Taleban announce 10-day ceasefire in Swat valley
PESHAWAR, Feb 16: Taleban fighters in north-west Pakistan’s restive Swat valley have anno-unced a 10-day ceasefire, reports BBC. The move came after local officials signed a deal with a militant leader to enforce Islamic law in the district. The ceasefire halts fighting between Pakistani security forces and Tale-ban militants in Swat that has raged since Nov 2007. Once one of Pakistan’s most popular holiday destinations, the Swat valley is now mostly under Tale-ban control. Hundreds of civilians have died in an increasingly bloody insurgency there, while thousands of others have been forced to migrate. The Taleban have set up their own system of Islamic justice, as they understand it, and have closed down schools, denying education to tens of thousands of children, says the BBC’s M Ilyas Khan, who was recently in Swat. Pakistani President Asif Zardari has warned that the entire country is fighting for its survival against the Taleban, whose influence he said has spread deep into the country. In an interview with US TV network CBS, President Asif Zardari said the Taleban had established a presence across “huge parts” of Pakistan. The agreement was signed by Taleban cleric Sufi Mohammad after talks with the North West Fron-tier Province’s government. The agreement binds the provincial government to implement Sharia law in the Malakand division, which comprises Swat and its adjoining areas.A militant spokesman, Muslim Khan, said the ceasefire was a “goodwill gesture to the ongoing talks between Sufi Moham-mad and the government”. Talks on how Sharia law will be implemented are to continue on Monday between Taleban representatives and officials of the provincial government in the capital of North West Frontier Province, Pesha-war, said Reuters news agency. Details are to be formally announced at that time. There has been no reaction so far from the Pakistani central government. The Taleban say they will examine the document thoroughly before announ-cing a permanent end to hostilities. A Chinese engineer held hostage for five months had also been released as a sign of good faith, the militants said. Long Xiaowei, who was captured last August in the Dir region with a Chinese colleague, arrived at China’s embassy in Islamabad earlier on Sunday and was in good health, a Chinese official said. The colleague escaped in October, the Taleban said at the time. The people of Swat have been caught between the army and the Taleban, says our correspondent. More than 1,000 civilians have died in shelling by the army or from beheadings sanctioned by the Taleban. Thousands more have been displaced. The Taleban now control the entire countryside of Swat, limiting army control to parts of the valley’s capital, Mingora. Many people in Swat now would favour an early exit by the army as the they have failed to roll back the Taleban or protect the Taleban’s opponents, says our correspondent.
Chavez allowed to stand for reelection
CARACAS, Feb 16: Venezuelans have voted to lift limits on terms in office for elected officials, allowing President Hugo Chavez to stand for re-election, reports BBC. With 94 per cent of votes counted, 54 per cent backed an end to term limits, a National Electoral Council official said. Chavez has said he needs to stay in office beyond the end of his second term in 2012 so he can secure what he calls Venezuela’s socialist revolution. Critics say that would concentrate too much power in the presidency. “The doors of the future are wide open,” Chavez shouted from the balcony of his Miraflores palace after the results were announced. “In 2012 there will be presidential elections, and unless God decides otherwise, unless the people decide otherwise, this soldier is already a candidate.” Crowds of the president’s supporters filled in the streets, letting off fireworks, waving red flags and honking car horns. The BBC’s Will Grant in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, says this was the kind of strong confirmation of his socialist agenda at the polls that Chavez had been seeking. “This victory saved the revolution,” said Gonzalo Mosqueda, a 60-year-old shopkeeper, sipping rum from a plastic cup outside the palace. “Without it everything would be at risk - all the social programs, and everything he [Chavez] has done for the poor,” he told AP.More than 11 million voters out of almost 17 million who were eligible took part in Sunday’s referendum, said the head of the electoral body, Tibisay Lucena. International observers said the ballot was free and fair, and opposition leaders were quoted as saying they would not contest the vote. Even so, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez told the BBC’s Newshour programme earlier on Sunday that the campaign had been heavily weighted towards Chavez. “In 10 years we have had 15 elections, 15, and this has been the most unequal, the most abusive campaign of all. “So that’s why you are seeing more propaganda, more campaigning, more advertisement for the ‘yes’ vote.” Under existing constitutional rules, the president was limited to two six-year terms in office, which meant that Chavez would have had to leave the presidency in three years’ time. A proposal to end presidential term limits was one of a package of 69 constitutional changes narrowly rejected in a referendum in late 2007. The president now faces the daunting task of grappling with the global economic crisis in a country dependent on oil exports, our correspondent says. Venezuela has the highest inflation in Latin America, he says, and there are serious domestic problems such as violent crime that Chavez will need to tackle in the next four years if he is to repeat his success in the presidential elections of 2012.
