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US military personnel killed in Pakistan school blast

US military personnel die in bomb blast in Pakistan as a record rise in drone attacks and militancy grips the country. Pressure mounts on Israel to hold inquiry into Gaza war. Iran test-fires satellite rocket. Sudanese president may face genocide charges. Suicide attack kills 20 in Iraq. All this and more in today’s security briefing.
Rukeyya Khan
3 February 2010

A bomb blast in northwest Pakistan killed at least ten people on Wednesday, including three US soldiers and many children near a girls school. Local police said around 70 people, including 63 school girls and a US soldier were injured in the bombing in Lower Dir.

The US military personnel tasked with training Pakistan's Frontier Corps in counter-insurgency operations were traveling in a convoy with local troops, journalists and officials to the opening ceremony of a girls' school when the bomb exploded. News of the deaths of US soldiers is likely to embarrass the Pakistani government who have played down the American role in training Pakistani forces to avoid falling prey to rampant anti-American sentiment in the country. The Taliban have claimed responsibility for the bombing and have threatened more attacks.

The openSecurity verdict: Today's attack comes a week after the state-run Pakistan Television reported that Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, had died of injuries sustained in a drone attack last month. On Sunday, Pakistan's military said it was investigating the matter though the Taliban have denied that their leader has died. Speculative reports have since been surfacing of Mehsud's burial in the Orakzai tribal agency though there has been no firm confirmation so far. Analysts have said that if confirmed, Mehsud's death will deal a serious blow to the militants, who have already lost their base in South Waziristan, but is unlikely to prevent them from regrouping and continuing their attacks.

Today’s blast represents a significant victory for the Taliban after months of increasing drone attacks and appears to be the first time American soldiers have been killed in such an attack in Pakistan, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). The bombing in Lower Dir is also indicative of how far from victory the Pakistani army is. The Dir region is home to conservative Pashtun tribes, where religious leaders wield considerable influence. Although the army launched a campaign in spring 2009 to clear the area of militancy, many remain sympathetic to the Taliban’s cause in both Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan and their aim of establishing an Islamist system of governance.

The conflict in Pakistan is not restricted to South Waziristan alone. Lately, the Pakistani army has been pounding Taliban bases in the Bajaur agency. Yesterday, the army claimed to have captured a major Taliban base and said they were advancing on the militants' main training area in the Damadola district of Bajaur. The neighbouring Khyber agency has also experienced heavy fighting, as militants have sought to attack supplies being transported to NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Currently, there is a peace agreement between militants and the Pakistani government in North Waziristan though this too is under strain. Yesterday a US predator drones killed up to 30 people and wounded many more after missiles rained down on the Dattakhel village in the Degan area of North Waziristan. One of the strikes is believed to have targeted Sirajuddin Haqqani, though a commander in the Haqqani network said he was alive and not in the area at the time of the attack. Militants in North Waziristan have reportedly warned the Pakistani government that they will retaliate if it violates the peace treaty that is currently in place in the region. US officials however have been keen to see Pakistan expand its campaign to North Waziristan, a region the US views as the bastion of al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network, known for attacking US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Critics of the drone attacks have accused the US of exacerbating tensions and expanding the war, rather than seeking a lasting long-term political settlement in the region. Analysts have pointed out that a surge in drone attacks by the US are seeking to avenge a suicide attack in December on a CIA base in Khost province in Afghanistan, in which several top agents were killed. Citing interior ministry data, Pakistani newspapers say there were twelve missile strikes in January fired by the unmanned Predator and Reaper planes, the highest for any single month. The highest number of attacks in a month stood at six previously, which was in December 2009, while there were just two strikes in January 2009. This week, it emerged that the US is seeking the budget to enhance drone operations by up to 75 percent.

The heavy collateral damage sustained in such drone attacks has prompted many to question their effectiveness. The Pakistani newspaper The News reported that in January 2010 alone, 123 civilians and just three al-Qaeda leaders were killed - a ratio of forty-one to one. The high civilian toll and the subsequent instability fostered by such attacks is seen by some analysts as the primary cause of rising anti-American sentiments in Pakistan.

