Posts Tagged Pakistan

Taliban Leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour Seriously Wounded

Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour has been seriously wounded in Pakistan in a shootout between senior members of the Islamist movement, Taliban sources said on Wednesday, but the group’s main spokesman dismissed their report as “baseless”.

The conflicting accounts deepen the confusion over the already opaque leadership situation in the Taliban following the death of the movement’s founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and cloud prospects for any resumption of stalled peace talks.

Two Taliban commanders said Mansour, whose authority is disputed by rival factions in the Islamist movement, was wounded when fighting broke out over strategic issues in the house of a senior Taliban leader called Mullah Abdullah Sarhadi outside Quetta in western Pakistan.

“During the discussion, some senior people developed differences and they opened fire on each other,” one of the commanders said.

He said five senior Taliban members had died on the spot and more than a dozen, including Mullah Mansour, had suffered serious bullet injuries. Mansour was being treated in a private hospital after being hit four times by bullets from an AK-47 assault rifle, the Taliban commander said.

However, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the incident ever took place and said Mansour was in Afghanistan.

“This is a rumor which is completely baseless. Akthar Mohammad Mansour is totally fine and nothing has happened to him,” he told Reuters.

“This is the act of Afghan intelligence agencies. They spread these rumors about a clash between Taliban leaders. Nothing happened like this even in that area”.

The Taliban has faced serious internal divisions since it was confirmed in July that Mullah Omar had actually died two years earlier.

Mansour, Mullah Omar’s longtime deputy, was immediately named leader but some sections of the Islamist group quickly rejected his claim, accusing him of covering up Omar’s death and saying that Pakistan had steered his appointment.

His grip on the leadership appeared to have been tightened by the capture of the northern city of Kunduz in late September, which insurgents held for several days before government forces could regain control.

What the latest incident may mean for the Afghan peace process remains unclear for now.

There were varying accounts of exactly what may have happened in the incident, with some sources saying it took place in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar near the border with Pakistan’s Balochistan province.

According to the first Taliban commander, the meeting on Tuesday was to discuss the future of any peace talks with the United States and the Kabul government as well as the strategy for dealing with a rival splinter group headed by Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund, which rejects Mansour’s authority.

A second source said the dispute had broken out over ways of dealing with the rival faction, following heavy fighting in the southeastern province of Zabul last month in which dozens of people were killed.

“We have no access to Mullah Mansour after the incident last night. We have been hearing that he had succumbed to his injuries but we can neither confirm nor deny it,” said the second Taliban commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said this week that he was ready to talk to Taliban members but he cautioned that since the death of Mullah Omar there was “no such thing as the Taliban There are groups of Taliban…”

According to some officials in the Kabul government, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, a senior commander in the group that opposes Mansour, was killed in last month’s fighting, although the claim has been denied by a spokesman for his faction.



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Taliban Still Holding Out in Kunduz As They Seize Warduj District

KunduzTaliban fighters were holding out against Afghan troops in Kunduz on Friday, a day after government forces recaptured most of the northern city that had fallen to the militants in their biggest victory of a 14-year insurgency.

In Jalalabad in the east of the country, a U.S. military transport plane crashed at an airfield just after midnight, killing all 11 people on board, the U.S. military said.

The Taliban said it had shot down the aircraft, but the U.S. military, which still has several thousands troops in Afghanistan after NATO’s combat mission ended, said there were no reports of enemy fire and described the crash as an accident.

In Badakhsan province in Afghanistan’s northeast, the Taliban took control of Warduj district late on Thursday after heavy fighting, according to Nawid Forotan, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

Residents in Kunduz, a strategic city of 300,000 that fell to the Taliban in a stunning pre-dawn attack on Monday, said that while most Taliban fighters had fled, some were holed up in civilian homes fighting the army.

Ahmad Sahil, a producer for local Afghan television in the city, said many people were still too afraid to leave their houses.

“The Taliban who knew Kunduz left the city already, but many foreign fighters could not flee and are hiding in people’s homes in some parts of the city centre and are still resisting,” Sahil said on Friday.

Hamdullah Danishi, acting governor of Kunduz province, described the capital as calm, and said there was “no major fighting”.

He acknowledged, however, that the insurgents had not been completely driven from Kunduz.”Taliban are still in civilian houses and buildings,” Danishi said. “They are using civilians as human shields.”

In a worrying sign for government forces struggling to contain a growing militant threat, the Taliban made territorial gains elsewhere in the country, although on a smaller scale than the brief seizure of Kunduz.

“Our forces did not get reinforcements on time,” Forotan said of the loss of Warduj district in Badakhshan. “Taliban were in big numbers, therefore our forces retreated.”Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said militants killed 50 soldiers and gained control of 28 checkposts in a district of Badakhshan province that has been fought over for years.

