US drone strikes kill scores in South Waziristan

Between 45 and 70 mourners were killed yesterday after a US drone targeted a funeral for a senior Taliban militant, killed by a second drone earlier on Tuesday, in South Waziristan. Reports as to the numbers and specific individuals killed in the strikes vary but it is likely that the tally will include local civilians also in attendance at the funeral. Sangin Khan, an Afghan Taliban commander, is reported to be among the dead, while Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, narrowly missed the strike.

The toD verdict: US drones continued to patrol Waziristan today as a major confrontation between the Pakistani army and Mehsud's forces looms. While Pakistan objects to the US use of drones in public, it is likely that the growing intensity of strikes that weaken a common enemy indicate an improving unofficial military collaboration in western Pakistan. Pakistan's interior minister, Syed Samsam Ali Bukhari, familiarly denounced yesterday's attacks as "counterproductive", but these public condemnations are reported to be part of face-saving measures agreed with the US.

Aerial intelligence provided by the drones is passed to Pakistani command and US support will play a crucial part in the coming battle. It seems unlikely, however, that the US will man operations in collaboration with Pakistan as such incursions may detract from the prestige which it is hoped will accompany a victory for the state.

The necessity of a visibly clear-cut and independent Pakistani victory for the future stability of the troubled state is paramount. The success of operations rests as much on military victory as it does on the struggle for "hearts and minds". The conditions which face Pashtun civilians, 45,000 of whom have already fled South Waziristan, will be subject to scrutiny and criticism equal to that faced in the wake of the conflict in the Swat Valley and adequate humanitarian provision will be crucial to securing international and domestic support for Pakistan's war against the Taliban. 

US reproaches Israel for settlement expansion

A meeting in Paris between the Israeli president Benyamin Netanyahu and the US middle eastern envoy, George Mitchell, was reportedly cancelled after Israel reconfirmed its commitment to settlement expansion in the West Bank. Netanyahu has continued to defend the "natural growth" of Israeli communities in Palestine while vowing to prohibit the development of new settlements. The Obama administration has rejected such a compromise, with secretary of state Hilary Clinton refusing to accept "natural growth exceptions". US consular officials in Israel have been monitoring settlement expansion, while Israeli statistics suggest that migration to the West Bank, as opposed to the growth of families already present, accounted for over a third of population increase in the settlements in recent years.

North Korean vessel tests UN export sanctions

The first major test to toughened UN sanctions on North Korea is now unravelling across the Pacific Ocean as a North Korean vessel suspected of carrying armaments heads towards Burma pursued by the warship USS John S McCain. The US will refrain from intercepting the merchant vessel, an act which North Korea has warned would constitute a declaration of war, during the two week voyage. The ship may face inspection from port authorities during necessary refuelling along the 4,100 mile route and coastal nations in the region will come under intense diplomatic pressure from the US and others to fully enforce the UN measures. Singapore, the regions major refuelling station has vowed to "act appropriately" if suspicious goods are present onboard. The UN resolutions, issued in the wake of North Korea's successful nuclear test, bar countries from servicing vessels suspected of carrying illicit goods.

Top Chinese dissident charged with subversion

A senior Chinese dissident and pro-democracy advocate, Liu Xiaobo, was arrested yesterday for "activities aimed at subversion". Liu, an activist first imprisoned following the suppression of protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, had been held for seven months after signing Charter 08, a petition for democratisation which has so far attracted 8,000 signatories. His arrest could culminate in up to fifteen years imprisonment and has been seen by human rights groups as an indication of a toughening state response to dissent. Over a dozen human rights lawyers who had defended dissenters in the past were disbarred from practice earlier in the month and Liu will have to find a credited lawyer if he is to be defended at trial.

Russia denounces Kyrgyz-American airbase deal

Officials in Russia's foreign ministry have attacked Kyrgyzstan's agreement to permit the continued use of Manas airbase by US forces as a "dirty trick". Speaking to the newspaper Kommersant, the unnamed official warned of a "corresponding response" to a decision which was "against the interests of Russia". Kyrgyzstan had refused to give the US permission to renew its lease of the base following a $2 billion aid deal agreed with Russia in February. Under the new terms, the base will be renamed and permission granted only for the transit of non-lethal materials to neighbouring Afghanistan, for which privilege the US will pay $180 million.

Former Bagram detainees accuse US soldiers of abuse

Inmates released from the US military prison at Bagram airbase, Kabul, have alleged a series of abuses committed against them while in US custody. The twenty-seven former internees, interviewed by the BBC, were all released without trial. With the exception of two prisoners who claimed to have been treated well, they complained of various forms of mistreatment most prominent among which were death threats, stress positions, sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation. A spokesman for the US secretary of defence denied the charges, claiming that conditions met "international standards for care and custody". Bagram, however, is not bound by international law and has been accused of operating in a legal black whole in which detainees have no access to lawyers or right to trial. Following the discontinuation of similar legal anomalies at Guantanamo Bay, the Obama administration initiated an investigation into detention at Bagram which is due to report its findings next month.