Sixteen days ahead of crucial Lebanese elections, United States Vice-President Joe Biden was in Lebanon on Friday, ostensibly to reinforce support for an "independent and sovereign Lebanon." However, several of his comments drew criticism from the Hizbollah-led Lebanese opposition that the purpose of his visit was intrusively political.
In a move that will add to the tensions in the run up to the 7 June elections, on Friday, Nawaf al-Moussawi, a Hizbollah deputy and former top foreign policy official, accused Israel of planning to assassinate Hizbollah scretary general Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah. Speaking to pan-Arab London-based daily newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, al-Moussawi said that such an attack would "set the region ablaze" and that Hizbollah was preparing for such an eventuality.
The toD Verdict: Regardless of the PR spin the White House might want to put on Biden's visit, when he tells Lebanese voters that their "enduring" partnership with the US depends on their commitment to ‘freedom', the message is clear. The prospect of a group that the United States has labelled a terrorist organisation gaining a majority in a democratic election in itself would constitute a diplomatic setback, with memories of the Hamas electoral victory in 2006 looming large.
But Hizbollah is not just another terrorist group. The group is widely held to be responsible for the 1983 bombings of both the US embassy in Lebanon and, even more traumatically, the barracks which resulted in the deaths of 241 American servicemen. Referred to in neo-conservative circles as the "A-team" of terrorist groups, it is backed by Iran and Syria. Moreover, it presents a still unresolved military threat to Israel.
In the 2006 "Summer War" between Israel and Hizbollah, the Shia militant group fought the IDF to a standstill and the domestic political fallout in Israel crippled then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and resulted in the resignation of then IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. This successful defence of the southern Lebanese border in defiance of the region's military super power raised Hassan Nasrallah's profile across the middle east and further increased the group's political influence in Lebanon enormously.
It is this last fact that makes Al-Moussawi's claims more than paranoid ravings. Nasrallah's predecessor as head of Hizbollah, Sayyad Abbas Musawi was himself assassinated by the Israelis in 1992, a precedent which will clearly not be lost on Nasrallah himself.
The hostile response of both Israel and America to Hamas' victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 could be repeated on 7 June if the Lebanese electorate, in its folly, chooses to ignore its "commitment to freedom". It is unclear at this point how hostile the response would have to be to elicit a response from a Hizbollah-dominated Lebanese legislature. Hassan Nasrallah has always clearly separated the activities of the political party from those of its armed wing, the Islamic Resistance. His assassination, however, would likely be a catalytic event that would at once trigger another war in the Levant and reverse, probably irrevocably, Hizbollah's slow metamorphosis from a militant faction to a demilitarised, engaged party playing a constructive role in Lebanon's own political transformation.
Bomb attacks rock Baghdad
On Thursday, a second consecutive day of bomb attacks claimed the lives of at least 25 people in Baghdad, including three US soldiers. The toll for the 24 hour period now stands at more than 60 dead, with 140 wounded. The attacks have thus far targeted US troops, Iraqi police and members of the Awakening councils, who allied themselves with the United States against the al-Qaeda presence in Iraq as well as other Sunni insurgents.
The means by which the American troops were killed is subject to differing accounts, with the US military claiming they were killed by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) while Iraqi police and security forces saying a suicide bomber blew themselves up near the patrol. Another bomb attack struck Kirkuk, north of Baghdad, on Thursday, killing eight members of the Awakening movement and wounding nine others.
Suu Kyi visit "part of a plot" as diplomats banned from her trial
The bizarre visit of an American national to the home of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi has been labelled a plot by "anti-government forces" on the fifth day of her trial. The American, whose name is John Yettaw, entered her residence, where she was being held under house arrest, by swimming across a lake to avoid security. He accomplished this feat twice, being arrested on the second occasion.
Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win, quoted by the state press on Friday, said that this incident was an attempt to increase international pressure on the Myanmar government. Suu Kyi has been charged with allowing a visitor to stay at her home without official permission, which carries a sentence of five years. She has been under house arrest for thirteen of the last nineteen years and her current trial is being held behind closed doors, with international diplomats banned from attending.
Netanyahu dismantles a settlement in wake of Obama talks
The day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from what many felt were unproductive talks with President Barack Obama in Washington, Israeli police removed Israeli settlers from a hill top on the West Bank. At the talks, Obama had urged that Netanyahu accept a two-state solution and halt all settlement activity on the West Bank. Netanyahu endorsed Palestinians' right to govern themselves, but stopped short of endorsing full statehood.
Over thirty settlers were removed by police and the settlement itself, "Esther's Stronghold", constituting seven cabins, was bulldozed. Technically an "outpost", "Esther's Stronghold" was considered by Israeli courts to be illegal. Later on Thursday, Netanyahu reaffirmed Israel's claim to an undivided Jerusalem as its capital, a highly controversial position for Palestinians who insist on their right to East Jerusalem as the capital of any future Palestinian state.
Three killed in Yemen disturbances
On the fifteenth anniversary of the day when secessionist leader Ali Salem al-Beidh declared an end to the Yemen Union and the secession of the South from the North, three people were killed in Aden during clashes between protesters and police. President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh said that secessionists would not succeed.
Tensions between the North and the oil-rich South have been a feature of Yemeni politics since the union of the two countries in 1990. In 1994, after al-Beidh's declaration, there was a brief war between government forces and secessionists that ended in a government victory.
US president Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met for the first time since either took office yesterday in Washington. They discussed the middle east peace process and security in the region, but in subsequent public statements there was little sign of a major breakthrough.
The toD verdict: The talks seem to have fundamentally failed to reinvigorate what Obama called the "stalled" progress in the middle eastern peace process. Throughout their public meeting, the two statesmen were seemingly at cross-purposes. While Obama again called for a two state solution, Netanyahu only expressed a desire to "start peace negotiations with the Palestinians" and for Palestinians to "govern themselves", continuing his aversion to the words "Palestinian state". Obama's demands that "settlements have to be stopped" also went unanswered and there was little sign that Netanyahu's Israel would take the "difficult steps" the US claims are necessary.
Accordingly, the talks were coldly received by Palestinian parties. A Hamas spokesman decried Obama's apparently tough call for Israel to halt settlement expansion and commit to a two state solution as an attempt "to deceive the world". Statements by Fatah negotiator Saeb Erekat were predictably less confrontational but equally pessimistic, arguing Israeli policy made impossible a fully functioning Palestinian state.
If the talks heralded a single breakthrough it was Obama's indication that he was setting a deadline of the end of the year for talks with Iran. To date, and much to the annoyance of hawks at home and in Israel, Obama has not imposed strict conditions or a time-limit on his offer to negotiate with Iran. By propelling the Iranian threat to the forefront of the US-Israeli relationship, the Nethanyu government may succeed in deflecting criticism of its policies in the occupied territories. Defence Minister Ehud Barak was accordingly critical of calls for a two state solution, which he said would not stop Iran.
Government and Tamil Tigers dispute LTTE leader's death
Following their proclamation of victory in a decades-long civil war yesterday, Sri Lankan forces have broadcast video footage they claim shows the corpse of Tamil Tigers leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in an attempt to end disputed claims as to whether he was in fact killed. A Sri Lankan military spokesman, Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, said the authorities were "100 percent positive" it was Prabhakaran. However the LTTE's diplomatic representative Selvarasa Pathmanathan had earlier claimed that their "beloved leader is alive and safe".
The news of the LTTE's defeat was met with protest in London where around 5,000 protestors broke out from the centre of Parliament Square and disrupted traffic on the busy junction. Three police and five protestors were hospitalised during violent clashes, which saw ten protestors arrested.
Pakistani forces close on Taliban Swat capital
The Pakistani army has made further advances into Taliban controlled regions of the Swat Valley. Street battles raged in the towns of Matta and Kanju, the latter only miles away from the Taliban stronghold of Mingora, the principal city in the region. General Nadeem Ahmed, head of the government's refugee Support Group, optimistically predicted the return of some of the 1,400,000 people displaced by the conflict.
Human Rights Watch criticised Taliban tactics in their defence of the city, accusing them of laying landmines to prevent the escape of around 10,000 civilians in Mingora in an attempt to deter army raids on the city. The NGO also accused the Pakistani government, who claim they will not use heavy weapons in densely populated areas, of taking "insufficient precautionary measures" to prevent the loss of civilian life during recent operations.
