Bomber kills nine at anti-Taliban commander's Pakistan compound

Pakistan (2)
NEW DELHI –- A suicide bomber attacked an anti-Taliban commander’s compound in northeastern Pakistan on Saturday, killing at least nine people and injuring more than a dozen others.

The attack in Kurram, part of the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, was apparently directed at militant commander Mullah Nabi, who was formerly a member of the Pakistani Taliban but broke away to form his own group. Nabi was unhurt in the attack.

At least three children were among the dead, the Associated Press reported, quoting tribal police. The bomber reportedly tried to get into the guest quarters of Nabi's compound but instead detonated his explosives when stopped and questioned by security.

The Pakistani Taliban has taken responsibility for the attack, local media reported. The injured, several reportedly in critical condition, were evacuated to a hospital in a neighboring district.

Over the years, there’s been substantial fighting among different factions of the Pakistani Taliban over territory and leadership roles, even as they engage in a protracted fight against the government. For several months, the Pakistani military has been conducting operations against militant groups in the tribal regions.

The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban differ significantly in their aims, history and leadership, although they share a common interpretation of Islam and are both predominantly Pashtun.

In a separate attack Saturday, assailants killed eight members of the Pakistan coast guard at a camp in the southwest port city of Gwadar in Baluchistan province, the Associated Press reported. Six reportedly died immediately and two others succumbed to their wounds. No group has claimed responsibility in that attack. Islamabad has been fighting nationalist militants in Baluchistan for nearly a decade.

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Photo: A man who was injured in a suicide bomb attack in the Kurrum district of northeastern Pakistan receives medical treatment at a hospital in Peshawar on Saturday.  Credit: Arshad Arbab/EPA


Lawmakers vote for Indian president

Indian lawmakers voted for the nation's next president, with former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee widely expected to win the largely ceremonial post
NEW DELHI -- Indian lawmakers voted Thursday for the nation's next president, with former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee widely expected to win the largely ceremonial post.

Mukherjee, 76, is competing against Purno A. Sangma, 64, a former speaker of Parliament's lower house, with vote counting slated for July 22.

The president, chosen by state and federal legislators voting in a 4,896-member electoral college, commands the armed forces, helps create a new government after a hung Parliament and in rare circumstances can send bills back to lawmakers. In reality, much of the job involves representing the country on overseas trips and making ceremonial appearances and speeches on national holidays.

For Mukherjee, a longtime problem-solver for the ruling Congress Party, becoming president would elevate him above the fray of daily coalition politics into a statesman role. 

"Once he knew he couldn't be prime minister, it's best to be president despite its ceremonial nature," said Shekhar Gupta, editor of the Indian Express newspaper. "You're remembered forever, you get your picture here and there, you're one of 50 or 100 names that are remembered."

Mukherjee has been a leading politician and a Congress Party fireman, leading to concern that his elevation could leave a vacuum as the government battles inertia, corruption scandals and declining popularity. The former teacher and journalist has served over the years in India's foreign, defense, commerce and steel ministries.

But others said his departure might also force the government to reach into its ranks, make more overtures to coalition partners and better resolve internal policy differences.

The new president will succeed Pratibha Devisingh Patil, who presided over a relatively unremarkable five-year term that ends July 24. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who as finance minister in the 1990s oversaw the opening of India's markets, is assuming the finance portfolio vacated by Mukherjee.

The business community will be watching closely for indications that Singh could step up the pace of economic reform. "So far, he's responded to problems by creating committees," Gupta said. “Within the next few weeks, we’ll see if these are just putting off decisions, or so the committees can carry out his ideas.”

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Photo: Senior Indian political leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, center, watch as presidential candidate Pranab Mukherjee casts his vote for the largely ceremonial job in New Delhi on Thursday. Credit: Prakash Singh /AFP/Getty Images


U.S. offers condolences to India over Navy shooting

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NEW DELHI -- The U.S. Embassy in India expressed condolences Tuesday after an American naval vessel in the Persian Gulf opened fire on a small fishing vessel, killing an Indian and wounding three others. India has called on the United Arab Emirates, in whose waters the shooting took place, to investigate.

In a statement, the embassy said the U.S. was launching its own investigation, but suggested the use of force was justified given that the small motorized vessel was approaching the Rappahannock supply ship at a rapid pace and failed to heed several warnings to turn away.

Lt. Greg Raelson, a public affairs official with the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said he couldn’t say whether the warnings were in English, Arabic or another language. But he said the Rappahannock's crew issued a “series of non-lethal warnings” as part of routine efforts to protect themselves. He declined to predict how long an investigation might take.

