Monthly Archives: April 2011

Deadly Explosions Hit Cafe in Morocco

At least 14 people were killed and 20 injured Thursday – most of them tourists – when an explosion tore through a cafe in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, the state-run news agency said.

Initial clues gathered by investigators indicate that the blast is the result of an attack, according to the Maghreb Arabe Presse, citing the Interior Ministry. The attack appeared to target foreign visitors and could threaten Morocco’s roughly $8 billion tourism industry, a mainstay of its economy; more than 9 million people visited the country last year, according to statistics from the state news agency.

“Analysis of the early evidence collected at the site of the blast that occurred on Thursday at a cafe in Marrakesh confirms the theory of an attack,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement carried by the official MAP news agency. (Reuters)

Several French nationals were among the wounded, and Foreign Minister Alain Juppe issued a stiff condemnation of what he called a “barbarian terrorist attack which nothing can justify… Such an awful act can only bring indignation and undeserved condemnation. All light must be shed on this revolting crime, officials prosecuted, tried and punished,” said Juppe, who said French authorities will provide assistance to French nationals in Marrakesh. (CNN)

Witnesses told CNN the blast occurred at Cafe Argana in Place Jemaa el Fna, the popular bazaar and square that draws thousands of tourists every year.

“We were walking around the souks, right around the corner from Cafe Argana. We heard a gigantic boom, and everyone immediately starting running towards the square to see what happened,” according to a German tourist who was about 50 meters from the cafe when the blast occurred.The woman, who didn’t want her name used, told CNN the top floor and terrace of the cafe were “ripped apart” and hundreds of people ran from the area when they realized there was an explosion. The witness said rescuers were dispatched to the scene and the news agency and police opened an investigation to determine the exact causes.

“There was a huge bang,” one tourist in the square, Andy Birnie of London, told The Associated Press. “There was debris raining down from the sky. Hundreds of people were running in panic, some towards the cafe, some away from the square. The whole front of the cafe is blown away” (New York Times)

“You can’t find a more emblematic target than Jamaa el-Fnaa square,” said a Frenchman who owns a restaurant in the city. “With this attack amid the worrying unrest in the region, tourism will hit the doldrums for some time,” said the businessman, who did not want his name published.” (Reuters)

“I heard a very loud blast in the square. It occurred inside Argana cafe,” a Reuters photographer said. “When I approached the scene, I saw shredded bodies being pulled out of the cafe. The first floor bore the brunt of the damage while the ground floor was almost intact… There are a lot of police who, with forensics, are sifting through the debris.” (Reuters)

Moroccan government spokesman Khalid Naciri told French television that Thursday’s casualties involved a number of nationalities but he would not confirm any as yet. “We worked… on the hypothesis that this could… be accidental. But initial results of the investigation confirm that we are confronted with a true criminal act,” he said. Mr. Naciri later said that “terrorists” were behind the attack but added that it was “too soon” to give more details. (BBC)

A medical source told AFP news agency that 11 of the dead were foreigners, including five women, but this has not been independently confirmed. Moroccan TV said six French nationalists had been killed. Paris has confirmed that there were French victims, but gave no further details.

The office of President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the attack as “cruel and cowardly.” King Mohammed has ordered a “speedy and transparent inquiry” into the attack and demanded the public be informed of the results, a royal comminique said. (BBC)

It is not immediately known whether the attack was linked to the unrest across the Arab world or militant activity, although there have been some protests in Morocco lately. Thousands of Moroccans held a peaceful demonstration nationwide Sunday, calling for a radical overhaul of the country’s governance before a new constitution is unveiled in June by King Mohammed VI. The march was organized by the Facebook youth movement Fevrier 20. The group said its members would not accept the present draft constitution because it was written by the king’s own people. It denounced his decision to refer the new constitution to a committee he appointed.

King Mohammed announced last month he would give up some of his wide-scale powers and make the judiciary independent – the latter a particularly hot subject in Morocco. Calls for an end to political detention and questions about the king’s personal business activities were also on protesters’ banners. There was visible resentment at the royal family’s business operations, controlled by its holding company SNI. There were also groups protesting about the prices of basic household items.

The government is also facing violent challenges from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African branch of the terrorism network, which in recent years has gained a foothold in neighboring countries, and from the separatists in Western Sahara, a Moroccan-governed territory on the Atlantic coast.

The separatists, known as the Polisario Front and based in Algeria, have engaged in a simmering, decades-long conflict with the government. In November, in the desert city of Laayoune, knife-wielding gangs killed 11 unarmed Moroccan security officers.

The bombing on Thursday was the largest in Morocco since 2003, when 12 suicide bombers attacked five targets in Casablanca, killing 33 people; at the time, Moroccan officials blamed Al Qaeda for the attack.

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Afghan Pilot Opens Fire Inside NATO Compound, Killing 9 Americans

A veteran Afghan air force pilot opened fire Wednesday inside a NATO military base, killing eight U.S. service members and an American civilian contractor who had gathered for a morning meeting, Afghan and U.S. officials said.

