Archive for July 17, 2015

March 17, 2015

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — It was an awkward reminder of the world’s failure to hold to account a president accused of war crimes: A group photo from Egypt’s economic summit over the weekend shows U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry standing just behind Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir.

Even as the International Criminal Court scolds the U.N. Security Council to make sure a defiant al-Bashir faces trial on charges of orchestrating genocide in Sudan’s western Darfur region, the United Nations appears to be easing away from the conflict. Under pressure from al-Bashir, the U.N. opened talks this month with Sudan on a plan for a large peacekeeping mission to leave Darfur.

The Security Council on Tuesday discussed the troubled mission and how its eventual departure will affect a civil war that once drew the world’s outrage. U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the council the security situation has “deteriorated significantly” in the past year.

The idea of a withdrawal alarms observers of the chaos in Darfur, where nearly half a million people were displaced last year, the most in a decade. The U.N. has blamed the spike in violence largely on a new rapid action force backed by Sudan’s government, which has been fighting rebels across the vast region since 2003. More than 300,000 people have been killed overall.

Some suggest that al-Bashir, who is running for re-election this year, is just posturing and doesn’t really want to lose the benefits of a $1.3 billion-a-year peacekeeping mission. But last year he ordered the expulsion of top U.N. officials and the closure of the mission’s human rights office in the capital, Khartoum, and called for an “exit strategy” for the joint U.N.-African Union force, which numbers more than 20,000.

Adding to the tension was the mass rape of more than 220 women in a Darfur village last October by Sudanese army troops. The peacekeeping force, called UNAMID, has been blocked from entering the village after a brief and inconclusive visit shortly after reports of the mass rape emerged.

But Human Rights Watch pieced together details of the attack through more than 100 interviews with local residents, calling it “a new low in the catalog of atrocities in Darfur.” No progress was announced Tuesday on getting access to the village. “As you know, this is something that has gone on far too long,” a spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, Farhan Haq, told reporters.

That a single Human Rights Watch researcher could produce a damning report through telephone calls alone, while one of the U.N.’s largest peacekeeping efforts has appeared powerless to act, shows the deep disconnect between the mission and Sudan, said Ryan D’Souza, advocacy officer for the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect.

“It’s the worst unkept secret: The mission is failing,” D’Souza said. At the same time, “a withdrawal would send al-Bashir the message that he’d won.” UNAMID has long been criticized for its ineffectiveness in Darfur. It also has become the third-most deadly mission for peacekeepers in U.N. history. At least 215 members have been killed since it was created in 2007.

A new report by the secretary-general says the mission’s downsizing has begun. A total of 770 posts will be gone by April. And UNAMID now has measures to repatriate underperforming members, “in light of several incidents in which military units failed to respond effectively to armed attacks.” Ladsous gave no details.

Sudan’s deputy representative to the U.N. would not say Tuesday how soon Sudan wants the peacekeeping mission out of the country. A fuller exit strategy, based on the new talks among Sudan, the U.N. and the AU, is expected by the end of May.

One Sudanese activist with projects in Darfur, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of safety concerns, said al-Bashir associates the peacekeeping mission with the Security Council’s referral of the Darfur situation to the ICC in 2005. That led to al-Bashir being charged with genocide.

Since then, Sudan’s president has traveled to several countries without being arrested. And the Security Council now faces its sharpest divide since the Cold War. Permanent member Russia can block action on Sudan with a veto, backed by China. Both countries have business interests there.

The activist is upset with al-Bashir’s actions, but also impatient with UNAMID: “The mandate of the mission is just observing. What is the use of observing violations if they don’t interfere?” If that doesn’t change, the activist said, “I think they should leave.”

March 28, 2015

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Gunmen from the Somali extremist group al-Shabab, who had taken up positions in a hotel frequented by government officials and dignitaries killing at least nine people, were exchanging fire with government troops more than 12 hours later, officials said Saturday

After the gunmen’s initial attack Friday, government troops managed to take up the first floor of the Maka Al-Mukarramah hotel in the capital Mogadishu. The gunmen were believed to be on the third and fourth floor, Capt. Mohammed Hussein said.

Hussein said the attackers were hurling grenades at the Somali special forces. The African Union Mission In Somalia, or AMISOM, posted on Twitter that there were reports of possible hostages. The attack started when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden car at the gate of the hotel. Gunmen then quickly moved in.

Hours later, the militants were still holed up in the hotel’s dark alleys and rooms. Sporadic gunfire could be heard, but it appeared that the security forces would wait until daybreak before trying again to dislodge the militants.

Al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremist group that has carried out many attacks in Somalia, claimed responsibility for the assault on the hotel, which is popular with Somali government officials and foreigners.

But al-Shabab routinely carries out suicide bombings, drive-by shootings and other attacks in Mogadishu, the seat of Somalia’s Western-backed government — often targeting government troops, lawmakers and foreigners.

Al-Shabab controlled much of Mogadishu between 2007 and 2011, but was pushed out of Somalia’s capital and other major cities by African Union forces. Despite major setbacks in 2014, al-Shabab continues to wage a deadly insurgency against Somalia’s government and remains a threat in the East African region.

The group has carried out attacks in neighboring countries, including Kenya, whose military is part of the African Union troops bolstering Somalia’s weak government from al-Shabab insurgency. At least 67 people were killed in a September 2013 attack by al-Shabab on a mall in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi

March 23, 2015

SINGAPORE (AP) — Singapore mourned longtime leader Lee Kuan Yew with raw emotion and a blanket of relentlessly positive coverage on its tightly scripted state television on Monday, mythologizing a man who was as respected as he was feared.

The government announced that Lee, 91, “passed away peacefully” several hours before dawn at Singapore General Hospital. The increasingly frail elder statesman was hospitalized in early February with severe pneumonia.

State television broke away from its regular programming with a rolling hagiographic tribute to Lee’s life and achievements. In a live broadcast, one of its reporters called the death the “awful and dreaded” news. Effusive tributes flowed in from world leaders, including President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A self-proclaimed authoritarian who saw the world in stark realist terms, Lee commanded respect from Singaporeans, who this year will celebrate the country’s 50th anniversary of independence. He led multiracial Singapore with an iron grip for more than three decades until 1990, and is credited with transforming the resource-poor island into a wealthy finance and trade entrepot with low crime and little corruption.

Singapore’s government has declared seven days of national mourning, and flags will fly at half-staff on state buildings. A national holiday has not been declared, as daily life in this pragmatically commercial city of vaulting glass towers and broad, immaculate streets continues to bustle.

Still, there were tears and a deep sense of loss among Singaporeans who lionize Lee for his role in creating an oasis of stability in a region saddled with corruption, political violence and poverty. Many feel he provided them with a roof over their heads by creating a system of state-subsidized housing where the majority of Singaporeans live.

“He’s my idol,” said 55-year-old homemaker Lua Su Yean, standing near the sprawling display of flowers and cards left by Singaporeans at the hospital where Lee spent the last weeks of his life. She said her “heart dropped” on hearing the news and got her husband to drive her to the hospital.

“He’s done such great things and there’s nothing bad I can say about him,” she said. “My children grew up listening to my stories about him, and my grandchildren as well.” Lee’s son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, struggled to hold back tears in a televised address.

Speaking in Malay, Mandarin and English, the prime minister said Lee built a nation and gave Singaporeans a proud identity. “We won’t see another man like him. To many Singaporeans, and indeed others too, Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore,” he said.

The hearse carrying Lee’s body arrived not long after midday at the Istana government compound, where many in a crowd of several hundred people shouted “Mr. Lee Kuan Yew” and shed tears. Under Lee and his successors, Singapore was known around the world for its strict social order, including a ban on chewing gum, restrictions on free speech, a practice of bankrupting political opponents with defamation lawsuits, and canings for crimes some countries would rule as minor. In recent years, it has become socially more liberal and the fragmented political opposition made gains in Singapore’s last elections in 2011.

After stepping down as prime minister, Lee remained part of the Cabinet and an influential figure in Singapore and Asia. His legacy is regarded within Singapore and abroad as profound, but there also is recognition that a toll was also exacted.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Lee’s “tremendous” role in Singapore’s economic development is beyond doubt. “But it also came at a significant cost for human rights, and today’s restricted freedom of expression, self-censorship and stunted multi-party democracy,” he said.

There were also dissenting voices in Singapore. “This man has put in certain structures which are certainly illiberal, anti-democratic, and his passing does not mean that they no longer survive,” said blogger Alex Au. “Effort is still needed to dismantle them.”

Tributes from world leaders highlighted Lee’s achievements. Obama called Lee a “visionary,” saying in a statement that he was “deeply saddened” to learn of his death. Obama, who met Lee during a visit to Singapore in 2009, said his “remarkable” leadership helped build one of the most prosperous countries. Lee also was “hugely important in helping me reformulate our policy of rebalancing to the Asia Pacific,” Obama said.

Neighboring Malaysia, with which Singapore has had occasionally testy relations, said Lee’s achievements were great and his legacy assured. “Malaysia is committed to the future of our relationship with Singapore,” said Prime Minister Hajib Razak. China’s Xi said Lee was a “strategist and politician widely respected by international society.”

A private wake for the Lee family will take place Monday and Tuesday at Sri Temasek, the prime minister’s official residence in the lush tropical grounds of the Istana compound. After that, Lee will lie in state at parliament. A state funeral is set for Sunday.

The government also set up condolence boards at Parliament House and Istana and a website called Remembering Lee Kuan Yew, where people can leave messages. Sayeed Hussain, an IT executive, said Lee was a “great hero” to Singaporeans as he paid respects at Singapore General Hospital.

“It is our duty to respect him and recognize him as a great hero in the world,” Hussain said. “This is our last chance to do so.”

May 12, 2015

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Hundreds of migrants abandoned at sea by smugglers in Southeast Asia have reached land and relative safety in the past two days. But an estimated 6,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar remain trapped in crowded, wooden boats, migrant officials and activists said. With food and clean water running low, some could be in grave danger.

One vessel that reached Indonesian waters early Monday, was stopped by the Navy and given food, water and directions to Malaysia. Worried that boats will start washing to shore with dead bodies, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the United States and several other foreign governments and international organizations have held emergency meetings, but participants say there are no immediate plans to search for vessels in the busy Malacca Strait.

One of the concerns is what to do with the Rohingya if a rescue is launched. The minority group is denied citizenship in Myanmar, and other countries have long worried that opening their doors to a few would result in an unstemmable flow of poor, uneducated migrants.

“These are people in desperate straits,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, calling on governments to band together to help those still stranded at sea, some for two months or longer. “Time is not on their side.”

The Rohingya, who are Muslim, have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which considers them illegal settlers from Bangladesh even though their families have lived there for generations.

Attacks on members of the religious minority, numbering at around 1.3 million, have in the past three years left up to 280 people dead and forced 140,000 others from their homes. They now live under apartheid-like conditions in crowded camps just outside the Rakhine state capital, Sittwe, where they have little access to school or adequate health care.

The conditions at home — and lack of job opportunities — have sparked one of the biggest exoduses of boat people since the Vietnam War. Chris Lewa, director of the non-profit Arakan Project, which has been monitoring boat departures and arrivals for more than a decade, estimates more than 100,000 men, women and children have boarded ships since mid-2012.

Most are trying to reach Malaysia, but recent regional crackdowns on human trafficking networks have sent brokers and agents into hiding, making it impossible for migrants to disembark — in some cases even after family members have paid $2,000 or more for their release, she said.

Lewa believes up to 6,000 Rohingya and Bangaldeshis are still on small and large boats in the Malacca Strait and nearby international waters. Tightly confined, and with limited access to food and clean water, their health is deteriorating, she said, adding that dozens of deaths have been reported.

“I’m very concerned about smugglers abandoning boatloads at sea,” said Lewa. In the last two days, 1,600 Rohingya have washed to shore in two Southeast Asian countries. After four boats carrying nearly 600 people successfully landed in western Indonesia, with some migrants jumping into the water and swimming, a fifth carrying hundreds more was turned away early Monday.

Indonesia’s Navy spokesman, First Adm. Manahan Simorangkir , said they were trying to go to Malaysia but got thrown off course. “We didn’t intend to prevent them from entering our territory, but because their destination country was not Indonesia, we asked them to continue to the country where they actually want to go,” he said.

Those who made it to shore aboard the other boats on Sunday were taken to a sports stadium in Lhoksukon, the capital of North Aceh District, to be cared for and questioned, said Lt. Col. Achmadi, chief of police in the area, who uses only one name.

Some were getting medical attention. “We had nothing to eat,” said Rashid Ahmed, a 43-year-old Rohingya man who was on one of the boats. He said he left Myanmar’s troubled state of Rakhine with his eldest son three months ago.

A Bangladeshi man, Mohamed Malik, said he felt uncertain about being stranded in Aceh, but also relieved. “Relieved to be here because we receive food, medicine. It’s altogether a relief,” the man said.

Police also found a big wooden ship late Sunday night trapped in the sand in shallow waters at a beach of Langkawi, an island off Malaysia, and have since located 865 men, 101 women and 52 children, said Jamil Ahmed, the area’s deputy police chief. He added many appeared weak and thin and that at least two other boats have not been found.

“We believe there may be more boats coming,” Jamil said. Thailand has long been considered a regional hub for human traffickers. The tactics of brokers and agents started changing in November as authorities began tightening security on land — a move apparently aimed at appeasing the U.S. government as it prepares to release its annual Trafficking in Persons report next month. Last year, Thailand was downgraded to the lowest level, putting it on par with North Korea and Syria.

Rohingya packing into ships in the Bay of Bengal have been joined in growing numbers by Bangladeshis fleeing poverty and hoping to find a better life elsewhere. Up until recently, their first stop was Thailand, where they were held in open pens in jungle camps as brokers collected “ransoms” from relatives. Those who could pay continued onward, usually to Malaysia or other countries. Those who couldn’t were sometimes beaten, killed or left to die.

Since May 1, police have unearthed two dozen bodies from shallow graves in the mountains of southern Thailand, the apparent victims of smuggling rings, they say. Thai authorities have since arrested dozens of people, including a powerful mayor and a man named Soe Naing, otherwise known as Anwar, who was accused of being one of the trafficking kingpins in southern Thailand. More than 50 police officers are also under investigation.

Spooked by the arrests, smugglers are abandoning ships, sometimes disappearing in speedboats, with rudimentary instructions to passengers as to which way to go. Vivian Tan, the U.N. refugee agency’s regional press officer in Bangkok, Thailand said there is real sense of urgency from the international community.

“At this point, I’m not sure what the concrete next steps are or should be,” she said of a string of meetings with diplomats and international organizations. “But there doesn’t seem to be a clear mechanism in this region for responding to something like this.”

McDowell reported from Yangon, Myanmar; Associated Press writers Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Ali Kotarumalos and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

May 11, 2015

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — About 1,600 Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees have landed illegally in Malaysia and Indonesia in the last two days, apparently after human traffickers abandoned their virtual prison ships and left them to fend for themselves, officials said Monday.

One group of about 600 people arrived in the Indonesian coastal province of Aceh on four boats on Sunday, and at about the same time a total of 1,018 landed in three boats on the northern resort island of Langkawi.

The Rohingyas, who are Muslim, have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which considers them illegal settlers from Bangladesh. Attacks on the Rohingyas by Buddhist mobs in the last three years have sparked an exodus to nearby countries.

Langkawi island deputy police chief Jamil Ahmed told The Associated Press that the group picked up Sunday comprised 865 men, 52 children and 101 women. Police found a big wooden boat trapped in the sand in shallow waters at a beach in Langkawi, capable of holding 350 people, he said. This meant there were at least two other boats but they have not been located yet, he said.

Jamil said a Bangladeshi man told police that the boat handlers gave them directions on where to go once they reached the Malaysian shores, and escaped in other boats. The migrant said they have not eaten for three days, Jamil said, adding that most of them were weak and thin.

“We believe there may be more boats coming,” Jamil said.  When the four ships neared Indonesia’s shores early Sunday, some passengers jumped into the water and swam, said Steve Hamilton, of the International Organization for Migration in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital.

They have been taken to a sports stadium in Lhoksukon, the capital of North Aceh District, to be cared for and questioned, said Lt. Col. Achmadi, chief of police in the area, who uses only one name. Sick and weak after more than two months at sea, some were getting medical attention.

“We had nothing to eat,” said Rashid Ahmed, a 43-year-old Rohingya man who was on one of the boats. He said he left Myanmar’s troubled state of Rakhine with his eldest son three months ago. An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people are now being held in large and small ships in the Malacca Strait and nearby international waters, said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which has monitored the movements of Rohingya for more than a decade. She added that crackdowns on trafficking syndicates in Thailand and Malaysia have prevented brokers from bringing them to shore.

Some are held even after family members pay for them to be released from the boats. “I am very concerned about smugglers abandoning boatloads at sea,” Lewa said, noting that some people have been stranded for more than two months.

Tightly confined, and with limited access to food and clean water, their health is deteriorating, Lewa said, adding that dozens of deaths have been reported. Thailand has long been considered a regional hub for human traffickers.

The tactics of brokers and agents started changing in November as authorities began to tighten security on land — a move apparently aimed at appeasing the U.S. government as it prepares to release its annual Trafficking in Persons report next month. Last year, Thailand was downgraded to the lowest level, putting it on par with North Korea and Syria.

Rohingya packing into ships in the Bay of Bengal have been joined in growing numbers by Bangladeshis fleeing poverty and hoping to find a better life elsewhere. Up until recently, their first stop was Thailand, where they were held in open pens in jungle camps as brokers collected “ransoms” of $2,000 or more from family and friends. Those who could pay continued onward, usually to Malaysia or other countries. Those who couldn’t were sometimes beaten, killed or left to die.

Since May 1, police have unearthed two dozen bodies from shallow graves in the mountains of southern Thailand, the apparent victims, they say, of smuggling rings. Thai authorities have since arrested dozens of people, including a powerful mayor and a man named, Soe Naing, otherwise known as Anwar, who was accused of being one of the trafficking kingpins in southern Thailand. More than 50 police officers are also under investigation.

__ Associated Press writers Robin McDowell in Yangon, Myanmar, and Margie Mason and Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

May 08, 2015

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The ambassadors to Pakistan from the Philippines and Norway and the wives of the ambassadors from Malaysia and Indonesia were among seven people killed Friday when a Pakistani army helicopter carrying foreign dignitaries crash landed in the country’s north.

The Pakistani air force said a technical failure had caused the crash and that a fire, which broke out on the aircraft after the crash, had caused the high number of fatalities — one of the worst aircraft crashes in Pakistan that killed and injured such a high number of foreign dignitaries.

Four foreigners — the ambassadors from the Philippines and Norway and the wives of the ambassadors from Malaysia and Indonesia — were among those killed, along with two pilots and a crew member. Ten passengers were injured.

Earlier, Pakistani army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, tweeted that the MI-17 helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing. He said that the surviving passengers, including the Dutch and Polish ambassadors, received “varying degree of injuries.”

The helicopter was on route to the northern village of Naltar where Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was to attend a public ceremony to inaugurate the newly installed chair-lift at a ski resort. Sharif was in his own plane on route to Naltar when the “tragic news” was conveyed to him, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office. It said Sharif returned to Islamabad in the wake of the crash.

Air force spokesman Syed Muhammad Ali later told the state-run news agency that a technical failure forced the crash landing and that the helicopter caught fire when it went down with the diplomats who were being flown to Naltar to attend the inauguration at the ski resort.

Hussain Khan, a police officer at Naltar, said he saw the helicopter stall in midair, then come down in an erratic manner as if the pilot had no control over it — then suddenly, it plunged down toward a school building on the ground.

“The helicopter was preparing to land at a helipad near a school, when it suddenly …. crashed and caught fire,” Khan told The Associated Press over phone from Naltar. Security forces quickly started the rescue work and transported the dead and injured to a nearby hospital, he added.

Earlier, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said the heads of diplomatic missions from more than 30 countries, along with their family members and some Pakistani dignitaries, had been flown to the city of Gilgit by a C-130 aircraft.

“From there, they were being taken to Naltar in four helicopters for a three-day excursion trip,” the ministry statement said. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs announced it was “deeply saddened” by the death of Ambassador Domingo Lucenario Jr., and that his colleagues in Manila observed a two-minute period of silence in commemoration. Lucenario, 54, also served as non-resident ambassador to Afghanistan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan. He is survived by his wife and three children.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende confirmed the death of Ambassador Leif H. Larsen, describing him in a statement as, “a well-liked and highly respected colleague. His friends and colleagues in the Foreign Ministry and across our foreign stations are today in sorrow.”

Larsen, 61, is survived by a wife and a son. Malaysia’s foreign ministry confirmed that the wife of its high commissioner to Pakistan perished in the crash. The high commissioner Hasrul Sani Mujtabar survived the incident and currently being treated at the Gilgit hospital, it said.

Romania’s ambassador to Pakistan, Emilian Ion, was on the same helicopter and survived, the Romanian Foreign Ministry said. Pope Thrower, assistant spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, said that “no American Embassy personnel participated in this trip.”

Hours after the crash, Indonesia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi confirmed in Jakarta that Heri Listyawati, the wife of Indonesia’s ambassador, was killed while her husband, Burhan Muhammad, survived with injuries.

In Poland, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the Polish Ambassador Andrzej Ananicz and his wife, Zofia, were on board the helicopter and that “both suffered injuries, which were not life threatening.”

Sharif, in his statement, expressed his “deep grief and sorrow over the tragic incident” and said he “extended heartfelt condolences to those who lost their lives in this incident.” Sharif declared Saturday a national day of mourning, according to his office, which also said that helicopters were evacuating the injured diplomats and that the bodies of those killed were being transported to Islamabad.

“We are making arrangements to send the bodies of the diplomats to their countries with full honor,” Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry told state-run Pakistan Television. Hours after the crash, the Pakistani Talban issued a statement claiming they had shot down the helicopter with an anti-aircraft missile. It was impossible to immediately verify the claim, and unclear if it was merely an opportunistic attempt to claim responsibility for such a tragic incident.

Pakistan’s Minster for Defense, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, made no reference to the Taliban claim but said in an earlier statement that initial reports suggested the crash was due to a “technical fault.” Pakistani security forces have been fighting militants in the country’s northwestern tribal regions bordering Afghanistan for the past several years. Pakistan launched a massive operation in the North Waziristan tribal region last year. Since then, the army says it has killed more than 1,200 militants there.

The crash area in Naltar is several hundred kilometers (miles) from North Waziristan. Although aircraft and helicopter crashes are not uncommon in Pakistan, Friday’s incident was the worst since 2010, when a Pakistani air plane crashed near Islamabad, killing 146 passengers. Another Pakistani passenger plane crashed near Islamabad in 2012, killing 121 passengers and six crew members.

Associated Press writers Zarar Khan in Islamabad; Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan; Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania; Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Philippines; Karl Ritter in Stockholm; Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.

April 11, 2015

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Pakistan’s parliament voted unanimously Friday to stay out of the Saudi-led air campaign targeting Shiite rebels in Yemen, offering instead to mediate a solution, in a blow to Saudi Arabia’s attempts to build a Sunni front in an increasingly sectarian conflict.

Pakistan’s decision is unlikely to greatly affect the Saudi-led coalition’s military capabilities. But it was an embarrassment to the kingdom from a traditionally close ally, now reluctant to get pulled into a conflict that is threatening to escalate into a new proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Saudi Arabia had been seeking to expand the coalition, made up of fellow Gulf nations as well as Egypt and Sudan, which has waged a nearly 3-week campaign of airstrikes against the rebels, known as Houthis, and is reportedly considering a ground incursion. At the same time, Shiite powerhouse Iran, which backs the Houthis, also lobbied Pakistan and other Sunni nations to back a cease-fire and a negotiated end to the conflict.

A senior official in the United Arab Emirates — a member of the coalition — lashed out angrily at Pakistan, accusing it of choosing Iran over the Gulf nations at a time when they face an “existential confrontation” in the Yemen conflict.

Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, said on his Twitter account that Pakistan should look out for its strategic relations with Gulf nations, pointing to the Gulf’s economic and investment help to the South Asian nation.

“Contradictory and ambiguous positions in this existential matter will cost (Pakistan) dearly,” he wrote. Airstrikes along with escalated fighting on the ground between the Houthis and supporters of Yemen’s beleaguered president threaten to push Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, into collapse. On Friday, the U.N. and International Committee of the Red Cross succeeded in bringing in the first two plane loads of aid, delivering tons of medical and humanitarian supplies to the capital, Sanaa, to relieve hospitals overburdened by casualties.

Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United States, accuse Iran of arming the Houthis. The Gulf countries view the rebels’ power grab as a move by Iran to establish a stronghold on their southern flank. Iran says it backs the rebels politically and with humanitarian aid but denies sending weapons. The Houthis have full or partial control over 11 of Yemen’s 22 provinces, backed by military units loyal to ousted autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The current president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was forced to flee the country last month, leaving a shaky collection of forces on the ground to fight the Houthis — including military units still loyal to him, militiamen and Sunni tribesmen. Al-Qaida’s Yemen branch is also fighting the Houthis.

The coalition is reportedly considering a ground incursion, likely including Saudi and Egyptian forces, once airstrikes have sufficiently weakened the Houthis and Saleh’s forces, a process that could take weeks. On Friday, Egypt’s defense minister met with Saudi King Salman in Riyadh to discuss the coalition’s operations.

According to Pakistani officials, Saudi Arabia asked Pakistan to send troops to take part in the campaign. Pakistani troops have considerable experience fighting militants in mountainous terrain similar to Yemen’s.

After the parliament vote Friday, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, Ahmed Asiri, still held out hope the Pakistani government would choose to participate. But he said even if it didn’t, other coalition forces are as well trained as the Pakistanis. “Not joining on the ground, sea or sea level will not obstruct the coalition operations,” he told reporters.

The debate put Pakistan in an awkward position. It has long had military ties to Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was sheltered by Saudi Arabia after the coup that overthrew him in 1999. For weeks, Sunni hard-liners, including a group linked to militants, have organized rallies around Pakistan denouncing the Yemeni rebels and urging Islamabad to join the coalition.

But participation threatened to enflame Pakistan’s own sectarian divisions. Pakistan is predominantly Sunni but has a Shiite minority that is frequently targeted by Sunni extremists. It also has important ties with Iran, with which it shares a long border. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, was in Islamabad for several days before the vote, meeting Pakistani officials and calling for a cease-fire and negotiations on creating a broad-based government in Yemen.

On Friday, after days of debate, Pakistan’s legislature declared the country “should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict” so that it can help negotiate a diplomatic solution. Sirajul Haq, the head of Pakistan’s powerful Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan party, said Islamabad could “play the role of a mediator.” Sharif was present, suggesting his support for the decision.

It called for Pakistan’s diplomats to “initiate steps” before the U.N. Security Council “to bring about an immediate cease-fire in Yemen” and warned of regional implications if the conflict becomes an all-out sectarian war.

In a nod to Saudi Arabia, they expressed “unequivocal support” for the kingdom and vowed to “stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with it if its territory or people came under threat. Yemeni political analyst Sami Ghaleb said Pakistan’s position was “disappointing” but won’t cause cracks in the coalition. However, he said, it could prompt Saudi Arabia to “reconsider” its approach. “The airstrikes alone are not yielding results so far,” he said.

Despite airstrikes that targeted weapons depots, installations and command center of the rebels and allied forces, their fighters still managed to make significant territorial gains on Thursday, capturing Ataq, the capital of oil-rich Shabwa province. The area is also a stronghold of al-Qaida.

On Friday, a suicide bomber hit a police department in Shabwa’s Bayhan district, controlled by the Houthis, tribal officials said. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the attack, saying dozens were killed and injured, though the casualties could not be independently confirmed.

Meanwhile, humanitarian groups are struggling to cope with the rising casualty numbers and shrinking food and fuel supplies. The World Health Organization said Wednesday that at least 643 civilians and combatants have been killed since March 19, before the air campaign began. At least 2,226 have been wounded, and another 100,000 have fled their homes.

“The humanitarian situation in Yemen is getting worse by the hour,” the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Johannes van der Klaauw, told reporters in Geneva on Friday. He urged all parties to agree to “an immediate humanitarian pause” to deliver life-saving aid.

The two aid planes, sent in by the ICRC and the U.N. Children’s agency, were the first international assistance deliveries to arrive in Sanaa. A smaller delivery made it into in the southern, port city of Aden by boat earlier this week.

The cargos totaled 32 tons (35 U.S. tons) of supplies, enough to treat up to 1,000 wounded, provide water for 80,000 people and micronutrients for 20,000 children, according to officials from the two organizations.

“The supplies we have managed to bring in today can make the difference between life and death for children and their families — but we know they are not enough, and we are planning more of these airlifts,” the UNICEF representative in Yemen, Julien Harneis, said from the Jordanian capital, Amman.

Ground fighting between Hadi loyalists and rebel and allied fighters continued in the port city of Aden, Yemen’s second-largest city and a main bastion of Hadi’s allies. Aden’s oil refinery, the main source of fuel for the city, was shut down after Hadi loyalists stormed it, accusing it of shipping fuel to their rivals, a refinery official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Ahmed reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Cairo, Aya Batrawy in Dubai and Cara Anna in New York contributed to this report.

April 06, 2015

ISLAMABAD (AP) — A Saudi-led coalition targeting Shiite rebels in Yemen has asked Pakistan to contribute soldiers, Pakistan’s defense minister said Monday, raising the possibility of a ground offensive in the country.

Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif made the comments as Pakistan’s parliament debates whether to contribute militarily to the campaign against the rebels, known as Houthis. Pakistan previously offered its verbal support for the mission, but hasn’t offered any military assistance.

Days of Saudi-led airstrikes have yet to halt the Houthi advance across Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, fueling speculation that there could be a ground operation launched in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and other coalition members have not ruled it out.

Saudi Arabia also asked for aircraft and naval ships to aid in the campaign, Asif said. He said Saudi officials made the request during his visit to Jeddah last week. “I want to reiterate that this is Pakistan’s pledge to protect Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity,” Asif said. “If there’s a need be, God willing, Pakistan will honor its commitment.”

The Saudi-led campaign entered its 12th day Monday, targeting the rebels who took over the capital, Sanaa, in September and eventually forced President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee. The rebels and allied forces are now making a push for Yemen’s second-largest city, Aden, declared a temporary capital by Hadi before he fled abroad.

The Saudi-led force also has blockaded Yemen by air and sea. Humanitarian groups, along with Russia at the U.N. Security Council, have called for a pause in the fighting to allow for aid to reach Yemen amid dwindling medical supplies and overstretched personnel.

The International Committee for the Red Cross said despite days of negotiating with the Saudi-led coalition and others, an aid plane it dispatched is grounded in Djbouti and not allowed to fly. “We are working to get another plane that can carry as much as possible. But it is a challenge because you cannot easily find airplanes or airlines that are allowed or willing to fly to Yemen,” said Marie Claire Feghali, an ICRC spokeswoman in Sanaa.

Also urgently needed, she said, is a clearance to allow a surgical team to arrive in Aden, where ground fighting is fiercest, from Djibouti by boat. That clearance has not yet been granted, she said. “The hospitals are exhausted,” she said. “The entire health system is under huge pressure.”

At least three Red Crescent volunteers were killed over the past week while evacuating wounded and retrieving dead bodies from the fighting in Aden and in the southern province of al-Dhale. ICRC called the killings deliberate in a statement Friday.

“There are dead bodies on the streets in Aden. This is why we called for 24-hour humanitarian pause in the fighting so that people can also go and collect the dead,” Feghali said. Fighting also is intense in provinces surrounding Aden, as the Houthis and allied forces attempt to take over the city, its port and government offices to tighten their grip on power.

The Saudi-led coalition forces are providing weapons through airdrops in Aden to the fighters loyal to Hadi. Evacuations of foreign nationals also continued. India said nearly all of its citizens in Yemen would be evacuated by Monday night. As of Sunday, India had evacuated nearly 2,300 citizens, most by sea from Aden. It was unclear how many more were left.

A Chinese warship evacuated the last batch of Chinese citizens, about 38 nationals, as well as 45 citizens of Sri Lanka, from Yemen on Monday, its official Xinhua News Agency reported. Muslim-majority Pakistan has close ties to Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. Pakistan also has a sizable Shiite minority, complicating the debate over engagement in a conflict that is increasingly pitting Sunnis against Shiites.

The debate in parliament will aim to decide whether their country can afford to join the conflict in Yemen when it is already at war with Islamic and sectarian militants allied with groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State. Pakistan already has nearly 300 troops in Saudi Arabia taking part in joint exercises and most Pakistanis back the idea of protecting Islam’s holiest sites from attack.

The Houthis have been backed by security forces loyal to Yemen’s ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh — whose loyalists control elite forces and large combat units in the country’s military. Yemen-based Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, considered among the most active and dangerous branch of global militant organization, has benefited from the crisis. The chaos also has disrupted a U.S.-led drone strike program targeting suspected militants there.

Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Cairo, Katy Daigle in New Delhi and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.

March 17, 2015

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani officials on Tuesday executed 12 people in the country’s single-largest day of executions since a moratorium on the death penalty was lifted in December, officials said.

The executions are sure to raise concerns over due process and proper oversight of the country’s troubled criminal justice system, which rights groups say often does little to protect defendants. Authorities at different jails in the country’s largest province of Punjab hanged 10 people Tuesday who had been sentenced to death in murder cases, said the provincial Home Minister Shuja Khanzada. He said authorities planned to execute more convicted criminals in the coming weeks.

“We have started a process, and it will continue,” he told The Associated Press. The superintendent of the main jail in the southern port city of Karachi, Qazi Nazir, said they executed two convicted murderers and handed the bodies over to their families.

Late last year, Pakistan’s prime minister lifted the death-penalty moratorium specifically for terrorism-related cases after a December Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar killed 150 people, most of them children. Last week, in a controversial step, the government completely lifted the death-penalty ban for all cases. Human rights groups estimate Pakistan has roughly 8,000 prisoners on death row.

One of the most closely watched execution cases is that of Shafqat Hussain, who family members say was 14 when he was sentenced to death by a court in Karachi for the murder of a seven-year-old boy. Hussain’s family proclaims his innocence and Justice Project Pakistan, the legal group handling his case, says Hussain was tortured into making a false confession. Hussain is scheduled to be hanged on March 19.

Meanwhile, unidentified gunmen shot and killed a former lawyer for the Pakistani doctor who helped the U.S. find Osama bin Laden. The lawyer Samiullah Khan Afridi was assassinated Tuesday in the northwestern city of Peshawar before fleeing, senior police officer Shakir Khan said.

The lawyer was killed months after he announced that he will no longer be representing Dr. Shakil Afridi Afridi, who was convicted in May 2012 of “conspiring against the state” by giving money and providing medical treatment to militants, not for helping the CIA track down bin Laden.

The lawyer left Pakistan in November after receiving threats from militants; Khan said the lawyer recently came back from abroad. A spokesman for the Taliban-linked Jamaat-ul-Ahrar group, Ahsanullah Ahsan, claimed responsibility for the killing in a telephone call to The Associated Press from an unidentified location.

Dr. Afridi, ran a vaccination campaign in the northwestern city of Abbottabad as a cover for a CIA-backed effort to obtain DNA samples from a home where Osama bin Laden was later killed during a 2011 raid by U.S. Navy SEALs.

Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan contributed to this report.

May 13, 2015

LANGKAWI, Malaysia (AP) — Abandoned at sea, thousands of Bangladeshis and members of Myanmar’s long-persecuted Rohingya Musilm minority appear to have no place to go after two Southeast Asian nations refused to offer refuge to boatloads of hungry men, women and children.

Smugglers have fled wooden trawlers in recent days amid fear of a massive regional crackdown on human trafficking syndicates, leaving migrants to fend for themselves. The United Nations pleaded for countries in the region to keep their borders open and help rescue those stranded.

“We won’t let any foreign boats come in,” Tan Kok Kwee, first admiral of Malaysia’s maritime enforcement agency, said Tuesday. Unless they’re unseaworthy and sinking, he said, the navy will provide “provisions and send them away.”

Hours earlier, Indonesia pushed back a boat packed with hundreds of Rohingya and Bangladeshis, saying they were given food, water and directions to Malaysia — their original destination. Southeast Asia is in the grips of a spiraling humanitarian crisis, with about 1,600 migrants landing on the shores of the two Muslim-majority countries that over the years have shown the most sympathy for the Rohingya’s plight.

With thousands more believed to be in the busy Malacca Strait and nearby waters – some stranded for more than two months – activists believe many more boats will try to make land in coming days and weeks.

One boat begged Tuesday to be rescued of Malaysia’s Langkawi island, but it became clear by nightfall no help was on the way. One activist said she could hear the children crying when she got a call through to the boat.

Labeled by the U.N. one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, the Rohingya have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Denied citizenship by national law, the Muslims are effectively stateless. Access to education and adequate health care is limited and freedom of movement severely restricted.

In the last three years, attacks on Rohingya have left 280 people dead and forced 140,000 others into crowded camps just outside Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, where they live under abysmal, apartheid-like conditions, with little or no opportunity for work.

That has sparked one of the biggest exoduses of boat people the region has seen since the Vietnam War, an estimated 100,000 men, women and children boarding ships in search of better lives in other countries since June 2012, according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.

The first stop, up until recently, was Thailand, where migrants were held in jungle camps until their families could raise hefty “ransoms’ so they could continue onward, usually to Malaysia. Recent crackdowns, however, have forced the smugglers to change tactics — instead holding people on small and large ships parked offshore until they collected about $2,000.

Struggling to put a positive face on its dismal human trafficking record, Thai authorities have discovered more than 70 former camps near its border with Malaysia, the biggest of which was found Tuesday. It appeared to be newly abandoned, well-constructed and able to house as many as 800 people, said Lt. Gen. Prakarn Chonlayuth, the southern regional army commander.

Dozens of graves also have been excavated, the victims believed to be Rohingya or Bangladeshi. Spooked, agents and brokers have all but stopped bringing their human cargo to shore. And in the last three or four days, captains and smugglers have fled their ships, some jumping into speedboats, leaving migrants will no fuel, food or drinking water, survivors told The Associated Press.

In some cases, the Rohingya or Bangladeshis have succeeded in commandeering boats, bringing them as close to land as possible and then swimming the rest of the way. On Tuesday, a boat was stranded not far from Malaysia’s Langkawi island, with hundreds of desperate Rohingya, about 50 of them women, said Chris Lewa, director of the non-profit Arakan Project.

They told her by phone that their captain had fled days ago, and that they needed to be rescued. Soon after, she heard cheers, and people on board spotted a white vessel with flashing lights. When they realized authorities weren’t there to help, however, women started to scream.

“Oh! I could hear children crying!,” she told AP. “It was terrible! I can hear them.” A former U.S. Congressman urged the American government to step in. “Immediate action is needed to rescue thousands of Rohingya before the Andaman Sea becomes a floating mass grave,” said Tom Andrews, who recently returned from Myanmar and Malaysia, where he met with families of fleeing Rohingya.

Addressing the source of the crisis — the systematic government abuse and persecution of the Rohingya — is also crucial, he said in a statement. Tan, of the Malaysia’s maritime enforcement agency, meanwhile, said the waters around Langkawi would be patrolled 24 hours a day by eight ships.

More than 1,100 migrants have landed on the island since Sunday, the country’s Home Ministry said in a statement. Of those, 486 were Myanmar citizens and 682 Bangladeshis. There were 993 men, it said, 104 women and 61 children.

For now, survivors on the island were being held in two separate holding centers, women and children in the sports hall and the men in another facility. But they would soon be transferred to a detention center on the Malaysian mainland.

Fifteen-year-old Hasana was standing with another girl outside her temporary quarters. She said she was an orphan, having lost both her parents when she was young, and that she told her grandmother she didn’t see a life for herself in Myanmar, where it was a struggle just to get enough food to eat. The teen said she had decided to join a group of friends who wanted to go to Malaysia.

She paid $200 for what turned out to be a harrowing journey by boat, she said, describing how one man was savagely attacked just for asking for food. Looking around her at the chaos, she now worriedly asked: “Am I going to be sent back?”