By Tim Lister
Afghanistan: Taliban attack areas where handover imminent; key city in Helmand transferred
Afghanistan: Taliban say website hacked, deny Mullah Omar dead
New study shows closer links between Haqqanis and al Qaeda
Clinton warns Pakistan over "safe-havens"
US citizen accused of funding politicians with cash from Pakistani intelligence
Syria bans US envoy from traveling outside capital
Libya: France suggests Gadhafi can stay
Libya: Heavy casualties in Brega fighting
Taliban launch attacks in key Afghan cities
Insurgents launched attacks in important cities in Afghanistan's north and south on Wednesday just as security control was being handed over in another city as part of a process designed to showcase the strength of Afghan forces. Gunmen attacked a police station in southern Kandahar city and killed its commander during a nine-hour gun battle.
In northern Mazar-i-Sharif - one of seven areas to be handed over to Afghan control this week - a bomb planted on a bicycle killed five civilians, including a child, and wounded 12, police said.
The attacks in volatile Kandahar and in Mazar-i-Sharif were a reminder of the challenges awaiting Afghanistan's army and police as they kick off a slow transition process that aims to put them in control of the whole country by the end of 2014.
Helmand capital of Lashkar Gar turned over to Afghan forces
Security provided by Afghan forces was tight, after Taliban threats to disrupt the transition ceremonies and a string of attacks and assassinations across the country.
"Today I am especially proud that the people of Helmand, like the other places in Afghanistan, are starting to take control of this beautiful province," Helmand governor Gulab Mangal said in an open letter in which he thanked foreign troops for their assistance and sacrifices. Mangal said Afghanistan would never have peace while Taliban leaders in Pakistan could easily cross the border.
The room erupted in spontaneous applause when Ashraf Ghani, Afghan president Hamid Karzai's special representative, said Afghanistan was reclaiming its sovereignty, and that the nation's flag would soon be flying over the whole country once again.
Reuters adds: Foreign troops' relinquishing of security control in Lashkar Gah is particularly symbolic, in a week where Afghan forces will also take over six other areas, because Helmand is a Taliban stronghold and one of the country's most violent provinces.
"They have tried and they will try again to disturb this process of transition but we are getting ready for this type of attacks," Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal told Reuters in an interview at his office in the town.
"The Taliban is trying to raise questions (about) this process and give the wrong idea to the people."
As many as 11 police officers were reportedly killed when suspected Taliban militants attacked a security checkpoint in Oruzgan province Tuesday.
CIA-trained Afghan paramilitaries deployed – report
Covert forces of CIA-trained Afghan paramilitaries are being built up to continue the US-led war on the Taliban as thousands of US troops prepare to leave the country. Members of one shadowy group of some 400 men in southern Kandahar province have given The Independent a unique insight into their training and secret operations against militants as foreign troops prepare to quit Afghanistan by 2014.
Senior figures within one of the forces revealed that they were taught hand-to-hand combat by foreign military advisers, were delivered to targets by US Black Hawk helicopters and have received a letter of thanks from President Hamid Karzai for their work. Despite their apparent military successes, one of the groups, the Kandahar Strike Force, has been dogged by rights abuse allegations that have raised questions about their role when their foreign handlers leave the country.
"These forces are the most shadowy and the most unaccountable in the country and it's a serious problem [that] nobody's taking responsibility for," said Rachel Reid, a senior policy adviser to the Open Society Foundation.
Fears for Kandahar stability after Karzai brother's death
"The enemy managed to order the phone networks shut and close off connection for four hours as they carried out attacks," said Abdul Rahim Ayoubi, a member of parliament from Kandahar.
"Ahmad Wali would never let such a thing happen."
The president's younger brother had a massive presence in the south, particularly in Kandahar, drawing support from several bases. As one analyst put it, the signature of his brother in Kabul, support from foreign forces, and his elected office as chief of the provincial council made Ahmad Wali an unrivaled leader. Like any effective tribal leader, he had positioned himself as the only answer to the problems of his followers.
"My fear is that his death will increase tribal tensions. Ahmad Wali had controlled them. I am afraid, that, God forbid, these groups will start against each other," said Ayoubi.
"Already I hear on people's lips that the Achikzai tribe is controlling the police and this and that. This is dangerous talk."
Taliban say website, phones hacked
A Taliban spokesman says the group's phones and website were hacked, and text messages sent out saying their reclusive Afghan leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is dead - a claim the group has denied.
