Monthly Archives: May 2011

Protesters, Fighting Continue in Yemen

Security forces are using bulldozers and fire to dismantle demonstrators’ camps in Freedom Square in Taiz, a center of protest against the Yemeni president, a human rights activist and eyewitnesses said Monday.

The protest camp was essentially gone on Monday, said Bushra Maktati, a leading human rights activist in Taiz. A field hospital was also dismantled, with the equipment taken away by troops, Maktati said. Troops also used water cannons to disperse thousands of protesters in the city on Monday, a day after clashes left at least 20 people dead and 200 wounded, according to eyewitnesses and two medical officials who could not be named because of security concerns.

One youth activist said the attacks would not stop their protesters. “Our revolution will not stop even if hundreds are killed every day,” said Sameer Al-Samaee, a leading youth activist in Taiz. “Killing innocent civilians always leads to war crime charges and that is what we are seeking for Saleh.” (CNN)

A doctor in the city, Abdulkadir al-Gunaid, told the BBC that security forces were erasing all traces of the protests in Freedom Square. “They attacked, shot at people, burned their tents. The square had a big stage to make speeches and to make plays and songs, loudspeakers and this sort of thing… They killed them [protesters] and at 0300, they brought bulldozers and finished it all. There is nothing there. They are even cleaning it so no one can guess that there was anything like that before.” (BBC)

Activist Bushra al-Maqtari told AFP news agency: “This was a massacre. They have dragged the wounded off to detention centers from the streets.” (BBC)

Meanwhile, government forces launched airstrikes against Islamic militants in the coastal city of Zinjibar, where fierce fighting raged Sunday.

And the nation’s largest cell phone network was ordered shut down Sunday, according to a senior official with the country’s Communications Ministry who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. The SABAFON network was ordered shut down because of violations and unpaid fines over the last few years, the Communications Ministry official told CNN. A management official with the SABFON network, who was also not authorized to speak to the press, confirmed the shutdown. The official denied the government’s allegations and said the move appeared to be a tactic to pressure members of the al-Ahmar family, including Hamid al-Ahmar – President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s chief political enemy. The official said members of the al-Ahmar family are majority shareholders in SABAFON, with the largest shareholder being Hamid al-Ahmar.
Saleh has been under intense pressure to resign after months of protests and mounting opposition.

Taiz, where protests continued Monday, has been a center of anti-Saleh activity. The most recent protests broke out Sunday when thousands of protesters broke out Sunday when thousands of protesters took to the streets and were met with gunfire from security forces. Protesters threw rocks at the forces, who responded with more gunfire, witnesses said.

Protesters threw rocks at the forces, who responded with more gunfire, witnesses said. The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa condemned what it called the “unprovoked and unjustified attack” on demonstrators in Taiz. It praised the protesters and called on Saleh “to move immediately on his commitment to transfer power.” (CNN)

On Monday, security forces were arresting youths and taking them from the streets to an unknown location, the human rights activist said. At least 70 tents had been burned down by security forces since late Sunday night, according to witnesses.

A hospital within the protest area was looted early Monday, forcing the wounded to seek assistance further away, said Abdulkafi Shamsan, a doctor there. He said about 15 soldiers held nurses at gunpoint as they smashed computers, stole medical supplies and detained several injured patients. “They even shot their guns inside the hospital,” he said. “I was in the operation room, I went downstairs and I saw everything destroyed.” (New York Times)

Abdu Ganadi, a government spokesman, said security forces were rescuing colleagues who had been captured and beaten by protesters. “We did not attack the protesters,” Ganadi said. “Reports are all exaggerated. Only two were killed.” (CNN) He said the protesters’ tents were burned by people attacked by the protesters, and that tents that burned were empty.

The opposition coalition Common Forum condemned the “crimes against humanity” committed by President Saleh’s “remaining responsible for his continued crimes against people. These crimes do not get forgotten with time,” the forum said in a statement. “They are being monitored and documented, and those who have committed them, and who provided arms and money, will not escape justice.” (BBC)

In Zinjibar, fighting continued Monday between Yemeni troops and Islamic militants. Militants moved into the city on Friday and controlled the streets by Saturday, residents said. The militants began ferocious attacks on Saturday, according to a Yemeni government official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Security forces and soldiers abandoned their posts, leading to chaos, the source said.
Hundreds of soldiers moved back into the city on Sunday, with heavy fighting between militants and the Army’s 25th Mechanized Brigade, the source said.

