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Kashmir clashes continue for third day over killing of top rebel

Anti-India protests and clashes have continued for a third day on Friday in Indian-administered Kashmir following the killing of a top rebel leader by government forces. The Hizbul Mujahideen group’s commander Riyaz Naikoo and three other rebels were killed in a gunfight with Indian troops on Wednesday in southern Kashmir’s Pulwama district, leading to massive…

Kashmir clashes continue for third day over killing of top rebel

Anti-India protests and clashes have continued for a third day on Friday in Indian-administered Kashmir following the killing of a top rebel leader by government forces.
The Hizbul Mujahideen group’s commander Riyaz Naikoo and three other rebels were killed in a gunfight with Indian troops on Wednesday in southern Kashmir’s Pulwama district, leading to massive clashes in several places.
Naikoo, 35, was the chief of operations of Hizbul Mujahideen, the disputed region’s largest rebel group, which has spearheaded an armed rebellion against the Indian rule.
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The clashes continued on Friday as anti-India protesters threw stones at the government forces, who fired shotgun pellets and tear gas to quell the spiralling protests.
At least one man has been killed and 50 others injured in the three days of clashes, residents and medics said. Most of the injured were treated locally.
Medic: People hit with pellets in eyes
However, at least a dozen people with bullet and pellet injuries were taken to a hospital in Srinagar, the region’s main city, for treatment, a doctor said on condition of anonymity because medics have been barred from briefing the news media.
She said most of the injured had been hit by pellet guns in one or both eyes.
Residents said government forces swooped into Naikoo’s native village on Thursday and accused them of vandalising a tent that villagers had set up for mourning his death, triggering large protests and clashes.
Authorities did not hand over the bodies of the slain rebels to their families under a new government policy designed to thwart large-scale funerals that have become a rallying point for anti-India protests.
Instead, police buried the bodies in a mountainous graveyard about 100km (62 miles) from the village. 
Authorities have shut down mobile phone and internet services since Wednesday, a common Indian tactic in the region when such protests erupt.
They also imposed a near-total information blackout and refused to brief media about the situation. 
Hindu-majority India imposed similar measures in 2019 when it revoked the predominantly Muslim region’s semi-autonomous status and statehood and imposed direct federal rule.
At that time, it launched a months-long total communication blackout and an unprecedented military crackdown in the strife-torn region.

Release of Kashmiri prisoners urged amid virus outbreak

Indian security officials and some members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party called Naikoo’s death a major victory against the rebels.
He was Hizbul Mujahideen’s top commander for almost eight years and shot into prominence during a 2016 public uprising following the killing of the group’s charismatic leader, Burhan Wani.
After Wani’s death, Naikoo helped give new life to the rebellion in Indian-administered Kashmir, with security officials saying he was the most wanted Kashmiri rebel.
India has stepped up its counterinsurgency operations across the region in recent months during the coronavirus lockdown.
The rebels have also continued their attacks on the government forces and alleged informants. 
India and Pakistan each administer part of Kashmir, but both claim the region in its entirety.
Rebels have been fighting Indian control since 1989. About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.
Most Kashmiris deeply resent Indian rule and support the rebels’ call for the territory to be united, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
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Michael Pack clashes with Open Technology Fund on oversight

The head of U.S. foreign broadcasting is clashing with the taxpayer-financed fund to promote open internet access around the world, saying the Open Technology Fund management is opposing efforts to monitor its funding. Michael Pack, the new chief of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), criticized the resistance to oversight at the fund, which…

Michael Pack clashes with Open Technology Fund on oversight

The head of U.S. foreign broadcasting is clashing with the taxpayer-financed fund to promote open internet access around the world, saying the Open Technology Fund management is opposing efforts to monitor its funding.

Michael Pack, the new chief of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), criticized the resistance to oversight at the fund, which receives about $20 million a year.

“The campaign being waged by individuals who seem more concerned about covering up corruption and past failures than working on behalf of the American people should outrage every American citizen,” Mr. Pack said in a statement posted on the USAGM website.

“In particular, the personal and false attacks launched against [USAGM lawyer] Mora Namdar and other members of my staff working to advance freedom and human rights are totally without merit,” he stated.