It occupies a strategic position along a highway to the border with Tajikistan and also shares a border with China and Pakistan.

The attack started when Taliban militants raided checkpoints in several villages, overrunning reinforcements and seizing control late in the afternoon, according to a government report. The police headquarters in Warduj fell at around 6 p.m. it said.

At least two police were killed in the battle, while three others were reported missing.



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Arab Leaders Insist Yemen Airstrikes Against Rebels Will Continue

Yemen airstrikesSaudi-led airstrikes in Yemen will continue until Shiite rebels there “withdraw and surrender their weapons,” a summit of Arab leaders decided Sunday, as they also agreed in principle to forming a joint military force.

The decision by the Arab League puts it on a path to more aggressively challenge Shiite power Iran, which is backing the Yemeni rebels, known as Houthis.

A Saudi-led coalition began bombing Yemen on Thursday, saying it was targeting the Houthis and their allies, which include forces loyal to Yemen’s former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Current and former Yemeni military officials have said the campaign could pave the way for a possible ground invasion.

At the summit, held in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby read a final communique outlining the leaders’ views.

“Yemen was on the brink of the abyss, requiring effective Arab and international moves after all means of reaching a peaceful resolution have been exhausted to end the Houthi coup and restore legitimacy,” Elaraby said.

The Houthis swept down from their northern strongholds last year and captured the capital Sanaa in September. Embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a close U.S. ally against a powerful local al-Qaeda affiliate, fled first to the southern city of Aden and left the country last week.

Speaking at the summit Saturday, Hadi directly accused Iran of being behind the Houthi offensive, raising the specter of a regional conflict. Iran and the Houthis deny that Tehran arms the rebel movement, though the Islamic Republic has provided humanitarian and other aid.

Asked at a news conference to explain vague references to “foreign powers” being behind conflicts in different Arab nations, Elaraby said: “I will answer this question indirectly. There is meddling by some neighbors, Israel on one side, Turkey and Iranian interference in several countries.”

Speaking after Elaraby, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said leaders also agreed in principle to creating a joint Arab military force. He said a high-level panel will work under the supervision of Arab chiefs of staff to work out the structure and mechanism of the force.

Elaraby said the chiefs of staff would meet within a month and have three more months to decide on the structure, budget and mechanism of the force before they present their proposals to a meeting of the Arab League’s Joint Defense Council.

“It is an important resolution given all the unprecedented unrest and threats endured by the Arab world,” Elaraby said.

A summit resolution said the force would be deployed at the request of any Arab nation facing a national security threat and that it would also be used to combat terrorist groups.

“There is a political will to create this force and not to leave its creation without a firm time frame,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri told a news conference.

Egyptian military and security officials have said the proposed force would consist of up to 40,000 elite troops and be headquartered in either Cairo or Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The force would be backed by jet fighters, warships and light armor.

However, it is unlikely that all 22 member nations of the often-fractious Arab League will join the proposed force. Creation of such a force has been a longtime goal that has eluded Arab nations in the 65 years since they signed a rarely used joint defense agreement.

Iraq, whose Shiite government is closely allied with non-Arab and Shiite Iran, has said more time is needed to discuss the proposed force.

Now in its fourth day, the Saudi-led air campaign has pushed Houthi rebels out of contested air bases and destroyed any jet fighter remaining in Yemen, Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed bin Hasan Asiri said.

The strikes also continued to target Scud missiles in Yemen, leaving most of their launching pads “devastated,” according to remarks carried Saturday by the state-run Saudi Press Agency. However, he warned that the rebels could have more missiles. His account could not be immediately corroborated.

Yemen’s Foreign Minister Riad Yassin said the air campaign, codenamed Operation Decisive Storm, had prevented the rebels from using planes they seized to attack Yemeni cities or to using missiles to attack neighboring Saudi Arabia. It also stopped Iran’s supply line to the rebels, he said.

Yassin said military experts will decide when and if a ground operation is needed.

“This is a comprehensive, a package operation and (ground operations) will depend on the calculations of the military,” he told reporters. Yassin said political dialogue will only happen after the Houthis surrender the weapons they seized from the state.

Meanwhile Sunday, Pakistan dispatched a plane to the Yemeni city of Hodeida, hoping to evacuate some 500 citizens gathered there, said Shujaat Azim, an adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister. Azim told state-run Pakistan Television more flights would follow as those controlling Yemen’s airports allowed them.

Pakistan says some 3,000 of its citizens live in Yemen. Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj also tweeted Sunday: “We are doing everything to evacuate our people from Yemen at the earliest by all routes land, sea and air.”


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New U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter Visits Afghanistan

Ash CarterNew U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived in Afghanistan on Saturday on his first trip since taking over the job this week, saying he wanted to talk to Afghan and American officials to ensure a “lasting” success as U.S. troops withdraw.

