Bomb Blast Close To Kabul Compound

afganis presidentA large bomb has gone off in the west of the Afghan capital, Kabul, near the compound where a security pact with the US is to be debated, police say.

At least one person has died in the blast, thought to have been caused by a suicide car bomber.

The security pact governs the status of the 10,000 US military personnel staying in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

It is being discussed next week by Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga, the traditional council of elders.

A police chief, quoted by the AFP news agency, spoke of an explosives-laden car and one witness described seeing a white vehicle in the area before the blast.

The explosion occurred less than 100 metres from a large tent where more than 2,000 prominent Afghans will gather on Thursday to debate the pact.

A defence ministry official was quoted as saying the attack targeted an armoured car providing security for the Loya Jirga.

One report suggested 10 people may have been killed, but officials are making clear that the death toll is not yet clear.

The security agreement must be approved by the Loya Jirga and parliament before it can come into force.

Among other issues, the pact covers the key issue of whether US troops can be prosecuted in Afghanistan.

Hours before the blast, Mr Karzai said negotiators had completed a draft of the accord, AP reports.

But he added that there were “still some differences”.

The US contingent remaining beyond the end of 2014, when most international forces are due to have left Afghanistan, is expected to focus on training and mentoring Afghan security forces.

 

Sri Lanka Rejects Cameron Call For Human Rights Inquiry

camroonSri Lanka’s government has rejected UK PM David Cameron’s call for an international probe into alleged human rights abuses following the civil war.

Mr Cameron urged President Mahinda Rajapaksa to ensure an independent inquiry, or face a UN investigation.

But senior minister Basil Rajapaksa said such a probe would “definitely” not be allowed to take place.

The abuses are alleged to have been committed mainly against Tamils since the end of the war in 2009.

The government is carrying out its own investigation but denies civilians were killed in the last stages of the war when government troops routed Tamil Tiger rebels in their last stronghold.

President Rajapaksa has said the end of the war has brought peace, stability and the chance of greater prosperity to Sri Lanka.

Basil Rajapakse – minister of economic development and the brother of President Rajapakse, told news agency AFP: “Why should we have an international inquiry? We will object to it… Definitely, we are not going to allow it.”

Mr Cameron, speaking on Friday in the capital Colombo, ahead of the Commonwealth summit, said he had urged Sri Lanka’s president to go further and faster over human rights issues and reconciliation.

In a meeting with President Rajapaksa, he called for Sri Lanka to ensure “credible, transparent and independent investigations into alleged war crimes” and said if this did not happen by March he would press the UN Human Rights Council to hold an international inquiry.

The prime minister met Mr Rajapaksa on Friday after a visit to the northern Jaffna region to see the situation facing the country’s Tamil minority.

He said strong views had been expressed but the meeting with the president had been worthwhile.

‘Right track’

Mr Cameron said: “I accept it takes time but I think what matters is getting on the right pathway, getting on the right track, because it’s only through generosity, through reconciling people that you can make the most of this country.

“So, a frank meeting – of course not everything I said was accepted but I sense that they do want to make progress on these issues and it will help frankly by having international pressure in order to make sure that that happens.”

Earlier, the UK leader met Sri Lankan cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan, a Tamil who works for reconciliation in his country.