The shooting was the deadliest in a string of recent killings carried out by members of the Afghan security forces against their colleagues and coalition partners. In April alone, there have been four separate attacks inside NATO or Afghan military bases by Afghan servicemen or insurgents dressed like them. And in another major security breach, nearly 500 prisoners were freed from a heavily guarded jail when Taliban insurgents tunneled into it – a mission that Afghan officials believe occurred with the cooperation of prison guards. Fourteen Americans have been killed this month by members of the Afghan military.

Taken together, the spate of fraternal violence points to a serious problem with the loyalty of some members of the Afghan security forces and their vulnerability to infiltration by the Taliban. The problem, for the moment, appears to have no simple solution. The Afghan military has begun an assessment to identify vulnerabilities in bases, register every member in a biometric database, and develop a counterintelligence force. But such members are time-consuming and still cannot prevent soldiers from spontaneously turning on their comrades and partners.

The attack Wednesday morning turned a routine meeting on the first floor of the Air Force building – on the military side of Kabul’s airport – into a scene of bloodshed and mayhem. The American advisers had gathered there as they do daily, according to Afghan officers present, when a pilot who had served for about two decades in the Afghan air force suddenly opened fire.

Another account, provided by a Defense Ministry spokesman, said the air force officer got into a heated argument during the meeting, left the room, then came back and started shooting.

From his third-floor office, an Afghan air force general heard the gunfire and saw people jumping out of windows to escape the fusillade. In addition to the Americans who were killed, an Afghan soldier died and five others were wounded. A U.S. reaction force surrounded the building and neighboring offices and prevented people from leaving while they secured the scene. “You cannot read someone’s mind,” said Colonel Bahader, who, like many Afghans uses only one name. He described the chaotic scene in which some soldiers and officers fled the barrage of bullets, jumping out of second- and third-floor windows. “They had minor injuries, and some were wounded with broken glass,” he said. (New York Times) “Suddenly, in the middle of the meeting, shooting started,” Col. Bahader told reporters. “After the shooting started, we saw a number of Afghan army officers and soldiers running out of the building. Some were even throwing themselves out of the windows to get away.” (BBC)

Another Afghan officer on the compound identified the shooter as Ahmad Gul. “I’m amazed. I have no idea why he would do this,” the officer said. (Washington Post)

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, but identified the assailant as a Taliban militant from a district of Kabul Province named Azizullah. A spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said in a telephone interview that the assailant “was living in Kabul and he got dressed in an Afghan military uniform, and when he ran out of ammunition he was killed by foreigners and Afghan soldiers.” (New York Times)

The Taliban said it had been working with the shooter for some time – an assertion that NATO denied. “We do not know why it started but there is no indication that a suicide bomber was involved and there are no reports that someone managed to get into the base to do this,” the NATO-led force said in a statement. (CNN)

Also denying the Taliban claim was the brother of the pilot. “My brother had no connections with the Taliban, and I deny any claims of his connection by the Taliban,” Dr. Mohammad Hosain Sahebi told a local Afghan TV station in a telephone interview. (CNN) He said his 48-year-old brother was in the Afghan Air Force for several years and was injured many times in plane crashes. The Afghan military, however, listed the pilot as being 50 years old. “My brother had mental sickness as the result of the plane crashes in 80s and also he had economic problems too,” Sahebi told local television. (CNN)

One witness, Jon Mohammad, a military pilot at Kabul Airport, told CNN that he jumped from a second floor window to the ground during the incident. He saw foreigners laying on the ground inside the first floor, he said. “He was a religious person, but I’m not sure if he had mental illness,” Mohammad said of Gull, the pilot. (CNN)

One Afghan air force intelligence officer at the meeting said the shooter opened fire with no warning and jumped out the window in a panic to escape, injuring his leg in the process, according to the officer’s son, Samin Haq Barwar.

The head of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General William Caldwell, said the program had “suffered a tragic loss from an attack, which occurred this morning, resulting in the deaths of nine coalition trainers.” (BBC)

The Afghan air force, with about 4,000 members, is the smallest and least developed of the Afghan security forces. It has a small fleet of cargo planes and helicopters, although Afghan defense officials have been pushing for the United States to buy the force fighter jets.

The other recent attacks carried out by Afghans in uniform have targeted the Afghan government and military, as well as foreign troops. Gunmen have penetrated the Ministry of Defense in Kabul, the Kandahar police headquarters and an Afghan army base in Laghman province. Earlier this week, the Taliban managed to free inmates from Kandahar’s largest prison by digging a tunnel into it from a house more than 1,000 feet away.

U.S. military officials say they have been expecting the Taliban to increase its efforts to infiltrate Afghan security forces – either to steal information or plan attacks. Officials generally classify such efforts in one of three ways: “pure” infiltration, when a recruit joins the security forces in order to carry out Taliban missions; “mimicry,” when an insurgent wears a security forces uniform as a disguise to gain access to bases; and “co-option,” when insurgents persuade a member of the security forces to help carry out a mission.

The gunman who opened fire in the Defense Ministry headquarters earlier this month was not a soldier but is believed to have been wearing an Afghan army uniform, while the suicide bomber who killed Kandahar’s provincial police chief was actually a member of the police force.

The suicide bombing at the army base in Laghman province, which killed fie American soldiers and four Afghan soldiers, was carried out by an Afghan soldier who had been on the force for 14 months, said a Western intelligence official.

In an earlier attack, an Afghan sergeant major admitted to orchestrating a suicide bombing after being promised by Badruddin Haqqani, a high-level insurgent in Pakistan, that a debt would be forgiven and he would receive $25,000 for his assistance.

In some cases, violence directed against the U.S.-led coalition and its Afghan allies appears to stem from personal problems rather than Taliban ties. The Afghan border police officer who killed six American soldiers in Nangarhar province in November had a fight with his father on the morning of the shooting. Later in the day, he reached a “boiling point” and opened fire, the Western intelligence official said. “The number of true infiltration are relatively small, but we predict they will attempt to increase that tactic during the year,” the official said. (Washington Post)


At Least 480 Inmates Tunneled out of Prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan

Hundreds of inmates, many of them insurgent fighters, slipped out of a southern Afghanistan prison early Monday through a nearly quarter-mile tunnel dug beneath the compound from the outside.

The Taliban issued a statement taking responsibility for the escape from the prison in Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed said digging the tunnel took five months. The escape took four and a half hours, he said. The Taliban claimed 541 prisoners escaped. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said the number of escaped prisoners was closer to 470. The Taliban said 106 of the escapees were military commanders, but there was no immediate government confirmation of the claim.

Monday’s break was the second dramatic escape at the prison in three years. In 2008, as many as 1,000 prisoners – nearly half of them Taliban members – escaped after militants detonated a truck bomb against the side of the prison compound.

The prison houses some of the country’s most dangerous Taliban prisoners, and the escape was an embarrassment for the Afghanistan government and its Western allies, according to CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen. “It’s, I think, quite a black eye for the U.S. and NATO and the Afghan government, who have put quite a lot of resources into trying to improve the prison systems, and here you have this massive prison break, with sadly, some pretty hardcore Taliban prisoners who escaped,” he said. (CNN)

“A tunnel hundreds of metres long was dug from the south of the prison into the prison and 476 political prisoners escaped last night,” said prison director General Ghulam Dastageer Mayar. (BBC)

One escapee told the BBC it had taken him about 30 minutes to walk the length of the tunnel. The escape took most of the night and vehicles were waiting at the exit point to take prisoners away. The diggers broke through to the cells late Sunday night. One inmate told the Associated Press that he and other inmates had obtained keys from “friends,” leading to speculation they had inside help. “There were four or five of us who knew that our friends were digging a tunnel from the outside,” said Mohammad Abdullah, who said he had been in the prison for two years for stockpiling weapons. “Some of our friends helped us by providing copies of the keys. When the time came at night, we managed to open the doors for friends who were in other rooms.” (CBC) The inmate said the militants quietly snuck out prisoners four or five at a time. His story could not be independently verified, but parts of his account were confirmed by government officials.
Qaril Yousaf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, said more than 100 of the escapees were insurgent militants and commanderes. “After we took them out from there, we picked them up in our vehicles to send them out of the government-controlled area,” Ahmadi said. (CBC)

The mass escape prompted a huge manhunt around Kandahar. Afghan authorities claimed 26 escapees had been recaptured and two had been killed. “Huge operations have been launched inside and on the outskirts of Kandahar city for the rest of them,” said Tooryalai Wesa, a Kandahar governor. (CBC) An area around the jail was cordoned off.

Waheed Omer, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, called the mass escape “bad news and a disaster.” (CNN) “This is a blow,” he told BBC. “A prison break of this magnitude, of course, points to a vulnerability.” (BBC)

Although the Taliban and some of the escapees were military commanders, it’s unlikely the escape will have a significant impact on military operations in Afghanistan, said Thomas E. Gouttierre, director of the Center of Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. “I don’t think I would see this as a big blow to Western efforts in Afghanistan,” he said. (CNN) Instead, he said Afghanistan’s government is likely to bear the brunt of criticism for failing to anticipate or prevent the escape, especially after previous escapes at this end and other prisons.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said the military command in Afghanistan had “not been asked by the Afghans to provide any assistance” such as intelligence help in looking for the escaped inmates. Asked if the incident would prompt a rethinking or delay in the planned June turnover of the Parwan detention operation in the east to Afghans, Lapan said: “I think it’s still too soon to tell. I have not gotten any indications of that, but it’s too soon to tell.” (Toronto Star)

In the 2008 escape, militants used a truck loaded with about two tons of explosives and driven by suicide drivers to blast holes in the mud brick walls of the prison. A gun and rocket battle followed, lasting several hours and ending with militants rushing into the prison on motorcycles to free prisoners, according to Taliban accounts of the attack. Nine guards, seven prisoners and one civilian were killed in the attack, according to the provincial government.

Security forces said they tried to back down the escaped prisoners, but said the large Taliban presence in the region and the numerous hideouts located there made it difficult to hunt down militants.

Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban and has been the site of fierce fighting between international forces and insurgents. It has been the site of numerous anti-Western demonstrations, recently over the burning of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, by a pastor in the United States.

On April 15, the police chief of Kandahar province was killed when a man wearing a military uniform detonated a bomb at the entrance to the police quarters.

