Thursday, May 14, 2009

Pakistan 'shells Taliban bases'

Pakistan's military has continued its offensive against Taliban fighters in the country's northwest, amid reports that the US has for the first time shared data from its unmanned drones with Islamabad.

The army shelled suspected Taliban bases in the districts of Swat and Lower Dir on Thursday, marking the 18th successive day of attacks by the military in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).

"Militant hideouts were targeted in Dir and Swat and many of their hideouts were destroyed in mountains," a security official told the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.

Another military official said troops were 16km from Swat's main town of Mingora, where Taliban fighters are in control.

The military has released a video showing the bombing of what it calls Taliban targets.

At least 834,000 civilians from the Swat and Buner districts are registered as displaced persons with the United Nations after leaving their homes to escape the fighting.

Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told Al Jazeera that the scale of the refugee crisis is overwhelming.

"Pakistan has no capacity to deal with these people and to provide them with the basic needs they require. The Pakistani people are in need of massive humanitarian support from the international community," he said from the Swabi refugee camp on Thursday.

"If you look at the movement [of people from the war zone], it is indeed the biggest movement in present times. Massive humanitarian support is required or else there will be a humanitarian disaster."

Buner 'emptied'

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Wednesday that it had entered Buner, one of the NWFP districts most affected by the conflict.

In depth

Q&A: The struggle for Swat
Talking to the Taliban
Pakistan's war
Pakistan diary
The fight for northwest Pakistan
Riz Khan: Obama's 'AfPak' strategy
Riz Khan: The battle for the soul of Pakistan
Your views: Crisis in Swat
"You can see the scars of recent fighting," Bart Janssens, the ICRC's health co-ordinator in Pakistan, said.

"There is no more electricity or clean drinking water. Most shops are closed. Goods on the market are scarce. The streets feel empty. The district is rapidly being emptied of its inhabitants."

The Pakistani military has up to 15,000 troops in place against about 4,000 Taliban fighters in the northwest of the country.

At least 750 suspected Taliban fighters and 33 troops have died in military operations in Lower Dir, Buner and Swat since April 26th, the military says.

The military onslaught comes after increasing pressure by the US government to take a stronger line against the Taliban.

The Taliban on Wednesday issued an ultimatum to provincial leaders in Pakistan, with a spokesman for the group telling Al Jazeera that the officials must resign or else their families would be targeted.

Drone co-operation

In another development, reports in the US media say that the Pentagon has shared with Islamabad surveillance data gathered from drones flying over Pakistani territory.

But "it is not clear" whether that co-operation will continue, the New York Times reported.

Pakistan has in recent months stated its opposition to US drone overflights. Bombs launched from drones have been responsible for the deaths of at least 390 people in Pakistan, many of them civilians, since August 2008.

Islamabad has called the drone overflights and bombing runs a violation of its territorial sovereignty.

Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, said on Wednesday that he had asked Washington for "ownership" of US drones carrying out attacks on its territory.

Islamabad was "negotiating terms" with Washington over the use of the drones, he said, after talks with Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, in London.

NKorea to put US reporters on trial in early June

Two U.S. journalists arrested near North Korea's border with China on accusations of illegal entry and "hostile acts" will be tried by Pyongyang in early June, state media said Thursday.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV media venture, were detained March 17 while reporting on North Korean refugees living in China.

A brief dispatch by Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency did not say what charges they will face June 4. But state media previously said they stand accused of illegal entry and unspecified "hostile acts" — charges that could carry up to 10 years in prison.

The detention of the two Americans comes at a time of mounting tensions between Pyongyang and Washington, and there are concerns the North could use the women as bargaining chips in an effort to position itself for talks with the Obama administration about its weapons programs.

The women will be tried in North Korea's Central Court — the country's top court — the statement said, in a sign of the seriousness of the case and an indication the regime will not allow any appeal of the verdict.

The Central Court normally deals with appeals but has the right to hear some "special" cases first, said Seoul lawyer Han Myung-sub, an expert on North Korean law.

The U.S. does not have diplomatic ties with the North and has relied on the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to negotiate on its behalf. A Swedish envoy met with each journalist on March 30, but the North has since refused access to them, U.S. officials said.

"I'm not aware of any kind of reasons that have been given to us as to why they're denying the consular access, which, of course, is contrary to the Vienna Convention," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters in Washington on Monday.

For months, North Korea has been locked in a standoff with the U.S. and others over its nuclear and missile programs.

Pyongyang, which conducted a nuclear test and test-fired a long-range missile in 2006, had agreed as part of a 2007 pact to begin dismantling its atomic program in exchange for fuel aid and other concessions.

That process came to a halt last year amid a dispute with Washington, and talks in December in Beijing failed to resolve the matter.

