A group of Afghan militia troops has joined the Taliban-led insurgents, officials said on Wednesday, apparently the first surrender of its kind by the force created as part of a US initiative to keep the militants at bay and help break the battlefield stalemate. There were few details and conflicting estimates about the number of men who changed sides in various parts of the restive northwestern Badghis province on Tuesday evening. One Afghan security official put the number at 41.
Iraqi Foreign Affairs Minister Hoshyar Zebari speaks at a press conference in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, July 5, 2012. Zebari says the government has “solid information and intelligence” about al-Qaida militants infiltrating Syria from Iraq to carry out attacks. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
By SINAN SALAHEDDIN
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s top diplomat on Thursday said he had “solid information” that al-Qaida militants were crossing from Iraq to Syria to carry out attacks, warning of a violent spillover that could shake the Middle East.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Baghdad had for years urged Damascus to clamp down on militant traffic as Sunni fighters headed from Syria to aid the Iraqi insurgency.
“Now their direction is the other way around,” Zebari told reporters in Baghdad.
“We have solid information and intelligence that members of al-Qaida’s terrorist network have gone to Syria,” he said, without elaborating. “Our main concern, to be honest with you, is about the spill over — about extremist, terrorist groups taking root in neighboring countries.”
Zebari also blamed a recent surge of violence in Iraq on the months-long political crisis that has gripped the country. Militants have launched major bombings and shootings at least every three days since the start of June, killing nearly 300 people. Among the chief targets have been Shiite pilgrims, security forces and government officials, groups that al-Qaida-linked Sunni insurgents frequently attack to destabilize the government and try to stoke retaliatory violence between the wider Sunni and Shiite communities.
On Thursday, explosions in two Iraqi cities — Baghdad and Mosul in the nation’s north — killed at least six people and wounded 17 more.
Police say a bomb at the home of an Iraqi government official killed his wife and two daughters in Baghdad. Senior city government official Ali Abdul-Amir, a Shiite, was wounded along with his two sons in the strike in the Sunni-dominated western neighborhood of Ghazaliyah. Hospital officials confirmed the deaths.
In the central city of Mosul, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt at the door of a barber shop frequented by Iraqi police and soldiers. Police and health officials said three died, including an off-duty soldier, and 14 others were wounded in the attack 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
While terror attacks have been a fact of life for Iraqis for years, their pace and magnitude has increased in recent weeks. In the months before U.S. troops left on Dec. 18, extremists were launching large-scale attacks only every few weeks, indicating they needed time in between to coordinate and gather explosives.
Experts say extremists may be benefitting from the crisis in neighboring Syria, where Iraqi insurgents may have been getting their hands on weapons intended for rebels fighting forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
At the same time, feuding between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Sunni, Kurd and Shiite political rivals has given insurgents an opening to try to exacerbate sectarian violence.
“We have a political crisis; this definitely reflects on the security situation,” Zebari said. “And these groups will find ways to operate, to strike in order to widen the gap between the political leaders.”
Zebari, a Kurd, said the political impasse — and the violence it has stoked — also is spooking foreign businesses from investing in Iraq as the country struggles to gain normalcy after decades of dictatorship, sanctions and war.
Associated Press Writers Bushra Juhi and Kay Johnson contributed to this report.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov certainly enjoys surprises. In 1999, the Uzbek strongman pulled his country out of the CSTO; in late 2001, he rented the Karshi-Khanabad Airbase to the United States, which was then preparing a military offensive in Afghanistan; in 2005, following a government crackdown in Andijan, which attracted heavy criticism from NATO members, Karimov terminated America’s contract and brought Uzbekistan back into the CSTO.
Last week, Karimov again lived up to his reputation for being unpredictable, suspending Uzbekistan’s membership in the CSTO. Lt. Gen. Leonid Sazhin, a military expert, believes the move could be a sign that Tashkent is looking to strengthen ties with the United States and NATO.
“This certainly facilitates the U.S. and NATO’s stronger presence, primarily military presence, in the Central Asian region,”Sazhin said in an interview with Interfax-AVN.
“It is no secret that, while the U.S. plans to leave Afghanistan in 2014, it would like to preserve a military presence in Afghanistan and other countries of the region, however minor it might be.”
Washington is exploring options as to how to stay in Central Asia, he added.