ICC begins trial of Sudanese rebel leader
Bahar Idriss Abu Garda, a Sudanese rebel leader who turned himself in to the International Criminal Court, appeared at The Hague on war crimes charges relating to the killing of twelve African Union peacekeepers in Darfur. He is the first suspect from the Darfur conflict to be tried by the court, and used his appearance to increase pressure on Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir to also face trial. Since the ICC issued a warrant for his arrest in April, Bashir, charged with genocide and war crimes, has defiantly flouted the ruling.
Military offensive escalates in Niger Delta
The Nigerian Joint Task Force, at war with militants in the country's oil rich delta region, claimed to have overrun an important Iroko militant camp. Rebel groups meanwhile argued this was only part of a "cat and mouse" game with the army, which had indiscriminately targeted civilians from the Delta's indigenous Ijaw people. The army faced criticism from the Ijaw National Congress for the alleged killing of 1,000 civilians during its campaigns to free oil workers taken hostage by the militants. The Director of Defence Information Colonel Chris Jemitola denied the accusations and defended the necessity of the operations against militants who targeted "innocent civilians". Recent unrest in the Delta helped push crude oil prices up five per cent on the New York exchange on Monday.
Officials discuss anti-piracy strategy
A two day conference in Kuala Lumpur has brought together notable military and diplomatic figures to help combat the scourge of piracy. French national security advisor Captain Christophe Pipolo called for an economic stimulus to rejeuvenate Somalia's fishing industry and thus provide alternative incomes to piracy. Echoing Pipolo's warning that the "answer is neither at sea nor military but on land", Captain Christopher Chambers, the director of the international Combined Maritime Forces, reiterated the necessity of a "stable Somalia". Further proposals issued at the conference centred on investing in Somali security forces to help build a robust coast guard and land-based police force.
Ethiopian troops re-enter Somalia as Islamists close on capital
Claims that Ethiopian forces are re-entering Somalia two years after their departure under a UN ceasefire have emerged from the country's borderlands. While the Addis Ababa government upheld their right to carry out operations on Somali territory, communications minister Ermias Legesse denied Ethiopian troops had crossed the border.
If verified, the incursion suggests Ethiopia might be planning to bolster Somali government forces and help secure Mogadishu from an escalating Islamist offensive. Hizbul Islam fighters seized the town of Mahady on Monday after the government lost control of the town of Jowhar to the militant group Al-Shabab on Sunday.
With renewed fighting comes the prospect of the flight of many more refugees from the country. Over 270,000 Somalis are already inadequately provided for in refugee camps in neighbouring Kenya, a situation decried by Medicins Sans Frontiers representatives in the country as "scandalous".
A statement released by the Sri Lankan defence ministry claims that the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was killed while attempting to flee the conflict zone in an ambulance. The reports of Velupillai Prabhakaran's death accompanied news that the bodies of four leading members of LTTE have been recovered, including that of Prabhakaran's son Charles Anthony.
The toD verdict: Monday's announcement came after reports that the military had cornered Prabhakaran in a tiny patch of jungle in the northeast, and coincided with the ceasefire declaration made the previous day by the LTTE which the Sri Lankan government refused to accept. Despite the wish of the LTTE to "silence" their guns, the military is determined to definitively end the 26-year old civl war. Government officials reported their reluctance to agree to ceasefires, which, as in the past, the LTTE could use to rearm and regroup. Instead, military officials aim to capture or kill the remaining Tamil Tiger insurgents.
Like most statements that come out from the frontlines in Sri Lanka's bloody conflict, Velupillai Prabhakaran's death is yet to be independently verified because of the ban on media and aid workers in the region. The civil war, which has raged since 1983, has prompted calls by international institutions such as the European Union for investigations into allegations of war crimes committed by both sides. Recent claims that the LTTE were using phosphorus gas in attacks on civilians are mirrored by the Tamil accusations that the Sri Lankan government employed chemical weapons in its strikes.
Keep up to date with the latest developments and sharpest perspectives in a world of strife and struggle. Sign up to receive toD's daily security briefings via email by clicking here What it sees as victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels has prompted the Sri Lankan government to claim that it has "liberated the entire country" and brought an end to the ongoing civil war which has killed over 70,000 people. However, Erik Solheim, a Norwegian minister and former negotiator in the conflict, warned that peace has not yet been secured. He emphasised the importance of the Sri Lankan government adopting a generous and fair position towards the Tamils, traditionally marginalised in the majority Sinhalese country.
Chad strike edges nation to brink of war with Sudan
The Chadian air force carried out strikes on "mercenaries" in Sudan on Sunday, which the government claimed has destroyed seven groups of fighters and taken 100 people prisoner. The raid, which Sudanese government officials condemned as an "act of war", seems to have been at least in part a response to allegations that the Sudanese government supported a failed uprising by insurgents against the Chadian army last week. Chad and Sudan have a history of blaming the other of aiding rebel factions, and last year anti-government attacks reached as far as the countries' respective capitals before being repelled.
The Central African Republic (CAR) has suffered in the past from the spill-over of hostilities between Chad and Sudan, and last Friday saw the death of seven people when violence broke out between anti-government rebel group APRD and cattle thieves from Chad. Civilians in CAR had reportedly called for the APRD to take action against the bandits after their own government failed to do so.
Confusion amongst Somali rebels as they claim more land
The Somali government lost yet more ground to Islamist rebels over the weekend, when a strategic town north of the capital of Mogadishu was seized by the al-Shabaab group. Jowhar was captured on Sunday morning after hours of fighting which resulted in seven deaths. Sixty-eight people have reportedly been killed in clashes between Islamist factions since Friday, resulting in the death of over 172 civilians in the past two weeks. This violence between rebel factions shows the increasingly apparent divisions between groups. Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad, a former warlord and important leader of the opposition, defected over the weekend to join the government. He explained his choice by claiming that Islamist groups persistently indulged in activities that he considered irreligious, such as the executions of innocent people. The anti-government movement looks set to collapse into an anarchic struggle for power amongst rebel factions.
These developments came as the UN Security Council expressed it concerns over reported aid being supplied to al-Shabaab fighters by the Eritrean government. The latter denies all allegations.
Allegations of government bombings in oil-rich Niger Delta
Following the declaration on Friday of the Nigerian group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) that it was declaring "all out war" against the army, the rebel faction claims that the Nigerian government has carried out indiscriminate bombings on civilian targets in the Niger Delta. MEND claims are corroborated by the Ijaw National Congress, which represents the Niger Delta's largest ethnic group and claims that over 1,000 civilians have been affected by government attacks.
Over the weekend, the Nigerian government also claimed to have recovered two Filipino hostagesViolence in the Niger Delta is largely based around the abundant oil trade in the region, the profits of which MEND say they are fighting to redistribute to poor locals. Nigeria is one of the world's largest crude oil exporters, and production has decreased by twenty percent since 2006 due to raids on oil production facilities and staff. during an operation carried out against the rebels, though MEND spokespeople have repudiated this claim and said that the hostages were in fact killed by government forces in the crossfire.
Security tightened as Aung San Suu Kyi faces five more years in prison
Security was stepped up in Myanmar on Monday as the ruling junta prepared to try Aung San Suu Kyi on charges that she violated conditions of her detention. Shops surrounding Rangoon's Insein prison, where the opposition leader is currently being held, have been temporarily closed, and visits to inmates prohibited. The country's charismatic opposition leader has been under house arrest for thirteen of the past nineteen years and the latest charges, which could see her incarcerated for a further five years, come just two weeks before her latest six-year sentence was set to expire. It is thought that the government's decision is a pretext for the detainment of Suu Kyi during the elections that are set to take place next year. Activists in Myanmar and around the world have vowed to carry out demonstrations until she is released, and crowds gathered outside the Yangon prison calling for her release on Monday. Appeals have also come from governments, human rights groups and the United Nations for Suu Kyi's unconditional release.
US drone attacks continue in Pakistan and Afghanistan
A US drone attack in Pakistan on Saturday killed ten militants after it hit a house and a vehicle. The attack was targeting suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban cells in the Khaisor area of North Waziristan, and was the third to have taken place this month. The government in Islamabad ostensibly objects to US drone attacks which, it claims undermine the government's sovereignty. However, the US military maintains that it works closely with Asif Ali Zardari's government and shares all intelligence information relating to the drone attacks. The US has stepped up its raids in past months, particularly on the Afghan-Pakistani border, in an attempt to counter the growing influence of the Taliban.