In February, 10 people died when mines exploded at a playground during a picnic hosted by a former police commander. In a separate incident, 19 people, including 15 police officers, died when armed attackers targeted police headquarters.

After attacks on the country’s ministry of defense, the assassination of the police chief and now Monday’s prison break, Kandahar resident Kari Ghar said it’s “impossible to call this system a government… This is the worst possible weakness of the Afghan government that almost every single political prisoners escape from the central jail in Kandahar,” Ghar said. (CNN)


Insurgent Strike Inside Afghan Defense Ministry Kills 2

An insurgent killed two people in the Afghan Defense Ministry on Monday in the third attack on security installations in four days, with the violence likely to raise questions about military transition plans due to start this year.

A man in an Afghan army uniform opened fire in the ministry in central Kabul, killing two employees and wounding seven, said Defense Ministry spokesman Zaher Azimy.

A senior Afghan security official told the BBC that the attacker was wearing the uniform of a colonel in the Afghan National Army (ANA). He managed to pass through checkpoints outside and inside the ministry building with a weapon and suicide vest because he had a valid ID, the official added. After reaching the second floor of the building, he was confronted by bodyguards deployed there and a fire-fight erupted. The assailant was eventually killed, but not before he had shot dead two ANA soldiers and wounded seven others, including two senior aides. However, he was not able to detonate his suicide vest, the security official said. Local media have reported that there was an explosion. “The attacker was shot dead before he set off his explosives, and the situation is normal,” he said. (Reuters)

The attack comes months before the start of a transfer of security responsibilities from foreign to Afghan forces, and after NATO-led troops claimed solid progress in efforts to bolster the numbers and quality of the Afghan police and army. Under the gradual transition program, Afghan forces will begin by taking over from foreign troops in a few areas, but should have control of the whole country by the end of 2014.

But in recent days militants in security uniforms, or soldiers gone “rogue”, have penetrated some of the most important police and army installations in the country, in attacks likely to compound worries about the security handover.

Afghan forces are already riddled with problems, ranging from illiteracy to shortages of equipment and leaders, that will make meeting the 2014 deadline a challenge.

On Saturday, a suicide bomber in an Afghan army uniform got into a sprawling desert base in the east of the country and killed five foreign and four Afghan soldiers, the highest toll of NATO-led troops in a single attack for several months. Last Friday, a suicide bomber in police uniform evaded tight security at the police headquarters in Kandahar city and killed Khan Mohammad Mujahid, the police chief in the southern province of Kandahar. Both places are ringed by formidable defenses, but cash or commitment to the insurgent cause rendered the walls useless at keeping out militants.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the Monday attack on the ministry, saying they were targeting planned meetings with visited French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet. The French embassy said the minister was not in the building at the time of the shooting, but declined further comment on his schedule.

The incident also came the same day that Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived on an unannounced visit to Afghanistan to see U.S. troops.

The wounded included an assistant to the Defense minister and secretary of the army chief of staff, said Afghanistan’s Tolo TV, quoting unidentified ministry sources.

The attack in Kandahar showed the Taliban are still able to mount sophisticated raids in the center of the city, which gave birth to the insurgency and which has been a focus of military efforts by the United States and its international allies.

Although initial reports suggested the Kabul assault did not claim any senior victims, it was a psychological blow to the heart of the army, and a reminder of insurgents’ reach even in the center of the capital and when they are under stepped up pressure from NATO-led forces and a growing Afghan army.

The Defense Ministry lies near the Presidential palace and several other ministries. The road leading to the building was closed off on Monday afternoon, with even ministry employees turned away, but Azimy said the situation was under control.

“Clearly infiltration is something people worry about,” said one senior U.S. military official in Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity to address a sensitive topic. (Washington Post)

“The Afghans are taking this very seriously,” said another U.S. military official in Kabul. “They don’t want to see this stuff happen any more than anybody else does.” (Washington Post)

“They had bad intel,” said an official in the building, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the incident. “They were attacking empty offices.” However he later added that, “the reaction by the ANA guards was exceptionally disciplined.” (Washington Post)


Mubarak Detained in Hospital Amid Probe in Egypt

Egypt’s ousted president Hosni Mubarak was put under detention in his hospital room Wednesday for investigation on accusations of corruption, abuse of power and killings of protesters in a dramatic step that brought celebrations from the movement that drove him from office.

Mubarak’s two sons, Gamal and Alaa, were also detained for questioning and taken to Cairo’s Torah prison, where a string of former top government figures – including the former prime minister, ruling party chief and Mubarak’s chief of staff – are already languishing, facing similar corruption investigations.

The move was brought on by enormous public pressure on the ruling military, which was handed power when Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11. Tens of thousands protested in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square on Friday, the biggest rally in weeks, demanding Mubarak and his family be put on trial. Many in the crowd accused the military of protecting the former president.