Obamacare Website Under Repeated Cyber Attacks

obama 2Hackers have attempted more than a dozen cyber attacks against the Obamacare website, according to a top Homeland Security Department official. CNN reports that the attacks, which are under investigation, failed, according to an official. Authorities also are investigating a separate report of a tool designed to put heavy strain on HealthCare.gov through a so-called distributed denial of service. It does not appear to have been activated. “We received about 16 reports from HHS that are under investigation and one open source report about a denial of service,” according to Acting Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Roberta Stempfley of the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications. Stempfley testified at a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee that the attempts were made between November 6 and November 8, but none were successful. The DDOS program, called “Destroy Obama Care,” was recently spotted on a “torrent” file sharing web page, and first reported last week on a blog by Arbor Networks, which said it found no evidence the program had actually been launched to attack the troubled federal portal for consumers to shop for health coverage. “We have not monitored any attacks. We have not seen any sizable, or anything to believe that these problems are related to DDOS,” said Dan Holden director of security research for Arbor Networks, adding “I don’t believe that the problems with the site’s availability is due to any kind of DDOS attack.” In a separate hearing, a top Health and Human Services official, Chief Information Officer Frank Baitman, said his department had engaged an “ethical hacker” on staff to test the defenses of the health care site. The hacker discovered between seven and 10 items related to attempted security breaches which were disclosed in a report. Baitman said he would not describe these items as serious and said the majority had been resolved. The use of hackers employed to test on line site security is common, Holden said. “That’s pretty standard practice, generally referred to as penetration testing,” Holden told CNN. “There are many companies and individuals out there that have done that for a very long time. The idea being, you want to know where your weaknesses are and what the potential of attacks could be.” But others are still concerned about the security of the site. In statements made before the House Homeland Security hearing, database expert Luke Chang – whose company did not work on HealthCare.gov – provided his technical assessment, saying that the problem with the roll out of the website was far deeper than “too many users.” Chang said that in his estimation the skill set of the designers of the website were subpar, adding that “when you have an environment where the developer can barely get the web site functional, security is way down on the list of things to take care of. Security has to be built-in at the very beginning not at the very end.”

China Reforms: One-Child Policy To Be Relaxed

china policyChina is to relax its policy of restricting most couples to have only a single child, state media say.

In future, families will be allowed two children if one parent is an only child, says the Xinhua news agency.

The one-child policy already exempts rural dwellers and ethnic minorities.

The move comes after this week’s meeting of a key decision-making body of the governing Communist Party. Other reforms include the abolition of “re-education through labour” camps.

The network of camps created half a century ago holds thousands of inmates who are made to undergo re-education, known as “laojiao”.

Police panels have the power to sentence offenders to years in camps without a trial.

China’s leaders have previously said they wanted to reform the system.

The decision to do away with the camps was “part of efforts to improve human rights and judicial practices”, Xinhua said.

The Third Plenum of the Communist Party under President Xi Jinping, who took power last year, also announced plans for economic reform.

Traditionally reforms are expected at the Third Plenum, because new leaders are seen as having had time to consolidate power.

Syrian Rebel ‘Beheaded In Case Of Mistaken Identity’

Syria RebelAn al-Qaeda affiliated rebel group in Syria is reported to have asked for forgiveness after beheading a fellow rebel in a case of mistaken identity.

A video recently posted online showed members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) brandishing the severed, bearded head of a man.

They said was an Iraqi Shia caught fighting on the government side.

But other rebel fighters watching the video recognised the man and said he was one of their commanders.

The video shows two ISIS fighters in Aleppo province – one holding a knife – brandish a severed, bearded head, denouncing their victim as an Iraqi volunteer for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

They decry his immorality, saying he is a heathen – one of those who have threatened rape of men as much as women.

Horrifying videos like this stream out of Syria every day from the rebel and government side – each with the aim of sowing terror.

What makes this one stand out is that other rebels watching the video recognised the beheaded man.

Members of the hardline Islamist rebel group, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, said he was not a government fighter at all, but one of their own. They said he was a commander called Mohammed Fares.

The story appears to be that he was wounded in the recent battle for Base 80, south of Aleppo, with government forces and was being taken for medical treatment by rebel fighters.

But he seems to have thought he had been captured by government militiamen from the much feared shabiha. The militia is dominated by Alawites, members of the president’s heterodox Shia sect.

Mr Fares is reported to have offered prayers that would have made him seem a Shia rather than a Sunni – and therefore on their side.

This was heard by ISIS fighters, and in the growing atmosphere of sectarian hatred, he was then subjected to his savage fate.

According to the newspaper, he alluded to a saying by the Prophet Muhammad that Allah forgives those who kill a believer by mistake.