Mr. Pack dismissed the head of the Open Technology Fund, former Radio Free Asia Director Libby Liu, in June along with the directors of the official and semi-official U.S. government broadcasting arms in what he described as a corporate-style shake-up of the U.S. government’s main international media outlets.

The fund in turn has sued to prevent Mr. Pack’s moves to take control of the organization and has won a temporary reprieve.

OTF officials last week filed a lawsuit claiming the fund is a target of Trump administration harassment and its activities should not be subject to USAGM oversight.

The lawsuit claimed that Ms. Namdar “launched a campaign of harassment — repeatedly threatening OTF’s grant funding unless it complied with a seemingly endless series of demands to immediately provide information, documents, interviews and on-site inspections.”

The fund also alleged in its lawsuit that USAGM has withheld nearly $20 million in funding for OTF.

Ms. Namdar notified the fund on Aug. 18 that the group would be in material breach of its grant agreement unless it provides 18 categories of information about its activities.

If the information is not supplied in 10 days, USAGM could defund the group.

Mr. Pack said in his statement that Ms. Namdar is “a patriotic public servant” who worked as a senior State Department adviser before signing on at USAGM.

“The attempts of those with money and power to disparage her are transparent, weak, and without merit,” Mr. Pack said.

Mr. Pack said he suspects that the fund is seeking to “foment scandal” in a bid to “distract from its numerous serious lapses and unwillingness to be transparent about its activities.”

A recent Office of Personnel Management report faulted previous USAGM leaders for failing to conduct stringent background checks on foreign nationals from states such as China, Russia and Iran who work for Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other traditional U.S. government-funded outlets.

Mr. Pack’s arrival has sparked a sharp debate over the role of the media arms in reporting to the world from an American government perspective.

“My staff and I will continue to aggressively defend U.S. national security interests and fulfill the important mission of the agency,” Mr. Pack said. “OTF’s attacks are not only upon individual civil servants, but also upon the very institutions of the federal government that exist to serve and protect Americans.

“We will not be deterred by attempts, ideological and otherwise, to harass and slander us in the press and elsewhere.”

Requests for comment from the OTF were not answered.

According to USAGM, the global internet fund was set up in 2012 by Ms. Liu, then the director of Radio Free Asia, as a small group within RFA. The project received funds from USAGM’s office of internet freedom and had a staff of three or four experts.

Mr. Pack recently revived the office of internet freedom within USAGM, which was shuttered during the Obama administration in favor of funding the separate OTF.

A USAGM official told The Washington Times that Ms. Liu ran afoul of the agency’s inspector general over concerns that RFA was granting contracts in an improper manner.

Ms. Liu then sought funds for “open technology” projects from the office of internet freedom and eventually obtained all funds meant for the office.

In 2019, Ms. Liu, who paid herself a salary of over $193,000, then unilaterally split the Open Technology Fund from RFA by incorporating the fund as a private nonprofit. She placed herself as the director — a move the USAGM official said was not authorized by Congress. Critics also say no U.S. taxpayer funds had been allocated specifically for the OTF.

The staff of the fund then grew to over 10 people and moved to expensive office space on L Street Northwest.

Ms. Liu, who is listed as co-founder emeritus on the OTF website, could not be reached for comment.

The USAGM official said the fund was paying millions of dollars to a private group for work that could have been done by the USAGM unit at a fraction of the cost. Also, concerns were raised within USAGM over the fund’s projects that appear to have little to do with overcoming foreign barriers to internet access and debate.

In an email note, Ms. Liu praised what she said was OTF’s “flexible, transparent, and competitive funding model.”

“I have become aware of lobbying efforts to convince the new USAGM CEO to interfere with the current FY2020 OTF funding stream and redirect some of our resources to a few closed-source circumvention tools,” she wrote in the June 13 email, according to the online news outlet Vice. “While I am still permitted to stay in my seat, I will continue to work to protect this organization.”

Mr. Pack terminated her and the OTF board four days later, Vice reported.