In a brief audio message aired Sunday, Mubarak promised he and his family would account for everything they own. He said he agreed to allow the prosecutor to contact governments around the world to take “proper legal steps” to reveal whether he or his family own any property or real estate outside Egypt. (CNN)

The detention is a new landmark in the stunning fall of the 82-year-old Mubarak, who only months ago appeared unquestioned in his control of Egypt after nearly 30 years of rule. Even after his fall, he seemed untouchable, living with his family at a palace in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

On Tuesday night, Mubarak was taken to a hospital in Sharm el-Sheikh because of heart troubles, and so that his health could be monitored as he submitted to a first round of questioning by investigators. Hours later, the public prosecutor announced early Wednesday that Mubarak was ordered put under detention for 15 days for investigation. State TV reported that Mubarak is suffering from a “nervous breakdown.” (CNN)

He was to be flown later in the day to a military hospital outside Cairo, where he would remain in detention, a security official in Sharm el-Sheikh said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. But news agencies subsequently reported that the ex-ruler’s health had deteriorated to “unstable” condition, and it was not immediately known how that would affect his transfer.

The story dominated discussion in Egypt on Wednesday. One smiling taxi driver stopped in Cairo traffic, crossed his wrists in front of himself as if he was handcuffed and yelled “Mubarak ‘cuffed!’” in Arabic to strangers. (CNN)
Mubarak critics in Cairo cheered the news as well. “On the road to protecting the revolution,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, the former statesman and head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who became a critic of Mr. Mubarak and now a candidate to succeed him, in a Twitter message. “We now need to focus on achieving its goals.” (New York Times)

Abdullah El Ashaal, another presidential candidate and former foreign ministry official, argued that the military council ruling Egypt had acceded to the protesters’ demands to prosecute Mr. Mubarak in part to protect the military from public wrath. “The military wanted to put an end to all the suspicions surrounding it and to the accusation that they were with Mubarak and not with the revolution. Things had reached the point where people started to call for toppling Tantawi,” Mr. Ashaal said, referring to Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the military’s leader, who is now the de-facto head of state. “We want to see Mubarak executed,” Mr. Ashaal added. “Did Mubarak not execute the Egyptian people?” (New York Times)

Others were more cautious. “As gratifying as it is to hear that the unseated dictator has been interrogated and detained, we remain concerned about the lack of a transparent and predictable process for investigating and prosecuting past abuses, whether financial corruption or human rights violations,” Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and a leading civil rights advocate, wrote in an e-mail. “The only guarantee against politically motivated prosecutions and arbitrary trials is to establish a formal and credible process of transitional justice.” (New York Times)

The detention also marks a new chapter in Egypt’s still unsure transition to what protesters hope will be a democratic post-Mubarak future. Protesters had pushed hard for Mubarak’s prosecution, demanding what they called a clear signal that the corruption that pervaded his nearly 30-year rule would be definitively broken. Public outrage was widespread over allegations that large fortunes were skimmed off by top regime officials through shady deals over the years.

Beyond the anger has been the fear that Mubarak cronies are maneuvering to regain power as the country tries to work out democratic rule – and that the ruling military was not taking action to prevent them, or was even abetting them.

“I was so happy in the morning when I heard the news,” said Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the April 6 group, one of the movements that led the unprecedented 18-day protest movement against Mubarak. “All people are very happy because this step reassured them after a period of doubts and stagnation,” referring to doubts over the military’s intentions, he said. (CBC)

Worries over the military were intensified by a fierce pre-dawn raid on protesters in Tahrir Square on Saturday that killed at least one person.

The prosecutor’s announcement gave a momentary easing of tensions between the military and protesters. Following the prosecutor’s announcement, the coalition of youth groups that have organized the protests said it is canceling a planned new mass demonstration in Tahrir Square on Friday to demand Mubarak’s prosecution.

But the coalition underlined that there are still unfulfilled demands, including the dissolving of the former ruling party and the sacking of Mubarak-appointed governors as well as university deans and local city council, both seen as levers of his regime.

Activist Amr Bassiouny said in a Tweet that the detention was not the protesters’ primary goal but “free speech, free assembly, free press – no torture, real democracy, end of lies.” (CBC)

In its announcement, posted on the social networking site Facebook, the public prosecutor said Mubarak was under investigation into allegations of assaults, killings and injury of protesters, corruption, squandering of public funds and the abuse of authority for personal gain.

Hundreds were killed during the 18-day uprising against Mubarak, when people opened fire and cracked down on the crowds. Officials say 365 were killed, but a count by the Front to Defend Egypt Protesters, a group that provides medical and legal assistance to the demonstrators,  said 685 people died as of March 7.

Over the past decade, Gamal Mubarak had risen to the top ranks of the ruling party and was widely seen as his father’s designated succession. Anger over that prospect help galvanize Egypt’s protest movement. Gamal brought into government and the ruling party a number of top businessmen who led an economic liberalization program that brought in billions in foreign investment but also widened the gap between rich and poor. Several of those businessman-politicians now face trial or investigation for allegedly using their positions to amassing fortunes. On Wednesday, Gamal said he was in “total disbelief” over recent developments. (New York Times)

The turmoil in Egypt has also spawned scrutiny of the U.S.’s role in propping up Mubarak over the decades. Egypt has been one of the top three recipients of American aid for years, getting up to $2 billion annually in economic and military assistance, while critics say U.S. foreign policy sought to deter democracy there because of the likelihood that Islamists would win any fair elections.