More than two dozen soldiers had been killed since the start of the battle on Saturday, said a government source Sunday who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The fighting occurred on the same day Saleh met with top military and security officials to talk about “hostilities and crimes” occurring in his country, the Yemeni State News Agency reported. (CNN)

Saleh has been resisting protests calling on him to step down after 33 years in power. The powerful al-Hashid tribe, which includes the al-Ahmar family, rose up against long-time leader Saleh in the last week, after he backed out of a regionally brokered deal meant to ease him out of office and end months of demonstrations of the kind that have swept the Arab world this year. The recent fighting has raised fears of a full-blown civil war in Yemen, an impoverished, arid and mountainous nation that has been a key U.S. ally in the battle against the al Qaeda terrorist network.


Volcanic Ash Cancels 370 European Flights

About 370 flights to and from Scotland and Northern Ireland were cancelled Tuesday as a cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano continued to affect air travel. Brian Flynn, head of network operations at Eurocontrol, the European air traffic agency, warned that up to 500 flights could be affected, including in some Scandinavian countries.

In Norway, two daily flights between the mainland and the Arctic islands of Svalbard cancelled until further notice. Occasional flights to and from Iceland and Stavanger in western Norway have also been cancelled. Air Greenland cancelled two daily flights between Greenland and Copenhagen after Greenland airspace partly closed. Air Iceland cancelled flights to and from three destinations in Greenland. In Denmark, authorities said airspace was closed in the northwestern part of the country, while ash caused some delays and cancellations in Copenhagen.

In Edinburgh, meanwhile, several hundred passengers faced either a patient wait or overnight stays in the city. “I’ve been told I’ll get home tomorrow, but who knows,” said Kgeld Westh, an architect from Copenhagen. He was heading to a hotel in Edinburgh after his flight was cancelled. (Toronto Star)

Among the crowds at the airport were soccer fans heading to Dublin for the international match between Scotland and Ireland. “If all else fails we’ll make our way by train and ferry,” said Gary Clark, from Hamilton near Glasgow wearing a kilt and a Scotland shirt. (Toronto Star)

In Ireland, a couple who were due to fly to Edinburgh for a friend’s wedding were told their flight had been cancelled. Anne and Damien Farrell decided on the spot to reclaim the car they’d parked in Dublin Airport’s long-term parking lot, drive the 160 kilometers north to Belfast, and take the ferry to the Scottish port of Stranraer. “Fortunately we have a day of lead-in time before the wedding party gets going, otherwise we’d be up a certain creek without a paddle,” said Damien Farrell, 29. (Toronto Star)

As of mid-day Tuesday, Heathrow airport had not been affected, CBC reporter Nahlah Ayad said in an interview from London. “The good news is that so far, the European transport officials are saying that they don’t expect this to last as long as last time or to be as bad as last time partly because the concentration of the ash itself will be low compared to last time and also experts are saying that the particles in this ash cloud are heavier than last time so they’re falling faster and closer to Iceland than they did last time.” (CBC)

The latest volcanic eruption in Iceland has so far not packed the same punch as last year’s. In April 2010, another volcanic eruption grounded planes across northern Europe for five days, stranding some 10 million travelers. Thousands of flights were grounded and airlines lost millions of dollars after the Eyjafjallajokull volcano blew.

This time, there seems to be a more measured response. While flights have been cancelled in Scotland, airports remain open. And airlines are being given more leeway in deciding whether its safer for their planes to fly.

“We are still looking at a very challenging week for passengers and for the airlines,” Siim Kallas, the European Union transportation commissioner, said in a statement. “Although we are partly dependent on the weather and the pattern of ash dispersion, we do not at this stage anticipate the widespread airspace closures and the prolonged disruption we saw last year.” (New York Times)

Because of what happened last year, British government officials said they are now better prepared to avoid a similar mass grounding of planes. New guidelines can determine which airline fleets are safe enough to fly through low- and medium-density ash clouds, Philip Hammond, Britain’s Transport Secretary told CBC. “Since then, a lot of work’s been done with the engine manufacturers, with the airframe manufactures, airlines, with other regulators around the world who have experience of volcanic ash conditions.” (CBC) The result is that regulators have raised the levels of ash through which they believe aircraft can fly safely.