North Korea's move to launch a rocket early last month further heightened tensions. Pyongyang claims it put a satellite into orbit, but the U.S. and other nations believe it was a long-range missile test banned under a U.N. resolution.

The U.N. Security Council's condemnation of the April 5 launch angered North Korea, which quit the international nuclear talks, expelled inspectors and threatened to conduct nuclear and long-range missile tests.

Washington has expressed its willingness to hold talks with the North in order to get the nuclear negotiations back on track. But the North dismissed talks with the U.S. as useless.

The announcement of the June trial date comes on the heels of the release in Iran this week of an American journalist originally sentenced to eight years for alleged spying. Roxana Saberi's sentence was reduced to a two-year suspended term. She was freed Monday after four months in jail.

Under North Korea's criminal code, conviction for illegal entry could mean up to three years in a labor camp. Espionage or "hostility toward North Koreans" — possible crimes that could be considered "hostile acts" — could draw five to 10 years in prison, South Korean legal experts say.

Han, the lawyer, said the North was likely to hand down heavy sentences for Ling and Lee so they can hold onto the reporters and use them as a negotiating card. But he also speculated that the court could eventually grant the women a pardon.

One analyst said a quick resolution of the case could spur diplomacy.

"This is likely to open a floodgate for talks between the U.S. and the North," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.

Climate Change Called Greatest Health Challenge

The biggest global health threat of this century is climate change, according to a new report prepared jointly by University College London and The Lancet.

Climate change will change for the worse patterns of disease, food security, water and sanitation, and extreme weather, according to Anthony Costello, FRCPCH, of University College London and colleagues.

"This is a bad diagnosis for our children and grandchildren," Dr. Costello told reporters, not only in the developing world but also in industrialized countries.

The journal's editor in chief, Richard Horton, FRCP, said climate change is "an urgent threat, it is a dangerous threat, it is neglected and requires an unprecedented response."

The researchers called for health professionals to get involved in a new "public health movement that frames the threat of climate change for humankind as a health issue."

The 94-page report is to be published in the May 16 issue of The Lancet.

Dr. Costello said the researchers concluded that mean global temperatures will rise by between 2o C and 6o C over the next 100 years.

Among other things, they said, the increase will mean:

* More heat waves like the one in Europe in 2003 that killed an estimated 70,000 people
* Greater rates of transmission and wider geographic spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever that are currently endemic in tropical regions
* Hunger from falling crop yields in many regions of the world, caused by higher temperatures and the effects of extreme weather, such as flooding and drought
* An increase in gastroenteritis and water-borne diseases because of disrupted water supply, as well as water shortages

Co-author Hugh Montgomery, M.D., also of University College London, said the research suggested that one-third to two-thirds of all known species could go extinct over the next 40 years.

That would be the "fastest mass extinction the world has ever seen," Dr. Montgomery said, and would have harmful effects on humanity, a species at the top of the global food chain.

"You don't have to be a genius to recognize that that will impact on your lives," he said.

One possible effect, he said, would be crop failures because of a lack of pollinating insects.

On the other hand, some species would do better, the researchers said, including the insects that carry such diseases as malaria. Also, the vectors that carry animal infections, such as blue-tongue virus, would be able to spread.

Dr. Montgomery said the climate change debate has largely focused on infrastructure and economics, along with questions of weather and "whether the polar bears are going to survive."

One purpose of the report, he said, is to "personalize" the issue.

Nearly a billion people already suffer food insecurity, the researchers noted, and the UN World Food Programme says the number of food emergencies every year has increased from an average of 15 during the 1980s to more than 30 in this decade.

A rise in sea level could also cause "catastrophic" effects, the researchers said, noting that of the 20 largest cities in the world, 13 are on a coast. A sea level rise of only a few meters could inundate many of those places, they said.

Dr. Costello noted that aside from slowing or averting climate change, reducing carbon emissions would have some health benefits, including cleaner air and a lower burden of illnesses related to a sedentary lifestyles, such as obesity, diabetes, and stress.

The world might be reaching a "tipping point" in the climate change debate, Dr. Costello said, adding that the health lobby has come late to this debate but must be "at the forefront."

He said that before starting on this project, he -- as a pediatrician -- had not realized how serious the issue is as a matter of global health.

Dr. Costello said he and other health professionals "must emphasize the (health) threat to our children and grandchildren from greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation."

He added that the focus must be on healthcare systems, which are not equal throughout the world. Because of that inequality, the "loss of healthy life years" to climate change will probably be 500 times higher in Africa than in Europe.

Finally, he said, "we must develop win-win situations whereby we mitigate and adapt to climate change and at the same time significantly improve human health and well being."

Clearwire, Cisco join for WiMAX

Clearwire Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. have formed an alliance to expand WiMAX services throughout the United States.

