of a caretaker government to hold a new vote. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N party has said it is willing to discuss all of their demands except for the prime minister’s resignation.

In recent days Khan had issued a series of ultimatums calling on Sharif to step down, and at times it seemed his protesters might besiege parliament or enter the premier’s nearby office. But on Friday he appeared to have backed down.

“We resigned from the National Assembly as we believe that the elections were not transparent,” Arif Alvi, a lawmaker from Khan’s party, told reporters. Sadiqul Farooq, a spokesman for the ruling party, said there was no threat to the government, which retains the support of a 190-member majority.

Khan’s party on Thursday held initial talks with the government but later pulled out, saying authorities were planning a crackdown on the protests. The government insisted it had no plans to confront the demonstrators and wants to resolve the dispute through negotiations.

The protests have ground downtown Islamabad to a halt, and had initially raised fears of unrest. Pakistan, a nuclear-armed U.S. ally, has a long history of political turmoil and military dictatorships.

But the protests, which began as convoys from the eastern city of Lahore, have been peaceful, with families taking part in a festive atmosphere of dancing, drum beats and patriotic songs.

New Delhi (AFP)

Aug 20, 2014

Pakistan’s top envoy to India on Wednesday defended his decision to meet Kashmiri separatists, a move that prompted an angry New Delhi to cancel high-level talks between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

High Commissioner (ambassador) Abdul Basit said he met Kashmiri separatist leaders as part of efforts to resolve tensions between the two arch-rivals, including over the disputed Himalayan region.

Delhi’s decision to call off talks between foreign secretaries which had been scheduled next week in Islamabad was a blow to hopes of warmer ties between the new Indian government and Islamabad.

“We believe Kashmiris are a stakeholder in this (diplomatic) process,” Basit told reporters in the capital; saying meetings with the leaders were a “longstanding” practice.

Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin later hit back on Twitter, saying there were only two stakeholders in the Kashmir issue, “India & Pakistan. None else”.

Akbaruddin on Monday said Pakistan’s decision to meet the leaders was an interference in Indian domestic affairs.

Basit also told reporters on Wednesday Pakistan was confident of “overcoming this setback” on the cancelled talks.

“We will not allow the process (of stronger ties) to be distracted in any way,” Basit said, adding, “You will find Pakistan seriously committed to the process.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise move to invite his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony in May spurred hopes that peace talks between the two countries could resume.

But last week Modi accused Islamabad of waging a “proxy war” by sending militants to attack Indian targets.

There have also been several ceasefire violations across the Kashmiri border that have angered India.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence, two of them over the disputed Kashmir region.

The United States earlier this week termed the cancellation of the talks disappointing.

Source: Space War.


August 21, 2014

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani officials have held first, “initial” talks with two opposition groups whose supporters have been besieging the parliament for a second day demanding the prime minister resign over alleged election fraud.

Cabinet minister Ahsan Iqbal says the two sides are trying to find a “win-win solution.” Thursday’s talks came after Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Gen. Rasheel Sharif, requested that Nawaz Sharif’s government negotiate with thousands of protesters who have surrounded the parliament.

The twin protests by opposition politician Imran Khan and cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have virtually shut down Pakistan’s capital and raised fears of unrest. The rallies started last week in the eastern city of Lahore and later moved to Islamabad. The protesters torn down barricades late Tuesday and entered the so-called “Red Zone” housing key government buildings and diplomatic posts.

August 20, 2014

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Jubilant anti-government demonstrators in Pakistan on Wednesday claimed victory after tearing down barricades and occupying a key road outside Parliament, where they are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over alleged voting fraud.

Despite the mounting pressure, Sharif’s party said he would not quit, while the country’s powerful army called for a negotiated settlement. The twin protests led by a famous cricketer-turned-politician and a popular cleric have brought tens of thousands of people into the streets, raising fears of unrest in the nuclear-armed U.S. ally with a history of military coups and dictatorship.

“Situation requires patience, wisdom and sagacity from all stakeholders to resolve prevailing impasse,” army spokesman Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa said on Twitter. He said the government buildings in the so-called Red Zone were a “symbol of state” and were being protected by the army.

Imran Khan, the cricket star leading one of the protests, has called on demonstrators not to enter Parliament but warned he would lead his supporters into the premier’s office if Sharif does not step down by Wednesday evening.

Sharif’s office is located near the Parliament, and authorities have deployed police, paramilitary rangers and troops to guard it. Khan, who heads parliament’s third-largest political bloc, and fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri — who enjoys a wide religious following— have led twin rallies calling on Sharif to step down, accusing him of rigging the May 2013 election that brought him to office in the country’s first democratic transfer of power.

Sharif was forced from office in 1999 when the then-army chief Pervez Musharraf seized power in a military coup. The U.S. embassy in Islamabad said its Consular section would remain closed Wednesday, and advised American citizens to keep a low profile and avoid large gatherings.

However, a peaceful and celebratory atmosphere prevailed outside the Parliament on Wednesday, a day after tens of thousands of protesters entered the high-security Red Zone. Dancing to the beat of drums, protesters chanted anti-government slogans and said Sharif’s government would soon fall.

“Yesterday, people were saying we will never be able to reach the Parliament. Look, we are standing right in front of the Parliament,” said Rabia Naeem, 22, a Khan supporter. “Imran Khan is the only hope to save Pakistan from corrupt rulers,” she said.