Like its neighbour, the government in Afghanistan objects to US drone attacks on their land and an investigation carried out by an investigative team announced on Saturday that US air attacks in Farah province resulted in 140 civilian deaths last week alone. In other news in Afghanistan, three civilians were killed and four injured when a missile fired from Pakistan struck a mosque on Friday. Several rockets were fired over the border and were thought to have been aimed at the US military base of Camp Salerno.
A spokesman for Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters on Friday that she supports an independent inquiry into the violence in Sri Lanka. The call comes on a day when Sri Lankan military forces continued their relentless bid to end the 25-year war with the Tamil Tigers. Remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) resist desperately from a tiny strip of land, in the midst of thousands of civilians.
The ToD verdict: It is over a month since Walter Kaelin, the UN Secretary General's representative for the rights of internally displaced persons, warned of a "blood bath" if the Sri Lankan military moved in against the Tamil Tigers without first allowing the civilian population to flee. As the Sri Lankan military continues to drive the LTTE into the sea, it is becoming increasingly apparent that his prediction has come true. Although both sides have engaged in a vigorous propaganda war and journalists have been forbidden from entering the war zone, it is nonetheless clear that thousands of civilians have been killed in the cross fire between government and rebel forces.
Those who survive face increasing hardship as the International Committee for the Red Cross has been forced by the continuing combat to suspend the delivery of aid, with ICRC operations director Pierre Krahenbuhl referring to the situation as "an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe".
The suspicion on the part of many commentators and analysts, including Pillay, is that human rights abuses have been committed on both sides. Her call for "clarity" not "impunity" would make a probe into suspected offences a necessity. At this point, however, with the Sri Lankan government so far brushing off calls for a ceasefire, it is uncertain when such an inquiry will ever be held.
Thousands more flee Pakistan town as military lifts curfew
As the Pakistan military lifted the curfew around the town of Mingora in the Swat valley today, tens of thousands of civilians fled to swell the already vast numbers of people displaced from their homes by the ongoing war against the Taliban. According to a military statement, at least 55 Taliban militants and three Pakistani soldiers have been killed during this, the twentieth day of the Pakistan army's operations against Taliban positions in the districts of Swat, Buner and Lower Dir in the country's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). A total of over 834,000 people have registered as displaced persons with the UN since the beginning of the fighting, with Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, saying that there would be a humanitarian crisis if a massive deployment of aid is not forthcoming.
Nuclear watchdog warns nuclear weapons states set to double
Mohamed ElBaradei, the outgoing director general of the IAEA, has warned that international agreements restricting the proliferation of nuclear weapons are on the verge of collapse and that, without drastic action by nuclear weapons states, the number of potential nuclear weapons states could double in a few years. Citing the inequity of the system, designed around the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty which compels signatories to refrain developing nuclear weapons while, theoretically, obliging nuclear states to disarm, he said that in this respect the middle east is a "ticking time bomb".
He made the prediction that the next wave of proliferation would result in the emergence of 10 to 20 "virtual" weapons states. Such states would not actually have nuclear weapons, but would have sufficient technical knowledge and raw materials to be able to weaponise rapidly. He noted that there were sweeping steps that could be taken immediately to prevent this, observing that of the 27,000 nuclear weapons in existence, the vast majority of them are possessed by the United States and Russia.
Aung San Suu Kyi charged in run up to Myanmar elections
On Thursday, the Burmese opposition leader was charged with violating the terms of her house arrest in what many analysts are saying is a political move by the Myanmar military junta. The ostensible reason for the charge was a recent incident in which an American man swam across a lake and spent a night at her home, where she has been under house arrest for thirteen years.
The charges have been introduced two weeks before the statutory end of her latest six year term of house-arrest and have resulted in her transfer to the harsher conditions of Insein prison. Next year the military clique, which has ruled Myanmar since 1962, will hold its first multi-party elections since 1990. That election resulted in Aung Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, winning a sweeping victory which was promptly rejected by the military.
Obama brings back Guantanamo trials
Having suspended them within hours of taking up office, US officials revealed today that President Barack Obama will bring back the highly controversial military tribunal system at Guantanamo Bay. The officials have said that the system, which is expected to apply to fewer than twenty of Guantanamo's 241 inmates, will be amended so that it restricts the admissibility of evidence based on hearsay and bans altogether evidence gleaned from such practises as "waterboarding". These provisions have not allayed critics, however, who point out that during his presidential campaign, he vowed to reject the Military Commissions Act.
Policemen killed in Chechnya
On Friday, two policemen were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the restive Caucasus republic of Chechnya. The attack comes weeks after Moscow ended its decade long counter-terrorist operation in the region, and is symptomatic of continued unrest. The attack occurred near the entrance to the regional interior ministry building.
King Abdullah of Jordan predicted war within eighteen months if peace efforts in the middle east are obstructed. An American-Jordanian peace offensive reaches its apogee in coming weeks, the most crucial element being US President Barack Obama's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu next Tuesday. Jordan and the US joined diplomatic forces in the region after Abdullah met with Obama in Washington last month. Their efforts aim for a general peace conference, at which Israel will normalise its relations with all its Arab neighbours, with some of whom it remains in an official state of war, in return for territorial and political concessions.
The toD verdict: On 4 June Obama will address the Muslim world in a landmark broadcast. Current American efforts will determine whether it will be hailed as a victory speech or derided as one of many hollow appeals for peace the region.
The UN added its voice to the chorus of peace calls, with Secretary General Ban Ki Moon urging Israel "to fundamentally change its polices" on settlements in the West Bank. The demands follow increased exposure of Israeli housing policy, particularly in East Jerusalem, where Israel is accused of deliberately manipulating regulation and planning laws at the expense of Palestinian residents. Pressure from the UN, however, is a far more familiar element in the middle east peace process and one which Israel and Arab states have had little compunction in ignoring in the past.
Attention will now turn to the recently elected Nethanyahu government, with a backlog of hardline pronouncements on Israeli security, for any indication of its willingness to talk. Nethanyahu recently vowed to the Knesset that he would not relinquish Israeli control of the Golan heights, captured from Syria in 1967, and a critical bargaining point in any peace between the two nations. On an international stage, however, Nethanyu appears more conciliatory. At meetings with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak he expressed his desire to "resume peace talks between us and the Palestinians", but as yet he has refused to endorse the two state solution which has been the basis of prior negotiations.
US soldier kills five comrades outside Iraq counselling clinic
A US soldier opened fire on fellow troops after a dispute with staff at a military base's counselling centre in Iraq, killing five before being taken into custody. Monday's shooting was the sixth such attack since the 2003 invasion, in which a total of nine US soldiers have been deliberately killed by their comrades.
The shooting highlights the dangers of psychological stress in a combat environment. Up to one in five US soldiers is reported to be suffering from post traumatic stress in Iraq, with two-thirds reluctant to seek help for fear it will set back their military careers. There are an estimated five attempted suicides per day among US forces in Iraq.
Hundreds killed as Somali government denies collusion with Islamist insurgents
The Somali government denied reports that poorly paid soldiers had been selling military hardware to Islamic insurgents, their official enemies. President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed blamed radical Islamists for the recent resurgence of violence in Mogadishu, who he claimed were the agents of foreign countries. Violence spread across the war-worn capital over the weekend. Seventeen-thousand people have fled the fighting, while three hundred of those who could not escape were wounded and over 120 killed.
Pakistan captures Taliban stronghold
Pakistani military spokesmen claimed a series of victories for government forces in the ongoing battle for the Swat Valley. Special forces heli-dropped behind Taliban lines, capturing the rear-base of Maulana Fazlullah, a militant cleric, and his retinue of 4,000 fighters. Interior Minister Rehman Malik was pleased by government successes, hoping that "the operations will be completed very soon". His hopes can only be shared by the estimated 360,000 people forced to flee recent fighting in the Swat Valley. Aid agencies and members of parliament have criticised army actions and the government's provision for displaced civilians. Brad Adams of Human Rights Watched warned Pakistan that the Taliban's exploitation of innocents was "not a blank cheque for the Pakistani Army".