Sazhin, who knew the Uzbek President when serving for the Soviets and then with the Russian General Staff, said Karimov regularly vacillates between Moscow and Washington, playing the two off each other for personal gain.
“Islam Karimov, as an Oriental ruler, is hardly a predictable man, who is constantly maneuvering between Washington and Moscow for a greater advantage,” the military analyst told Interfax-AVN.
But other NATO countries, primarily Germany, are also part of Tashkent’s maneuvering, he said.
“By deciding to suspend its CSTO membership, Tashkent signalled its readiness (to the West) to take into account its interests, including the continuation or resumption of the rent of the airbases in Termez near the border with Afghanistan and in Karshi-Khanabad,” he said.
In 2002, Germany rented the Termez airbase, which became a crucial hub for the International Security Assistance Force’s work in Afghanistan.
According to Sazhin, Karimov’s latest decision was dictated by domestic political considerations.
“In violation of constitutional limitations, Karimov was re-elected President for a third seven-year term in 2007,” the military analyst observed.
“The next presidential elections in Uzbekistan are planned for 2015, and there are a lot of social and economic problems in the country that remain either unsolved or are solved poorly.”
This causes discontent among ordinary people and influential families alike, he said, suggesting that the Uzbek leader is looking to strengthen his domestic position – not to mention the security of his bank holdings – in the likelihood of future mass disturbances.
“Uzbekistan is obviously facing a change of government, and so the Uzbek leader, who does not want the fate of [ex-Kyrgyz President] Askar Akayev and his successor Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has decided to play into the West’s hands in exchange for its support in the future, when the time is hard for him,” Sazhin observed. “It is well-known that Karimov’s children and grandchildren studied in prestigious colleges in the U.S. and West Europe and that his family keeps millions at American and Swiss banks.”
In order not to press his luck in case he has to cede power, the Uzbek leader has decided to befriend the West again, he added.
In addition to the possibility of a political upheaval, Tashkent must face the prospect of increased heroin trafficking from Afghanistan, specifically in the Fergana Valley (the Fergana Valley comprises 22,000 square meters (8,494 sq mi) spreading across eastern Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan).
According to Viktor Ivanov, the head of the Federal Drug Control Service, this threat presents a huge challenge to Uzbekistan.
“The key to this problem is the Fergana Valley, where the borders of three countries join – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan,” Ivanov told reporters in Moscow on Tuesday. “It is the Fergana Valley that Afghan heroin is smuggled through most intensely. Suppliers are concentrated in this region. There is a tough competition among them, which turns into armed clashes.”
In Afghanistan, a kilogram of heroin costs $1,000; the price in the neighboring Tajikistan reaches $3,000-$5,000; and in the Fergana Valley, it goes up to $15,000-$20,000, he added.
“The key to solving the problem is in Central Asia, with which we have worked both bilaterally and through the CSTO,”Ivanov said.
Given the heavy issues on Karimov’s plate, Uzbekistan may always review its decision to suspend CSTO membership.
“We remember the sudden shift in 2005 after the well-known events in Andijan, when Uzbekistan turned to Moscow again,” Russia’s anti-drug official concluded.
ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan – A leading trans-Atlantic rights and security group has urged its members not to block Internet websites from public access.
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe representative Dunja Mijatovic’s remarks Thursday were clearly aimed at the host nation of the ongoing conference on Central Asian media, Turkmenistan.
Mijatovic, who heads the OSCE’s media rights section, also urged Turkmenistan to adopt media legislation being devised with the OSCE’s assistance.
Many websites — including social media platforms, foreign-based opposition news sites, Twitter and YouTube — are inaccessible in the authoritarian former Soviet nation.
Advocacy group Freedom House has listed Turkmenistan as one of eight “worst of the worst” nations in the world for press freedom.
The bulk of coverage in state media is devoted to praise of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
© Collage “The Voice of Russia”
Uzbekistan is ready to welcome a large delegation of the U.S. military top brass and diplomats. Once Uzbekistan has suspended its CSTO membership, it may happen that it will allow the USA to set up a military base on its territory, to be used for the withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Experts have something to say about the development of relations between official Tashkent and Washington.