Asad Hafeez, a 45-year-old Qadri supporter, said reforms were needed before any new elections. “We need electoral reforms and a neutral government to hold free and fair elections. It will only happen when Nawaz Sharif resigns,” he said.

December 05, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — An al-Qaida-linked group in Syria announced Friday that it killed a Lebanese soldier it was holding captive as retaliation for the Lebanese government’s detention of the wives and children of Islamic militants.

The Nusra Front group said in a statement published on its official Twitter account that it shot dead Ali Bazzal on Friday night. It published a photo purporting to show Bazzal being shot in the head and threatened to kill more soldiers if the relatives of the militants are not released immediately.

The Syria-based Nusra Front and Islamic State group are holding some 20 Lebanese soldiers and policemen captive after kidnapping them in August during a cross-border raid. IS has already beheaded two, and the Nusra Front shot dead a third. Bazzal would be the fourth captive soldier to die.

There was no immediate confirmation from Lebanese officials of the news, which is likely to further inflame tensions in Lebanon. Lebanese security officials this week said they have arrested a wife and child of the Islamic State group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Iraqi officials have disputed that announcement. Authorities said they also arrested the wife and two children of another Sunni militant commander in Syria, Abu Ali al-Shishani.

Al-Shishani, who has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, had threatened to “retaliate” against families of Lebanese soldiers over the arrest, according to a new militant posting. In the video released late Thursday, al-Shishani — whose real name is Anas Sharkas, according to Lebanese authorities — also said that mediation efforts for the release of the Lebanese soldiers have stopped, until his family is freed.

It was unclear from that statement what role al-Shishani has played so far in the mediation efforts, which are led by Qatar, a traditional Mideast mediator. In his threat, al-Shishani says Shiite women and children, along with families of Lebanese soldiers, will be “legitimate targets” for his militants. Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah group has sent fighters to back Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.

In the video, al-Shishani, who is shown seated in front of a black flag of the Islamic State group, flanked by two masked gunmen, says one of his detained children is 4 and the other is still a baby. In Syria, Muslim militants pushed forward in their offensive on a major military air base in eastern Syria on Friday, capturing a nearby village in an attempt to take one of Assad’s last outposts in a province that borders Iraq, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees said clashes continued for the second day around the air base just outside the contested eastern city of Deir el-Zour. The Observatory said fighters from the Islamic State group captured the strategic village of Jafra reaching the fence of the sprawling air base.

The Observatory, which has a network of activists around the country, said the fighting that started with an Islamic State offensive early Thursday has killed 30 government troops and 27 jihadi fighters.

The key military air base gives government warplanes a hub from which to bomb IS-held cities and towns across much of eastern Syria. For the Islamic State group, capturing the airport would eliminate the main pocket of resistance in the area and provide a major morale and propaganda boost after a string of setbacks in recent weeks.

Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.

December 05, 2014

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The Greek and Turkish prime ministers on Friday stressed the importance of improving often frosty relations between their two countries, while acknowledging significant differences remain.

Greece and Turkey have historically had strained ties and are still at odds over several issues, including territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea and over the ethnically divided island of Cyprus. All the issues were on the agenda as Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu arrived in Athens for a two-day visit.

“It is possible to discuss everything, and that is what we are doing,” he said during a speech delivered at a Greek-Turkish business forum. “Both in Ankara and in Athens, there are leaderships with vision who envisage a better future for their countries.”

Davutoglu arrived heading a large delegation of businessmen and nine Cabinet ministers, including those of foreign affairs, interior, energy, economy and customs. Stronger business ties between the two countries, which have seen a significant increase in bilateral trade in recent years, will help improve relations, both prime ministers said.

“The economic relations between Greece and Turkey are very encouraging up to now,” Greek premier Antonis Samaras said. “But I believe they are just indicative of the much larger margins that exist in the future.”

Bilateral trade has nearly doubled, growing from 2.2 billion euros in 2010 to 4.3 billion in 2013, while Turkey has become the largest market for Greek products over the past two years. The two countries are also cooperating in energy, including the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline that would transfer natural gas from the Caspian to Italy, passing through Greece.

“It is very important that we make the maximum use of joint and major projects like the TAP pipeline, and the creation of the southern energy corridor that will start a new chapter in relations between our two counties,” said Greek Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos.

However, major differences remain between the NATO allies who have reached the brink of war three times since in the last four decades. “Of course there are issues that we disagree on, we have differences. On the issue of the Aegean, we will continue our bilateral exploratory talks,” Davutoglu said.

“We do not want tension in the Aegean or in the eastern Mediterranean. We want, when there are differences and different approaches, to be able to talk and seek solutions.” Davutoglu’s visit comes at a time of increased tension over oil and gas exploration rights off Cyprus, divided since 1974 into a Turkish-occupied north and a Greek Cypriot south.

Cyprus is looking to tap energy reserves to help recover from a financial crisis. It touts itself as a new energy source for a Europe trying to lessen its dependence on Russian imports. But Turkey opposes the gas search, insisting the Greek Cypriot government cannot unilaterally exploit the island’s resources.

“On the Cyprus issue, I appeal to you, come and let’s solve this problem, to jointly utilize the energy wealth and to connect the potential sources of natural gas with Greece via Turkey,” Davutoglu said. “Peace has never harmed any country.”

Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed.