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Archive for October, 2015

Pakistani Shiites demand protection after bombing killed 18

October 24, 2015

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani Shiites rallied to demand greater government protection on Saturday after a suicide bomber targeted a Shiite religious procession, killing at least 18 people and wounding 40 others.

The bomber struck a public Ashoura rally Friday night in Jacobabad, a city in the southern province of Sindh, senior police officer Zafar Malik said. Local media reported a higher death toll than the government, saying as many as 24 people were killed.

Malik added that mourners were preparing for mass funerals Saturday and that the government had protectively deployed extra troops to handle any “untoward situation.” Shiite Muslims, a minority in Pakistan, hold public rallies to mark Ashoura, a 10-day ritual that commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and an iconic Shiite martyr. Some mourners whip themselves with knives attached to chains and women and children beat their own chests as they march in the streets.

Sunni extremists who consider Shiites to be heretics. On Thursday, a suicide bomber targeted a Shiite mosque in southwest Pakistan, killing 10 people in Baluchistan province. The attacks have sparked Shiite anger at the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for failing to protect Shiite citizens. On Friday in Jacobabad after the bombing, angry Shiites ransacked local government offices.

Shiite community leader Syed Hamid Ali Shah Moosavi called for mourners to participate peacefully in Saturday’s funeral processions, and demanded that the government provide greater protection and arrest those responsible for the bombings.

Pakistani authorities have put heightened security arrangements in place to protect Ashoura events, sealing off procession routes, assigning paramilitary troops to escort processions and suspending cell phone service in certain areas.

Najib vows not to quit as Malaysia marks National Day

August 31, 2015

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s prime minister vowed he would not quit over a $700-million financial scandal, and accused protesters of showing “poor national spirit” by holding a massive rally to demand his resignation on the eve of the country’s National Day on Monday.

After a weekend of demonstrations, the government took back the streets of Kuala Lumpur, with Prime Minister Najib Razak and his Cabinet ministers attending a gala parade involving 13,000 people. They watched jets whizz by above the landmark Independence Square, which over the weekend was surrounded by tens of thousands of protesters.

In his National Day speech late Sunday, Najib slammed protesters for showing a “shallow mind and poor national spirit.” He said the protests can disrupt public order and were not the right way to show unhappiness in a democratic country.

Najib said Malaysia was not a failed state and slammed protesters for tarnishing the country’s image. He vowed not to bow to pressure. “Once the sails have been set, once the anchor has been raised, the captain and his crew would never change course,” he said.

Police sealed off the square over the weekend. Large crowds of protesters in yellow shirts of the Bersih movement — a coalition for clean and fair elections — camped overnight around the square, even after authorities blocked the organizer’s website and banned yellow attire and the group’s logo.

The rally ended peacefully after protesters ushered in the country’s 58th National Day at midnight Sunday amid tight security. Police estimated the crowd size at 35,000, but Bersih says it swelled to 300,000 on Sunday from 200,000 on Saturday.

“What is 20,000?” Najib said, downplaying even the police number. “We can gather hundreds of thousands,” he said in a speech in a rural area in a northern state earlier Sunday. “The rest of the Malaysian population is with the government,” he was quoted as saying by the local media.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has been spearheading calls for Najib’s resignation, added momentum to the rally when he turned up at the rally with his wife on both days. Mahathir, who clamped down on dissent during his 22-year rule, said people power was needed to remove Najib and return the rule of law. He stepped down in 2003 but remained influential.

Najib has been fighting for political survival after leaked documents in July showed he received some $700 million in his private accounts from entities linked to indebted state fund 1MDB. He later said the money was a donation from the Middle East and fired his critical deputy, four other Cabinet members and the attorney general investigating him.

Many of the protesters, such as Azrul Khalib, slept on the street. “This is a watershed moment. Malaysians are united in their anger at the mismanagement of this country. We are saying loudly that there should be a change in the leadership,” said Azrul.

He said he was aware that the rally will not bring change overnight, but he still participated because he wanted to be “part of efforts to build a new Malaysia.” Some used colored chalk to scrawl their demands on the street, writing slogans such as, “We want change,” and “We want clean and fair (elections).”

Two previous Bersih rallies, in 2011 and 2012, were dispersed by police using tear gas and water cannons. Analysts said the rally attracted a largely urban crowd with a smaller participation of ethnic Malays, which could be the reason why the Najib government allowed it to go on.

A nation of 30 million, Malaysia is predominantly Malay Muslim, who form the core of the ruling party’s support. The country also has significant Chinese and Indian minorities who have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the government recent years.

Malaysia’s ambitions to rise from a middle income to a developed nation this decade have been stymied by slow-paced reforms and Najib’s increasing authoritarianism. Still, the government feels “safe because it has not really affected the rural Malay segment, their bedrock support,” said political analyst Ibrahim Suffian. However, he said this doesn’t mean that rural Malays are happy with the government, as many are upset with the plunging currency and economic slowdown.

Support for Najib’s National Front has eroded in the last two general elections. It won in 2013, but lost the popular vote for the first time to an opposition alliance. Concerns over the political scandal partly contributed to the Malaysian currency plunging to a 17-year low earlier this month.

In his speech, Najib rejected fears that the economy is crumbling. “We are stable, with strong fundamentals and will continue to survive and remain competitive,” he said.

Iraq: Popular Mobilization Forces burn mosques and kill dozens in Baiji

Monday, 26 October 2015

An Iraqi tribal leader has accused Shia Popular Mobilization Forces of burning mosques and killing dozens of people in Baiji in the Salahuddin province in Iraq.

Sheikh Abdul Razzaq Al-Shammari said: “Eight mosques were burned and destroyed in the city of Baiji by the Popular Mobilization Forces in the past days,” adding that dozens of people were arrested and taken to an unknown destination.

Al-Shammari explained that the city of Baiji is currently witnessing “genocide” after the forces destroyed the mosques and then burned them.

On 12 October, Iraqi national army, with the support of the Popular Mobilization Forces, launched large-scale military operations that aimed at restoring the city of Baiji after it was seized by Daesh.

Baiji is located 210 kilometers north of Baghdad and has the largest oil refinery in Iraq.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


Classes swell in Iraq camps as teachers leave for Europe

October 26, 2015

KAWERGOSK, Iraq (AP) — The young Syrian refugees at the Kawergosk refugee camp in northern Iraq have already lost so much — and now they’re losing their teachers.

One after another, school teachers have packed up and left for Europe — searching for opportunity, safety and a better life. With the school year just kicking off in Iraq, schools like this one are scrambling to accommodate the refugee students left behind. Nine of Kawergosk’s teachers fled to Europe this summer and the remaining teachers are doubling up on students.

Mizgeen Hussein, 28, is among those teachers left behind. A refugee from Derik, Syria, Hussein admits that despite her commitment to the students, she would leave if she had the money. “The reason for me to leave is to have a future”, said Hussein, who teaches a class of 37 children at the camp’s school. “For sure this has an effect on us,” she added. “For now, we’ll solve it with the people who are here until they will bring other teachers.”

Camps across Iraq are experiencing the same exodus of teachers heading to Europe. Meanwhile student numbers are on the rise as fighting continues to tear through Syria and Iraq, forcing people to flee their homes. An increasingly chaotic civil war has gripped Syria for nearly five years, and the Islamic State militant group has claimed territory in a third of both Iraq and Syria.

Four of the 21 teachers at the Kobani primary school in Domiz camp have left in the past month. With over 1,000 students, manager Abdullah Mohammed Saeed said the school’s future is in jeopardy. “We need new people, otherwise we have to close the school,” he said.

“Our problem is that now our teachers are escaping to Europe,” said Mazhar Mohammed, Kawergosk’s principal. “We don’t have any other problems. The government is providing us with enough books.” Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern region hosts approximately 250,000 Syrian refugees, with more than a third of them living in camps. Many have found work, opened shops and pursued some form of education. But their uncertain future has caused those in doubt to flee the region, either back to Syria or across the border to Turkey and beyond.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, the number of Syrians leaving northern Iraq for Europe has tripled in recent months. Among them are many Syrian teachers who have been getting paid by the Kurdish regional government to teach at the various camps. But the region is facing a severe financial crisis, and many teachers have not received salaries — another reason to leave.

On the first day of school at Kawergosk, children gripped the school’s fence waiting for the gates to open. Hundreds flooded into the schoolyard, anxious to get back into their classrooms. The lessons are shortened, as there are not enough teachers to handle all the students. “We dropped the last lessons, so we send the students home earlier,” Mohammed, the camp principal, said. The lack of teachers has forced many instructors to give lessons in areas outside their specializations, with history teachers covering geography and math teachers expanding into physics.

Some teachers, like Jeveen Salah Omer, have nevertheless vowed to stay, whatever the cost. “The education of students is more important than anything,” she said. “They became refugees and had to come here. This is the least we can do for them.”

Egypt buys 2 warships from France, 2nd big military purchase

September 23, 2015

PARIS (AP) — Egypt has agreed to buy two assault ships from France, the French government said Wednesday, dramatically increasing its capabilities on- and off-shore as the country tries to assume a more prominent role against Islamic State militants.

The assault ships, which can each carry 16 helicopter gunships, 700 troops and up to 50 armored vehicles, were originally intended for Russia. France continued building to Russia’s specifications — including stenciling Cyrillic writing throughout the vessels — until the deal finally fell apart because of the Ukraine crisis. It was originally supposed to be the biggest arms sale ever by a NATO country to Russia.

France agreed to refund 950 million euros ($1 billion) already paid by Russia. France didn’t say how much Egypt has agreed to pay, but denied losing money. A military official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the deal said Egypt would pay 950 million euros ($1 billion) for both ships, which will be delivered next March.

Russia had traditionally supplied Egypt’s military, but the country has turned more recently toward Western arms purchases, with France taking a leading role. Egypt bought 24 advanced fighter jets from France earlier this year for nearly $6 billion, as it sought international help to bomb IS targets.

President Francois Hollande said he and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi closed the deal Tuesday after several weeks of talks. “France will assure delivery of these boats while losing nothing, and by doing so protecting Egypt,” Hollande said. He noted French military cooperation with Egypt and Egypt’s “important role” in the Middle East.

He said el-Sissi underscored the role of the Suez Canal and “how important it is for Europe, for the Middle East, for trade that the Suez Canal be protected.” Analysts said it was unlikely that Egypt would re-sell the ships to Russia given the increasing value of its relationship with France. And the military official said it was not permitted for the buyer of a warship to re-sell without permission from the original seller.

But, conveniently, Egypt already owns Russian-made helicopters that are of the same kind originally planned for the decks of the two Mistrals, the official said. The Egyptian government has been battling a long-running insurgency in the northern Sinai region, which escalated after the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 amid massive protests against his rule, and cracked down on Islamic groups. A local IS affiliate has been claiming responsibility for militant attacks in the area.

Peter Roberts, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and a former Royal Navy officer, said Egypt’s military is shifting its focus, previously on the Sinai, to a more regional outlook.

“It does provide an interesting window into the decision-making of Egypt’s leaders at this moment,” he said. Analysts said the purchase showed Egypt’s attempt to take a more muscular role in the region, notably with the disintegration of Yemen and Libya.

“The reality is that Egypt isn’t going to try to conquer Libya or Yemen,” said Ben Moores, an analyst with IHS Janes. “It’s not trying to change those countries. It’s just trying to keep a lid on them.”

Afghan earthquake rocks Asia, dozens dead

October 26, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A strong earthquake in northern Afghanistan shook buildings from Kabul to Delhi, cut power and communications in some areas and caused more than 150 deaths, mainly in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistani officials said that at least 147 people were killed and nearly 600 others wounded across the country, while Afghan officials said 33 people were killed and more than 200 wounded. The U.S. Geological Survey said the epicenter of the 7.5-magnitude earthquake was in the Hindu Kush mountains, in the sparsely populated province of Badakhshan, which borders Pakistan, Tajikistan and China. It said the epicenter was 213 kilometers (130 miles) deep and 73 kilometers (45 miles) south of the provincial capital, Fayzabad.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani sent his condolences to families who had lost relatives and property, and appointed an “assessment committee” to ensure emergency relief reached the needy as soon as possible, his office said.

In Takhar province, west of Badakhshan, at least 12 students at a girls’ school were killed in a stampede as they fled shaking buildings, said Sonatullah Taimor, the spokesman for the provincial governor. Another 42 girls were taken to the hospital in the provincial capital of Taluqan.

In Pakistan, Inayatullah Khan, the provincial minister for local bodies, said the death toll in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province alone had jumped to 121. The toll from Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province was likely to rise as reports came in from remote areas. The province is often struck by earthquakes, but casualty figures are usually low.

The province also suffers from floods, snowstorms and mudslides, and despite vast mineral deposits is one of Afghanistan’s poorest regions. It has recently also been troubled by Taliban-led insurgents, who have used its remote valleys as cover to seize districts as they spread their footprint across the country.

Power was cut across much of the Afghan capital, where tremors were felt for around 45 seconds. Houses shook, walls cracked and cars rolled in the streets. Officials in the capital could not be immediately reached as telephones appeared to be cut across the country.

Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah tweeted that the earthquake was the strongest felt in recent decades. He had earlier called an emergency meeting of disaster officials, which was broadcast live on television. He instructed doctors and hospitals to be prepared to receive and treat casualties.

Abdullah said telecommunications have been disrupted in vast parts of the country, preventing officials from getting a precise picture of damage and casualties. He also warned of aftershocks from the earthquake.

In Pakistan, Zahid Rafiq, an official with the meteorological department, said the quake was felt across the country. In the capital, Islamabad, buildings shook and panicked people poured into the streets, many reciting verses from the Quran.

“I was praying when the massive earthquake rattled my home. I came out in a panic,” said Munir Anwar, a resident of Liaquat Pur in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province. Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, ordered troops to the quake-affected areas, the military said in a statement. It gave no further details.

The quake was also felt in the Indian capital New Delhi, though no damage was immediately reported. Office buildings swayed and workers who had just returned from lunch ran out of buildings and gathered in the street or in parking lots.

In Srinagar, the main city in the India-controlled portion of disputed Kashmir, the tremors lasted at least 40 seconds, with buildings swaying and electrical wires swinging wildly, residents said. “First I thought somebody had banged the door. But within seconds, the earth began shaking below my feet, and that’s when I ran out of the building,” said government official Naseer Ahmed.

People ran outside, shouting, crying and chanting religious hymns in an effort to keep calm. “I thought it was the end of the world,” shopkeeper Iqbal Bhat said. Srinagar Police Inspector General Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gilani said that “some bridges and buildings have been damaged,” including a cracked highway overpass.

Two elderly women died from heart attacks suffered during the earthquake, including a 65-year-old woman in the northern Kashmiri town of Baramulla and an 80-year-old in the southern town of Bijbehara, officials said.

Ahmed reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, Roshan Mughal in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, Anwarullah Khan in Khar, Pakistan, Sherin Zada in Mingora, Pakistan, Aqeel Ahmed in Mansehra, Pakistan, Asim Tanveer in Multan, Pakistan, Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar, India, and Nirmala George in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Poland expected to turn inward under right-wing party

October 26, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — With the election of a right-wing and Euroskeptic party, Poland is expected to become a more inward-looking country, and one less willing to work with European partners to forge common policies on pressing issues like climate change and migrants.

“Poland will be a different Poland in Europe starting from today,” Agnieszka Lada, an expert on foreign affairs, said Monday. Law and Justice, which is strongly anti-migrant and determined to preserve Poland’s coal industry, swept to power in a parliamentary election Sunday, possibly with enough votes to hold a majority.

According to final results announced late Monday, Law and Justice won 37.6 percent of the vote. Poland’s state electoral commission did not say if that would translate into a majority in parliament once the seats are apportioned, but it appeared likely that the party could have a slim majority in the 460-seat lower house, or Sejm. It also won a majority of seats, 58 out of 100, in the less powerful Senate.

The party has also vowed not to adopt the euro currency until Polish wages have caught up with those in Germany, a prospect that is decades away at best. That marks a setback for Europe’s ambitions for ever greater monetary union given the importance of Poland’s economy, the largest in Central Europe, the sixth-largest in the bloc and one that is developing fast.

The populist party’s strong showing came after a campaign in which it took a hard line on migrants, essentially saying it doesn’t want any, and criticizing the outgoing centrist leadership for agreeing to a take some 7,000 refugees under a European Union plan.

Days before the election, party chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski even warned that migrants could carry “protozoa and parasites” and other diseases that could be dangerous to Europeans. Several of his political opponents accused him of using language reminiscent of that used by Nazi Germany against the Jews.

“They tapped in so well to the general mood that ‘we don’t want refugees,'” said analyst Jacek Kucharczyk, who believes Law and Justice’s anti-migrant position was a key factor in the extent of its victory.

Kucharczyk, who is the head of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Warsaw think tank, said the political shift reveals the “shallow integration” of Poland into the EU since it joined in 2004. Many of the party’s supporters take for granted the EU funds that drive growth, and the freedom to easily cross European borders for travel and work. But at the same time they often resist making sacrifices themselves or changing their deeply traditional mindset, for example by accepting gay marriage or other liberal Western values.

“They welcome the EU if it brings funds but not if it brings migrants and the Western decadent lifestyle,” Kucharczyk said. He argues that the party won such a decisive victory because it made people believe that it could “create an invisible wall around Poland,” allowing Poles to keep all the things they like about EU membership while insulating them from what they don’t like.

The party’s candidate for prime minister, Beata Szydlo, insists that the party is “very pro-European” but only wants to protect Poland’s interests. At some point Law and Justice will have to make a crucial decision on whether it will back former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, of the rival Civic Platform, for a second term as EU president, after his current terms expires in May 2017.

The party has had bad blood for years with Tusk, and some political observers find it almost inconceivable that Law and Justice could give its support to a man they have vilified for years. But refusing to back him and letting him lose the job would also hurt Poland’s interests, depriving it of the high-profile role it now has in Brussels.

Law and Justice could also find its own hold on power jeopardized in the future should Tusk, a former prime minister and political heavyweight, return to Polish politics. Civic Platform, the centrist, pro-market party which Tusk led for years, has weakened considerably without him at the helm. It won 24.1 percent of the vote, turning it into an opposition party after eight years of running the country.

Three other parties will also make it into parliament: a party led by the right-wing rock musician Pawel Kukiz, which got 8.8 percent; a pro-business party led by an economist, Ryszard Petru, with 7.6 percent, and the agrarian Polish People’s Party, with 5.1 percent. Results also confirmed that no left-wing party made it in at all, the first time in 26 years of democracy that the former communists have no presence in the lawmaking body.

Political observers will also be watching to see what kind of tone the incoming government takes with Germany. When Law and Justice ran the government from 2005-2007 it liked to nurture historical grievances against Germany, which inflicted massive suffering on Poland during World War II. Ties between the two countries became deeply strained and many Poles learned the lesson that taking a combative attitude today to Germany, a model democracy that helped bring Poland into NATO and the EU, is counter-productive.

Recently the party’s leaders, including President Andrzej Duda, have signaled a desire to engage constructively with Berlin.

Associated Press writer Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.

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