Archive for December 30th, 2008

Taliban Burning, Beheading Its Way Through Pakistani Valley

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

What a sad situation for the good Pakistani people. The Taliban on one side and India on the other. My heart goes out to them.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Taliban militants are beheading and burning their way through Pakistan’s picturesque Swat Valley, and residents say the insurgents now control most of the mountainous region outside the lawless tribal areas where jihadists thrive.

The deteriorating situation in the former tourist haven comes despite an army offensive that began in 2007 and an attempted peace deal. It is especially worrisome to Pakistani officials because the valley lies away from the areas where Al Qaeda and Taliban militants have traditionally operated and where the military is staging a separate offensive.

“You can’t imagine how bad it is,” said Muzaffar ul-Mulk, a federal lawmaker whose home in Swat was attacked by bomb-toting assailants in mid-December, weeks after he left. “It’s worse day by day.”

The Taliban activity in northwest Pakistan also comes as the country shifts forces east to the Indian border because of tensions over last month’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, potentially giving insurgents more space to maneuver along the Afghan frontier.

Militants began preying on Swat’s lush mountain ranges about two years ago, and it is now too dangerous for foreign and Pakistani journalists to visit. Interviews with residents, lawmakers and officials who have fled the region paint a dire picture.

A suicide blast killed 40 people Sunday at a polling station in Buner, an area bordering Swat that had been relatively peaceful. The attack underscored fears that even so-called “settled” regions presumptively under government control are increasingly unsafe.

The 3,500-square-mile Swat Valley lies less than 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad.

A senior government official said he feared there could be a spillover effect if the government lost control of Swat and allowed the insurgency to infect other areas. Like nearly everyone interviewed, the official requested anonymity for fear of reprisal by militants.

Officials estimate that up to a third of Swat’s 1.5 million people have left the area. Salah-ud-Din, who oversees relief efforts in Swat for the International Committee of the Red Cross, estimated that 80 percent of the valley is now under Taliban control.

Swat’s militants are led by Maulana Fazlullah, a cleric who rose to prominence through radio broadcasts demanding the imposition of a harsh brand of Islamic law. His appeal tapped into widespread frustration with the area’s inefficient judicial system.

Most of the insurgents are easy to spot with long hair, beards, rifles, camouflage vests and running shoes. They number at most 2,000, according to people who were interviewed.

In some places, just a handful of insurgents can control a village. They rule by fear: beheading government sympathizers, blowing up bridges and demanding women wear all-encompassing burqas.

They have also set up a parallel administration with courts, taxes, patrols and checkpoints, according to lawmakers and officials. And they are suspected of burning scores of girls’ schools.

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Pakistan: India Moves Troops Toward Shared Border

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

This does not bode well for that region.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan said Tuesday that India had moved troops toward their shared border, following Islamabad’s own redeployment of forces toward the frontier amid tensions over the Mumbai attacks.

But India’s foreign minister insisted it had done nothing to escalate tensions in the region, while another Indian official denied a separate Pakistani allegation that New Delhi had activated forward air bases.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi made the claims in a televised address that included overtures toward India to decrease the acrimony between the nuclear-armed neighbors, who have already fought three wars in the past six decades.

“I understand India has activated their forward air bases, and I think if they are deactivated, then it will be a big positive signal,” Qureshi said. “Similarly, as far as their ground forces are concerned and which have been deputed and deployed, if they are relocated to their peacetime positions, then it will also be a positive signal.”

But Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said his country had not widened the diplomatic rift.

“We have not done anything which can escalate the tension between India and Pakistan,” he told reporters in New Delhi. “Because from day one, I have been saying that it is not an India-Pakistan issue. This is an attack perpetrated by elements emanating from the land of Pakistan and the Pakistan government should take action against it.”

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Israel Vows Relentless Campaign Against Hamas

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

Israeli aircraft kept up a fierce assault on Hamas-ruled Gaza on Tuesday, smashing a government complex, security installations and the home of a top militant commander as thousands of Israeli ground troops, backed by tanks and artillery, massed along the border and waited for a signal to attack.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told President Shimon Peres on Tuesday that the current, aerial phase of the operation is “the first of several” that have been approved, an Olmert spokesman said.

Warplanes launched their bruising aerial offensive on Saturday after the Islamic Hamas defied Israel’s warnings that it would not stand for the rocket barrages on southern Israel that resumed nearly two months ago, toward the end of a recently expired truce.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel would use all legal means at its disposal to stop Hamas rocket attacks and his deputy, Matan Vilnai, said Israel was prepared for “long weeks of military action.”

More than 360 Palestinians have been killed, most of them members of Hamas security forces but at least 64 of them civilians, according to U.N. figures. The toll includes two sisters, aged 4 and 11, who perished in an airstrike on a rocket squad in northern Gaza on Tuesday.

Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit said “there is no room for a ceasefire” with Hamas before the threat of rocket fire has been removed. “The Israeli army must not stop the operation before breaking the will of the Palestinians, of Hamas, to continue to fire at Israel,” he told Israel Radio.

The Israeli military “has made preparations for long weeks of action,” added Matan Vilnai, a deputy defense minister, in separate broadcast remarks.

Militants, battered but unbowed, have pressed on with their rocket and mortar assaults, killing three Israeli civilians and a soldier and bringing a widening circle of targets into their sights with an arsenal of longer-range missiles.

“Zionists, wait for more from the resistance,” Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said in a text message to reporters, referring to militants’ armed struggle against Israel.

The military estimated that nearly 10 percent of Israel’s population of 7 million people is now within rocket range, shifting the battles closer to Israel’s heartland. Of the four Israelis killed since the operation began Saturday, all but one were in areas that had not suffered fatalities before.

Hamas, whose charter specifically calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdon and the European Union and is banned in Jordan.

From 2000 to 2004, Hamas was responsible for killing nearly 400 Israelis and wounding more than 2,000 in 425 attacks, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

From 2001 through May 2008, Hamas launched more than 3,000 Qassam rockets and 2,500 mortar attacks against Israeli targets.

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