Afghan election on track despite security worries
By David Brunnstrom / June 27, 2005
KABUL (Reuters) - Voter registration for Afghanistan's September elections has been overwhelming and the polls are on track despite security worries including an attack on a registration site at the weekend, organizers said on Monday.
No one was hurt in the attack in the southeastern province of Paktika early on Saturday, but police battled gunmen for several hours, delaying its opening, Bronwyn Curran, a spokeswoman for the Afghan-U.N. election commission, told a news briefing.
She said security and other problems, such as sandstorms and flooding, had prevented registration at 59 of 1,052 stations nationwide, but 73,000 people had registered in the first two days of the month-long process that began on Saturday.
More than 10.6 million people registered for October's presidential polls won by Western-backed incumbent Hamid Karzai. The parliamentary elections are on Sept. 18.
Organizers aim to register up to two million more by July 21 who were not old enough for the October vote, have not previously registered, have lost their registration cards, or have moved.
Curran called the progress remarkable.
"We are now three days into the voter registration with an overwhelming response," she said. "We are quite well advanced with the electoral process, so despite security problems, we are well on track."
She said several districts of the insurgent-troubled southern province of Zabul were among those where registration could not take place as helicopters were not able to fly in with materials.
Briefing the U.N. Security Council on Friday, U.N. Special Representative for Afghanistan Jean Arnault said worsening security had had a negative impact on poll preparations.
He said combat operations were not enough to beat militant destabilization strategies and it was necessary to attack their financing, training safe havens, and support networks. He welcomed recent contacts with Pakistan on this.
Curran said security was being assessed day by day, but it was not envisaged that a delay in the vote would be necessary.
"Despite the security challenges around Afghanistan and obviously escalating level of violence, none of the key phases of the election have been delayed so far," she said.
Registration began after a major anti-Taliban operation last week which the government said killed 178 guerrillas, what would be one of their bloodiest setbacks since their 2001 overthrow.
On Sunday the Taliban rejected the figure, saying it had lost only seven or eight men. U.S. military spokesman Colonel Jim Yonts said U.S. estimates were of 77 guerrilla dead and 13 captured, but government figures could be more accurate.
In the southern province of Helmand, meanwhile, the provincial governor said troops had captured eight Taliban guerrillas, including two commanders, at the weekend.
Haji Mohammad Wali named the commanders as Mullah Fazlulhaq, who he said had recently been appointed Taliban commander for the province, and a district commander, Mullah Shair Mohammad.
He said they were caught with five remote-control bombs and the other guerrillas were captured after a search force of 450 men was sent to Kajakai, Nauzad and Khan Nishin districts.
Yonts told a news briefing last week's operation, where Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul provinces meet, showed the ability of Afghan forces to deny sanctuary to the guerrillas.
U.S. and Afghan forces have reported killing more than 200 insurgents this month and nearly 400 since March.
While the latest operations appear to have been a blow to the Taliban, it remains to be seen how much damage has been done to an insurgency that has picked up with a vengeance since the end of the winter and which analysts say has been attracting hundreds of new recruits from Pakistan and elsewhere.
American forces reassert control in a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan
Associated Press / June 26, 2005
Skimming low over the desert in helicopters with guns at the ready, American troops advanced into the Khakeran Valley in southern Afghanistan on Sunday, three months after Taliban rebels attacked police and forced them to flee.
The move is the latest part of a strategy to reassert U.S.-led coalition and Afghan control over an insurgent stronghold, after a spate of attacks raised fears of an Iraq-style insurgency here. Blistering U.S. assaults against nearby mountainous rebel camps last week left 178 suspected militants dead.
Up to 300 insurgents are suspected to be in the Khakeran Valley, about 220 kilometers (130 miles) northeast of the main southern city of Kandahar, said Lt. Luke Langer, a platoon leader in the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade.
"The enemy has been using the Khakeran Valley as a sanctuary," he said. "Without question, I know the Taliban are in the area and I'm sure we will make contact. From talking to local people, we know the enemy are very angry with us being here."