Afghans hope for fresh start with new US commander
Controversial US tactics in Afghanistan maybe set to change with the dismissal of NATO's Afghan theatre commander General David McKiernan halfway through his tenure of command. McKiernan had pressed for an extra 30,000 troops for the next 12 months in Afghanistan, only a third of which were promised by the Obama administration. The radical move is said to be the first US dismissal of a general from a combat theatre since Douglas MacArthur's outspoken campaign to nuke China during the Korean War. Defence Secretary Robert Gates announced his replacement as Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, who earned his stars in American Special Forces and received personal praise from former president George W Bush. McChrystal's reputation however was tarnished by Senate scrutiny of alleged mistreatment of prisoners by units under his command in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While some speculated that the shake-up was a response to criticism of last week's deadly Farah airstrikes, the Defence Department claimed the move had been planned weeks before. Afghan President Hamid Karzai warned on Sunday that NATO risked losing "the moral war" with the Taliban if air strikes were not reigned in but US security advisor General James L Jones and Gates both defended US commanders' freedom of action in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile Taliban fighters staged an audacious raid on government buildings in southern Afghanistan, underpinning the need to reinvigorate the NATO-Afghan counterinsurgency. Four suicide bombers struck in the town of Khost, killing four Afghan soldiers and two bystanders in an attempt to storm the town governor's headquarters. It is the latest attack in what has been the deadliest year so far for coalition forces in the country.
Pakistani ground forces entered Taliban-held areas of the Swat Valley on Sunday, after a warning was issued to hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate the area. Yousaf Raza Gilani, the country's prime minister, called the mission a war for "the country's survival".
The toD verdict: The strict curfew usually in place over the Swat Valley was temporarily lifted on Sunday to allow the mass exodus of residents before the entry of government troops. The operation was approved the previous day by the Federal Cabinet, who declared that military action was the last possible option after the failure of efforts to reach a peaceful solution. According to Pakistani officials, the war will not be fought conventionallly, focusing instead on countering the militant's guerrilla tactics. Troops in the Swat Valley now number between 12,000 and 15,000, against a suspected 5,000 Taliban insurgents. An estimated half a million civilians will be displaced by the fighting in the Swat Valley, with as many as 1.3 million left homeless.
The decision to invade the Swat Valley was taken by the Pakistani government during a trip by President Asif Ali Zardari to the US to meet with his American and Afghan counterparts, Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai. The Pakistani government has been quick to dispel claims that they reacted in response to international pressure. Washington's representatives, keen for more action from Zardari's government, have expressed their concerns that the Swat Valley could turn into a base for Islamist militants, destabilising both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, last week US General David Petraeus voiced his concern that the Pakistani government could fall to the Taliban in just two weeks. However, the US military has restated their refusal to send troops into Pakistan.
A session of the National Assembly began on Monday to assess the situation and gain parliamentary approval for the operation in the Swat Valley.
Right-wing rally overwhelmed by peaceful protestors in Cologne
A "Stop Islam" rally was organised by the far-right movements Pro Koeln and Pro NRW in Cologne on Saturday following their opposition to plans to construct a large mosque on the outskirts of the city. The mosque will attempt to remedy the current lack of space for Turkish-speaking Muslim congregations. Nationalists from across Europe were invited to attend the demonstration, which Islamic countries such as Iran had urged the German government to forbid. However, numbers at the right-wing rally only reached around 300 and paled in comparison to the thousands of peaceful protestors who had gathered to oppose the "anti-Islam" rally. After bouts of violence between police and left-wing protestors, the rally was declared illegal on grounds of public safety to the praise of, amongst others, Cologne's mayor Fritz Schramma. Germany's Muslim community numbers around three million and accounts for four percent of the total population.
Fifteen die in mortar attack in Mogadishu
The weekend saw outbreaks of violence in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, with a mortar attack on a mosque on Sunday resulting in at least 15 fatalities. The attack came after the deaths of around 50 people, and the wounding of 100 more, in fighting that took place across the city between government troops and al-Shabaab insurgents. Heavy artillery and anti-aircraft weapons were used by both sides in a dispute that shows the government's increasing powerlessness in the capital and southern regions of Somalia. The rebel group al-Shabaab, for whom al-Qaeda have declared their support, have in recent weeks intensified attacks on government targets in an attempt to overthrow those in power.
General Jones on Afghanistan: "We can't fight with one hand tied behind our back"
The Afghan president Hamid Karzai has once more spoken out against the air strikes used by the US military in his country, blaming them and not his government's purported corruption for the gulf that exists between the two countries. President Karzai indicated that his relationship with US President Barack Obama had not matured to the same level as that of Obama's predecessor, with whom Karzai had had "seven years of a relationship. Tensions have been on the increase with the continued unilateral strikes carried out by the US military in Afghanistan and their high civilian casualties, but on Sunday General James L. Jones, the top US security adviser, said that US airstrikes would continue. American troops in Afghanistan are expected to number more than 60,000 by the end of the year.
Claims that white phosphorus was used during a battle between the US and Taliban insurgents last week in Farah Province are being investigated by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The American military denies the use of the chemical, saying that the death toll of 147 is an exaggeration.
In other news, at least nine people died in two successive suicide attacks in Helmand province which took place near a police station on Monday. Zemarai Bashary, an interior ministry spokesman, blamed the attacks on "the enemies of Afghanistan's people, the terrorists", a euphemism which generally refers to Taliban fighters. The attacks came just one day after the death of seven people at the hands of suicide bombers in the town of Gereshk, also in Helmand province.
Suicide bomb detonated in crowded Baghdad market
A market explosion in Baghdad resulted in the death of 11 people and injured 30 last Wednesday. The suicide bombing took place after a pick-up truck was abandoned at the al-Rasheed market, which is located in the southern Dura area and is one of the largest co-operative produce markets in the Iraqi capital. This attack was the latest in a string of suicide bombings that have been on the increase in the lead-up to US withdrawal from the country. April saw an increase in violence to levels matching those of last September, and indications have come from both American and Iraqi officials that troops may remain in some particularly restive areas even past the withdrawal date.
Hundreds of civilians die as Sri Lanka conflict rages on
Doctors in Sri Lanka tending to the wounded on Sunday reported that over 370 civilians had died after an all-night raid laid waste to areas in the northeastern conflict zone. Attacks on hospital and civilian targets are increasing in this long-enduring conflict, and over the weekend Human Rights Watch condemned the Sri Lankan army for its strikes on hospitals in the conflict zone. Both government officials and representatives of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have blamed Sunday's attack, which left an additional 1100 people injured, on the other party. Whilst the LTTE accused the state military of launching attacks on designated no-fire zones, the government has denied this and turned accusations around on the LTTE who, they say, are responsible for the shelling of Tamil civilian areas in an attempt to implicate the government. Reliability of such claims remains difficult to gauge due to the banning of journalists and humanitarian organisations from the conflict zone.
Diplomatic pressure on Israel mounted this week as Rose Gottemoeller, the US assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance, said at the UN on Tuesday that it was a major goal of the US for Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. On the same day, in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), Vice President Joe Biden called for an unambiguous Israeli commitment to a two-state solution and for a cessation of settlement activity on occupied land.
On Wednesday, Israel dismissed secretary Gottemoeller's comments, saying that the NPT had "proven its ineffectiveness". Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite saying that Israel is ready to begin Israeli-Palestinian peace talks "immediately", has still to publicly endorse a Palestinian state.
The toD verdict: Secretary Gottemoeller's comments at the United Nations were unusual for two reasons. First, it is extremely rare for a United States government officials to offer even oblique criticism of Israeli policy in such a high profile forum. Second, in an almost blasé, assumptive fashion, Gottemoeller reversed long-standing US policy of calculated ambiguity regarding the Israeli nuclear deterrent in referring to the arsenal directly, in a list that included Pakistan and North Korea; these comments were certainly not calculated to please either policy makers in Jerusalem, nor the Israeli lobby back home in the US.
The Israeli lobby's most prominent caucus, AIPAC, found no cause for comfort from the Vice President. "You're not going to like me saying this," said Biden before calling for Israeli support for a two-state solution and an end to all settlement activity. Although he sweetened his comments by referring to the United State's "non-negotiable" commitment to Israel's security and the threat of Iran, Benjamin Netanyahu's studied elusiveness regarding the idea of a Palestinian state has now been thrown into sharp relief.
It is too early to be sure, but in these two events it seems possible to discern a new, firmer attitude in Washington toward its key ally in the middle east, in stark contrast to the uncritical stance that underpinned the relationship during the Bush administration. With Israel already under fire from the UN over its conduct in Gaza and its land policies in Bethlehem, the prospect of the United States joining, to a degree, with other voices in the international community to limit the excesses of a right-leaning Israeli government at last seems possible.