Mr. Hammond rejected claims by the Irish carrier Ryanair – which did later cancel its flights – that it would have been safe to continue flying in the areas of higher density ash cloud. “We’re quite prepared to talk to airlines about ways in which we can improve the regime on the basis of a properly demonstrated safety case,” he said. “But we’re not going to be bullied by airlines or by anybody else when our primary responsibility is the safety of aircraft in British airspace and passengers leaving British airports.” (BBC)

Ryanair said it had safely made a test flight through ash over Scotland. Ryanair said its 90-minute flight at 41,000 feet showed there was “no visible volcanic ash cloud or evidence on the airframe, wings, or engines.” (BBC) “Exactly as we predicted, we encountered absolutely no problems,” Ryanair’s chief executive Michael O’Leary told the Associated Press. “There’s no cloud over Scotland. There’s no dusting of ash on the airframe or the wings. The airspace over Scotland should never have been restricted in the first place.” (Toronto Star)

But a CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) spokesperson said: “The CAA can confirm that at no time did a Ryanair flight enter the notified area of high contamination ash over Scotland this morning.” (BBC)

The ash cloud caused U.S. President Barack Obama to cut short his visit to Ireland on Monday.

Meanwhile, Barcelona’s soccer team was to travel to London on Tuesday, two days ahead of schedule, for Saturday’s Champions League final against Manchester United. Barcelona is making the trip early to avoid having its Champions League travel plans disrupted for a second consecutive year by volcanic ash.

Icelandic government adviser Professor Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson said the volcanic eruption was slowing down “day by day” and he believed the “worst is over.” (BBC) “We expect it to behave and slowly decline,” Gudmundsson told CNN. “It will, however, last for several more days. The ash does continue to cause huge problems on the ground, but no new ash is coming into the high altitudes.” (CNN)

Grimsvotn lies beneath Iceland’s Vatnajokull glacier, a sheet of ice more than three times the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island – larger than any on mainland Europe. It is the country’s most active volcano and last erupted in 2004, according to the Icelandic Meteorological Office.

In 1783, a 16.7-mile fissure system form the volcano produced the world’s largest known historical lava flow over a seven-month period, damaging crops and livestock, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. A resulting famine resulted in the loss of one-fifth of Iceland’s population, according to the museum.


Libya Frees Four Journalists

Libya freed four foreign reporters on Wednesday who had been charged with entering the country illegally and said it was hard for its army to distinguish between journalists and people working with rebels.

U.S. reporters Clare Gillis and James Foley, Spanish photographer Manu Brabo and British journalist Nigel Chandler were brought in front of other reporters at a news conference. The four, who appeared tired but otherwise healthy, only spoke to confirm their names before moving to a side room in the Tripoli hotel. They were each given a one-year suspended jail sentence and fined 200 dinars (about $165).

“This is war time,” government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said. “We know that there are foreign, special, European army experts fighting with the rebels. So the army did not know immediately if these people are journalists, that they are harmless. If anyone was mistreated then we extend our apologies,” he added. (Reuters) Ibrahim said the four could either stay in Tripoli and keep reporting or be escorted to the Tunisian border.

Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi detained Brabo, Foley and Gillis on April 5 near the eastern oil town of Brega. Gillis has worked for The Atlantic magazine and Foley for the GlobalPost website. Spain’s foreign ministry said earlier on Wednesday it expected Brabo would go to the border. Nigel Chandler is a freelance journalist who has worked for the BBC.

Ms. Gillis told the Associated Press news agency the four were at Tripoli’s Rixos Hotel and were fine. She said a judge had given them a suspended one-year sentence.

Ibrahim said Libya had detained 60 journalists since the start of the conflict. He added that he had no information on another journalist, South African Anton Hammerli, who has been reported missing.

Last month two photojournalists  – Oscar-nominated filmmaker Tim Hetherington and Getty photographer Chris Hondros – were killed after coming under fire in the besieged Libyan town of Misrata.

