Will Sarkozy's Mediterranean union be more than a big photo-op?
PARIS: Some of the students at the elite French military academy Saint-Cyr were displeased when they learned that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria would be one of the guests of honor Monday at the Bastille Day parade: A Syrian ally, Hezbollah, was responsible for an attack in Lebanon in 1983 in which 58 French soldiers were killed.
The graduating class this year was even named after Antoine de la Bâtie, one of the French peacekeepers killed in that attack.
When they marched past President Nicolas Sarkozy and Assad, the Syrian leader applauded. Whether the applause assuaged their feelings is unclear. But the moment showed both the tension and the promise in Sarkozy's freshly inaugurated Union for the Mediterranean, which pulls together 43 nations and almost 800 million inhabitants.
Even skeptics were impressed by the July 14 spectacle on the Champs-Élysées. A beaming Sarkozy was flanked by many of the leaders who had attended the founding summit meeting Sunday, watching as parachutists dropped from the sky and richly decorated cavalry trotted by. Assad was sitting only steps away from Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, even though their countries remain formally at war.
But as the last leaders were whizzed off to the airport and the police began removing the metal barriers that had closed off much of central Paris for the national day festivities, one question loomed: Will this new union be anything more than a giant photo opportunity?
Afghan attack blamed on shortfalls in aid
WASHINGTON: Sunday's bold Taliban raid that killed nine American soldiers was no surprise to analysts who have been warning that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan needs more troops, aid and attention.
In the latest sign of a marked increase of violence in Afghanistan this year, Taliban insurgents took over a nearby village and used buildings there to launch a complex assault on an outpost near the Pakistan border.
"What we're watching is not some sudden upsurge," said security expert Anthony Cordesman of the centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The attack, which caused the biggest single U.S. loss of troops in Afghanistan since 2005, follows "a systematic growth in Taliban and Islamist influence backed by sanctuary and the regrowth of al Qaeda as a major force in Pakistan," he said.
Cordesman said the Taliban do not always confront U.S. or allied troops in conflict. But the area under the influence of the Islamist group and their allies "has just about doubled every year since 2005," he said.
Karzai says Pakistan behind Indian embassy bomb
KABUL: Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Monday Pakistani agents were behind the Indian embassy bombing in Kabul last week, the first time he has directly accused Pakistan of involvement in the suicide attack that killed 58 people.
Afghan officials have previously said the July 7 attack bore all the hallmarks of a foreign intelligence agency but stopped short of naming any country.
But Afghanistan believes Pakistan is secretly helping Taliban insurgents as a strategic asset to counter Indian influence, keep the war-torn country weak and allow Pakistani forces to concentrate on defending the border with India.
Afghanistan has already blamed Pakistan for a string of attacks, including an assassination bid on Karzai in April and a June assault on a prison that freed about 400 militants.
Pakistani officials deny the government is aiding the militants and says Afghanistan is trying to cover up for its own failure to defeat the insurgency more than six years after U.S.-led and Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
Deadly Taliban attack took Afghan base by surprise
KABUL: Taliban insurgents managed to breach the walls of the outpost in Kunar Province where nine American soldiers were killed Sunday morning in what was a well-planned attack that took the soldiers on the base by surprise, officials said Monday.
The insurgents, estimated by officials to number up to 200, came so close that their bodies were lying around the base afterward and some even got inside the base, Tamim Nuristani, the former governor of the region said after talking to officials in the district. A Western official confirmed that the Taliban had breached part of the base, but added that they were then repelled.
Inside the base, soldiers were hit by shrapnel from incoming missiles and bullets from insurgents who were firing from the cover of houses within a few hundred meters of the base, officials said. Besides the 9 killed, 15 American and 4 Afghan soldiers were wounded in the battle. The Afghan soldiers received minor bullet wounds in the fight, according to the commander of the 201st Corps, General Muhammad Rahim Wardak.
"Quite clearly they wanted to overrun the outpost," the Western official said of the insurgents. "It was a well-planned surprise attack," he added, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal such details of the event.
The insurgents occupied Wanat, told villagers to leave, and opened fire from houses within meters of the base. The attack lasted four hours, until dozens were killed and others were pushed back after army forces used artillery and called in airstrikes, Wardak said.
Many village houses were damaged in the strikes, but there were no civilian casualties because the locals had left and gone to relatives in nearby villages, Nuristani said.
Insurgents have been present in the area for months, including Pakistani militant groups like Laskhar-e-Taiba, a group that was originally formed to fight in Kashmir, he said. The American and Afghan army soldiers had moved into the base at Wanat just days before, after abandoning another base higher up a side valley where they had come under repeated attack from insurgents.
"But this even surprised me that so many Taliban were gathered in one place," he said.