Critics claim the drone attacks are self-effacing – as increased attacks only make the Pakistanis angrier at the sustained violation of their sovereignty. An expansion of the drone campaign beyond the tribal areas, into neighbouring Balochistan, a region host to a strong secular separatist movement, as is under discussion, could spark an even wider backlash and expand the theatre of war such that it might become unsustainable for Pakistan to contain.

Pressure mounts on Israel to hold inquiry into Gaza war 

Israel's government is facing fresh calls for an independent inquiry into the military's conduct during the Gaza war. The senior Israeli military legal officer during the Gaza crisis has said an inquiry is needed to ward off attempted international prosecutions against Israeli officials, though he does not believe the military committed grave breaches of international law, as argued by a key UN investigation and rights groups.

On Wednesday, The Independent reported a high-ranking Israeli officer's acknowledgement that the Israeli Defense Force chose to risk civilians in Gaza in order to protect its soldiers during Operation Cast Lead. The IDF officer claimed that the traditional 'means and intentions' engagement principle - stating that a suspect must have both a weapon and a visible intent to use it before being fired at - was discarded during Israel's Gaza incursion in late 2008 and early 2009. One of Israel's most prominent human rights lawyers said last night that if the acknowledgement is accurate, it will be 'a smoking gun' in the human rights case against Israel's conduct.

Elsewhere, talks between Hamas and Israel on a possible prisoner swap involving the captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit have collapsed. Late last year a German-mediated deal emerged in which hundreds of Palestinian prisoners would be exchanged for Shalit. In an interview with the BBC, Mahmud Zahar, a senior Hamas official, blamed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the talks' failure.

Iran test-fires satellite rocket

Iran test-fired a domestically made satellite-carrier rocket on Wednesday, according to the Iranian media. Speaking at a ceremony to unveil three new satellites and other space technology achievements, President Ahmadinejad said that Iran hoped to send astronauts into space soon. The move has exacerbated fears that Iran wants to make nuclear weapons. The test marked the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Republic. Commemorations began earlier this week and culminate on 11 February, the day in 1979 that the shah's forces capitulated during the Iranian revolution.

Yesterday, Ahmadinejad said Iran would have ‘no problem’ shipping its uranium abroad for enrichment, in line with a UN-backed proposal. In an interview with state TV, he announced that Iran would send low-enriched uranium abroad for processing and receive back fuel rods for use in its Tehran research reactor. The president however did not address the issue of whether his country was ready to ship out most of its uranium stockpile in one batch – a condition set by the six world powers who believe this will delay the country’s ability to make nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad’s comments were cautiously welcomed by Britain on Wednesday as a ‘positive sign’.

Sudanese president may face genocide charges

An appeals chamber at the International Criminal Court (ICC) has ordered a review of its decision to omit genocide from an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's president. The ruling in The Hague on Wednesday has been slammed by Khartoum who has accused the court of trying to 'impact the political process in Sudan and the ongoing negotiations in Doha.'

The ICC had indicted al-Bashir on seven charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity last March, but said there was not enough evidence to charge him with three counts of genocide. The chief prosecutor on the case, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, appealed, arguing that the genocide charges did not depend exclusively on whether it could be proved that the Sudanese head of state had genocidal intentions. Moreno-Ocampo has insisted that al-Bashir’s expulsion of humanitarian assistance in Darfur is ‘a great element of his genocidal intentions’, warning Bashir he needed to ‘get a lawyer.’

The ICC however has no means to enforce the warrant for al-Bashir's arrest, the first of its kind against a sitting head of state, and cannot try the president in absentia. Al-Bashir retains the support of several African and Arab heads of state, who argue the ICC is biased in the west's favour.

Suicide attack kills twenty in Iraq

A suicide attacker driving a minibus ploughed into a crowd of Shia pilgrims in central Iraq, killing twenty and wounding over 100 people on Wednesday. The bomber struck pilgrims walking on foot on the outskirts of the city of Karbala. Wednesday's attack followed that of a female suicide bomber on Monday who blew herself up among a crowd of Shia pilgrims killing 41 people. Security is being tightened in and around the holy city of Karbala with 30,000 members of the Iraqi security forces deployed for the festival of Arbaeen which culminates on Friday.

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