Omar is alive and the reports "are just propaganda against our leader and our mission," spokesman Zabihullah Nujahid told CNN. NATO said it has no operational knowledge of Omar's condition or whereabouts.
This is not the first time speculation of Omar's death has surfaced. In May, the Taliban forcefully denied reports that their leader is dead, dismissing them as "claims and rumors" from the "Kabul stooge regime's intelligence directorate."
Pakistan illegally funneling cash to US politicians
Pakistani intelligence secretly funneled at least $4 million to a Washington front group whose leaders improperly lobbied U.S. officials over the disputed territory of Kashmir, federal agents alleged Tuesday.
A Pakistani-American man who served as director of the Kashmiri American Council is in federal custody, while a second man accused of steering money to the organization is believed to be in Pakistan, the Justice Department said. The KAC director, Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, "acted at the direction and with the financial support of the government of Pakistan for more than 20 years," an FBI arrest affidavit states.
One U.S. congressman quickly gave $4,000 donated by the two men charged in the case to charity, while another said he would consider a similar move if the source of the money was in question.
NYT adds: The goal of the group, according to internal documents cited by the F.B.I., was to persuade the United States government that it was in its interest to push India to allow a vote in Kashmir to decide its future. The group’s strategy was to offset the Indian lobby by targeting members of the Congressional committees that focus on foreign affairs with private briefings and events, staging activities that would draw media attention and otherwise to elevate the issue of Kashmir — the disputed region between India and Pakistan that each country controls in part but claims entirely — in Washington.
The F.B.I. said that there was no evidence that any of the lawmakers who received campaign funds from Pakistan were aware of its origins, and it did not name any of the recipients.
Clinton warns Pakistan over "safe havens"
At a joint news conference with India's Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna in New Delhi, India, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Tuesday warned India's neighbor, Pakistan, that safe havens for terrorists "cannot be tolerated anywhere."
Asked by a U.S. reporter whether she thinks Pakistan is doing enough to combat terrorism, Clinton said, "We do not believe there are any terrorists who should be given safe haven or a free pass by any government because, left unchecked, the consequences of that kind of terrorist activity and intimidation can become very difficult to manage and control."
"When we know of the location of terrorists whose intentions are clear," the secretary of state said. "We need to work together in order to prevent those terrorists from taking innocent lives and threatening institutions of the state."
Libya: French float possibility that Gadhafi can remain
At the weekend US officials told Libyan officials direct that Gadhafi had to step down – but did not according to official accounts insist that he had to leave Libya. The rebels are still demanding that Gadhafi go into exile or face trial. Now this:
French FM spokeswoman confirmed that Alain Juppé said the following Wednesday: "One of the possibilities is that he (Gadhafi) remain in Libya, but on the condition that he stays away from Libyan political life. This is what we are waiting for before we begin the political process for a ceasefire."
Battle for Brega leaves dozens dead
Associated Press reporting: A doctor at a Libyan hospital says more than 50 rebels have been killed in six days of fighting with government forces over the strategic eastern oil town of Brega. The new toll comes after Mohammed Idris, a doctor at the Ajdabiya hospital where the casualties were taken, raised the number killed in Tuesday's fighting to 27, with 83 wounded. Idris said Wednesday that most had been shot in the head and chest.
Reuters: Libyan rebels have encircled Brega and control parts of the town, whose capture would mark a major boost for their campaign to oust Muammar Gadhafi, a rebel spokesman said on Tuesday. The insurgents were dug in to the south and east of Brega and controlled its eastern residential area, said the spokesman. "Members of the revolutionary council saw some Gadhafi forces inside Brega but numbers are very, very low compared to the few last weeks," he said.
...while in the west, stalemate
A small group of Libyan rebels keep a lonely eye over a vital supply route. See CNN's Ben Wedeman report here.
Who are the Libyan rebels?
Abdel Karim Hasadi, a rebel commander and devout Muslim in the city of Derna, is one of the Libyans whom Gadhafi officials have tried to paint as members of Al Qaeda. He fled the country in the 1990s, and lived for a time in Afghanistan.
"What do I want?" he asked me, a little exasperated at the latest in a string of journalists to pop the al Qaeda question. "Three basic rights: a constitution, freedom, justice. No more one-man rule. Is that what Al Qaeda wants? Really, having a beard and being a Muslim doesn’t make you al Qaeda."