He said some local people may have joined the militants since a group of civilians were killed in U.S. airstrikes on July 4 in the same area. "This made the people angry," he said. "The airstrikes happened maybe one kilometer away from the base."
Nuristani denounced the airstrikes, saying that 22 civilians had been killed. The provincial police chief later confirmed that at least 17 civilians were killed. The U.S. military said planes had struck vehicles of insurgents, but has announced an investigation. Days after his comments, Nuristani was removed from his post.
He said that the security in the region of Nuristan and Kunar Provinces is precarious and that insurgents have freedom of movement from the border with Pakistan through 100 kilometers of Nuristan to the district of Waygal, where the base at Wanat lies. "They can bring men, weapons and cars," he said.
Local people and police officers have also been battling insurgents in Barg-e-Matal, elsewhere in Nuristan, and complained that they were not getting enough help from the government.
NATO officials gave few further details of the attack Monday. "It has been quiet overnight. The insurgents had been pushed away," said Captain Mike Finney, a NATO force spokesman in Kabul.
Pakistan marble helps Taliban stay in business
ZIARAT, Pakistan: The mountain of white marble shines with such brilliance in the sun it looks like snow. For four years, the quarry beneath it lay dormant, its riches captive to tribal squabbles and government ineptitude in this corner of Pakistan's tribal areas.
But in April, the Taliban appeared and imposed a firm hand. They settled the feud between the tribes, demanded a fat fee upfront and a tax on every truck that ferried the valuable treasure from the quarry. Since then, Mir Zaman, a contractor from the Masaud subtribe, which was picked by the Taliban to run the quarry, has watched contentedly as his trucks roll out of the quarry with colossal boulders bound for refining in nearby towns.
"With the Taliban it is not a question of a request to us, but a question of force," said Zaman, a bearded, middle-aged tribal leader who seemed philosophical about the reality of Taliban authority here. At least the quarry was now operating, he said.
The takeover of the Ziarat marble quarry, a coveted national asset, is one of the boldest examples of how the Taliban have made Pakistan's tribal areas far more than a base for training camps or a launching pad for sending fighters into Afghanistan.
A rare, unescorted visit to the region this month, during which the Taliban detained for two days a freelance reporter and photographer working for The New York Times, revealed how the Taliban is taking over territory, using the income they exact to strengthen their hold and turn themselves into a self-sustaining fighting force. The quarry alone has already brought the Taliban tens of thousands of dollars, Zaman said.
The seizure of the quarry is a measure of how in recent months, as the Pakistani military has pulled back under a series of peace deals, the Pakistani Taliban have extended their reach through more of the rugged 600-mile-long territory in northern Pakistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA.
Today the Taliban not only settle disputes in their consolidated domain but they also levy taxes, smuggle drugs and other contraband, and impose their own brand of rough justice, complete with courts and prisons.
From the security of this border region, they pivot their fighters and suicide bombers in two directions: against NATO and American forces over the border in southern Afghanistan, and against Pakistani forces — police, army and intelligence officials — in major Pakistani cities.
The quarry here in the Mohmand tribal district, strategically situated between the city of Peshawar and the Afghan border, is a new effort by the Taliban to harness the abundant natural resources of a region where there are plenty of other mining operations for coal, gold, copper and chromate.
Of all the minerals in the tribal areas, the marble from Ziarat is one of the most highly prized for use in expensive floors and walls in Pakistan, and in limited quantities abroad.
A government body, the FATA Development Authority, failed over the last several years to mediate a dispute between the Masaud and Gurbaz subtribes over how the mining rights to the marble should be allocated, according to Pakistani government officials familiar with the quarry who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the effort's failure.
A new government mining corporation, Pakistan Stone Development Company, offered last year to invest in modern mining machinery, but even with the lure of added value, the development authority could not sort out the feud.
The arguments were fierce because the tribes knew that the Ziarat marble was of particularly fine texture and purity, comparable to Italian Carrara marble, according to an assessment done for the FATA Development Authority.
The Taliban came eager for a share of the business. Their reputation for brutality and the weakness of the local government allowed the Taliban to settle the dispute in short order.
The Taliban decided that one mountain in the Ziarat area belonged to the Masaud division of the main Safi tribe, and said that the Gurbaz subtribe would be rewarded with another mountain, Zaman, the contractor, said.
The mountain assigned to the Masauds was divided into 30 portions, he said, and each of six villages in the area was assigned five of the 30 portions. Zaman said the Taliban demanded about $1,500 commission upfront for each portions, giving the insurgents a quick $45,000.
The Taliban also demanded a tax of about $7 on each truckload of marble, he said. With a constant flow of trucks out of the quarry, the Taliban were now collecting up to $500 a day, Zaman said.
