Afghanistan Releases 65 'Dangerous' Prisoners; Attack on Pakistani Officers Kills 13; U.S. Ambassador to India Meets Modi
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Afghanistan releases 65 "dangerous" prisoners
Afghan officials announced on Thursday that they had released 65 of 88 prisoners from the Parwan Detention Facility at Bagram Airfield, despite U.S. protests that they were "dangerous" fighters who would likely return to the battlefield (BBC, NYT, Pajhwok, RFE/RL, TOLO News). While concerns over the detainees had seemingly been solved in the past, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered the releases several weeks ago, saying the conditions at the facility were "turning the men against their own country and fostering loyalty to the Taliban" (AP, VOA). The U.S. military has maintained that the men were directly linked to attacks that killed or wounded 32 U.S. and coalition soldiers and 23 Afghans, but Abdul Shakor Dadras, the head of the Afghan review board looking into the men's cases, said: "We could not find any evidence to prove that these 65 people are criminals, according to Afghan law" (AFP, Post, Reuters). Bonus read: "Rare look inside Afghanistan's Bagram jail," Yalda Hakim (BBC).
U.S. reactions to the news about the releases was fierce, with the U.S. Embassy releasing a statement that called the decision "deeply regrettable," and said the Afghan government will bear full responsibility for the results of its decision. The statement also echoed comments made Tuesday by Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who said the releases would be in "direct contravention" of a 2012 U.S.-Afghan agreement on detainees (WSJ). McKeon added: "I am, frankly, appalled by the Karzai Government's complete lack of respect for our troops, men and women who are fighting to keep Afghanistan standing" (Pajhwok). Meanwhile, before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he would introduce a resolution condemning the releases and urge lawmakers to cut off all aid to Afghanistan until after the presidential elections in April (TOLO News).
NATO soldiers killed in "green-on-blue" attack
Two coalition soldiers were killed and four other people were wounded in Kapisa province on Wednesday when men in Afghan army uniforms turned their weapons against them, the first insider attack of the year (Pajhwok, RFE/RL, VOA). As is NATO protocol, no further information about the attack or the nationalities of the soldiers was provided. Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, said the Afghan soldiers were associates with the militant organization (TOLO News). Sixteen coalition soldiers were killed in such attacks last year, down from a high of 64 in 2012 (NYT).
Thirteen killed in attack targeting Pakistani officers
At least 13 people were killed and nearly 60 others were wounded near Karachi on Thursday when a suicide bomber drove his explosives-laden vehicle into a bus full of Pakistani police officers (AFP, BBC, Reuters, RFE/RL, VOA). According to reports, the bus was "leaving the main Razzakabad police-commando training center, near the Taliban-dominated Landhi neighborhood in the city's southeast" when the attack occurred (WSJ). Many of the injured are said to be in critical condition, so it is possible the death toll will rise.
Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was retribution for the deaths of militant fighters (Dawn, ET). He added that: "Our defensive war will continue until an agreement is reached on a ceasefire."
The incident was the latest in a series of attacks that have rocked Pakistan this week, coming one day after nine members of an anti-Taliban militia were killed by unknown gunmen in Peshawar, and two days after a grenade attack in a local cinema in Peshawar killed 13 (AP).
Anxious for positive results
While the Taliban's claiming of the attack in Karachi will likely have some impact on the Pakistani government's latest attempt at reconciliation talks with the militant group, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said the Taliban "is as anxious as the government to conclude the process of dialogue on a positive note" (ET). Speaking to the media in Ankara, where he is holding tripartite talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, as well as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Sharif said talks between the two sides' respective peace committees was progressing and had the full support of the Pakistani army. He added that no deadline should be imposed on the talks.
Pakistan's Express Tribune newspaper also reported on Thursday that the Taliban's shura council has agreed to meet directly with the government's peace committee (ET). While the exact location of the meeting is not yet known, sources said that it would occur somewhere in North Waziristan either this week or next. A ceasefire between the two sides will likely be the focus of the discussions.
Government ordered to produce missing drone activist
A Pakistani court ordered the government on Wednesday to show if it has detained Kareem Khan, an anti-drone activist whose brother and son were killed in a 2009 strike (RFE/RL). The order comes just days after Shahzad Akbar, Khan's lawyer, told reporters that he had been picked up earlier this week by Pakistani intelligence agents; he hasn't been seen or heard from since. Khan had been scheduled to testify before the court, as well as European parliaments this weekend (BBC, Reuters). With the local police denying any involvement in Khan's disappearance, the Rawalpindi bench of the Lahore High Court told the government to present Khan to the court or provide the reason for his arrest by Feb. 20.
Three down, three to go
The Alpine Club of Pakistan confirmed on Wednesday that Samina Baig and her brother, Mirza Ali, had reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, completing the third part of their quest to summit all seven of the world's highest peaks (Dawn). Baig first made history on May 19, 2013, when she became the first Pakistani woman to climb the Himalayas' Mt. Everest; Ali plans to summit the mountain next year. Since then, the mountaineering duo has climbed Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina and Mt. Vinson, the tallest mountain in Antarctica. Next up is Puncak Jaya in Indonesia, followed by Mt. McKinley in Alaska and Mt. Elbrus in Russia.