The U.S. Navy has been wary of small boats getting too close to warships since the October 2000 suicide attack against the destroyer Cole in Yemen that killed 17 sailors and injured 39.

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Indian intelligence agency files case against suspected militant

NEW DELHI — India’s National Investigation Agency on Thursday filed a case against Syed Zabiuddin Ansari, making it the latest group keen to interrogate, prosecute or otherwise get its hands on the alleged handler of the 2008 Mumbai attack, who was arrested Monday.

The agency, formed after the assault on India’s financial capital that killed 166 people, joins a growing list of police agencies, special courts and anti-terrorism squads seeking Ansari’s insider knowledge on significant terrorist attacks in India since 2005, when he reportedly made contact with extremist groups.

In addition to Mumbai, India has suffered through a series of terrorist strikes in the last seven years, including a 2005 assault on a Bangalore college that killed one person; a May 2006 interception of arms and explosives discovered in Aurangabad; a July 2006 attack on Mumbai’s trains that killed 180; a 2008 attack on a police camp in Rampur that killed eight; and a bombing at Pune's German Bakery in 2010 that killed 17.

If even some of the allegations against Ansari prove true, he represents a rare and much-sought commodity for New Delhi: an Indian national who allegedly worked for years with Lashkar-e-Taiba extremists in Pakistan, conceiving and planning operations against his homeland. In particular, authorities hope he will shed light on any role that Pakistan’s security agencies have played in attacks on India.

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Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi on historic European visit

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NEW DELHI -- Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar enjoyed her first full day on European soil in 24 years on Thursday, the beginning of a 17-day visit that includes stops in Switzerland, Norway, Britain, Ireland and France.

In addition to her address Thursday to the U.N. International Labor Organization in Geneva, highlights will include a long-delayed acceptance speech Saturday in Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize she received in absentia in 1991.

"I'm excited about each country in a different way," Suu Kyi, 66, said on Wednesday before her departure from Yangon airport in her homeland. "I'll get to know this only when I get there."

The Myanmar parliamentarian, who spent 15 years in detention or under house arrest before her by-election win in April, had repeated opportunities over the past quarter century to leave Myanmar. In fact, the brutal military regime that long ruled the country would have welcomed her departure. The problem was always getting permission to return and continue her fight for more political and social rights in the long-isolated country, which is also known as Burma.

“Symbolically, the trip is deeply significant,” said Sean Turnell, a professor at Australia’s Macquarie University and editor of the Burma Economic Watch blog. “And it’s a nice moment of fulfillment personally, finally getting the Nobel prize.”

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Indian Planning Commission catches flak over posh toilets

NEW DELHI -- India’s Planning Commission came under fire Wednesday for spending $70,000 on two toilets for its top officials days after the government called for greater austerity measures. 

The agency revealed in response to a right-to-information request that a significant portion of the money was spent on a “door access control system” allowing 60 “very high dignitaries” with special access cards to use the facilities. It also revealed plans to install closed-circuit surveillance cameras in nearby corridors to prevent damage or theft to the fixtures. 

The revelations came a few months after the commission was slammed as being insensitive for declaring that Indians would be considered above the poverty line if they earned more than 47 cents per day in villages and 57 cents in cities. 

Civic groups countered that toilets should be a priority -- but for the Indian masses, 600 million of whom lack access to basic facilities. Sanitation crusader Sulabh International, which has built 7,500 public facilities around India, said one unit built at a cost of $10,000 can serve 350,000 people a year.

In televised comments to reporters, Planning Commission chief Montek Singh Ahluwalia defended the toilet upgrades, adding that the old fixtures were stinky and renovation included plumbing repairs. The panel added in a statement that the facilities weren’t meant exclusively for top officials. Ministers, foreign dignitaries and journalists frequently visited the building, it said, and the earlier, damaged fixtures portrayed the agency in a poor light. 

News of the “airport-quality” wood-paneled toilets, purchased by a government beset in recent months by corruption scandals and policy muddle, drew criticism and amused reflection. 

“Very interesting. That is why 'India is incredible,' " said a writer identified as S. Chatterjee of southern Andhra Pradesh state on the ZeeNews.com website, citing a popular tourism slogan.

"The expenditure is justified,” added Suren from the city of Pune. “Archimedes will come out from these 2 toilets & solve problem of poverty of India.” 

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Four aid workers rescued in midnight Afghan raid

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KABUL, Afghanistan and NEW DELHI -- Four hostages working for an international aid group were rescued from a cave in northeastern Afghanistan early Saturday morning by NATO-led forces, according to British and alliance officials

The four, a British and Kenyan women and their two male Afghan colleagues, were reportedly in good condition after being kidnapped on May 22 as they headed to impoverished areas of Badakhshan province on horseback while on a mission for Medair, a charity group based in Switzerland.