NATO is currently carrying out air strikes across Libya under a UN mandate to protect civilians from the forces of Col. Muammar Gaddafi, who is trying to crush the three-month-old uprising. NATO attacks have recently concentrated on what the alliance says are military and logistics hubs in Tripoli.


Pakistan and NATO Trade Fire Near Afghan Border

Pakistani ground troops opened fire on two NATO helicopters that crossed into Pakistan’s airspace from Afghanistan early Tuesday morning, the Pakistani Army said in a statement. In the firefight that followed, two Pakistani soldiers were wounded, it said.

The clash provided another irritant to the already sour relationship between the United States and Pakistan in the wake of the May 2 Navy Seal raid that killed Osama bin Laden at a compound deep inside Pakistan, heightening American mistrust of Pakistan and inflaming Pakistani sensitivities over sovereignty.

The exchange of fire on Tuesday took place at Admi Kot Post in the North Waziristan tribal region of Pakistan, an area that American officials have long regarded as a haven used by militants to attack coalition forces inside Afghanistan. NATO officials said they were looking into the incident, and could not immediately confirm whether the helicopters had indeed entered Pakistan’s airspace.

A local government official said two NATO helicopters crossed into North Waziristan and remained for about 10 minutes in the area, known to be a hub for Al Qaeda-linked fighters including the Haqqani network that is leading the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan. The helicopters retreated after Pakistani border forces opened fire in the Datta Khel area about 40 km (24 miles) west of the main town of Miranshah, a security official said. “A shell struck a mountain nearby and two of our soldiers were wounded by the rubble,” the official said. The Western military official said the helicopters came under fire first. “Our initial reports indicate that two ISAF helicopters were in the area in support of FOB (forward operating base) Tillman, as the FOB had been receiving intermittent direct and indirect fire from across the Pakistani border,” he said. “Upon arrival the helicopter received fire from across the border but did not immediately return fire. Upon receiving fire from across the border a second time, the helicopter returned fire,” he added. (Reuters)

Pakistani military officials said the NATO helicopters came about 400 yards into Pakistani territory. The Pakistani Army “lodged a strong protest and demanded a flag meeting,” it said in a statement, referring to a meeting between officials from Pakistan and NATO on the border. (New York Times) Last September, Pakistan shut down the land route through Pakistan that NATO uses to supply its forces in Afghanistan for more than a week after two Pakistani paramilitary soldiers were killed in a similar border clash.

A Pakistan Army statement said: “Two NATO helicopters violated Pakistan air space today at Admi Kot Post North Waziristan Agency in the early hours of the morning. The troops at the post fired upon the helicopters and, as a result of [the] exchange of fire, two of our soldiers received injuries. Pakistan army has lodged strong protest and demanded a flag meeting.” (BBC)
A spokeswoman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said: “ISAF is aware of the incident and is assessing it to determine what happened. This effort will be pursued in a co-operative manner using the border co-ordination centre partnership.” (BBC)

A senior Pakistani security official said NATO has lodged its own complaint with Pakistan, accusing its forces of “unprovoked firing.” Western military officials in Kabul had no immediate comment about the possible complaint. (Reuters)

However galling the current clash may be to Pakistani military officials, it was not clear that they would take similar action this time, as both sides may also be seeking to pull relations back from the brink. On Monday, Senator John Kerry met with top civilian and military leaders in Pakistan in an effort to smooth ties.

Lawmakers in both countries have responded with outrage since the Bin Laden raid. In the United States Congress, calls are rising to cut or suspend aid to billions of dollars a year in aid that flow to Pakistan since Bin Laden was killed by American commandos in Abbottabad, a small city about 70 miles from the capital that is home to a top military academy.

For their part, Pakistani officials were furious that they were given no advance notice of the raid, such is the distrust between the two countries. In a closed session of Parliament last week, Pakistani lawmakers urged the government to revisit relations with the United States, warning that Pakistan might sever supply lines to Afghanistan if there were further unilateral incursions.

Despite the anger on both sides, however, the Americans would like to maintain Pakistani cooperation as they try to wind down the war in Afghanistan, and Pakistan would like to keep aid flowing from the United States, which has amounted to more than $20 billion in the last decade.