NATO’s United Front over Libya Crumbles

France and Britain urged their NATO allies on Tuesday to do more to pressure Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi, with Paris chiding Germany for a lackluster effort and lamenting the limited U.S. military role. A top NATO general reported that the alliance was “doing a great job.” (CBC)

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé shredded NATO’s allied front Tuesday, saying its actions were “not enough” to ease the pressure on Libya’s rebel-held city of Misrata, which has been subject to weeks of bombardment by forces loyal to Gaddafi. (CBC) Juppé said NATO must do more to take out the heavy weaponry that Gaddafi’s forces are using to target civilians. “NATO must play its role fully,” Mr. Juppé said. “It wanted to take the lead on operations.” (BBC)

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague agreed that allies must “intensify” their efforts, but in a more diplomatic tone. “The U.K. has in the last week supplied additional aircraft capable of striking ground targets threatening the civilian population of Libya,” said Hague. “Of course, it will be welcome if other countries also do the same. There is always more to do.” (CBC)

French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet deplored that France and Britain carried “the brunt of the burden.” He complained that the reduced U.S. role – American forces are now in support, not combat roles in the airstrike campaign – have made it impossible “to loosen the noose around Misrata,” which has become a symbol of resistance against Gaddafi. Longuet also criticized Germany, which is not taking part in the military operation, and said Berlin’s commitment to back the humanitarian effort for Libyans was “a second chance” at best. (CBC) “Today we have no support in the ground attack role, without which there’s no chance of breaking the siege in towns like Misrata or Zenten,” he said. (BBC)

Germany does not take part in NATO’s military airstrikes in Libya because it sees the operation as too risky. Italy has also been reluctant to get involved in the airstrikes because, as Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has noted, it was the North African nation’s colonial ruler.

And the reduced U.S. role since NATO took over command on March 31 has also affected the operation. “Let’s be realistic. The fact that the U.S. has left the sort of the kinetic part of the air operation has had a sizable impact,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bidt. (CBC)

NATO Brig.-Gen. Mark Van Uhm sharply rejected French criticism of the operation in Libya, saying the North Atlantic military alliance is performing well and protecting civilians effectively. He said the alliance was successfully enforcing an arms embargo against Libya, patrolling a no-fly zone and protecting civilians there. “With the assets we have, we’re doing a great job,” Van Uhm told reporters. (CBC) However, he repeatedly declined to comment on reports that some alliance members were limiting their planes to patrolling the no-fly zone and prohibiting them from dropping bombs, saying that was a matter for governments to comment on.

NATO rejected the French and British criticism. “NATO is conducting its military operations in Libya with vigor within the current mandate. The pac of the operations is determined by the need to protect the population,” it said on Tuesday, according to Reuters.

NATO also said Tuesday that it destroyed or disabled four tanks near Zintan in western Libya and destroyed an ammunition storage site southwest of Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown. “We’re keeping pressure on to stop the violence,” Canadian Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard said in a statement. “This supports the aim of reducing the regime’s ability to harm their own people.” (CBC)

Gaddafi’s forces have retained their ability to attack the rebels throughout the conflict. On Tuesday, several rockets struck Ajdabiya, the main point leading into the rebel-held east, and witnesses also reported shelling in Misrata. Weeks of fierce government bombardment of Misrata have terrorized the city’s residents, killing dozens of people and leaving food and medical supplies scarce, according to residents, doctors and rights groups. International groups are warning of a dire humanitarian crisis in Libya’s third-largest city.

“Unfortunately, with the long-range war machines of Gaddafi’s forces, no place is safe in Misrata,” a medical official in Misrata told the Associated Press, asking that his name not be published for fear of reprisals. Six people were killed Monday and another corpse was brought in Tuesday, he said. (CBC)

When it came to providing humanitarian aid to Misrata, Britain, France and Italy all said some aid was getting through without special military protection.

“Humanitarian assistance is getting through to Libya, including to Misrata. That, so far, has not needed military assistance to deliver it,” Hague said. He said the task was huge. “Events in the Middle East are the most important events so far in the 21st century in the world, and the responsibility of the European Union is commensurate with the historic nature of those events,” Hague said. (CBC)

The 27-nation European Union said over the weekend it was ready to launch a humanitarian mission in Misrata soon, with possible military support, if it received a request from the UN.

IHH, an Islamic aid group in Turkey, said it would send an aid ship to Misrata on Wednesday carrying food, powdered milk, infant formula, medicines and a mobile health clinic. Separately, Van Uhm said two aid ships had already visited the city and another would arrive Tuesday. The IHH has a mission to assist Muslims in the Middle East region. It deployed dozens of activists, including doctors, two days after the Libyan uprising began in February and established a tent city and a soup kitchen at a Libyan border crossing with Tunisia.

NATO also denied a report made by Libyan state television that a strike by international forces killed civilians in the town of Kikia, south-west of Tripoli, on Monday. “We can confirm there was an air strike in that region. However, it was 21 km (13 miles) southwest of the town that was mentioned on Libyan TV, Kikia. And the target was two tanks,” Gen. Van Uhm said. (BBC)

On Monday, the rebels rejected a ceasefire proposal by the African Union (AU) which the organization said had been accepted by Col. Gaddafi. The rebel’s Transitional National Council (TNC) said it was unfeasible as it did not include a provision for the Libyan leader to step down, but the AU have urged them to reconsider. The plan included a call for immediate end to hostilities, unhindered humanitarian aid, protection of foreign nations, dialogue between opposing sides and an end to NATO air strikes.