Biden's AIPAC speech below
Violence in Chad threatens refugees
Fighting between Chad government forces and rebels puts at risk humanitarian relief aimed at tens of thousands of refugees and displaced persons in the country, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Friday. Ron Redmond told reporters that the UNHCR had moved 18 of its staff away from the conflict zone in Koukou Angarana where 22,000 refugees from Darfur and 60,000 other displaced persons are based.
Key Singapore terrorist apprehended
It was reported on Friday that Mas Selamat Kastari, the suspected Singaporean leader of terrorst group Jemaah Islamiah, has been rearrested after spending more than a year on the run. Kastari, who escaped from a Singpore detention centre in February 2008, was arrested in Johor, a state in southern Malaysia, in a joint operation between Singaporean and Malaysian security forces. Jemaah Islamiah are a terrorist group with al-Qaeda links who are thought to be behind the 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia, which left 200 people dead.
North Korea defiant as US threatens "consequences"
Stephen Bosworth, the US special envoy to the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, warned on Friday that the communist state will face consequences if it goes ahead with a second nuclear test. However, he was forced to concede that there was little anyone could do to prevent the test altogether. Speaking after a meeting in Seoul with South Korea's foreign minister, Bosworth said that "we can't control...what North Korea does". At the same time, a spokesman from the DPRK Foreign Ministry said that North Korea would continue to bolster its nuclear deterrent, saying that "the US hostile policy towards the DPRK remains unchanged."
British and American Troops killed in heavy Afghan combat
In what was the most lethal day for UK armed forces in Afghanistan for two months, on Thursday four British troops were killed in Helmand province. The deaths, which occurred in three separate incidents, bring the total British death toll in Afghnaistan since 2001 to 157. According to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), at least sixteen Afghan civilians also died in the attacks with more than thirty being wounded.
In a separate attack on Friday, five foreign troops, including three Americans and two Latvians, were killed in northeast Afghanistan. According to American military spokeswoman, Captain Elizabeth Mathias, the attack occurred in Kunar province near the Pakistan border.Keep up to date with the latest developments and sharpest perspectives in a world of strife and struggle. Sign up to receive toD's daily security briefings via email by clicking here
Afghan president Hamid Karzai met US president Barack Obama and Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari today, voicing angry protest at the "unjustifiable and unacceptable" US airstrike in Farah province suspected to have killed over 100 people, mostly civilians. In Farah itself, shots were fired and the government offices stoned, wounding several people including local officials. In the Swat Valley neighbouring Afghanistan, meanwhile, Pakistan's own airforce has provoked criticism and fears of a major humanitarian disaster following continued bombing raids.
The toD verdict: Since its inception, the use of airpower for ground assault has divided opinion on its political and military effectiveness. This latest phase in its application, to the so-called "Af-Pak war" with Taliban and other militants, has done little to allay the controversy.
The attacks at Farah are only the latest and grandest in a series of US airstrikes which the UN estimated to have caused the vast majority of the 828 civilian deaths at the hands of US forces in 2008. US military representatives claimed the attack was ordered by Afghani forces and vetted by their command, but an on-the-spot enquiry was launched and Secretary of State Clinton announced that US officials "deeply regret" civilian deaths.
Meanwhile, Pakistan, which had also criticised US use of airstrikes, has employed similar tactics on a huge scale. Thousands of people fled the Swat Valley after army ground operations were joined by air-raids after the local truce with Islamist militants in the region brokedown on Wednesday. Aid agencies fear that up to 800,000 people, half the Swat population, may be forced to flee the region, numbers sufficient to prompt a humanitarian crisis and induce further strains on the country's fragile economy. The UN High Commission on Refugees has already begun dispatching aid to the region and cooperated with Pakistani authorities in establishing camps for those escaping the fighting.
The greatest fallout of the airstrikes however may be political; the Taliban will try to capitalise on any impression that Zardari has bowed to US pressure. Civilian suffering at government hands may increase sympathy for the insurgents.
Presidents Karzai and Zardari are trapped between pressure from the US and domestic public opinion. Their survival in office depends on a dangerous tightrope walk, faced with either losing crucial US military support against enemies of their regimes and alienating popular opinion and empowering violent opposition. Despite US claims that meetings in Washington today were a success and that the parties had "reaffirmed their commitment" to a common plan, these fundamental tensions seem inescapable without a radical change in the tactics of the Af-Pak counter-insurgency.
BBC video below:
Israeli army and Palestinian militants exchange fire
Sporadic violence broke out today in Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli air force wounded four people in strikes on smuggling tunnels in the Gaza strip after mortar bombs launched from Gaza struck a field in Israel. Meanwhile, in the West Bank town of Bir Zeit, an Israeli soldier was killed in a raid, possibly in a friendly fire incident. In Israel itself, a Palestinian was shot dead approaching a shrine holy to both Muslims and Jews in Hebron. Israeli military police claimed he had defied orders to halt and evaded a checkpoint but they could not report whether he was armed.
Israeli military measures have been subject to UN criticism in recent days, blaming its occupation for economic stagnation and restrictions to Palestinian freedom of movement in and around Bethlehem, and criticising attacks on UN buildings during Israeli operations in Gaza last December.
US will not waver, Arab allies told
US defence secretary Robert Gates visited Egypt and Saudi Arabia in recent days to reassure the longstanding allies that detente with Iran will not damage either nation's privileged partnership with the US. Gates dismissed the idea of a comprehensive settlement with Iran as "very remote", but the Gulf Cooperation Council still found it necessary to plead that US peace feelers "will not come at our expense". Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are particularly anxious at the prospect of increased Iranian power, fearing the possibility of Iranian-instigated subversion among their Shia populations as well as Iran's more traditional military threat.
Attempts to improve Russia-US relations founder on Georgian rocks
Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov meets US president Barack Obama today in attempt to patch up the countries' frayed relations, but in Georgia a proxy conflict still smoulders. Today a scheduled meeting between Georgia and representatives of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was cancelled. Yesterday, Russia and NATO engaged in tit-for-tat measures with the expulsion of two NATO diplomats from Moscow and two Russians from NATO HQ in Brussels. On Tuesday Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili triumphantly claimed to have crushed an allegedly Russian-backed army mutiny, dispatching a tank regiment to a military base twenty miles east of Tbilisi.
Last night, the US-supported government was again on the defensive as opposition groups mounted a violent protest outside a police station in the capital in which dozens of protestors and six police officers were wounded. Around 3,000 opponents of the government later reconvened in parliament square, protesting at the continued detention of three fellow activists. The actions coincide with controversial NATO military exercises held in the country, which Russia had denounced as an unnecessary provocation.
Rare US critique of Israeli nuclear capacity
Rose Gottemoeller, an Assistant Secretary of State and the US's chief nuclear negotiator, included Israel in roll-call of states whose adherence to the Non Proliferation Treaty is "a fundamental objective of the United States". The speech breaks with traditional ambiguity from both sides in the Israeli-US partnership. Shimon Peres meanwhile stoked fears of a pre-emptive Israeli strike if Iran defies its commitment to the NPT. Speaking to Jewish leaders in New York, he promised not to "cross out any other options" should talks fail to halt Iranian nuclear activity.
Government intensifies public relations offensive in Sri Lanka conflict
The Sri Lankan military posted a video on its website today purporting to show Tamil fighters in civilian dress forcing civilians to help in their war-effort. Independent reporting from the war zone is hampered by the barring of journalists from areas of intense fighting. The posting seems to be an attempt to deflect criticism for heavy civilian casualties, estimated at 6,500 in the last three months alone. The government has come under international fire for the alleged artillery bombardments of civilian safe-zones, with the most recent demands for an immediate ceasefire coming from the UN, a request so far ignored. Trading in accusations and recriminations has done little to help the estimated 200,000 people displaced by the conflict.Keep up to date with the latest developments and sharpest perspectives in a world of strife and struggle. Sign up to receive toD's daily security briefings via email by clicking here
Gordon Brown is in Pakistan today amid expanding military operations against Taliban-controlled areas of the country, which somewhat fulfill his claim that the region is the "crucible of terrorism". Despite rumours that President Asif Ali Zardari snubbed the British Prime Minister by delegating today's press conference to his premier Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, both emphasised unity in the face of a common threat. Brown pledged £10 million in military aid and training for Pakistani forces and highlighted the security concerns arising from Britain's large Pakistani population.