The clash on the border came as Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, traveled to Beijing. Analysts said that visit was meant to signal to the United States that Pakistan saw China as an alternative source of security and economic aid.

In a possible sign that cooperation had not collapsed completely, the Pakistani Army announced on Tuesday that a senior operative of Al Qaeda, Muhammad Ali Qasim Yaqub, alias Abu Sohaib al-Makki, had been arrested by Pakistani security agencies from the southern port city of Karachi.

Maj. Gen. Arthar Abbas, the spokesman for the Pakistani Army, said that Mr. Makki was of Yemeni origin and that he was working directly under Al Qaeda along the Pakistani-Afghan border. “More details are coming in as he is investigated,” General Abbas said by telephone. He declined to provide more details on the circumstances or the exact timing of the arrest. (New York Times)

It was not immediately clear if the arrest involved joint United States-Pakistan cooperation. But it seemed to be a result of increased American pressure on the Pakistani government and its main spy organization, Inter-Services Intelligence, to produce results in the effort to root out extremism and militancy.

During his visit on Monday, Senator Kerry said that the government had recommitted to finding more ways to work together against terrorism and in intelligence sharing. But he stressed that “our progress in the days ahead will be measured by actions, not by words.” (New York Times)


Endeavor Blasts Off on Second-to-last Shuttle Flight

U.S. space shuttle Endeavor blasted off on Monday on the next-to-last flight in NASA’s shuttle program, carrying a potentially revolutionary physics experiment to the International Space Station.

The flight is the 25th and final one for the spacecraft Endeavor, which was expected to reach the orbital outpost on Wednesday. NASA plans one more mission to the station, using the sister shuttle Atlantis, in July, before ending the shuttle program.

Endeavor’s last mission is being commanded by Mark Kelly, a four-time shuttle veteran who is married to U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering from a January 8 assassination attempt that killed six people and injured 12 others.

Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, watched the launch with the families of the Endeavor crew in a private area at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. She said “good stuff” as the shuttle soared through the sky, a spokeswoman said. “I think relief was her biggest feeling,” said Pia Carusone, Gifford’s chief of staff. (Reuters) As the weather Monday morning improved, “she got very excited ‘cause it looked like it was a go,” Ms. Carusone said at a news conference. (New York Times) Doctors were satisfied enough with her recovery to allow her to travel to Kennedy to see her husband’s departure. After the lift-off there were celebratory hugs all around. Ms. Giffords was to return to Houston later in the afternoon.

With Kelly and five other veteran astronauts aboard, Endeavor roared off its seaside launch pad at 8:56 a.m. and quickly disappeared into the clouds, giving about 500,000 spectators on central Florida’s Atlantic coast a brief view.

“We don’t have any flight rules that dictate how long you can see the launch before it goes out of sight,” Mike Moses, the head of NASA’s mission management team, said jokingly. “I apologize that the view wasn’t the best.” (Reuters) “We had the clouds where we needed them, so we went,” Mr. Moses said. (New York Times)

“This mission represents the power of teamwork, commitment and exploration,” Kelly said in a radio call to launch controllers moments before lift-off. “It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop.” (BBC) “To all the millions watching today including our spouses, children, family and friends, we thank you for your support,” he added. (CBC)

Endeavor carries the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector, which is designed to analyze cosmic rays for fingerprints of dark matter, antimatter and other phenomena undetectable by traditional telescopes. The instrument, built by a consortium of 60 research agencies in 16 countries, is expected to sift through 25,000 cosmic ray hits a second and operate for at least the next 10 years while attached to the outside of the space station. The shuttle also carries a pallet of spare parts to tide over the station after the shuttle program ends this summer.

NASA had hoped Endeavor would be back from its final space mission by now, but the first launch attempt on April 29 was scuttled after a heater in one of the ship’s hydraulic power generators failed. The flight is the 134th in shuttle history. “She’s got a lot of life left in her but that’s not meant to be,” launch director Mike Leinbach said of Endeavor’s last mission. (Reuters) “It was an outstanding countdown,” said Leinbach at a post-launch news conference. “Endeavor’s on orbit safely. [It’s a] great day here at the Kennedy Space Center.” (CBC)

“Today’s final launch of Endeavor is a testament to American ingenuity and leadership in human spaceflight,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. “As we look toward a bright future with the International Space Station as our anchor and new destinations in deep space on the horizon, we salute the astronauts and ground crews who have ensured the orbiter’s successful missions. The presence of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at the launch inspired us all, just as America’s space program has done for the past 50 years.” (BBC)

The shuttles are being retired due to high operating costs and to free up funds to develop spaceships that can travel beyond the station’s orbit. The shuttle Discovery completed its final mission in March.