In view of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington is paying paramount importance to Central Asia today. Now Tashkent is waiting for a delegation of the United States Congress and the U.S. State Department to visit Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan could offer great help in the U.S. and NATO countries’ troop pullout. The point is that a developed infrastructure, including both roads and railways, has remained in Uzbekistan since the Soviet-era times. Tashkent has a good chance to receive the U.S. military hardware because large amounts of military equipment have accumulated in Afghanistan over more than 10 years of the Afghanistan campaign.
The USA wants to have a military base in Uzbekistan. However, as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) it was unable to sanction this. Uzbekistan suspended its CSTO membership last week. Despite that, the USA’s attempts to achieve a desired effect remain unsuccessful so far, an expert with the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Vassily Kashin, says.
“Uzbekistan and the USA are drawing closer to each other. We are well aware of the fact that there were similar periods in the history of Uzbekistan earlier. However, a very close partnership between Uzbekistan and the USA has remained an unachievable goal. Uzbekistan is balancing on the verge of inner explosion. Its leadership has to take various measures, including very tough measures, in order to be able to control the situation. The Uzbek authorities do not want the USA to interfere in their domestic policy. Especially, amid the developments in the Arab world. Thus, although they want to receive guarantees from the USA, they will keep themselves at an arm’s length.”
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has two ways to enter Afghanistan. One of them termed the Northern route involves Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, and the other one that is termed the Southern route runs across Pakistan. This route accounted for 85 per cent of transit. After the NATO air raid on a region bordering on Afghanistan last year, Pakistan blocked the Southern route. At the beginning of this month Pakistan re-opened this route for NATO’s logistics operations and now it promises to let the cargoes go free of charge. It is rather doubtful that the Central Asian republics will approve that.
Hillary Clinton visited Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan last year. The visits of other top-ranking American diplomats preceded her trip to these countries. By the way, after 2014 parts of NATO’s military hardware could stay not only in Uzbekistan but also in neighbouring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Official Tashkent will never approve a strain in bilateral relations, a Uzbek political analyst, Rafik Saifulin, says. Tashkent has signed a transit agreement, not a request for the permission to deploy a military base in Uzbekistan.
Kyrgyzstan serves as an example for Uzbekistan in its cooperation with NATO. As you know, there is a transshipment point in the Manas Airport in Kyrgyzstan. By the way, at a briefing in Moscow the day before NATO’s Assistant Secretary General Dirk Brengelmann stressed that NATO had no plans to set up a military base in Uzbekistan.
After long closure, Nato supplies enter Afghanistan from Pakistan
Trucks and other vehicles travel in the mountainous area of Torkham, close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, July 4, 2012. — Photo by AFP
CHAMAN: A pair of trucks carrying Nato supplies crossed into Afghanistan on Thursday, Pakistani customs officials said, the first time in more than seven months that Pakistan has allowed Western nations to use its roads to supply troops in Afghanistan.
Customs officials said the container trucks had passed through the Chaman border crossing into southern Afghanistan, a milestone following a deal this week with the United States ending the impasse triggered by the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by US aircraft last November.
“We received orders yesterday to allow Nato supply trucks through, but security officials hadn’t received their instructions,” said Imran Raza, a customs official.
“They received their orders today, and now two trucks have crossed the border into Afghanistan.”
The resumption of Nato transit into Afghanistan came two days after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, yielding to Pakistani demands, told Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar the United States was sorry for the deaths last November.
In response to the killing of the soldiers in a border post, a furious Islamabad shut the supply routes.
For months, the Obama administration refused Pakistani demands to offer an apology for what Nato said was a regrettable accident.
The closure forced Nato countries to bring in supplies into landlocked Afghanistan through an alternate route to the north, a cumbersome process that cost 2-1/2 times as much as shipping them to and then across Pakistan.
Nato commanders said the route closure did not affect operations in Afghanistan, where foreign troops battle the Taliban more than 10 years after the war began. But they acknowledged it could have become more problematic once Nato nations begin to withdraw in earnest ahead an end-2014 timeline for removing most foreign troops.
The deal struck this week on the routes could go a long way to easing tension between the two countries. Deep strains remain over allegations that Pakistan allows militants based in its territory to launch attacks into Afghanistan.
Pakistan, meanwhile, accuses the United States of violating its sovereignty with frequent strikes by drone aircraft on militants in its northwestern tribal areas.
While Pakistan got the apology it wanted for the November border killings, the government agreed to drop demands to raise fees on supply trucks going into Afghanistan.