Typhoon Haiyan: US Carrier Boosts Philippines Relief Effort

storm2A US aircraft carrier and its escort of two cruisers have arrived off the Philippines coast to help communities devastated by Typhoon Haiyan.

The top US commander in the Philippines told the BBC that US military support would be on an unprecedented scale.

Officials have begun burying some typhoon victims in mass graves. The confirmed death toll stands at more than 2,300 but is likely to rise.

The UN says some 11 million people have been affected by the typhoon.

With images of the suffering flashed around the world, a huge international aid effort has swung into operation.

Philippine Health Minister Enrique Ona told the BBC that international criticism of the government’s relief efforts was “unkind”.

He said the final death toll was likely to be “significantly lower” than an early estimate of 10,000, but warned that it was unlikely all victims would be identified.

The USS George Washington will expand search-and-rescue operations and provide a platform for helicopters to move supplies, the White House said.

Two US destroyers are already in the Philippines and other US vessels are expected to arrive in about a week, the US Navy said.

On Wednesday the US also ordered the activation of a hospital ship, the USNS Mercy. However, if deployed, it would not reach the Philippines until December.

The UK government is sending the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, more than £20m ($32m) in aid, a team of medical experts and an RAF transport aircraft.

US Marine Brigadier General Paul Kennedy told BBC Radio 5 live that the US aid effort was being stepped up to a level that has “probably never been applied” to a humanitarian crisis.

He said the arrival of the USS George Washington would triple the number of available helicopters, which can also deliver hundreds of thousands of gallons of water every day.

Other countries have also pledged help in the shape of financial aid, relief supplies or emergency teams.

Japan is also preparing to send up to 1,000 troops as well as naval vessels and aircraft, Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said.

China – which is engaged in a territorial dispute with the Philippines – is sending 10m yuan ($1.6m; £1m) in relief goods.

Its initial pledge of $200,000 (£120,000) from the government and Chinese Red Cross combined drew criticism in US media, but was also condemned by some Chinese internet users as excessive.

Orla Fagan, at the UN’s Humanitarian Affairs office in Manila, said that after a slow start, the aid effort was now accelerating.

“People are angry, they are distressed, they are traumatised, and we are trying to get this stuff out to them,” she said.

Unprecedented logistics

Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded on land, hit the Philippines last Friday.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, visiting the devastated city of Tacloban, said the situation was desperate with residents left without food or fresh water for five days.

Aid was now getting in, she said, but “I do feel that we have let people down.”

Tacloban’s airport was left in ruins by the storm, but in recent days US military planes have been arriving with World Food Programme supplies. A French-Belgian field hospital has also been set up.

Manila has sent troops to Tacloban to keep law and order, but correspondents say there is a growing sense of panic.

In some areas survivors have resorted to digging up water pipes and extracting fuel from reservoirs at petrol stations.

Health experts have warned that the worst-affected areas are entering a peak danger period for the spread of infectious diseases.

Chogm: Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa Hits Out At Critics

sirlanka presidentSri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa has hit out at critics amid heightened scrutiny of his government’s human rights record on the eve of a Commonwealth summit hosted in Colombo.

The president said his government ended killings in the country by defeating Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009.

Several leaders are boycotting the event and British PM David Cameron has said he will raise “tough questions”.

The summit has been overshadowed by the row over its host, Sri Lanka.

Correspondents say the government had hoped the three-day event – which begins on Friday – would showcase Sri Lanka’s post-war revival, but instead it is turning into a PR disaster.

‘No more bombings’

In an angry riposte to the growing tide of criticism, Mr Rajapaksa said that killings had taken place in Sri Lanka not only in 2009, as his government crushed the rebels, but for 30 years up until then, including children and pregnant women.

“Every day there was a dead body or 10 or 15 dead bodies,” he told reporters, adding “no one made an issue over that”. That had now been stopped, he said, and there were no more bombings.

He said his government was ready to take action against anyone found guilty of violating rights but it would not “divide the country”.