Russian and European freighters will keep the space station stocked with food, water and supplies in the immediate future. NASA also has hired two commercial companies, Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp, to fly cargo to the station. The firms are expected to begin deliveries to the orbiting outpost next year.

Crew transportation will be handled solely by Russia until U.S. companies develop the capabilities. Then NASA wants to buy fight services, rather than develop and operate its own fleet to ferry astronauts to the station.

British billionaire and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic affiliate is testing the world’s first commercial sub-orbital spaceship, was among those who watched Monday’s launch. “I hope 18 months from now, we’ll be sitting in our spaceship waiting to be dropped from the mother ship and heading off into space,” Branson said. (Reuters)
Endeavor, which first flew in 1992 and is the youngest of NASA’s shuttles, was commissioned as a replacement for Challenger, the shuttle destroyed in a 1986 launch accident that killed seven astronauts.

The shuttle is due to return to the Kennedy Space Center on June 1. After landing, Endeavor will go on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Discovery is promised to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and Atlantis will spend its retirement in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.


Taliban Suicide Attack Kills 80 in Pakistan

The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility Friday for suicide attacks on a military training facility in the nation’s northwest, saying that they were in relation for the killing of terror leader Osama bin Laden.

The twin suicide bombings killed at least 80 people, nearly all of them military recruits who had just completed their training, said Bashir Ahmad Bilour, a senior provincial minister. About 140 others were injured.

“Pakistani and the U.S. forces should be ready for more attacks,” said Ihsan Ullah Ihsan, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, who accused the Pakistani military of telling the United States where bin Laden was. “Osama was our great leader and the killers of Osama will have to pay its price,” he said. (CNN)

“It’s the first revenge for the martyrdom of … Bin Laden. There will be more,” Taliban spokesman Ensanullah Ehsan told the Reuters news agency by telephone from an undisclosed location. (BBC)

The back to back explosions took place shortly after scores of recruits left the Shabqadar Fort, a training facility in the district of Charsadda, said Jahan Zeb Khan, a senior police officer. The blood-soaked ground outside the training facility was littered with burned vehicles and broken glass. The recruits had just completed a nine-month training program.

“Both attacks were suicide attacks,” said the police chief of Charsadda district, Nisar Khan Marwat. “The first suicide bomber came on a motorcycle and detonated his vest among the Frontier Constabulary men,” AFP news agency quoted him as saying. “When other [Frontier Constabulary] people came to the rescue to help their colleagues, the second bomber came on another motorcycle and blew himself up.” (BBC)

“I was sitting in a van waiting for my colleagues. We were in plain clothes and we were happy we were going to see our families,” Ahmad Ali, a wounded praramilitary policeman, told AFP. “I heard someone shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ [God is great] and then I heard a huge blast. I was hit by something in my back shoulder. In the meantime, I heard another blast and I jumped out of the van. I felt that I was injured and bleeding.” (BBC)

Lady Reading hospital in Peshawar has been inundated with casualties and doctors said they were fighting to save the lives of 40 critically injured cadets.

After Friday’s parliamentary briefing, Pakistan’s information minister said Lieut.-Gen. Pasha had told MPs he was ready to take responsibility for any criminal failing. “If any of our responsibility is determined and any gap identified, that our negligence was criminal negligence, and there was an intentional failure, then we are ready to face any consequences,” said the minister, Firdous Ashiq Awan, citing the general. “We had already killed all his allies and so we had killed him even before he was dead,” Mr. Awan cited Lieut.-Gen. Pasha as saying. (BBC)

The district of Charsadda borders Mohmand Agency, one of seven districts in Pakistan’s tribal region along the Afghan border. Mohmad is believed to be a hideout for Taliban fighters and al Qaeda-linked militants fleeing last year’s military operation in the district of South Waziristan and ongoing U.S. drone strikes in North Waziristan. The Pakistani army has carried out numerous ground and air operations in Mohmand but they haven’t been able to stamp out the militants.