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Fresh clashes in Libya despite UN ceasefire call

Rival forces have clashed in the Libyan capital, Tripoli causing new civilian casualties in the grinding conflict a day after a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution called for a “lasting ceasefire”. The resolution was the council’s first since eastern-based renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive last April to seize Tripoli, the seat of…

Fresh clashes in Libya despite UN ceasefire call

Rival forces have clashed in the Libyan capital, Tripoli causing new civilian casualties in the grinding conflict a day after a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution called for a “lasting ceasefire”.
The resolution was the council’s first since eastern-based renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive last April to seize Tripoli, the seat of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
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But its call for the consolidation of a fragile truce observed since January 12 has not taken effect on the ground.
A new round of violence on the southern outskirts of the Libyan capital on Thursday left civilians dead and wounded. GNA spokesman Moustafa al-Mejii confirmed fighting had broken out.
Rockets also struck residential neighbourhoods, killing a woman and wounding four other civilians, said health ministry spokesman Amin al-Hachimi.
Tripoli’s sole functioning airport of Mitiga, frequently shut down by shelling, suspended flights for several hours after it was hit by a rocket attack before resuming operations.
Witnesses heard explosions in the largely agricultural area of Machrou al-Hadhba about 30 kilometres (18 miles) south of Tripoli city centre.
Attack ‘repelled’
Al-Mejii accused pro-Haftar forces of repeatedly violating a ceasefire demanded by outside powers Russia and Turkey.
“Haftar’s militias tried to advance in the region of Machrou al-Hadhba, but our forces repelled the attack,” he said.

Despite the truce, there has since been sporadic fighting almost every day near Tripoli.
Weapons have continued to flow into the country despite world leaders agreeing at a January summit to end all foreign interference in Libya and to uphold a UN arms embargo, imposed since 2011 when a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi.
Libya has been mired in chaos ever since, with an array of armed groups linked to rival administrations vying for power, while foreign powers continue to intervene on both sides.
Russia has been accused of sending several thousand mercenaries from a private security company to support Haftar, accusations the Kremlin denies.
Other foreign players include the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Jordan who have bolstered Haftar, while Turkey backs the GNA.
UN chief Antonio Guterres has slammed continued foreign interference in Libya as a “scandal”.
International divisions
The UNSC resolution adopted Wednesday affirmed “the need for a lasting ceasefire in Libya at the earliest opportunity, without pre-conditions”.
It also called for continued negotiations by a joint military commission set up in January between the two sides, with the goal of achieving a “permanent ceasefire”.
This would include a monitoring system, a separation of forces and confidence-building measures.
The commission’s Geneva meeting ended Saturday without a resolution, but the UN proposed resuming talks from February 18.
The Security Council resolution, drafted by the United Kingdom, was approved by 14 votes out of 15, with Russia abstaining.
London had chosen to keep mention of the council’s “concern over the growing involvement of mercenaries in Libya”, terminology that had been the subject of weeks of wrangling, reflecting the deep international divisions over Libya.
Russia had pushed to replace the word “mercenaries” with “foreign terrorist fighters”, but was unsuccessful.
Red Cross warning
Diplomatic efforts to contain the violence were under way on Thursday.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio held talks with Haftar in second city Benghazi on Thursday, Haftar’s office said, a day after Di Maio met GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli.
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, whose country has sought to mediate in the crisis in recent weeks, also discussed Libya with Greek Foreign Minister Nicos Dendias.

‘Silencing the guns’: AU leaders seek end to regional conflicts

The UN says more than 1,000 people have died in the clashes between Haftar and the GNA since April, while another 140,000 have been displaced.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday accused pro-Haftar forces of using cluster munitions in a residential area in Tripoli on December 2.
“Using cluster munitions shows reckless disregard for the safety of civilians,” said Stephen Goose, the group’s arms division director, in a statement.
Red Cross chief Peter Maurer warned Thursday that if the situation deteriorates, Libyans could flee the country.
“If we cannot stabilise the situation by political and humanitarian means … there could be a population flow like we see when people lose hope,” the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross told AFP news agency in Tunis.
On top of the deadly violence, Libya’s National Oil Corporation has warned of a new economic crisis, saying the country’s vital oil production and revenues had dropped since the Berlin conference was held on January 19.
Oil production now stood at 191,475 barrels per day (bpd) compared with 1.2 million bpd before world leaders met in Berlin, representing a loss in revenues of $1.4m, a statement said.
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