Fatih Terbil, a human rights lawyer whose arrest in Benghazi on February 15 spurred the uprising, has been among the leading secular opponents of Gadhafi. He told me that he was in the front lines of protesters outside the Italian consulate on Feb. 17, 2006, when a protest that was ostensibly about the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper quickly devolved into an attack on Qaddafi's rule. That protest, in hindsight, was the first glimmering that a general uprising was possible.
"Look, we are part of the Islamic world and Islam is an expression of who we are," Terbil said. "But the revolution didn't start with religious people, and it's not about religion. This is about basic rights, and holding elections."
Haqqani Network closer to al Qaeda than thought – study
A new study says a key faction of the Taliban has been far closer to al Qaeda than some previous analysis have suggested, raising fresh questions about Pakistan's alleged support for terrorist groups and the prospects for peace negotiations on Afghanistan.
Most terrorism experts have long believed that the Taliban and al Qaeda, while sharing a radical ideology, have markedly different goals.
According to this notion, the Taliban fight primarily for local or national issues and is not that interested in the al Qaeda agenda of global jihad against the West.
But a just-released study by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point seeks to dispel that notion, at least in regard to one key Taliban group. Don Rassler, lead author of the report, says the Haqqani network shares al Qaeda’s ideology and ambition.
"We challenge the conventional assumption or perception that the Haqqani network is primarily a local actor. And we find that the organization over its three-decade-long evolution in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region has functioned as a strategic enabler of regional, local, and global forms of militancy," says Rassler. "So what we’ve come down and found was that the Haqqani network while, yes, being a local actor and pragmatic as well, is also committed to the philosophy of expansive and global jihad as perpetrated by al Qaeda."
Iran claims US drone shot down
CNN contributor says this may be an old story republished to burnish the credentials of the Revolutionary Guard
A senior Iranian legislator confirmed earlier reports saying that a US drone has been shot down by Iran over Fordo nuclear enrichment plant in the Central Qom province.
Member of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission Ali Aqazadeh Dafsari said on Tuesday that the unmanned spy plane was flying near the Fordo nuclear enrichment plant in Qom province when the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)'s Air Defense units brought it down.
The official stated that the US drone was on a mission to identify the location of the Fordo nuclear enrichment plant and gather information about the nuclear facility for the CIA, Dafsari stated.
Syria bans ambassadors from traveling beyond Damascus
Syria's foreign minister has warned the US and French ambassadors not to travel outside Damascus without permission, the Associated Press reports. Walid al-Moallem said Wednesday that if the ambassadors defy the orders, Syria will ban all diplomats from leaving the capital.
Earlier this month, the US and French ambassadors traveled to the restive city of Hama, a stronghold of opposition to the Assad regime. The Syrian government criticized the visit and said it was unauthorized, accusing the envoys of interfering in Syria's internal affairs.
George Sabra, a key Syrian opposition figure and member of the National Democratic party, has been arrested in Damascus today, according to opposition activists. It is the second time Sabra has been arrested since the protests against Bashar al-Assad's regime began in March. He was previously arrested by Syrian security forces on 10 April 2011.
Syrian opposition accuses regime of playing sectarian card
Activists argue that the regime is intentionally trying to incite sectarian fighting in hopes that the threat of further clashes would cause Syrians to turn toward the regime as a guarantor of stability, Bloomberg reports. The government has repeatedly blamed the violence on religious extremists and foreign saboteurs trying to stir up sectarian strife – something the repressive regime has kept a lid on for decades.
Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights, told Bloomberg that Shabeeha, a group of gunmen with close ties to the government, entered Homs on Monday night and have "tried to foment divisions between the Alawites and the Sunnis, and between Muslims and Christians."
"There is no sectarian fighting," he said. "The government is trying to promote tension to legitimize the use and entry of its army into all areas."
*On his return from Hama, NYT photographer Moises Saman has published a remarkable photo essay about the city.
The city is not liberated by any means. It had this sense of being a city under siege — very moody. Everybody knows that this is not going to stand for much longer and everybody is waiting for something to happen. I was able to get in and out. There were some military checkpoints, but it’s not like there were troops massing outside to attack
Yemen: govt counter-offensive against Islamists continues
Residents of a town in southern Yemen overrun by radical Islamists say government shelling has killed more than 20 militants in the past two days.
Walid al-Hawshadi said Tuesday he saw a militants driving the bodies out of Jaar for burial. Other residents gave similar accounts.
More than five months of mass protests seeking to oust longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh have shaken security across Yemen. Radical groups linked to al Qaeda have overrun at least two towns in the country's south and government forces have been trying to force them out.