Carter, who was sworn in on Tuesday, has suggested he would be open to slowing U.S. withdrawal plans, if necessary. But he did not signal whether he was leaning in that direction in comments to reporters shortly before landing in Kabul.

“We’re looking for success in Afghanistan that is lasting, and the lasting accomplishment of our mission here,” Carter said in his first news conference since taking the job.

“How to do that, what the best way to do that is, is precisely what I’m here to assess.”

President Barack Obama’s plans call for cutting U.S. troops from about 10,000 now to 5,500 by the end of this year and drawing down to a U.S. embassy presence in Kabul at the end of 2016.

The drawdown strategy has also drawn sharp criticism from Republicans in Congress, who say that the hard-fought gains made against the Taliban could be lost in much the same way that sectarian violence returned to Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal.

Obama is weighing a request from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to slow the withdrawal plans, and the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has also publicly signaled that he is seeking greater flexibility in the months ahead.

Carter, a former Pentagon No. 2, said Obama wanted him to make his own assessment and did not rule out recommending “adjustments” if necessary.

Carter said he looked forward to an update from Ghani and added the two would discuss Afghan government-led peace efforts with Taliban militants.

Senior Pakistani army, Afghan and diplomatic officials said on Thursday the Afghan Taliban had signaled they were willing to open peace talks with Kabul.

Asked about peace prospects, Carter said: “I’ll have a better chance to assess that after I’ve heard from him, because he’s really in the driver’s seat of that process.

“Obviously we’re supportive of it but it’s Afghan-led,” he said.

Carter’s unannounced visit to Afghanistan came after the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the war against Taliban militants began in 2001.

Afghanistan’s national army and police suffered record losses last year, with nearly 5,000 killed, a pace that U.S.

A total of 3,699 Afghan civilians were killed, according to U.N. data, as fighting intensified in tandem with the sharp drawdown of U.S. and allied foreign troops who formally ended their combat role in December.

The emergence of a small number of militants in Afghanistan aligning themselves with the Islamic State, which swept into northern Iraq last summer, has underscored anxieties about the dangers as foreign forces withdraw.

Carter suggested any threat from the Islamic State in Afghanistan was minimal.

“I’ve see the reports of people essentially rebranding themselves as ISIL here in Afghanistan, as has occurred in other places,” Carter said, using an acronym for the militant group.

“The reports I’ve seen still have them in small numbers, and aspirational.”


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Hollande Robustly Defends France’s Freedom Of Speech

French President Hollande delivers his speech during a visit at the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab institute) in ParisFrench President Francois Hollande said on Saturday that anti-Charlie Hebdo protesters in other countries do not understand France’s attachment to freedom of speech.

He was speaking a day after the satirical weekly’s publication of a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad sparked violent clashes, including deaths, in some Muslim countries.

Demand has surged for Charlie Hebdo’s first issue since two militant gunmen burst into its weekly editorial conference and shot dead 12 people at the start of three days of violence that shocked France.

A cartoon image of Mohammad on its front page outraged many in the Muslim world, triggering demonstrations that turned violent in Algeria, Niger and Pakistan on Friday.

“We’ve supported these countries in the fight against terrorism,” Hollande said during a visit to the southern city of Tulle, traditionally his political fiefdom.

“I still want to express my solidarity (towards them), but at the same time France has principles and values, in particular freedom of expression.”

The shootings in Paris were prompted by Charlie Hebdo’s previous publication of Mohammad cartoons, a depiction many Muslims consider blasphemous.

In Niger, protesters set fire to churches and looted shops in the capital Niamey on Saturday in a second day of riots over Charlie Hebdo’s publication of the image.

France’s embassy in Niamey advised its citizens against going out in the streets.

Five people were killed on Friday in Zinder, the second city of the former French colony, while churches were burned and Christian homes looted.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemned the violence in Niamey and Zinder and said France stood in solidarity with Niger authorities.

Protests also turned violent on Friday in the southern Pakistan city of Karachi where police used teargas and a water cannon against demonstrators outside the French consulate.

Several Algerian police officers were injured in clashes with demonstrators in Algiers after rioting broke out at the end of a protest.

“There are tensions abroad where people don’t understand our attachment to the freedom of speech,” Hollande said. “We’ve seen the protests, and I would say that in France all beliefs are respected.”

Hollande has received a big poll boost for his handling of the attacks with his popularity rating surging to its highest level in nearly one and a half years.

His rating has jumped to 34 percent from 24 percent before the attacks, according to a BVA poll published on Saturday.

Produced by survivors of the attack, the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo shows a cartoon of a tearful Mohammad holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign under the words “All is forgiven.”