The toD verdict: Brown's arrival in Pakistan could hardly have been better timed, as a major confrontation intensifies between government and Taliban forces. Pakistan escalated its offensive today launching air strikes against suspected hideouts in the Buner district that killed over 70 people while heavy fighting in Lower Dir caused 30,000 people to flee their homes. Although military officials claimed operations were enforcing breaches in its peace treaty with Pakistani Taliban, there is an obvious danger that fighting will spread and develop into an all-out civil war. A spokesman for the militant group Tehrik-e-Nifaaz Shariat Muhammadi, which suspended peace negotiations yesterday in protest, warned of a "storm" across Pakistan if the government did not halt its offensive.
While the action has been welcomed in many quarters in Britain and answers continued US calls for tougher domestic policy, Pakistan may find itself facing criticism akin to accusations it levelled against the US for its repeated aerial assaults against suspected Taliban targets in the northwestern border regions. Pakistan may, instead of pacifying its frontiers, embroil itself in a heightened conflict while losing the vital support of the population among which the Taliban militia operate. Keep up to date with the latest developments and sharpest perspectives in a world of strife and struggle. Sign up to receive toD's daily security briefings via email by clicking here
Three killed in Turkish police raids across Istanbul
Sixty separate raids against radical leftist and Islamist groups conducted across Istanbul last night left one militant, a senior police officer and a 16-year-old bystander dead. The casualties occurred as one police raid against Revolutionary Headquarters, a far-left organisation, degenerated into a six-hour-long firefight. Turkish media criticised the operations for a lack of preparation and for delays in cordoning off or evacuating the surrounding area, resulting in the shooting of a TV journalist who strayed too close to the fighting. Seven police officers were also injured in the raid, which marks the latest instalment in a violent struggle with the Turkish left going back to the foundation of the modern state in 1922.
Hospital patients fall victim to Fatah-Hamas rivalry
Gazans with serious illnesses are some of the most recent victims of rivalry between Hamas and Fatah. The West Bank's Fatah government have withheld funds from a medical referral committee since it was taken over by Hamas officials on 22 March. The committee was responsible for arranging medical treatment abroad for sick Gazans, and its suspension has so far resulted in the death of eight Palestinians awaiting treatment in Israel and Egypt and the continued suffering of the approximate 1,000 patients referred abroad every month.
An Egyptian crackdown on smuggling into the Gaza strip has placed further strain on the war-torn territory. Reuters' sources estimate that up to 4/5 of crossborder activity has been curtailed since Israeli operations in Gaza began in December 2008 and shortages of consumer and goods and fuel are now reported.
Gaza's economic and physical health now depends on ongoing unity talks between Fatah and Hamas which were resumed in Cairo on Monday. Mushir el-Masri, a senior Hamas official, indicated in a press statement today that Hamas would "listen carefully to all suggestions and ideas that might end the current rift". Meanwhile, the US appeared to be sending mixed messages regarding the possibility of a unity government. Secretary of State Clinton promised on Thursday that no "entity controlled by Hamas" would receive US aid just as the Obama administration proposed legal changes to Congress which conditionally permit the distribution of aid in the event of a coalition government.
Aid workers released by Somali captors
A Belgian doctor and Dutch nurse working for Medecins Sans Frontiers were released on Tuesday after nine days in the captivity of Somali gunmen. Their captors are thought to be local residents, unaffiliated with the Islamist al-Shabab group that controls the area where they were captured and ordered their unconditional release. The incident confirms Somalia's place as one of the most dangerous countries for humanitarian work, with 35 aid workers killed in 2008 and 26 abducted. Nevertheless, the country remains in desperate need of support, with half the population thought to require food-aid.
Tide turns against Somali pirates
Yemeni special forces yesterday succeeded in retaking a hijacked oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden, capturing nine pirates and killing three others. Yemeni raids successfully recaptured two further vessels in a series of rare victories against piracy in the region. In a separate incident, pirates who launched a failed bid to capture an Italian cruiseship were fought-off by private security guards before being captured by a Spanish war ship and detained on the Seychelles islands.
Snub to Swedish foreign minister provokes EU diplomatic clash with Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan government prevented Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt from joining his British and French counterparts in a peace mission to the conflict stricken country. The mission signalled growing international pressure for a ceasefire, supported by the UN and EU since Monday. Europe has protested angrily at the measures, which were labelled "lamentable" by the Foreign Minister of Czech Republic, currently holding the EU presidency. Sweden has a long history of brokership in international conflict and helped monitor the now lapsed ceasefire between the government and Tamil Tigers from 2002 to 2006. The nation has withdrawn its ambassador from Colombo in response to the diplomatic affront.
A US raid in the predominantly Shia city of Kut in southern Iraq before dawn on Sunday has been denounced as a "crime" by the country's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
The toD verdict: According to US officials the raid, which killed two civilians, was aimed at Shia insurgents and approved by the Iraqi government. However, the government slammed the operation as a violation of the security pact between the two countries, and hundreds of people protested against the action. The pact states that Iraqi consent must be gained for all military operations, and under it US soldiers are immune for prosecution except crimes committed off-duty. Iraqi officials have asked for those responsible to be handed over and dealt with in their courts. The Kut provincial police chief, Raed Shakir Jawdat, said he was unaware that the raid was to take place.
Elsewhere in Iraq, two suicide explosions on Friday killed at least 60 people and injured 125 in Baghdad. Bombings the day before resulted in 90 fatalities, the highest death toll that the country has seen in a single day this year. Friday's attack targeted worshippers and funeral-goers on their way to mosque.
The United Nations has denounced the renewed violence in Iraq, which could have adverse implications for US President Barack Obama's plans to withdraw troops from the country's cities by July this year, a policy which is directly linked to increased involvement in the war in Afghanistan.
War and peace in Pakistan
The Pakistani military began a campaign in Lower Dir on Sunday, in an attempt to combat Taliban forces in the regions surrounding the Swat Valley. Despite Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's concessions in February to Taliban groups over the implementation of Sharia law in Swat, his government is determined that Taliban control will not spread outside its current boundaries. On the first day of the operation, government reports claimed that "scores" of militants had already been killed and, while these figures remain unconfirmed, independent witnesses report intense exchanges of gunfire in the area.
Head of US central command General David Petraeus has criticised the Pakistani government for its dealings with Taliban insurgents. However, Stephen M. Walt argues in Foreign Policy that the dangers more likely lies in an anti-American "inside job" rather than with Taliban militants. He criticises the unilateral drone attacks carried out by the US, the most recent of which killed five people in South Waziristan on Sunday.
Despite the launch of the new military operation, the peace deal inside the Swat Valley itself is supposedly still intact. A rally for peace which took place in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday attracted thousands of people, including important public and political figures.
Kurdish separatists attack Iranian police bases
Eleven Iranian police officers and 10 men, reportedly members of the Kurdish resistance group Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), were killed when violence broke out in the west of the country on Friday night. Official reports claim that fighting started at a police station in Ravansar town after it was invaded by PJAK rebels, a group which is associated with the Turkish Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), which has been involved in the violent struggle for Kurdish independence since 1984. The following day, another police base in Kordestan province was attacked by insurgents, resulting in the death of one police officer. Iran's western regions share a border with Iraq and house a large number of Iranian Kurds.
Last Thursday, an Iranian police officer was killed in an unrelated incident when he and a colleague crossed the Afghan border, despite warnings against doing so.
Ethnic violence kills hundreds in Sudan
Ethnic violence erupted in southern Sudan over the weekend between the Murle and Lou Nuer tribes, in what was thought to be a retaliatory action for Murle theft of cattle early in the year. The clashes broke out in Jonglei state, and at least 177 people had been killed by Sunday, with the expected final death toll set at over 300. The weekend's violence was the worst seen in the area since fighting in March killed over 450. The UN is set to travel to the region early this week to help pacify the situation and provide humanitarian support. The French oil giant Total has continued its operations in Sudan, Africa's sixth-largest oil producer, despite the unstable situation.
Protestors turn against Madagascar's new president
Protestors in Madagascar ignored a ban on demonstrations last Thursday to register their opposition to the new government, led by Andry Rajoelina, and their support for the ousted president Marc Ravalomanana. Public rallies were banned on Tuesday following the death of at least three people, including a police officer, the previous day at the hands of government troops. Thursday's protests, which saw the use of tear gas and warning shots to repel the crowds, resulted in around 36 casualties and at least four arrests. Ravalomanana, following his forced resignation in March when soldiers stormed his offices, has been forced into exile..
Sri Lankan government calls LTTE ceasefire proposal a "joke"
The Sri Lankan government categorically rejected the ceasefire proposal put in place by the rebel group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on Sunday. The LTTE offered a ceasefire in response to what they called "an unprecedented humanitarian crisis", however Mahinda Rajapaksa's government called it a "gimmick" and said that the conflict could only end when their opponents surrendered.