Reuters adds: Fuel shortages in Yemen will persist even after its oil pipeline and main refinery recently restarted, because tanker-hijacking tribes and an emerging black market threaten fuel supply and add to the country's instability. Yemen is only a small crude producer with a daily output of just 260,000 bpd of oil and modest liquefied natural gas sales. A mid-March attack by tribesmen on its main oil artery cut off crude to the 150,000 barrel per day Aden refinery, forcing it to shut, creating severe fuel shortages.
New Yemeni alliance seeks to oust Saleh
Yemen's mainstream opposition coalition has announced a new alliance that it says will unite all forces seeking to oust longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh and end months of violence. It is the second such group formed in days. An opposition spokesman Tuesday said the new "National Council for the Forces of the Revolution" will unify the demands of Yemen's often scattered anti-government forces to produce a stronger front.
Mohammed al-Sabri said the alliance includes opposition parties, defected military units, media and some of the youth protesters who have camped out in Yemen's public squares to demand that Mr. Saleh cede power. Youth groups and activists just days ago formed their own 17-member "transitional council" in a similar bid to force out Mr. Saleh.
The creation of two interim councils could further splinter Yemen's opposition in the fractious Arab Gulf country where Mr. Saleh – who survived a bomb attack in June – is clinging to 33 years in power. The Yemeni leader has refused to step down despite being severely wounded in last month's blast at his presidential compound. He has been receiving treatment in a Saudi hospital since the attack.
Somalia: Clinton hopes Shabaab will allow foreign aid
Statement from Secretary Clinton on growing famine: "The eastern Horn of Africa is prone to chronic food insecurity which has been exacerbated by a two-year drought. Crops have dried up, livestock have died, and food prices have been skyrocketing. In Somalia, twenty years without a central government and the relentless terrorism by al-Shabaab against its own people has turned an already severe situation into a dire one that is only expected to get worse. Even so, we remain cautiously optimistic that al-Shabaab will permit unimpeded international assistance in famine struck areas."
Gitmo: lawyers say US has forfeited right to execute man linked to Cole bombing
from CNN's Charley Keyes
Lawyers for a terror suspect detained at Guantanamo - linked by authorities to the bombing of the USS Cole - say that his waterboarding, and other mistreatment, and delays in his case should force the government to halt his pending military trial and possible death sentence.
The government says Abd al Rahim Hussayn Muhammad al Nashiri, was the mastermind behind the 2000 bombing that crippled the U.S. warship and killed 17 sailors.
But al-Nashiri’s lawyers have filed a brief with the Military Commission asking that the proceedings stop.
"By torturing Mr. Al Nashiri and subjecting him to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, the United States has forfeited its right to try him and certainly to kill him," the brief said. "Through the infliction of physical and psychological abuse, the government has essentially already killed the man it seized almost ten years ago."
Bahrain says torture allegations will be investigated
Allegations of torture against the Bahraini security forces made by the student poet Ayat al-Gormezi in an interview with The Independent are to be investigated by a special committee of the Interior Ministry.
Ms Gormezi had described how for nine days she was punched and beaten with a baton and electric cable so severely that she lost consciousness. She was threatened with rape or sexual molestation, kept in a freezing cell and forced to clean a lavatory with her bare hands. She says she was told by prison guards that one of those beating her was a woman member of the royal al-Khalifa family.
Ms Gormezi's family said she was called to give a statement to the committee set up by the Interior Minister in response to the article in The Independent yesterday about how she was treated in prison after her detention on 30 March.
Son of Florida imam key to raising funds for Pakistan Taliban
The son of a South Florida Muslim cleric was a key part of his father's alleged finance network for the Pakistani Taliban terror group and shared the older man's support for violent attacks, an FBI agent testified Tuesday.
Agent Michael Ferlazzo said at a bail hearing that 37-year-old Irfan Khan appears to advocate violence repeatedly on some of the more than 1,000 phone calls the FBI recorded between he and his father, brother and other alleged conspirators. On one call, Ferlazzo said, Irfan Khan referred to Pakistan's government as "big pimps."
"They're talking about violent opposition to the government," Ferlazzo said. On another call, the agent said, Irfan Khan seemed pleased that people feared the Pakistani Taliban "because of how lethal they had become."
Irfan Khan, his 24-year-old brother Izhar Khan and their father, 76-year-old Hafiz Khan, are charged along with three others – including Hafiz Khan's daughter, Amina – in Pakistan with four terrorism support-related crimes. Prosecutors say they funneled at least $50,000 to the Pakistani Taliban,