In a Wednesday release, Clearwire (Nasdaq: CLWR) said that Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO) will provide core infrastructure for Clearwire’s national network and build new mobile devices compatible with Clearwire’s Clear 4G mobile WiMAX service. Financial terms of the alliance weren’t disclosed.

WiMAX technology allows wireless service at much faster speeds than 3G networks.

Overland Park, Kan.-based Sprint Nextel Corp. (NYSE: S) is majority owner of Clearwire, which includes Sprint’s former WiMAX unit. The deal to form the new Clearwire closed on Nov. 28 in a $14.5 billion deal that combined Sprint and Clearwire’s WiMAX assets and included $3.2 billion from several strategic investors.

As part of a multiyear network build-out plan with Cisco, Clearwire said in Wednesday’s release that its Clear 4G mobile service will be available in more than 80 U.S. markets by the end of 2010. Cisco aims to introduce its first mobile WiMAX device later this year.

Clearwire currently provides mobile WiMAX services in Baltimore and Portland, Ore. The company expects to spend $1.5 billion to $1.9 billion this year of the more than $3 billion it received from investors to launch WiMAX this year in cities such as Atlanta, Las Vegas, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Honolulu, Philadelphia and Seattle. Launches next year are expected in New York, Boston, Washington, Houston and the San Francisco area. The company expects to reach as many as 120 million people by 2010.

Cisco, based in San Jose, Calif., projects that mobile data traffic will increase one thousandfold between 2005 and 2012. The company said that a single high-end data phone today generates more data traffic than 30 basic-feature cell phones, and that a single laptop air card generates more data traffic than 450 basic-feature cell phones.

Clearwire, based in Kirkland, Wash., is scheduled to release its first-quarter financial report after the market closes on Wednesday.

King County gets more diverse, old and male

King County's population is getting more racially and ethnically diverse, older and more male, according to new Census estimates.

As of July 1, 2008, 30.6 percent of the county's residents were of a nonwhite race, multiracial or Hispanic (an ethnicity whose members can be of any race), the U.S. Census Bureau reported Thursday. That follows a consistent trend of increases since 2000, when the minority share was 26.1 percent.

All county minority populations grew faster, as a percentage, than the minuscule increase in non-Hispanic whites. Hispanics were by far the fastest-growing group, with a population increase of 5.5 percent in just one year and 51.2 percent from 2000. Hispanics grew from 5.5 percent of the county's population in 2000 to 7.7 percent last July.

The trend was similar for all of Washington, with minorities growing from 20.6 percent of the population in 2000 to 24.5 percent last year, and nationwide, with an increase from 30.5 to 34.4 percent of the population.

The median age was 38.8 in King County, 37.2 in Washington and 36.8 nationwide last July, up from 34.9 in the county and 35.3 in the state and U.S. in 2000.

The male percentage last July was 50.1 percent in the county, 49.9 percent in the state and 49.3 percent nationwide. That's up an insignificant amount in each case from 2000, although the change did make males the (estimated) majority in the county.

Hawaii had the largest minority share last year, 75 percent of its population, followed by New Mexico and California at 58 percent and Texas at 53 percent. Starr, Maverick and Webb counties, all in Texas, had the highest percentage of minorities among counties, 98 percent, 97 percent and 95 percent, respectively.

The nation's "oldest" county was La Paz, Ariz., with 34 percent of its population age 65 or older in 2008. The population share 65 and older was 10.9 percent in King County, 12 percent statewide and 12.8 percent in the U.S. as a whole.

Chattahoochee, Ga., was the "youngest" county, with just 3 percent of its residents 65 or older.

Among states, the 65-and-up share ranged from 7 percent in Alaska to 17 percent in Florida. Median ages ranged from 28.7 in Utah to 42 in Maine.

Men were a majority in just 11 states, topping out at 52.1 percent in Alaska. Washington, D.C., was the most female state or equivalent, at 52.7 percent.

President Obama Turns Controversy into Message at ASU

In his Commencement speech Wednesday evening at Arizona State University, President Obama turned the controversy over the school refusing to give him an honorary degree into a message to the graduating class that there is always room for improvement.

After it was announced in March that Obama would speak at ASU, the school said they would not give him an honorary degree, as is standard for most Commencement speakers. A spokesperson for the school told the Associated Press that they did not want to give Obama a degree at the very beginning of his presidency.

"It's our practice to recognize an individual for his body of work, somebody who's been in their position for a long time," the spokesperson said. "His body of work is yet to come."

ASU's decision not to give Obama an honorary degree caused significant controversy, so the school announced that they would instead expand a scholarship program and name it after Obama.

Obama addressed the degree controversy at the very beginning of his speech, joking that he had learned his lesson "to never again pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA bracket."