The LTTE have lost much ground in past months of fighting, and it has been suggested that the ceasefire proposal is just a way of stalling while they regroup. Representatives of the Sri Lankan army have reported continued Tamil fighting, and indeed the UN said that the mass exodus of civilians that would be expected if some kind of temporary peace had been implemented has not occurred. LTTE spokespeople claim that the Sri Lankan government is responsible for continued violence and that unilateral bombings have continued despite their efforts to secure a ceasefire. Independent access to the crisis zone is still forbidden, thus rendering the transmission of accurate information impossible. According to UN figures, around 6,500 refugees have died in the recent fighting.
Dick Cheney today entered the political fray over the US use of torture, demanding the CIA release classified information proving the "success" of interrogation techniques, which, he claimed, yielded "good" intelligence. These demands follow President Barack Obama's declassification of memos proving Bush administration approval of several methods, including waterboarding, which it did not classify as illegal torture because it was not "cruel, inhuman or degrading", a release Cheney has condemned as partial and "disturbing". Recent revelations have unearthed that one suspect, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was subjected to waterboarding 183 times and another, Abu Zubayadah, 83 times.
The toD verdict: Obama attempted to minimise controversy and put the American debate on the use of torture behind him, offering concessions such as granting amnesty to CIA operatives and refusing moves to prosecute members of the previous administration, but these efforts now seem certain to fail. Obama wanted to "acknowledge" mistakes and then "move forward", he reassured the CIA during a visit yesterday.
Republicans meanwhile seem likely to continue playing the patriot card. The claim that Democrats and other left-leaning Americans are unpatriotic and do not stand behind the country's armed forces and intelligence services is age-old. Cheney continued the tradition, calling on Obama "to stand up and aggressively defend America's interests". They may find further ammunition should the release of information lead to foreign moves to prosecute US nationals or bring further intelligence to light on the issue, a development which would seemingly set in opposition US interests and outside pressure, which Obama may be accused of kick-starting.
The White House clearly foresaw the potential of a Republican backlash, but its measures to allay the fears of the American right, such as the call for "reflection, not retribution", have provoked accusations of a whitewash from many of the president's supporters on the left. Thankfully, however, it seems that no matter what the future intensity of the debate in the US, the country will discontinue the abhorrent practice of torture.
Dozens killed as vigilantes tackle Kenyan mafia
Vigilante groups armed with machetes, stones, axes and clubs killed over 24 people in pursuit of the Mungiki religious sect across central Kenya last night. The Mungiki, a religious turned criminal organisation, was banned in 2002 for extortion and its own brand of rough justice; a series of beheadings that prompted a police crackdown now taken into public hands. The night of violence follows days of vigilante action in the region during which one hundred alleged Mungiki members have been publically lynched. Three students and an 83-year-old man were among the victims of the man-hunt which vigilantes claim is endorsed by local police.
South and North unite for Korean talks
South Korean envoys arrived in North Korea today for the first formal talks after President Lee Myung-bak took office over a year ago with the promise of a hard-line stance against North Korea. Since then, the situation in the region has deteriorated considerably, particularly with the internationally-condemned launch of a test missile by North Korea on 5 April. The two delegations were due to meet at Gaeseong industrial plant, a rare cooperative project between North and South and one threatened by worsening relations. The delegates, however, were forced to postpone negotiations following a dispute over where to convene the meeting, an indication of the far greater uneasiness these talks intend to allay.
Victory for Turkish nationalists threatens Cypriot reunification
The victory of the hard-line National Unity Party in Northern Cyprus polls on Sunday has upset recent progress towards the reunification of the divided island. The party's leader Dervis Eroglu, said that a unified Cyprus should not be the North's only goal. Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan today warned the new government against breaking off or changing the terms of the ongoing reunification talks, which were in turn precipitated by the victory of the Communist Greek Cypriot president Demetris Christofias last year.
Russia threatens walkout of NATO talks
Russia's relations with the west are again under strain over Georgia and the breakaway region of South Ossetia. The Russian-backed South Ossetian authority today detained two of the twenty OSCE monitors patrolling the Georgian side of the border for a "provocative" and illegal incursion into South Ossetian territory, it claimed. After several hours the pair were released. A similar incident occurred last February during which two monitors were also captured and later released.
The tensions parallel developments on the international stage where Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday condemned NATO's "dangerous decision" to hold military exercises in Georgia next month. Russia escalated their protests yesterday threatening to call off a forthcoming summit of senior military figures if NATO did not adequately respond to Russia's objections.
China revives gunboat diplomacy
The Chinese Navy's deputy in command, Vice Adm. Ding Yiping, promised to reveal the nation's latest sea-borne military hardware on Thursday as part of the fleet's 60th anniversary celebrations. The newly unveiled vessels will include its latest generation of nuclear submarines, so far hidden from public view, and possibly newly acquired aircraft carriers, all of which are feared to be part of a Chinese bid for technical parity with the US and Russia. China disputes the control of several islands, not least Taiwan, in neighbouring waters and has clashed on the issue with the Philipinnes, Vietnam and Japan. The admiralty and Chinese state media have, however, stressed international cooperation as China's goal, highlighting its recent contribution to policing the Somali coast.Keep up to date with the latest developments and sharpest perspectives in a world of strife and struggle. Sign up to receive toD's daily security briefings via email by clicking here
The Russian battle against Chechen nationalists ended last Thursday with the announcement by the government in Moscow that they were making efforts to "normalise" the situation, a move that could lead to the removal of thousands of troops from the area.
The toD verdict: The decade-long "counter-terrorism operation" was terminated by Dmitry Medvedev's government after they asserted that they had defeated militant and terrorist groups and brought peace to Chechnya, which initially declared independence from Russia in 1991. Conflict in the federal region broke out three years after, resulting in over 100,000 deaths and laying waste to many areas, particularly the southern regions bordering Georgia. In 1999, Vladimir Putin, then prime minister, set up the operation to target illegal armed groups.
The pro-Russian Ramzan Kadyrov, current president of Chechnya, is frequently condemned by human rights groups for alleged abuses perpetrated by his government, including torture, executions and "disappearings". Despite Russian claims that Chechnya has stabilised, dissent continues to be ruthlessly squashed. A visit last week to a Chechen prison by the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, revealed the use of systematic torture.
Despite the removal of Russian troops from Chechnya, police and special forces will remain in the territory. But from now on, 16 April will be celebrated as a public holiday.
Obama may be misplacing emphasis on Afghanistan
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, John Mueller points to the "dubious arguments" used by the United States government in their justifications for intensifying the war in Afghanistan. US officials believe that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan could provide al-Qaeda with a safety zone in which the terrorist group could renew anti-American strikes. However, the author points out that the Taliban's cooperation with al-Qaeda has been threadbare at best. The humanitarian motives of the war, urgent and compelling, are increasingly emerging as the only viable explanation. It remains to be seen whether these are pressing enough to encourage the US to ramp up its military operations in the country and to justify the many deaths these will no doubt involve.
Abuses committed by Hamas "Under Cover of War"
A report released on Monday by Human Rights Watch, entitled "Under Cover of War: Hamas Political Violence in Gaza", has condemned Hamas for their use of political coercion, including summary executions, which resulted in over 32 deaths since the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza. The report is based on research provided by human rights organisations in Palestine, and documents extra-judicial killings, torture and executions, maimings and arbitrary detention all carried out by masked gunman or Hamas security forces. In reply to the report's allegations, Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas representative, said that many of the alleged abuses were impossible to control during the Israeli operation in Gaza because of the chaos introduced into the region.
However, his claims are undermined by evidence that killings continued well into the ceasefire period. The victims of these charges included members of Fatah, which itself has been responsible for the persecution of Hamas members in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. Human Rights Watch has called for an end to these violations of human rights and for the perpetrators, who remain largely unpunished, to be held accountable.
Arrest of third ETA leader in six months could pave the way for peace
The Spanish Interior Minister, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, has claimed that Saturday's arrest of Jurdan Martitegi, assumed to be the principal military director of the Basque separatist organisation ETA, had scuppered a planned operation by the rebels. Martitegi, the third high ranking ETA official to have been detained in six months, was arrested in south west France along with two other members of the organisation. The Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, was optimistic on Sunday that the fight against terrorism in the Basque Country was one that his government could win. ETA are reported to be considering the reopening of peace negotiations, suspended since a temporary ceasefire was called off in 2007. Recent regional elections in the Basque country resulted in a victory for the Socialist party against the Basque nationalists, who have exercised control over the region for almost 30 years.