Ravi Shankar to play role of peacemaker
KOLKATA, Feb 16: Indian spiritual leader and Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has said that he might visit Pakistan and Sri Lanka soon as peacemaker, reports PTI.“I have been playing a part in the peace process and I will continue doing my part. I may go to Pakistan shortly. I am talking with the authorities on both sides,” he told PTI during a visit here. On terrorism, he said “spiritual education brings a change of minds and hearts and this is how terrorism and all other forms of violence can be brought to an end.” Talking about his plans to meet Sri Lankan President Mahinda Raja-pakse and LTTE leader V Prabhakaran to try and bring out a ceasefire, he said “I have appealed to both the governments (India and Sri Lanka) for a ceasefire. I will go there and meet Rajapakse and Prabhakaran separately to hold talks with them to bring about a ceasefire.”“There should be negotiation between LTTE and the Lankan government. I think they should sit down to talk. Military action is not an option for them. Violence needs to end.” He said he would make “all efforts” to get Sri Lankan Tamil refugees back to their country where they could lead dignified lives.He also wanted that their jobs, homes and land to be restored to them. “The Sri Lankan government should compensate the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees for their losses and rehabilitate them,” he said. He said that his concern was for ordinary people, who were being put to severe hardships in the violence.
Obama goes to Canada on maiden trip Thursday
OTTAWA, Feb 16: United States President Barack Obama will visit Canada on Thursday, on his first trip overseas since being inaugurated last month, with economic concerns expected to top his agenda, reports AFP.The visit is scheduled to last only about six hours, just enough time for meetings, a working lunch and a press conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Obama will also meet with Michael Igna-tieff, the new head of Canada’s main political opposition group, the Liberal Party. Staunch allies, the two countries are the world’s biggest trade partners, with bilateral trade estimated at over 500 billion dollars (404 billion US) in 2007, according to the US embassy in Ottawa. Harper, who secured a second term at the head of his minority Conservative government in October, is closer ideologically to former US President George W Bush than to Obama, a Democrat.But since the election of the new president, Harper, one of the first foreign leaders Obama contacted after his inauguration, has insisted that the two countries’ close relations trump the political affiliation of their respective leaders.With a recession crippling the economy on both sides of the border, Harper has said he expects the economic situation to dominate their conversations, with a special focus on the troubled auto sector. The survival of the “Big Three” automakers based in Detroit, Michigan, concerns Canada because the companies also operate major plants in Ontario, the heart of Canada’s auto industry. General Motors and Chrysler plants in Ontario are each due to present a plan by Friday to bring the cost of their labor to the same level as US factories in order to secure 4.0 billion dollars (3.2 billion US) in aid promised by the Canadian government. Harper has said he was “concerned” about a controversial “Buy American” clause included in the massive 787-billion-dollar US (974 billion Canadian) economic stimulus plan passed by the US Congress Friday that Obama is expected to sign into law Tuesday in Denver, Colo-rado. The prime minister stressed that Obama himself said that “he wants to ensure that these stimulus packages do not lead to protectionist measures in the US or anywhere else.” In their telephone conversation on Jan 23, the two leaders “also discussed the importance of the environment and energy, as well as international iss-ues, including Afghanis-tan,” according to Harper’s office.