In May 2009 Sri Lanka’s army defeated the separatist Tamil Tigers after almost 30 years of brutal and bloody civil war. But the spotlight has focused on the final phase of that war as civilians were hemmed into a thin strip of land on the north-eastern coast – both sides are accused of atrocities here.

However one UN report estimates that as many as 40,000 civilians were killed in that final phase, mostly by government shelling – and Sri Lanka continues to be accused of the rape and torture of detainees, enforced disappearances of activists and the intimidation of journalists.

The government has vehemently denied all such accusations.

‘Questions raised’

But as Colombo began welcoming delegates from some 53 Commonwealth nations to the city on Wednesday, a group of Tamils whose family members disappeared during or after the civil war were prevented from travelling to Colombo. Pro-government protesters also disrupted some journalists’ attempts to travel north that day.

On Thursday, a human rights festival being hosted at the main opposition headquarters in Colombo was attacked by protesters.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper are staying away from the summit, as is Mauritian Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam.

But British Prime Minister David Cameron is set to arrive on Thursday. He argues that engagement is crucial and and said he would raise “tough questions” on human rights and allegations of war crimes.

On Wednesday Sri Lanka’s Minister of Mass Media and Communications Keheliya Rambukwella reacted angrily to that suggestion: “We are a sovereign nation. You think someone can just make a demand from Sri Lanka?”

Mr Rajapaksa declined to comment on Mr Cameron’s remarks, saying he would certainly be meeting him and that the two were likely to ask each other “some questions”.

The heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, also arrives today, representing the Queen as head of the Commonwealth.

Mr Rajapaksa said he would greet him in the traditional Sri Lankan way which was used for anyone, whether a king, a queen or a beggar.

US Names Nigeria’s Boko Haram And Ansaru ‘Terrorists’

boko haramThe US has designated Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Ansaru militant groups as foreign terrorist organisations.

The state department described the move as “an important” step to help Nigeria “root out violent extremism”.

It means US regulatory agencies are instructed to block business and financial transactions with the groups.

Boko Haram wants to impose Islamic law in northern Nigeria, and has been blamed for thousands of deaths. Ansaru is seen as an off-shoot of Boko Haram.

Boko Haram began its insurgency in 2009, and targets both the military and civilians, including schools, and frequently clashes with the Nigerian armed forces.

Ansaru was formed in January 2012, though it rose to prominence only about six months later through the release of a video in which it vowed to attack Westerners in defence of Muslims worldwide.

The group has proved to be a formidable threat during its short existence, using dynamite to penetrate heavily-fortified compounds and taking foreigners hostage.

Atrocities claim

In a statement, the US state department said Wednesday’s “designations are an important and appropriate step”.

But it stressed that this was “only one tool in what must be a comprehensive approach by the Nigerian government to counter these groups”.

The decision means that it is now a crime under US law to provide material support to the two groups.

Boko Haram was earlier seen as an organisation which only posed a domestic threat – one reason why the US has not previously designated it as a terrorist organisation, the BBC’s Will Ross in Lagos reports.

But during the last three years – as its attacks have intensified – there have also been signs of a more international agenda, our correspondent says.

This included the 2011 raid on the UN building in the capital, Abuja, and also reports that Boko Haram has established links with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Shabab in Somalia.

The group has several sources of funding – including bank lootings and ransom payments – which are unlikely to be affected by the US decision, our correspondent adds.

Nigeria’s government said in June that Boko Haram and Ansaru were terrorist organisations, warning that anyone who helped them would face a minimum prison sentence of 20 years.

There have been allegations that some Nigerian politicians have supported Boko Haram.

There is as yet no evidence to suggest the ongoing Nigerian military campaign is succeeding against the group.

Civilians in the country’s north-east are killed by the group every week, and the army is frequently accused of carrying out human rights atrocities there, our correspondent says.

Morsi Warns Of Egypt Instability Without Reinstatement

morsiEgypt’s ousted President Mohammed Morsi has warned that the country cannot be stable until he is returned to power.

In a statement read out by lawyers who met him in prison, he said he had been kidnapped and held against his will since the military deposed him in July.