U.S. troops died in Taliban attack
KABUL: A Taliban attack that killed nine U.S. soldiers, the biggest single American loss in Afghanistan since 2005, was a well-planned, complex assault which briefly breached the defences of an outpost near the Pakistan border.
The Taliban have largely shied away from large-scale attacks on foreign forces since suffering severe casualties in assaults on NATO bases in the south in 2006. Instead the militants have scaled up hit-and-run attacks and suicide and roadside bombs.
"The insurgents went into an adjacent village, drove the villagers out, used their homes and a mosque as a base from which to launch the attack and fire on the outpost," said NATO spokesman Mark Laity on Monday.
"Some of the insurgents also then attacked. I think it looks as if they made a brief breach into the base and were repelled," he said.
Troops from NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan army only moved into the combat outpost in the mountainous and forested Pech Valley district of Kunar province days before and the defences were not fully constructed.
The Taliban began their attack just before dawn on Sunday.
After driving back the assault, the defenders, numbering between 100 to 150, called in airstrikes from attack helicopters and warplanes. Fierce fighting went on till mid-afternoon.
Scores of Taliban fighters were either killed or wounded.
"There was very heavy fighting and they suffered very heavy casualties," Laity said.
Tens of Taliban were killed, an Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman said.
Reporting in a danger zone: Held first by the Taliban, and then by Pakistan
PESHAWAR, Pakistan: The first sign of trouble came when a bearded young man shouted at us and pointed angrily at the small camera bag we had with us.
He and three other men were the first Taliban we had encountered during our stay in the tribal area of Mohmand. It was Thursday, July 3. We were just about to leave a marble quarry in a taxi with a local tribesman who had shown us how the quarry had been reopened by the Taliban and was generating new income for them.
The quarry is in an area where the Taliban exert significant control.
The men let us go, but our relief did not last long. About 10 minutes later, we were stopped again, by another group of Taliban. The group forced us to drive with them deeper into Mohmand, away from the road that would have taken us back to safety in Peshawar.
One Taliban member rode a motorbike, another rode in our car with a rifle, and two rode in a Taliban vehicle behind us.
We arrived in midafternoon at a mud house with several rooms that served as a makeshift prison. A member of the Taliban came to question us, but kept it brief. Mainly he wanted to know why one of the phones contained the telephone numbers of paramilitary men from the Frontier Corps, the local government militia.
The Taliban have a tense relationship with the government, which intermittently tries to exert control over the tribal areas through force.
A few hours later, senior members of the Taliban came to ask more questions.
We explained that we were journalists, a reporter and a photographer, which was why the phone would have Frontier Corps numbers. (The phone also contained the number for Maulvi Omar, the spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban, the umbrella group of Pakistani Taliban.) One of us, Pir Zubair, stressed his family ties in South Waziristan to show that he was part of the tribal society that lives in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
We were assured that if it could be proved that we were telling the truth, we would be released. We were treated well, and given food and water. Unlike the inmates, we were not manacled, but our money, phones and cameras were confiscated.
On Saturday morning, a visitor who had come to meet with the Taliban saw us and said that news had quickly spread that we had been captured and that the BBC radio service, which broadcasts in the local Pashtun language, had said we were being held on suspicion of spying.
Later that day, however, one of the men told us: "You work with The New York Times."
Within several hours, the head of the Taliban in Mohmand, Abdul Wali, came to see us, along with Yousaf Shah, an uncle of Pir Zubair's who had driven from South Waziristan to secure our release.
Wali told us there had been a misunderstanding, and that now that the Taliban knew we were journalists, we were free to leave. Our equipment and money were returned to us.
As we left, the spokesman for the Taliban in Mohmand, a man known as Assad, said he had received so many phone calls from Pakistani and international journalists asking for our release that he had worn out two cellphone batteries.
Soon after we left, we were greeted by tribal elders whom the government had brought together to help negotiate our release.
We drove toward Ghalani, the regional capital, where we stopped at the compound of the political agent of Mohmand, the most powerful government official in the area. There, a second interrogation began, lasting from midnight to 3 a.m. It was conducted by representatives of several branches of the government.
They asked nothing about the Taliban but were interested in our movements over the past three days. They asked us biographical questions, particularly of Akhtar because he came from Karachi, a different part of the country. We were treated well during our stay.
Even though the interrogation was completed by Sunday morning, we were kept at the compound for another 36 hours for reasons that were never explained. Appeals were made to the senior official in the Pakistani Interior Ministry, Rehman Malik, and other government officials for our release.
An appeal to the United States Embassy in Islamabad to ask the Pakistani authorities to release us was rebuffed. Kay Mayfield, the senior spokeswoman, said that it did not appear that we were in physical danger and that there was nothing constructive the embassy could do since we are Pakistani citizens.
We were released, finally, on Monday afternoon.
Carlotta Gall contributed reporting.