The Pakistani Taliban represents a confederation of Taliban groups in northwestern Pakistan, where they are based, according to Bill Roggio, military-affairs analyst who is the managing editor of The Long War Journal. Those fighters make attacks on Pakistani targets and cross the border into Afghanistan for attacks. They are different from the Afghan Taliban, focused on re-establishing the Islamic Empirate in Afghanistan. The group is headquartered in Quetta, Pakistan. Both groups swear allegiance to Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, and have close links to al Qaeda.

Last December, around 150 militants ambushed six security checkpoints in Mohmand, killing 11 Pakistani soldiers, officials told CNN. Earlier in December, a twin suicide attack targeting a government building in Mohmand killed at least 40 people.

Sikandar Hayat Khan Sherpao, a member of the provincial assembly of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, said the training facility hit that was attacked, at Shabqadar Fort, had been a frequent target of militant attacks before. “Basically, the threat is from Mohmand Agency, where militants still have pockets and are active,” he said. “I feel that this attack is not in retaliation to the Abbottabad incident,” he added. “Basically, in the last one and a half months, a new military operation has been started in Mohmand as the army is going against militants. So the attack can be seen as a retaliation to the Mohmand operation.” (New York Times)


Mississippi River Crests in Memphis

The Mississippi River has begun cresting at Memphis, forecasters said Tuesday, as attention began turning to flooding concerns in Louisiana and Mississippi. The slow passing of the bulge of water working its way from north to south along the Mississippi is only the beginning of the end of the siege for Memphis residents, who could be dealing with high water levels into June.

And the struggle is just getting started for residents of Mississippi and Louisiana, where the river is expected to rise over the next few days to levels unseen since 1927.

As has been the case upriver from Missouri south to Tennessee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is predicting its system of levees and flood walls will hold, keeping the river from inundating the small towns and farms that line its banks.

In Tunica, Mississippi, where the river was inching toward a 48-foot crest Tuesday evening, county spokesman Larry Liddell said there’s not much anyone can do. “We’re just watching and waiting,” he said. (CNN) About 600 people in the Tunica Cutoff community have been chased from their homes, Liddell said. Some of the city’s casinos also have water in them, but no one is sure how much, he said.

Downstream in Louisiana, the Corps said it was closing a major lock that allows for the transfer of barge traffic between the Mississippi and the Red River Basin. The Corps also opened 44 more gates to the Bonnet Carre spillway in Norco, Louisiana, on Tuesday, sending millions of gallons of water rushing into Lake Pontchartrain and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico. The Corps opened the spillway on Monday, the first time it has been used since 1973.

“We’ll breathe a sigh of relief once this crest is passed and is in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Col. Vernie Rechling Jr. of the US Army Corps of Engineers. (BBC)

The spillway was diverting the equivalent of nearly 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools from the Mississippi each minute, according to Corps statistics. And the agency is considering opening a second spillway that could flood populated areas. If opened, that structure – the Morganza spillway – could, at full capacity, divert enough water to fill the Empire State Building in New York in a splash more than a minute.

The long wait for whatever is going to happen is causing anxiety among residents, who have been posting on Facebook pages operated by the Corps, demanding answers about if, and when, the Morganza spillway – located on the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge – will be opened and what other areas might be flooded.

In Memphis, authorities believe the worst has passed. “I think we feel fairly confident from the modeling that the water has done what it is going to do,” said Bob Nations, director of the Office of Preparedness in Shelby County, Tennessee, which includes Memphis. “But I say that with a lot of caution in mind because we don’t know that for certain.” (CNN) “There’s a lot of fascination with the mighty Mississippi, but it’s a river in rage right now,” Mr. Nations said at a Monday afternoon briefing. “It’s a love-hate relationship we have with it.” (New York Times) Mr. Nations emphasized that the real flooding concern was not necessarily with the Mississippi itself but with tributaries like the Wolf and Loosahatchie Rivers that feed into it.