Flying in a convoy of two CH-47 Chinook helicopters, a Blackhawk and two Apache attack choppers, about 50 American troops hopped up the river valley from village to village in search of the rebels.
At the first hamlet, the soldiers rushed from the aircraft as a handful of mangy chickens scampered away in clouds of billowing dust. A few farmers stood around and watched with nervous, but curious, looks on their faces as the troops searched the few mud huts and fields of wheat and tomatoes that made up their community. Nothing suspicious was found.
A report then came through on the radio that a group of suspected rebels had been spotted milling around in the next village. The troops ran back to the helicopters and flew toward it, below the brows of the barren, sun-scorched hills that border the valley.
They landed out of sight of the village, and a small scouting party sneaked off to get a closer view. The other troops waited, ready to attack if the presence of insurgents was confirmed. But then word came back: the group of people weren't rebels, but guests at a local wedding.
Back on the helicopters the troops went, and they flew to Mangal Khan, the main village in the valley, which used to house a local police contingent before the Taliban attacked in March and the officers fled.
They landed on the outskirts of the village and walked in, searching houses as they went. Two men were led out of one of the homes with their hands tied. The troops declined to say why they were suspects.
The soldiers walked into the remains of the local police station, its windows smashed, its walls partly burned and pocked with bullet holes. A meeting was then called with the village elders, and sitting in the yard in the shade of a tree, next to a rusting anti-aircraft gun, the American commander announced that they weren't leaving.
"We are here to stay. We are going to rebuild this police station," Capt. Michael Kloepper told the villagers.
Then, speaking to The Associated Press, he outlined his approach to his job in Afghanistan.
"I came here to help the people, but I also came here to kill the Taliban," he said. "I like fighting the Taliban."
About 465 suspected insurgents have been reported killed since the start of a major upsurge in fighting in March when snows melted on mountain tracks used by the rebels. In the same period, 29 U.S. troops, 38 Afghan police and soldiers and 125 civilians have been killed.
The biggest loss for the insurgents was in the three-day barrage by American aircraft against rebel camps in the Miana Shien district of Kandahar province last week. While about 80 militants, including two top Taliban commanders, are still thought to be in the area, dozens of others are believed to have fled _ some possibly toward Khakeran Valley.
American spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara said troops were operating across the whole region, "taking away enemy sanctuaries."
"The enemy forces are not dumb. So when they get a sense that we're doing an operation in area 'X,' they will move onto area 'Y,'" he said. "It is our goal to be in area 'Y' before they set anything up."
Associated Press correspondent Daniel Cooney in Kabul contributed to this report.
Afghan Taliban rejects reports of heavy losses
June 26, 2005
KABUL (Reuters) - A senior Taliban commander on Sunday dismissed as false Afghan government reports that 178 guerrillas were killed in a U.S.-backed offensive in southwestern Afghanistan last week.
Mullah Dadullah, one of two top Taliban commanders the government said had been surrounded in the fighting, telephoned Reuters to say that only seven or eight guerrillas had been killed, including one commander, Mullah Mohammad Easa.
Speaking by satellite phone from an undisclosed location, Dadullah said the guerrillas had killed about 20 Afghan police and army troops and 14-18 from the U.S.-backed foreign force hunting militants in Afghanistan.
"The government was claiming that it killed 178 Taliban," he said. "That is not true."
"The government was claiming that it had surrounded Mullah Dadullah, Mullah Brother, Mullah Adbul Hanan, Mullah Abdul Basir and Mullah Abdul Hakim and that they would soon arrest or kill them," he said. "This was completely wrong."
The Defence Ministry said on Thursday that Dadullah and Brother, members of the Taliban leadership council led by elusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and the three other commanders were surrounded in an area where the provinces of Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul meet.
It later said they appeared to have escaped.
The government has said that most of the guerrillas were killed by U.S. air strikes, in what by its figures would have been one of the bloodiest setbacks for the Taliban since their 2001 overthrow by U.S.-led forces.
It said three of its troops were killed in the operation and three hurt, while the U.S. military said six of its soldiers were slightly wounded.
Dadullah also said the guerrillas had shot down two U.S. helicopters in the fighting.