A lawyer for one of the gunmen in the Charlie Hebdo attack said the man had been buried in the eastern city of Reims in an unmarked grave so as not to attract sympathisers.

Meanwhile, Belgium deployed hundreds of troops to guard potential terrorism targets. Two gunmen were killed on Thursday during an anti-Islamist raid in the town of Vervier.


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Growing Concerns Over Pakistan-India Border Clashes

India pakistanThousands of Indians have fled from their homes as fighting between India and Pakistan spread along a 200-km (124 mile) stretch of the border in the disputed region of Kashmir.

Tension between the nuclear-armed rivals has risen since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called off peace talks in August and clashes along stretches of their border have been erupting intermittently since October.

At least 10 Indian and Pakistani soldiers and civilians have been killed in fighting over the past week.

About 6,000 civilians in Indian-controlled Kashmir fled from their homes late on Monday as fighting moved to civilian areas, said Shantmanu, the divisional commissioner of Jammu region. About 4,000 left after fighting began last week.

It is alleged that Pakistani troops are using long-range weapons in what is believed to be the first time such shelling has taken place. The violence comes days before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to visit India. President Barack Obama is also due to visit India later this month.

The United States has for years been trying to push the South Asian rivals to build better relations. Mistrust between India and Pakistan is a factor behind conflict in various parts of the region including Afghanistan.

Kumar said he left his village after a shell landed in a school about 3.5 km (2 miles) from the border.

Indian and Pakistani forces again exchanged gunfire and mortar bombs across parts of their border on Tuesday, an Indian Border Security Force official said.

“The firing is going on and we are giving befitting reply to Pakistani shelling,” the official said.

Pakistani officials were not immediately available for comment.

The rivals, who have fought two wars over Muslim-majority Kashmir, blame each other for the upsurge in clashes since October.

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President Obama Releases Another Five Detainees From Gitmo

Barack ObamaThree Yemenis and two Tunisians held for more than a decade at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo have been flown to Kazakhstan for resettlement, the Pentagon said on Tuesday, the latest in a series of prisoner transfers aimed at closing the facility.

The transfer of the five men followed a recent pledge by President Obama for a stepped-up push to shut the internationally condemned detention center at the U.S. naval base in Cuba where most prisoners have been held without being charged or tried.

The U.S. government has moved 28 prisoners out of Guantanamo this year the largest number since 2009 and a senior U.S. official said the quickened pace would continue with further transfers expected in coming weeks.

Kazakhstan’s acceptance of the five followed extensive negotiations, the official said. Though the oil-rich central Asian state is an ally of Russia, it has cultivated areas of economic and diplomatic cooperation with the West.

The men sent to Kazakhstan, a majority-Muslim country, were identified as low-risk detainees cleared long ago for transfer. With their removal from Guantanamo just before the new year, the detainee population has been whittled down to 127.

More than half of the remaining Guantanamo detainees are from Yemen, but Washington is unable to send them home because of the chaotic security situation there.

Obama continues to face obstacles posed by Congress to the goal of emptying the prison before he leaves office, not least of which is a ban on transfer of prisoners to the U.S. mainland.

All five men were detained on suspicion of links to al Qaeda or allied groups, but the U.S. official said investigations had determined they “could be described as low-level, if even that.”

The Pentagon identified the Yemenis as Asim Thabit Abdullah Al-Khalaqi, Muhammad Ali Husayn Khanayna and Sabri Muhammad Ibrahim Al Qurashi. The Tunisians were named as Adel Al-Hakeemy and Abdullah Bin Ali Al-Lufti.

Other countries that have accepted Guantanamo detainees for resettlement this year include Uruguay, Georgia and Slovakia.

The prison was opened by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States to house militant suspects rounded up overseas.

“I’m going to be doing everything I can to close it,” Obama told CNN in an interview broadcast on Dec. 21, renewing a pledge he made when he took office in 2008.

A key thrust of the strategy is the administration’s outreach to a range of countries it hopes will take in more of the roughly 60 prisoners already approved for transfer.

Clifford Sloan, Obama’s outgoing State Department envoy on Guantanamo, led negotiations for the Kazakh deal. It was not immediately known whether the Obama played any personal role.

Among the prisoners sent to Kazakhstan, Lufti, 49, was detained in Pakistan and held at Guantanamo for nearly 12 years, according to a database of government documents compiled by the New York Times and National Public Radio.

He was accused of links to Tunisian militants when he lived in Italy in the 1990s, but he denied this. He has heart problems that led authorities to recommend his transfer as early as 2004.

One of the Yemenis, Khalaqi, 46, had been implicated by John Walker Lindh, an American captured in late 2001 working with the Taliban, as having fought with al Qaeda in Afghanistan, according to the documents. But Khalaqi denied any involvement.

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