The South Asia Channel

Pakistani Taliban Peace Talks Begin; Afghan Taliban Deny Secret Talks; India: Visas on Arrival for 180 Countries

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Pakistan

Peace talks begin in Islamabad

The peace committees for both the Pakistani government and the Taliban met for the first time in Islamabad on Thursday to discuss ending the militant organization's seven-year insurgency (AP, ET). The meeting, which began at an undisclosed location in the Pakistani capital and then moved to the Pakhtunkhwa House, focused on how to start the dialogue process and move it forward. Sources familiar with the discussions said they "were being held in a cordial atmosphere," and would be held on a daily basis (Dawn, Reuters). Irfan Siddiqui, the government's chief negotiator, is joined by Rahimullah Yusuzai, a veteran journalist; Rustam Shah Mohmad, a former Pakistani ambassador; and Amir Shah, a retired major from the country's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. The Taliban are being represented by Maulana Samiul Haq, known as the "Father of the Taliban;" Maulana Abdul Aziz, the chief cleric of the Islamabad's Red Mosque; and Ibrahim Khan, the leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party (BBC).

The committee meeting began a day after unidentified gunmen opened fire on a vehicle in the Pir Kallay section of North Waziristan, killing a local Taliban commander and his bodyguards (Dawn). In an unrelated incident, two people were killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province's Tank district when a local peace committee and militants exchanged fire. 

U.S. freezes assets for Haqqani network members

The U.S. Treasury Department announced on Wednesday that it is targeting the financial support networks of three leaders of the Haqqani Network, freezing the assets of "specially designated global terrorists" (BBC, Pajhwok, Reuters, TOLO News). According to a department press release, "all property and interests in property under U.S. jurisdiction in which Saidullah Jan, Yahya Haqqani, or Muhammad Omar Zadran have an interest are blocked;" U.S. citizens are also prohibited from conducting business with any of the three men (RFE/RL). The release goes on to identify Jan as a commander for the northern provinces in Afghanistan, as well as the group's logistics coordinator; Haqqani as a senior member involved in military operations, finance, and propaganda; and Zadran as a "shadow district governor" in Afghanistan's Khost province.

Afghanistan

Taliban, High Peace Council react to report about secret talks

The Afghan Taliban once again denied holding secret negotiations with President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan government, dismissing a New York Times report that came out earlier this week (Pajhwok). Pajhwok Afghan News quoted a statement from the militant group on Thursday, which said: "We once again reject this report as a propaganda effort to malign the Islamic Emirate." It went on to say that: "we made our stance very clear to media outlets two days earlier [Tuesday, a day after the report came out]," and criticized media outlets for citing the Times' report. The Taliban also reiterated that the movement does not believe in holding secret talks at undisclosed locations. 

While Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Karzai, confirmed to the Times that the president had secretly met with Taliban representatives in recent months, Afghanistan's High Peace Council, which is officially charged with managing the peace process, said it had no knowledge of any such contacts (TOLO News). A spokesman for the council, Muhammad Ismael Qaimyar, told reporters: "The High Peace Council had honestly no idea about the secret talks between President Karzai and the Taliban in another country" -- the talks allegedly occurred in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Qaimyar added that: "Talks and the leadership of the peace and reconciliation process is the responsibility of the High Peace Council." 

At least 14 killed as heavy snow blankets the region 

As winter weather continues to pack a punch around the world, some Afghan provinces have been hit with heavy snowfalls and cold weather that are responsible for the deaths of at least 14 people. According to Abdul Rahman Mahmoudi, the deputy governor of Jowzjan province, the snow that fell from Jan. 31 to Feb. 4 killed 14 local residents, including five children (RFE/RL). The snow has also blocked many of the land routes to the areas that have been impacted by the weather, making it difficult for rescue teams to reach them (Pajhwok).

The snowstorms and corresponding avalanches also blocked the Salang Pass on Thursday, "leaving a large number of vehicles stranded on both sides of the 12,000-foot tunnel that connects Kabul with nine provinces in the north" (Pajhwok). The highway is the only passable route for heavy traffic between the country's central and northern provinces. No casualties were reported.

Friendly skies

Afghanistan's Safi Airways received accreditation from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Pajhwok Afghan News reported on Thursday, for its "impeccable safety standards" and "consistently laudable performance" (Pajhwok). Safi is the first Afghan airline to operate in compliance with EASA requirements and is now certified as meeting the International Civil Aviation Organisation's strict regulations. Safi is a full-service carrier that operates a number of Airbus and Boeing aircraft, and currently flies to Dubai, Delhi, and Islamabad, though it is hoping to offer flights to more international destinations this year. 

-- Bailey Cahall 

India

India extends visas on arrival to 180 countries 

India extended its visa on arrival scheme on Wednesday, expanding the service from 11 countries to over 180 with an eye to boost tourist numbers (Indian Express, BBC, Mint). Indian officials had been waiting on intelligence agencies to give their consent in the matter. The system allows tourists to apply for visas through a website two to three days in advance of their arrival and pick them up at any of the country's 26 major international airports. Minister of State for Planning Rajiv Shukla said it would take a few months to set up the infrastructure, but was looking to target the tourist season beginning in October. Eight countries seen as posing a security threat to India, however, are not on the list: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Somalia, and Sudan.

Huawei faces accusations of hacking Indian network

Chinese telecommunications equipment maker Huawei's India operations came under suspicion this week for allegedly attempting to hack into the network of state-run operator Bharatiya Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (Reuters, Times of India, Economic Times). In response to a question from a member of parliament, Minister of State for Communications and Information Technology Killi Kruparani said an inter-ministerial team had been created to look into the matter. The allegations emerged after a suspected hacking attempt on a cellphone tower in Andhra Pradesh. A spokesman from Huawei India denied the allegations and reiterated the company's commitment to working with India on security concerns. In 2012, a parliamentary committee had recommended adopting the U.S. model of auditing equipment for security implications due to the increased use of Chinese telecommunications equipment by Indian operators; Chinese companies supply the most hardware and software to Indian telecommunications firms.

Students demand anti-racism law

Hundreds of students from India's northeastern states marched toward the parliament building in Delhi on Thursday to demand the government pass an anti-racism law (Times of IndiaBusiness Standard). The protests followed the Jan. 30 death of 19-year-old Nido Taniam, a student from Arunachal Pradesh who was beaten by shopkeepers in a south Delhi market for his appearance. The student protestors tried to walk towards parliament, but police stopped them at the Parliament Street police station. A delegation of parliamentarians from the northeast also met with Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi to push for an anti-racism law. The proposed law would define racial discrimination and prescribe punishment for the guilty.

Clean up your act 

Residents in the northern Indian city of Kanpur forced a local official into a trash heap in anger on Wednesday over the build-up of mounds of waste in their village (BBC). Majoy Yadav was thrown into the trash heap by a frustrated group of local residents and was held there until he promised to arrange for authorities to clean up the area. Locals said litter had not been collected in the city's Patel Nagar area for two weeks, and piles of garbage and pools of stagnant water were building up in front of their homes. The area has no formal arrangement for collecting waste from people's homes; instead, people throw their trash by the side of the road and a local government truck picks it up a few times a month. Yadav has decided not to lodge an official complaint against those who pushed him though, saying: "I can understand their anger." He added: "Also, I have to live with them."

-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson

Edited by Peter Bergen. 

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images