Women and children main victims of US strikes in Iraq
A study released by Iraq Body Count has revealed that women and children are the main victims of air strikes carried out in the country by the US army, with 85 percent of identifiable bodies in this demographic. The study drew upon a sample of over 60,000 deaths since the country's invasion in 2003, just two-thirds of the estimated total of civilian casualties caused by violence in Iraq.
In other news, a suicide bomb detonated last Thursday at the Anbar military base wounded scores of people, resulting in an unconfirmed total of 16 deaths.
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said on Thursday that the United States is ready to talk to Cuba. Speaking the day before the Summit of the Americas, which will be attended by the representatives of 34 nations, excluding Cuba, Clinton went on to say that any such dialogue is likely to be dependent on improvements in openness and democracy in the one-party island state. Earlier in the week, President Barack Obama eased certain restrictions of the embargo on the island, in place now for 47 years.
The toD verdict: A key plank in Obama's foreign policy in his first term will be the rescuing of relations between the US and the other American nations from the nadir reached during the Bush administration. The Summit of the Americas due to be held on 17-19 April could be a pivotal moment in this process. In the days leading up to the conference, however, it has become clear that the lifting of the Cold War-era trade embargo will be a vital step in the rehabilitation of Cuba.
Speaking after talks with Clinton on Thursday, Haitian President Rene Preval may well have been speaking for many other stakeholders when he called for the lifting of the embargo and the inclusion of Cuba at subsequent summits between the American countries. Clinton's caveats at this point make it uncertain whether a breakthrough in this key area is imminent. However, the decline in recent years of the anti-Castro lobby's influence in Washington's halls of power, combined with the more conciliatory approach taken by the Obama administration in regards to foreign policy, may make this summit the best chance in nearly fifty years for Cuba to be brought in from the cold.
Foreign nationals implicated as Bolivian assassination plot thwarted
According to Bolivian security forces, an attempt on the life of Bolivian President Evo Morales was foiled on Thursday. Three alleged conspirators were killed and two arrested in a gun battle with police that took place in a hotel in the city of Santa Cruz. According to Bolivian police Chief Hugo Escobar, the dead included two Hungarians. Speaking in Venezuela, where he is holding talks with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, President Morales also said that an Irish citizen may be involved. Alvaro Garcia, the vice-president, and another cabinet minister were also reportedly targets of the plot.
Thai crisis continues as "Yellow Shirt" leader shot
Sondhi Limthongkul, the leader of the People's Alliance of Democracy, has been shot and injured in Bangkok while travelling in car in the early hours on Friday. Nick-named the "Yellow Shirts" because of their apparel, the PAD's demonstrations in 2006 led to the downfall of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his replacement by Abhisit Vejjajiva. Shinawatra's own "Red Shirt" supporters have been behind the recent demonstrations against Vejjajiva, though he himself has denied actively instigating the unrest.
The attempted assassination of Limthongkul, who is now out of danger after a successful operation, will almost certainly spark fears that the violence in Thailand, which looked to be abating with the surrender of red shirt leaders to police on Tuesday, may soon be rekindled.
China to stress "naval preparedness"
In an interview with China's Xinhua News Agency, People's Liberation Army Navy commander Wu Shengli has said that China's Navy needs to boost its ability to fight in regional seas. Listing plans to acquire "large surface ships" and "supersonic cruise aircraft", Wu also said that plans are in place to incorporate "non-military" options into the PLAN's abilities, including large scale rescue and off-shore construction.
The mention of "large surface ships" may be a reference to China's acquisition of its first aircraft carrier, long postponed for budgetary reasons. The acquisition of an aircraft carrier is considered by many military analysts to be a sine qua non for the defence of China's interests in the contested waters of the South China Sea, including its disputes with Japan over the Ryuku Islands and several other nations over the potentially oil-rich Spratly archipelago.
Indian voters undaunted by terrorist violence
In the first day of voting in the Indian elections, Naxalite insurgents have killed at least eighteen people, including seven paramilitary troops and a policeman. The attacks took place in three restive states: Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhattisgarh. Despite this, voter turnout has been steady with millions of Indians going to the polls. The overall turnout rate is estimated to be over 50 percent. In this, the world's most populous democracy, 714 million people are eligible to vote.
Amnesty for CIA operatives implicated in torture
On Thursday, the US Justice Department made public memos detailing so-called "enhanced" interrogation methods used on suspected members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations during the Bush administration. These techniques, which many authorities, including current US attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr, consider to constitute illegal torture, included sleep deprivation, placing detainees in stress positions and waterboarding.
However, Obama has resisted calls for an independent inquiry into the CIA's activities, saying that "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past." Although he has banned the use of such measures, the president has said that CIA operatives who carried out such activities in the past will be exempt from prosecution.
The red shirted protestors, who for three weeks caused widespread disruption and prompted a state of emergency in the name of constitutional reform, abandoned their stronghold at Government House in Bangkok yesterday. Four senior leaders of the movement loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra surrendered to police today, amid signs that anti-government protest, for the present at least, was subsiding. Thai courts issued arrest warrants for thirteen leaders of the movement, including the exiled Shinawatra, an indication that the government has little intention of an amnesty in the wake of the protests.
The toD verdict: While the cessation of the violence which has left two dead and over 120 injured can only be welcomed, it seems the underlying political deadlock in the country remains unresolved. Leaders of the protest promised to continue their struggle and claimed they had only called-off the siege to save lives after soldiers breached the ring of protesters around Government House ending a three week stand-off. Today's warrants exemplify the repressive powers of a state long troubled by domestic unrest, charging leaders with the assembly of more than ten people, an illegal offence punishable by up to five years in prison.
Media coverage of the crisis seems to have done little to penetrate the essentially political roots of the conflict, instead focusing on the drama of confrontation and the plight of western tourists. The recent struggle in Thailand has largely crystallised along class lines, ranging supporters of a traditionalist triumvirate of monarchy, army and religion, supported by business interests and the wealthy, against urban and agrarian poor. With the ascendancy of either side to electoral office, direct action has been favoured to topple the government.
The military coup against Shinawatra in 2006, the toppling of a Shinawatra sympathetic government by Yellow Shirt protests at Bangkok airport and recent events all suggest that the constitutional system is unable to peacefully contain such a polarised political spectrum. Controversy in Thailand is focused on the impartiality of the supposedly neutral establishment in these colour clashes between red and yellow movements, with alleged discrepancies between the army's inaction over the airport occupation and its latest violent clashes with protestors.
North Korea will boycott talks and resume nuclear production
North Korea today vowed to restart nuclear facilities it was in the process of decommissioning and refused to participate in the international talks that seemed, until 5 April's provocative missile test, to be making progress. The moves were taken in response to a UN Security Council statement condemning the missile launch, a measure of international hostility that left the country "no choice but to further strengthen our nuclear deterrent" according to statements released through North Korean state media.
Three further hijackings off Somali coast
As one hostage crisis drew to a close in the Gulf of Aden with the rescue of US merchant captain Richard Phillips, three further vessels were captured by Somali pirates. Pirates succeeded in boarding two Egyptian fishing boats and a large Filippino-crewed Greek container ship hours after US president Barack Obama promised at a news conference on Monday to renew efforts to halt the scourge of piracy. US plans could include the stationing of gunboats along the Somali coast and the pursuit of "mother ships" from which crews of pirates operate.
Ceasefire proposals rejected in Sri Lankan conflict
Tamil Tigers rejected the government's unilateral 48-hour halt in fighting and instead called for an indefinite ceasefire which included "a base for political negotiations". The government immediately dismissed the counterproposal, demanding that negotiations could only take place once the Tamils had laid down their arms and capitulated. The only certain outcome of the continued deadlock is that, despite the brief reprieve in fighting, more civilians will suffer.
Military grip tightens on Fiji
Fiji is on the brink of full-blown military dictatorship today as military forces occupied the central bank, clamped down on press freedom and expelled foreign journalists. Several newspapers which have had military censors appointed to editorial boards have refused to publish political stories in protest at the measures. The governments of Australia and New Zealand warned that Fiji's military chief, Frank Bainimarama, faced sanctions if he did not relent. The small island nation also faces expulsion from the Pacific Island Forum, having been suspended from the Commonwealth since 2006.