He also denounced as illegitimate the court that is trying him on charges of inciting murder and violence.

Mr Morsi refused to name any lawyers to defend him in the trial, which has been adjourned until 8 January.

He is one of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members to have been detained over the past four months in a crackdown the interim authorities have portrayed as a struggle against “terrorism”.

Hundreds of people have also been killed in clashes with security forces.

On Monday, the government said it would be lifting the state of emergency and curfew imposed in August to limit protests.

However, security will be bolstered in city centres and on main roads, and activists expect the introduction of a new law giving police the power to ban demonstrations outright.

‘Legal measures’

Mr Morsi was moved to a regular prison last week after the first session of his trial on charges of incitement, in connection with the violence outside the Ittihadiya presidential palace in Cairo in December 2012.

At a meeting with a team of lawyers from the Brotherhood and other allied groups on Tuesday, he dictated a “message to the Egyptian people”.

“The coup has begun to fall apart and will topple in the face of the steadfastness of the Egyptian people,” the lawyers quoted the statement as saying on Wednesday.

Mr Morsi accused armed forces chief Gen Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who announced the overthrow of the president following days of mass opposition protests, of “treason against God” and “treason against the whole nation by driving a wedge among the people of Egypt”.

Egypt would not regain its stability until “the military coup is eliminated and those responsible for shedding Egyptians’ blood are held accountable”, he warned.

Brotherhood lawyer Mohammed al-Damati said Mr Morsi was still refusing to accept legal representation for his trial, insisting it was illegitimate.

“When we discussed the issue of naming a lawyer to defend him, he said that the time was too early to talk about this because he adheres to his legitimacy.”

However, the lawyers would initiate “legal measures against the coup”, Mr Damati said. These might include complaining to the prosecutor general that “what happened was a crime”, or filing a suit at an administrative court alleging that Gen Sisi’s moves were “null and void”, he added.

Later, state-run Nile News TV reported that the Misdemeanour Court in Burj al-Arab, in Alexandria, had ruled that the separate trial of Mr Morsi on fraud charges would begin on 23 December.

The charges were connected with the Muslim Brotherhood’s economic and social programme for Egypt’s recovery, called Renaissance (al-Nahda), it said.

Supporters claim both the incitement and fraud charges are politically motivated, something the military backed government denies.

Typhoon Haiyan: Philippines Defends Aid Response

philipinesThe Philippine government says it is facing its biggest ever logistical challenge after Typhoon Haiyan, which affected as many as 11 million people.

Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras said the government had been overwhelmed by the impact of Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms on record.

The official death toll stands at more than 2,300, but local officials and aid workers say it could rise much higher.

Mr Almendras said the government had responded to the disaster “quite well”.

Aid is slowly beginning to arrive in the worst-affected regions.

The BBC’s Jonathan Head in Tacloban, a devastated city of 220,000 on Leyte island, says Wednesday brought the first signs of an organised response.

US military planes have been arriving at Tacloban’s ruined airport, delivering World Food Programme supplies, which can be carried by helicopter to outlying regions, and a French-Belgian field hospital has been set up.

Many people have left Tacloban, says our correspondent, but among those left behind there is a growing sense of panic and fear, not just of food running out but of law and order breaking down.

On Tuesday, eight people died when a wall collapsed as thousands of desperate survivors mobbed a food warehouse.

And on Wednesday there were reports of shots being fired in the street and of a teenaged boy being stabbed in the stomach.

With warehouses empty, the main concern for people still in Tacloban was food and water. Some survivors resorted to digging up water pipes for supplies.

On a visit to the city, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said aid was coming in but operations had to be scaled up immediately: “The priority has got to be, let’s get the food in, let’s get the water in.”

The army began to fan out from the airport to secure other areas of the city on Wednesday.

But there was little sign of medical care in Tacloban as health officials warned the worst-affected areas were entering a peak danger period for the spread of infectious diseases.

“It’s really a matter of urgency to address issues of clean water, sanitation, adequate shelter and basic health care,” said Rick Brennan of the World Health Organization.