The U.S. military said two of its Chinook helicopters were damaged by small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire during fighting on Tuesday and one had to make an emergency landing, but both returned to base without casualties.
The U.S. military on Wednesday gave an estimate of 40-50 guerrillas dead in the fighting but then referred reporters to the Afghan authorities for updates on casualties.
U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban government after it refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, but three-and-a-half years on, they have been unable to subdue the insurgency or catch bin Laden.
U.S. and Afghan forces have reported killing more than 200 insurgents in the past week alone and nearly 400 since March as they move to prevent guerrilla efforts to derail Sept. 18 parliamentary elections.
Hi-tech SAS troops take on Taliban
Michael Smith The Sunday Times (UK) June 26, 2005
UP TO two squadrons of British special forces are preparing to go to Afghanistan within weeks to provide the reconnaissance for an expected British deployment of more than 5,000 troops.
The men from the SAS and the new Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) will form a combined joint taskforce with members of the Australian SAS, according to senior defence sources. A company of British paratroopers will provide backup.
The British special forces of about 120 men will be based in the southern province of Kandahar ahead of a 5,500-strong infantry battle group expected to be sent early next year. There are currently 1,100 British troops in Afghanistan.
The British and Australian special forces will fan out across the territory to be covered by the British battle group. They will identify the most serious threats in the region and gather intelligence on any Taliban activity.
The troops face a hostile environment, with Taliban fighters regrouping in southern Afghanistan backed up by members of Al-Qaeda, including specially trained suicide bombers.
Last week RAF Harriers based at Kandahar joined US aircraft in providing support to American and Afghan forces in clashes in which 132 Taliban fighters were reported killed.
During their operations the SAS troopers will be assisted by the improved intelligence provided by a squadron from the SRR, which was formed this year to help in the fight against international terrorism.
Special forces commanders were warned months ago that they should be ready for Afghanistan. Senior commanders prepared what one source last week described as demands for “new Gucci kit” — requests for the latest equipment to spy on and fight the enemy.
The equipment, bought as a result of lessons learnt from the first SAS deployment during the war in Afghanistan, includes a spy plane the size of a child’s glider.
The American-made drone is launched by hand, can reach heights of about 100ft and operates to a range of more than five miles.
The SRR intelligence operators also have lightweight signals equipment capable of picking up mobile phone and radio communications.
The British will also be taking so-called “fire-and-forget” electronic jammers that can be planted at various strategic points to provide blanket disruption of Taliban and Al-Qaeda communications.
The intelligence operators will have laptop computers linked to the larger US drones such as the Predator and Global Hawk and to American aerial reconnaissance satellites to download imagery of Taliban positions.
They are also expected to take a number of Supacat six-wheel, all-terrain vehicles, which have powerful turbocharged V8 diesel engines. The vehicles will be fitted with a grenade launcher that acts like a scatter gun, allowing the SAS to regain the initiative if they are ambushed by Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters.
The composition of the battle group heading for Afghanistan has not yet been decided. Military commanders were hoping to send 19 Light Brigade, the new light infantry formation, to form the main British force. But Brigadier Chip Chapman, its commander, has said he does not believe it will be operational in time.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have led to a change in tactics for the SAS, which has traditionally worked in small patrols of four men. Teams now vary in size and some of the operations during the Afghan war were the largest mounted since the 1970s.
Conditions 'better' at Guantanamo
Sunday, 26 June, 2005 BBC News
Members of the US Congress who toured Guantanamo Bay prison have said that conditions there are improving, despite renewed calls for its closure.
Their visit came at a time of growing concern that treatment of prisoners there is harming America's image.
More than 500 non-Americans - many captured during the war in Afghanistan and declared "enemy combatants"- are being detained at the facility.
Only four current inmates have been charged with any crime.
On Saturday 16 Representatives who sit on the House Armed Services Committee toured the prison, at a naval base on Cuba, during a one-day fact-finding trip.
California Democrat Ellen Tauscher, who has pushed for greater transparency about the facility, told AP news agency there had been progress since reports about alleged human rights abuses.