The rescue occurred shortly after midnight in a remote forested area reportedly inhabited by smugglers and bandits. The province borders Tajikistan, China and Pakistan. Abdul Maroof Rasekh, spokesman for the Badakhshan governor, said NATO and Afghan forces worked together on the 5½-hour operation, in which five of the captors were killed. No casualties were reported among the rescuers.

The NATO-led coalition said in a statement that a rescue helicopter approached the area -- reportedly after Afghan sources provided information on the whereabouts of the hostages -- confirmed the hostages were at the location, secured the area and carried out the rescue of the four in the cave. 

The mission reportedly involved U.S. and British special forces who had planned and rehearsed the operation, suggesting they had some intelligence about the location.

Local police were quoted saying the captors were part of criminal gangs intent on using the area's forbidding terrain and weak security to make money, while coalition officials labeled them part of an armed terrorist group with ties to the Taliban. The hostage takers were reportedly armed with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 assault weapons.

The British Foreign Office said in a statement that the rescue was authorized by Prime Minister David Cameron. “We pay tribute to the bravery of the coalition forces which means that all four aid workers will soon be rejoining their families and loved ones,” the statement said. 

Briton Helen Johnston, and Kenyan aid worker Moragwa Oirere were reportedly being cared for by the British Embassy in Kabul on Saturday, while the Afghan workers were in the process of returning to their families in Badakhshan. 

"We are delighted and hugely relieved by the wonderful news that Helen and all her colleagues have been freed,” Johnston's family said in a statement. “We are deeply grateful to everyone involved in her rescue, to those who worked tirelessly on her behalf, and to family and friends for their love, prayers and support over the last 12 days.” 

The family also appealed to the media to show restraint and respect its privacy.

Medair said the team was abducted while visiting relief sites providing nutrition, hygiene and health assistance in Badakhshan province and expressed relief that the rescue was successful.

Foreign aid workers in Afghanistan are under growing threat as the Taliban steps up attacks in advance of a planned 2014 pullout of coalition combat troops from Afghanistan. In 2010, 10 foreign medical workers, including six Americans, were killed in Badakhshan while returning from an excursion to treat eye ailments in remote villages in an attack blamed on insurgents. 

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Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.

Photo: An undated family photo of Helen Johnston, one of four aid workers rescued in a pre-dawn raid Saturday after being held by militants for 11 days in a cave in northern Afghanistan. Credit: Family photo / British Foreign Office/Associated Press


NATO member, 7 police killed in Afghanistan

A member of the NATO force died in southern Afghanistan while attacks on police facilities in several provinces killed at least seven Afghan law enforcement officers and one civilian
This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A member of the NATO force died in southern Afghanistan on Thursday while attacks on police facilities in several provinces killed at least seven Afghan law enforcement officers and one civilian.

The latest violence comes as local forces assume greater responsibility for security in advance of a planned pullout of NATO combat troops by 2014.

A NATO coalition spokeswoman said the force member's death was caused by a roadside bomb but that, in line with policy, any additional information would be provided by officials of the victim's home country, which was not immediately identified.

Ahmad Jawed Faisal, a spokesperson in the Kandahar governor's office, said six policemen and six civilians were wounded in that southern province Thursday morning when a suicide bomber rammed an explosive-laden 4-wheel-drive vehicle into the gate of a district police headquarters compound.

Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, is among the most heavily contested areas as militants and Afghan and foreign forces battle for control.

Ahmadzia Abdulzai, a spokesman in the governor's office of eastern Nangarhar province, said a device detonated at a police checkpoint on the Jalalabad-Torkham highway, although the type of explosive and circumstances of the blast were still under investigation.

And in northern Kunduz province, a roadside bomb reportedly struck a vehicle carrying the head of a district anti-terrorism police force, killing him, a colleague and a police bodyguard.

Civilian deaths in Afghanistan fell 21%  in January through April compared with the year-earlier period, the first time since record-keeping began in 2007 that the death toll has declined over a several-month period, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a statement Thursday.

Although that is welcome news, too many civilians are still getting caught up in the violence as insurgents fight Afghan and foreign forces, the agency said. And despite the most recent improvement, 2011 was the fifth consecutive year that civilian casualties increased, with 3,021 deaths reported.

Roadside bombs planted by anti-government forces remain the biggest civilian killer, the U.N. said, adding that, despite improvements, it continues to document human rights abuses by Afghan local police.