A stalemate between government and rebel forces is emerging and could last for some time, according to a senior U.S. official with direct knowledge of the latest military assessments. The official agreed to speak Monday only on background because of the sensitive nature of the information. The official said the latest U.S. and NATO view is that both sides essentially remain in their fixed positions – the rebels near Ajdabiya and the pro-government forces near al-Brega. “Neither side has the wherewithal to move,” the official said. (CNN)

On the other side, another senior U.S. official who is familiar with administration contacts with the opposition said the opposition’s leadership seems to be sincere and earnest about its aim of toppling Gaddafi, but the leaders are not as organized as they need to be. They lack a detailed plan. The rebel forces and their abilities are “still a bit of a mystery,” the official said. “… Their resources are limited and their strategies and tactics are hard to fathom.” (CNN) While they are holding on to Ajdabiya for the moment, the senior official said it is hard to imagine them making any further gains toward Tripoli.

A spokesman for Libyan rebels rejected any suggestion of talks with Moussa Koussa, Gaddafi’s former intelligence chief who defected to Britain but left there on Tuesday for Qatar. Qatar is hosting a meeting of countries that have expressed support for the Libyan rebels, and British officials announced Tuesday that Mr. Koussa was headed there, presumably to take a role in trying to mediate between the rebels and the Gaddafi government.
“We are sending a delegation to Doha solely to meet with the contact group, but it’s not part of the agenda to meet with Mr. Koussa,” said Abdul Hafeed Ghoga, the spokesman for the National Transitional Council, at a news conference there. “It’s not something rejected or accepted.” The council is the rebel’s representative body. (New York Times) Mr. Ghoga, noting the rebels rejection of the AU delegation’s request to negotiate a cease-fire during a visit to Benghazi on Monday, said that the Gaddafi loyalists have shelled Misrata throughout delegation’s visit, proving their lack of good faith. The rebels have maintained steadfastly that they will not enter negotiations until Colonel Gaddafi and his sons relinquish power.

Mustafa Ghereini, another spokesman for the transitional council, declined to say whether the Libyan rebels had received any offers of military assistance from Western countries. Asked if he was encouraged by their response to such requests, he said, “That’s a national security matter. But the fact that Gaddafi has not been able to take Misrata with all his might is encouraging to us.” (New York Times)

“The Libyan government’s near siege of Misrata has not prevented reports of serious abuses getting out,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “We’ve heard disturbing accounts of shelling and shooting at a clinic and in populated areas, killing civilians where no battle was raging.” (New York Times) Human Rights Watch quoted a doctor at a Misrata Polyclinic Muhammed el-Fortia, as saying that loyalist forces had fired mortar rounds and sniper shots at the hospital, forcing its evacuation.


Japan Rattled by Aftershocks Month After Tsunami

With the ringing of bells and bowing of heads Monday afternoon, Japan marked the passage of a month since the deadliest earthquake and tsunami in its modern history. Buddhist monks at the Tsukiji Hongwanji temple in Tokyo struck their bells at 2:46 p.m., the time the March 11 earthquake struck off Japan’s northern coast.

The magnitude-9 quake sent walls of water slamming into the country’s Pacific shores, sweeping away whole villages and leaving more than 27,000 dead or missing.

In Youriso, a fishing village north of the quakes epicenter, Japanese troops stopped their ongoing search for bodies, took off their hats and safety helmets and bowed their heads to observe a nationwide minute of silence. Of the town’s population of 400, 12 died in the tsunami and 150 remain in shelters. “I recalled the relatives I lost in the tsunami,” one woman, Fusako Endo, told CNN. “I had all those people washed away in my mind when we all stopped.”

As of Monday afternoon, the death toll from the disaster stood at 13,127, according to Japan’s National Police Agency. Another 14,348 remained missing, and 4,793 were injured.

“Even after a month, I still cry when I watch the news,” said Marina Seito, 19, a student at a junior college who recalled being in a basement restaurant in Sendai when the original 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit on March 11. Plates fell and parts of the ceiling crashed down around her. (CBC)

“My chest has been ripped open by the suffering and pain that this disaster has caused the people of our prefecture,” said Yuhei Sato, the governor of Fukushima, which saw its coastal areas devastated by the tsunami and is home to the damaged plant at the centre of the nuclear crisis. “I have no words to express my sorrow.” (CBC)

In the industrial town of Kamaishi, Iwate Gov. Takuya Tasso led a moment of commemoration as a loud siren rang through a high school gymnasium being used as a shelter. He bowed while people who have lived their since the tsunami kneeled on makeshift futons, bowed their heads and clasped their hands. The school’s students will return to classes Tuesday, even though 129 people are living in their gym. Some, like 16-year-old Keisuke Shirato, wore their baseball uniforms for Monday’s ceremony. Shirato’s family was not affected by the tsunami, but half of his teammates lost their homes. “A new school year starts tomorrow,” Shirato said. “Hopefully that will help give people hope and allow them to look toward a new start.” (CBC)

In addition, at least two deaths and 283 injuries have been blamed on an aftershock, a magnitude-7.1 tremor that rattled the islands Thursday night. Japanese troops launched an extensive search for more victims in the coastal prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima over the weekend.