North Korea hints at missile test
SEOUL (South Korea), Feb 16: North Korea vowed Monday to press ahead with test-firing what neighboring governments believe is a long-range missile, but it sought to portray the launch as part of a space program amid growing pressure to drop the plan, reports AP.Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency made the claim on the 67th birthday of leader Kim Jong Il and as US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was en route to Asia for meetings where the North’s missile and nuclear programs are expected to be a focus.KCNA claimed the North has the right to “space development” — a term the country has used in the past to disguise a missile test as a satellite launch. It also accused the US and other countries of trying to block the country’s “peaceful scientific research” by linking it to a missile test.“One will come to know later what will be launched” from North Korea, KCNA said, claiming that “hostile forces spread the rumor about” the country’s “preparations for launching a long-distance missile.”When North Korea test-fired a long-range missile in 1998, it claimed to have put a satellite into orbit.“It means they’re going to fire a missile as a satellite launch,” Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said of the KCNA report. He called the North’s space-program claim a “preventive” measure because a missile launch could result in punitive steps from the international community.In Pyongyang, North Koreans celebrated Kim’s birthday by viewing a special exhibition of Kimjongilia flowers set beside a replica of a missile, APTN North Korea footage showed. People also paid homage to his late father, North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, and danced in the city’s main square in freezing temperatures.South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan warned the North that any launch — whether a missile or satellite — would be in violation of a UN Security Council resolution in 2006 that demanded Pyongyang “suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program.”“A missile and a satellite are the same in principle, and are different only in their payload,” Yu told lawmakers.The KCNA report comes amid growing international pressure on Pyongyang to back out of apparent plans to carry out a test launch of a missile believed capable of reaching US territory. Washington, Tokyo and Seoul have repeatedly urged the North not to fire a missile. Hillary, before departing for Asia, also urged Pyongyang not to take any provocative actions.Hillary was due to arrive in Japan later Monday on the first leg of her trip that also includes stops in South Korea, China and Indonesia.On Sunday, Clinton said North Korea needs to live up to commitments to dismantle its nuclear programs, saying Washington is willing to normalise ties with it in return for nuclear disarmament.“The North Koreans have already agreed to dismantling,” she said. “We expect them to fulfill the obligations that they entered into.”Pyongyang has reportedly moved a long-range Taepodong-2 missile — its most advanced — to a launch site on the country’s northeastern coast. South Korean media have said a launch could come late this month.On Monday, Seoul’s mass-circulation JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said that the North had moved all necessary equipment to fire a missile to the Musudan-ni site on its northeastern coast and that a launch could be ready earlier than expected. The report cited unnamed government officials.Analysts say North Korea’s saber rattling appears to be an attempt to draw President Barack Obama’s attention, to start negotiations where it can extract concessions.North Korea made a point Monday of denying such a view, saying it “has no need to draw anyone’s attention.”North Korea has also been escalating tensions with the South, declaring all peace pacts with Seoul dead in anger over the hard-line stance that pro-US, conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has taken toward it. South Korean media have speculated that Pyongyang may provoke an armed clash near their disputed sea border — the scene of two deadly skirmishes in 1999 and 2002. Kim’s birthday on Monday comes months after the autocratic leader apparently suffered a stroke in August. His condition appears to have improved, and he met with a Chinese envoy last month — his first known meeting with a foreign dignitary since August. Pyongyang has denied Kim was ever ill. His health is a focus of intense media attention because he has not anointed any of his three known sons as an heir. Kim’s birthday is one of the North’s biggest national holidays, along with that of his late father and national founder Kim Il Sung who died in 1994. An autocratic leader, Kim fosters the intense cult of personality surrounding him.