According to U.N. figures, 579 civilians were killed in Afghanistan during the first four months of 2012, while the number of wounded fell to 1,216. Antigovernment forces -- basically the Taliban and its allies -- were responsible for 79% of civilian casualties, the U.N. said. Afghan and foreign forces accounted for 9%, with the remainder unaccounted for.

Jan Kubis, the U.N.'s special representative to Afghanistan, told reporters Wednesday that he believed the $4.1 billion required annually to support and continue training Afghan security forces after 2014 "will be reached and is achievable," according to the Associated Press. The Afghan government is slated to provide $500 million of the total budget.

There are currently 130,000 U.S.-led NATO forces fighting the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced the death of Sakhr Taifi, Al Qaeda's second in command in Afghanistan, part of its bid to prevent the country from becoming an Al Qaeda stronghold again.

[For the Record, 6:28 p.m. May 31: A previous version of this post said civilian deaths in Afghanistan were down 36% in the first four months of this year. They were down 21%.]

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Photo: A member of the NATO forces in Afghanistan walks toward a police checkpoint in Jalalabad on Thursday, a day when attacks killed several Afghan police and a NATO service member. Credit: Rahmat Gul / Associated Press


Tibet-in-exile officials suspect Chinese plot against Dalai Lama

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NEW DELHI -- Members of Tibet's government-in-exile urged those living and working around the Dalai Lama to remain on alert Sunday after the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader voiced concern that Chinese agents might be plotting to kill him.

Ngodup Dongchung, security minister for the Tibetan exiles based in the Indian hill station of Dharamsala, said a cabinet meeting of officials over the weekend reviewed security arrangements and vowed to redouble vigilance.

“We still like to remain very cautious,” he said. “Of course we’re working closely with the Indian government on this.”

The Dalai Lama in an interview with England’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper earlier this month said his security detail had received reports some time back from a Tibetan employed by Chinese security agencies that Tibetan women were being trained to assassinate him by applying poison to their hair and to traditional greeting scarves. Tibetans on meeting the Dalai Lama frequently give him scarves and bow their heads.

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Nepal plane crash kills 15; six survive

A small plane with 21 people aboard crashed in Nepal, killing 15, including the pilot and co-pilot
NEW DELHI -- A small plane with 21 people aboard crashed in Nepal on Monday morning, killing 15, including the pilot and co-pilot. The accident, involving a Dornier 228 aircraft operated by Agni Air, occurred near Jomsom Airport about 125 miles northwest of Kathmandu. 

The charter flight from the city of Pokhara to Jomsom carried 16 Indian tourists, two Danish tourists and three Nepali crew members. Two Indian children, ages 6 and 9, and their 45-year-old male Indian relative, all with the surname Kidambi, survived and were listed in serious or critical condition, along with a Danish man and woman who were not immediately identified and a flight attendant, according to the Indian and Danish embassies in Katmandu.

The survivors were flown by helicopter to nearby Pokhara and admitted to the Manipal College of Medical Sciences, according to Apoorva Srivastava, an Indian Embassy official.

Narayan Dattakoti, a deputy inspector general of police, told reporters that early indications were that the aircraft was in good condition, although the terrain was challenging and the winds a bit stronger than usual. An investigation has been launched, he said.

The crash of the 11-year old aircraft reportedly occurred as the pilot was attempting a landing at the high-altitude Jomsom Airport, a gateway for trekkers and religious pilgrims.

The fuselage reportedly broke into pieces, although it did not catch fire. "The captain made a left turn and crashed into the mountain," Dattakoti said.

Nepal's prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai, offered his condolences in a statement.

Impoverished Nepal with its weak regulatory structure, challenging topography and fast-building storms, has seen several aviation accidents in recent years, most involving small aircraft. Fly-around tours of Mt. Everest and other top Himalayan peaks are popular with tourists.  

Harshwardhan, an aviation expert and former Air India pilot who uses only one name, said the fact that the airplane crashed into a mountain tends to point to some sort of pilot error. "We're seeing too many accidents of a similar nature in a short period of time," he said.

A fundamental problem in India and Nepal is that bureaucrats tend to oversee civil aviation rather than independent safety boards, said M.R. Wadia, former president of the Mumbai-based Federation of Indian Pilots, an industry group.

In August 2010, a Dornier 228 operated by Agni Air crashed 20 minutes south of Katmandu in bad weather, killing 14 people, including four Americans, a Japanese and a British national. And in September 2011, a Buddha Air plane ferrying tourists on a sightseeing trip around Mt. Everest crashed, killing all 19 people on board.

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Photo: Nepalese army soldiers transport a survivor to the city of Pokhara after an Agni Air plane crashed Monday near Jomsom Airport, killing 15 people and injuring six. Credit: Krishnamani Baral / Associated Press


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