The river measured 13.84 feet above flood stage as of 10 a.m. Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service, which had not yet reported an official crest. Water levels could fall or rise slightly, said CNN meteorologist Jacqui Jeras. “This is a long process that has many small peaks and valleys,” she said. (CNN) “Pretty much the damage has been done,” National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Borghoff told the Associated Press. (BBC)

The Mississippi is the highest it’s been at Memphis since 1937, when it crested at 48.7 feet – 14.7 feet above flood stage. That flood killed 500 people and inundated 20 million acres of land, said Col. Vernie Reichling, the Corps of Engineers Memphis District commander. So far, the levees protecting the area have only shown minor weaknesses, which workers have been able to control, he said. “We design these levees for the worst possible case and then we add two to three feet of freeboard. So what you’re seeing today is these levees and floodwalls performing as designed,” he said. (CNN)

The river covered the lowest parts of the city’s historic Beale Street and had already forced about 400 people from their homes Monday, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton Jr. said. Another 1,300 remained in low-lying areas, he said.

One of the Memphis residents in peril was Latisha Bowles. Her neighborhood had been swallowed by floodwaters but so far, her home was the last one at the waters’ edge. “It wants to come up here, but I’ve been praying every day it don’t,” Bowles told CNN affiliate WMC Monday. “I got three kids and I’m not ready to move out of my house over this.” (CNN)

President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration for Tennessee Monday, which will help direct federal aid toward recovery efforts in areas hit by severe storms, flooding and tornadoes since early April.

Although the river was cresting, Reichling warned Memphis residents not to assume everything  will soon return to normal. “The flooding is going to stay,” he said. “This river is not going to drop below 47 (feet) until early next week at the earliest. And that means all the tributaries that flow into this are going to stay high.” (CNN)

“It’s not going to get a lot better for a while,” Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam said. (BBC)

Once past Tennessee, the crest will next target Louisiana and Mississippi, where residents and authorities continued preparations for river levels that could break records set in 1927, when flooding displaced 600,000 people and caused the equivalent of nearly $624 million in damages, according to the National Weather Service.

Forecasters don’t expect anywhere near that kind of flooding, in large part because of the network of levees built after that disaster.

Now that the Corps of Engineers has opened the spillway north of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana as well as local residents are waiting for the decision on whether they will open the Morganza spillway. Opening that spillway would send water into the Atchafalaya Delta to the west and south of Baton Rouge.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said his state’s National Guard has asked for at least three days to evacuate the area should the Corps give such an order. The river’s crest was expected to begin arriving in Louisiana next week. So far, 21 parishes have issued emergency declarations, Jindal said. He said 400 National Guard troops were helping prepare for the flood.

Flooding is the last thing needed in southern Louisiana, which is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, said Lynn Magnuson, a New Orleans resident who submitted footage of the flooding to CNN iReport.“I went through Katrina,” Magnuson said. “I would not wish flooding on anyone, and this city is the last place on Earth that needs any more high water.” (CNN)

Flooding also continued to be a problem in southeastern Missouri and southern Illinois, even though the Mississippi and Ohio rivers have already crested in those states.

Last week, the Corps intentionally breached a levee in Missouri as part of its effort to reduce the pressure on other levees, flooding 130,000 acres of agricultural land over the objection of state officials and some farmers. “I’m very sad. I look at that and I don’t have a home,” Marilynn Nally said, pointing to her flooded family farm. “I feel like we’re having to suffer for somebody else.” (CNN)

“I imagine that my trailer, if it’s not covered, it’s close,” Aurelio Flores, an unemployed construction worker, told the Associated Press news agency. (BBC)
“I couldn’t see myself being rescued from a rooftop,” said Lanette Coleman, who left her home in north Memphis on Friday and was staying in a hotel. Ms. Coleman did not believe her house would flood, but with water starting to pool in parts of her neighborhood, she did not want to be trapped. She was also wary of having to face down snakes, stray dogs and other uninvited guests that are already starting to show up with the floodwaters. “I’ve never seen so many cats,” she said. (New York Times)

The latest flooding in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys is largely the byproduct of torrential rains throughout the region. Over one two-week stretch, there was about 600% more precipitation than usual, forecasters said.

The weather appears to be working in the flood fighters’ favor. Only minimal rain is expected over the coming days, with daytime temperatures forecast to be in the upper 80s and 90s through Thursday.