On Monday, another powerful earthquake – followed by a series of smaller quakes – rocked northeastern Japan.

A 16-year-old girl has been killed. Authorities say the latest earthquake collapsed the girl’s house in Iwaki. Three houses collapsed and up to seven people were believed trapped inside. Police said a girl was found dead inside, and three other people were rescued. Their condition, and the fat of the others, was not immediately known.

The jolt from the magnitude-6.6 quake was felt in Tokyo, about 164 kilometers (101 miles) away, or about 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

In addition to the devastation that the March 11 disaster unleashed, it also knocked out power to the crippled plant – triggering a crisis that Japanese authorities have yet to resolve. Two explosions, a fire and the continuous pumping of water into the reactors have spread radioactive particles over a wide area of the land and sea surrounding the plant. Everyone within a 20-kilometer (12.5-mile) radius of the plant was ordered to evacuate, and those living between 20 and 30 kilometers were told to stay indoors.

Both the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan and the plant’s owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, have faced increasing questions over their handling of the disaster but can’t say at this point when they expect to bring it to an end.

Japan’s government marked the one-month period by putting an ad in newspapers in China, South Korea, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States – a letter from Prime Minister Naoto Kan thanking people for the outpouring of support that followed the tsunami. The Red Cross alone said it has collected $102 million Cdn from overseas. “Through our own efforts and with the help of the global community, Japan will recover and come back even stronger,” he said “We will then repay you for your generous aid… With this in our hearts, we now stand together dedicated to rebuilding the nation.” (BBC)

Kan described the outpouring as “kizuna,” the bond of friendship. “We deeply appreciate the kizuna our friends from around the world have shown and I want to thank every nation, entity, and you personally, from the bottom of my heart.” (CBC)

Video taken by a pair of freelance journalists in the town of Futaba, about 3 kilometers away, showed stray dogs wandering the streets – and one, horrifyingly, still chained. The photographers, Shuji Ogawa and Naomi Toyoda, gave some of their food to the animal before leaving.

Some of the dozens of Futaba residents now living in a shelter in Kozo, north of Tokyo, watched the video and came away convinced they would never return to their hometown again. Nobuyuki Araki was roused to anger when he saw a Tokyo Electric sign touting the “bright future” of nuclear power. “That sign was a lie,” Araki said. “For the last 40 years, TEPCO has only been saying nuclear power is safe, that there’s no chance of a meltdown. We – the people of Futaba – feel we’ve all been betrayed.” (CNN)

But at a news conference Monday, Yukio Edano, Kan’s chief Cabinet secretary and the government’s point man on the crisis, defended authorities’ performance over the past month. “I believe we have done our utmost under the current system in supporting the victims of the earthquake, as well as handling the nuclear power plant situation,” Edano said. “However, we must not forget people are still suffering, and we must realize what they are going through.” (CNN)

Edano said the new evacuations would take place over the coming month, from areas including Iitate village, which lies 40 km from the power station, and part of the city of Kawamata. “This is not an emergency measure that people have to evacuate immediately,” he told a news conference, but added that there were concerns about long-term health risks. (BBC)

During a visit to Fukushima on Monday, TEPCO chief Masataka Shimizu apologized for the nuclear accident. The people who live near the plant are “suffering physically and mentally due to the nuclear radiation leak accident,” he said. “We sincerely apologize for this,” he said. (BBC)

“I would like to deeply apologize again for causing physical and psychological hardships to people of Fukushima prefecture and near the nuclear plant,” said the grim-faced Shimizu. (Reuters)

A nuclear safety official said repeated strong aftershocks were slowing work at the plant, and said that if one of them were to spawn a tsunami, the complex would be just as vulnerable as on March 11. “At the moment, no tsunami resistance has been added to the plant. At the moment, there is nothing we can do about it,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. (CBC)

Using emergency pumps to cool the nuclear fuel rods within the reactors and in spent-fuel pools above the reactors has been a top priority for TEPCO since March 11, since that tsunami damaged the reactors’ usual circulation systems. But Monday’s aftershock appeared to have exposed a big vulnerability in that approach.
The backup power and pumping systems that have been brought to the plant since March 11, including emergency diesel generators, fire trucks on standby and other generator trucks – all require workers to operate them manually, according to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. That makes them useless when workers must evacuate away from the reactors.

Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of the Nuclear and Industrial Saftey Agency, Japan’s nuclear watchdog, acknowledged the lack of an automatic backup power supply, but did not offer any solutions.

Meanwhile, pumping hundreds of tons of water a day into the reactors has produced harmful runoff of highly contaminated water, some of which leaked into the Pacific Ocean earlier this month. Plant workers have now plugged that leak and are capturing the runoff in various storage tanks at the plant. However, as the tanks fill up, TEPCO has had to release lower-level radioactive water into the ocean to make room.