"The Guantanamo we saw today is not the Guantanamo we heard about a few years ago," she said.
"What we've seen here is evidence that we've made progress," said Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat who believes the facility should close.
But legislators agreed that more needed to be done to ensure a legal framework to deal with detainees, some of whom have been held for three years without charge.
The group toured cell blocks and ate lunch with troops, a meal of chicken with orange sauce, rice and okra that was also served to inmates.
They watched the interrogation of three suspects, including one in which a detainee was read a Harry Potter book aloud for hours until he turned his back and put his hands over his ears.
None of the detainees was physically touched.
United Nations human rights investigators last week urged the US to allow them to inspect the facility.
They said there were "persistent and credible" reports of "serious allegations of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees".
In response, Vice-President Dick Cheney told CNN that the detainees were well treated, well fed and "living in the tropics".
White House officials say there are no plans to close the facility because, they say, the detainees are too dangerous to release while the fight against terrorism continues.
Pakistan president sceptical of US claims it has located bin Laden
Sun Jun 26, 4:56 AM ET
DUBAI (AFP) - Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf dismissed as "speculation" claims by senior US officials that they know where Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden is hiding, in remarks reported.
"Any talk about his whereabouts is mere speculation," Musharraf told the Emirati daily Al-Khaleej.
"Some are saying that bin Laden is in Pakistan, and what I want to tell them is: Please come and tell us where he is. Anyone can say that he (bin Laden) is anywhere, so why talk about his presence here (in Pakistan)?"
US and Afghan officials have previously said they think bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda kingpins are hiding out in the mountains on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But last week, US ambassador in Kabul Zalmay Khalilzad said that bin Laden was not in Afghanistan.
On Thursday, US Vice President Dick Cheney said he had "a pretty good idea" of where bin Laden was hiding, echoing comments by Central Intelligence Agency director Porter Goss, who said he had an "excellent idea".
Neither official specified in which country they believed they had located the Al-Qaeda leader.
The Pakistani president has been on a visit to Saudi Arabia which he was due to wrap up later Sunday.
Pakistani soldier kills two tribesmen in suspected revenge attack
Associated Press / June 26, 2005
A paramilitary soldier fatally shot two tribesmen with his official assault rifle in a suspected revenge attack in a northwestern tribal region in Pakistan, officials said Sunday.
The Frontier Corps soldier, Noor Janan, fired on a pickup truck carrying the tribesmen near Wana, the main town in the South Waziristan tribal region, on Saturday, said Mohammed Wisal Khan, a local government official.
One of the shooting victims, a 35-year-old man identified as Noor Hassan, was a bodyguard for Nek Mohammed, a local militant chief suspected of sheltering al-Qaida fighters, an intelligence official said on condition of anonymity.
Nek Mohammed and six others were killed in a missile strike by the Pakistani army on their hideout near Wana last June.
Janan has been taken into custody, the official said, adding that Janan had told interrogators he killed Hassan to avenge the killing of his brother, also a soldier, in an operation against militants in the region last year.
The other victim of the attack was a ninth grade school student but his identity was not known.
Military officials say hundreds of Arab, Afghan and Central Asian Islamic militants, allegedly linked to al-Qaida, are hiding in South and neighboring North Waziristan.
Pakistan _ an ally of the United States in the war against terrorism _ has carried out several operations in the area bordering Afghanistan, to track down the fighters.
Afghanistan seeks help from Sri Lanka to rebuild damaged Buddha statues
COLOMBO, June 27 (Xinhua) -- Afghanistan has urged the Sri Lankan government to help the country rebuild the Buddhist statues destroyed during the former Taliban regime, the Local Website Lankapage said on Monday. The country asked for the assistance of Buddhist scholars and the Department of Archaeology from Sri Lanka in the task of reconstructing the Buddha statues.
Sri Lankan Deputy Foreign Minister Visva Warnapala said the Afghanistan government made the request when he met Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Haider Reza and Deputy Minister of Labor Walmohe Rasooli in Colombo recently. They also asked for Sri Lanka's assistance to develop the health, trade and higher education sectors, the minister said.
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