-- Bailey Cahall
U.S. ambassador meets Narendra Modi
Nancy Powell, the U.S. ambassador to India, met Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi on Thursday in a closed door, hour-long meeting in Gandhinagar (VOA, Post, Times of India). A press statement on posted on Modi's website and reports from persons at the meeting indicated the discussions were concerned investments by U.S. companies, human rights, and socio-economic conditions. India's relations with its neighbors, such as Gujarat's role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, were also highlighted, as were Vajpayee-era peace initiatives with Pakistan. Modi reportedly raised the recent Devyani Khobragade episode and said he hoped a permanent solution could be found soon. The only subject reportedly left off the table was the issue of granting Modi a visa to visit the United States.
Reflecting on the United States' change in stance towards Modi, strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney said: "Mr. Modi is ahead of his political rivals in all the opinion polls, so the U.S. is simply seeking to protect its economic and strategic interests" (Guardian). A statement released by the U.S. embassy sought to paint the meeting as an overall outreach program to Indian political leaders ahead of the country's national elections.
Modi also kicked off a new initiative called "Chai pe Charcha," an interactive program across 1,000 tea stalls in 300 Indian cities (Business Standard, BBC). Modi, who often talks about his beginnings as a tea vendor when campaigning, likened the event to a footpath parliament and held discussions on topics as varied as governance and rural issues to Israel and Mars. However, the Congress party's Manish Tiwari described the event and surrounding hype as a "storm in a tea cup."
Parliamentary clash over Telangana turns violent
India's lower house of parliament erupted into chaos on Thursday after a member of parliament used pepper spray on his colleagues in protest of a plan to create the new state of Telangana (BBC, NYT, NDTV, Times of India). L. Rajagopal, a parliamentarian from the governing Congress party, smashed glass and used pepper spray to disrupt the proceedings when Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde introduced a bill to create a new state, Telangana, which would be carved out of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
Indian television showed members of parliament leaving the building coughing and wiping their eyes, with some members being taken to the hospital in ambulances. Some also accused Venugopal Reddy, a lawmaker from Andhra Pradesh, of brandishing a knife. Reddy denied the claims in an interview, though he admitted that he broke the secretary general's microphone (Economic Times). Members wearing blindfolds protested the bill in both houses, holding placards and shouting anti-government slogans.
Rajagopal was suspended along with 17 other parliamentarians, who will be barred from parliament for five consecutive sittings or until the session ends on Feb. 21 (Economic Times). "This has shamed us," Meira Kumar, the speaker of the lower house, told reporters. "Today what has happened is a blot." The BJP blamed the Congress party for the "disgraceful" incident, saying it was a "drama" enacted by the ruling party and vowing not to engage with the government again (Economic Times).
The entire session of the current parliament, which began on Feb. 5, has been disrupted by opposition to the creation of Telangana. Backers of the new state say the area has been neglected by the government, while opponents are unhappy with the prospect of Hyderabad, the current capital of Andhra Pradesh, becoming the capital of Telangana after serving as a shared state capital for 10 years. They also fear the loss of river waters flowing from the Telangana region and access to education and jobs in the city.
Inflation, industrial output fall in January
India's consumer price inflation slowed to a two-year low of 8.79 percent in January 2014, offering some relief to the ruling Congress party ahead of national elections (Reuters, Bloomberg, WSJ). The data, released by the Statistics Ministry on Wednesday, also showed that industrial output shrank 0.6 percent in December 2013, its third consecutive monthly contraction, an indication that economic growth remains sluggish.
Food inflation dropped to 9.90 percent from 12.16 percent in December, weighing on overall retail inflation. Core inflation, which excludes food and other items with volatile prices, remained sticky at around 8 percent. Analysts have widely attributed the Congress party's poor performance in recent state elections to inflation, particularly a surge in the price of food products such as onions.
Persistently high inflation prompted the Reserve Bank of India to raise interest rates last month, its third hike since September. Last week, weak industrial numbers forced the government to revise its growth forecast for this fiscal year to 4.9 percent, down from 5 percent.
Pakistan-India border trade resumes
Travel and trade resumed across the Line of Control on Wednesday, as 27 trucks were allowed to leave Pakistan for India, and 49 others cleared to go in the other direction (Hindustan Times, Deccan Chronicle, Business Standard, The Hindu). The resumption ended a three-week standoff that occurred after Indian authorities detained a Pakistani truck driver for allegedly carrying 250 pounds of heroin across the border. Reports cited "official sources" as saying that Pakistan had finally agreed to not insist on its demand that the driver and his vehicle be released. Trade across the Kashmir border began in 2008 as part of a bilateral peace effort, but it is frequently disrupted by disputes.
-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson
Edited by Peter Bergen.
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