But Obama said he agreed with ASU that he has not yet achieved enough in his life, and that there is more he can do.

"In all seriousness, I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven't yet achieved enough in my life. I come here to embrace it; to heartily concur; to affirm that one's title, even a title like president, says very little about how well one's life has been led -- and that no matter how much you've done, or how successful you've been, there's always more to do, more to learn, more to achieve," Obama said.

He told students, that as they graduate, their "body of work is yet to come." He cautioned them not to become "lulled into complacency by our own achievements."

"This is what building a body of work is all about -- it's about the daily labor, the many individual acts, the choices large and small that add up to a lasting legacy. It's about not being satisfied with the latest achievement, the latest gold star -- because one thing I know about a body of work is that it's never finished," Obama said. "It's cumulative; it deepens and expands with each day that you give your best, and give back, and contribute to the life of this nation."

The ASU Commencement is the first of three graduations Obama will address this month. He is due to speak at Notre Dame - my school -- Sunday, and then the U.S. Naval Academy on May 22.

Other than the honorary degree controversy, the ASU and Naval Academy Commencement addresses have caused little stir compared to the scene at Notre Dame.

People within and outside of Notre Dame have criticized the Catholic university for allowing a pro-choice president to speak at graduation and for granting him an honorary doctorate of laws.

Obama faced the ASU controversy head-on, organizing his entire speech around the theme of a life's body of work never being done. At Notre Dame, he has to tackle criticism about his abortion and stem cell stances.

Based on his ASU speech, I think Obama won't shy away from the discussion, but instead will directly address the controversy about his policies that are in conflict with Catholic teaching.

It's a risky move -- the Catholic vote in 2012 could be at stake.

Pope in Nazareth: 'Reject hatred and prejudice'

Pope Benedict XVI greeted tens of thousands of adoring followers in Jesus' childhood hometown with a message of reconciliation Thursday, urging Christians and Muslims there to overcome recent strife and "reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice."

The pope delivered his message on the fourth day of a Holy Land pilgrimage meant to promote peace and unity in the Middle East. Throughout the trip, however, he has been confronted with the region's most sensitive issues, including the legacy of the Holocaust, the Palestinian plight under Israeli occupation and fragile interfaith ties.

The choice of Nazareth — home to many key sites in Christianity — as the venue for the largest Mass the pope has celebrated during his visit was at least an indirect reflection of these challenges. The city, located in northern Israel's Galilee region, is the country's largest Arab city. Roughly two-thirds of its 65,000 people are Muslims and one-third are Christian. While the two communities tend to get along, they also have come into sporadic conflict.

Earlier this decade, Muslim activists outraged Christians when they built an unauthorized mosque next to the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Christians believe the Angel Gabriel foretold the birth of Jesus to Mary. Israel later tore down the mosque. Muslim activists also have periodically marched through the city in shows of strength meant to intimidate Christians.

In his homily, Benedict spoke of the tensions that have harmed interfaith relations.

"I urge people of goodwill in both communities to repair the damage that has been done, and in fidelity to our common belief in one God, the Father of the human family, to work to build bridges and find the way to a peaceful coexistence," he said. "Let everyone reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice, which kills men's souls before it kills their bodies."

The comments touched on some of the key themes the pope has focused on during the trip, which a day earlier took him to the West Bank town of Bethlehem — Jesus' traditional birthplace. From there, Benedict issued a ringing appeal for an independent Palestinian state.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the pope was "very happy" with the outcome of the trip and that "all the important meetings were very positive."

Lombardi said Benedict's main goal was "peace, peace, peace," adding that he felt the pope had listened to all sides, acting like a "bridge" between the various positions.

Later Thursday, the pope was to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who still resists the idea of an independent Palestinian state. Lombardi said the afternoon meeting would be key because "personal contact is always very important."

During a weeklong trip that included a stop in neighboring Jordan, the pope has also tried to draw attention to the dwindling number of Christians in the Middle East.

Members of the region's once large and prosperous Christian communities are increasingly leaving conflict-ridden areas including Iraq and the Palestinian territories to seek better lives in the West.

On Thursday, the archbishop of Galilee for the Greek Melkite Church, Elias Chacour, welcomed the pope with a plea for his prayers and "moral and spiritual support" to stem the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land.

He said the flight of Christians "fills me with pain" and that the future is not encouraging.

In Nazareth, where tradition holds that Jesus grew up, an estimated 50,000 people greeted the pope, many of them swaying back and forth to Arabic music played over loudspeakers, clapping in unison and waving yellow and white Vatican flags.

As the music subsided, the crowd began the familiar chants in Italian of "Benedetto" and "Viva il Papa."

The pope passed through the crowd in his white popemobile, led by a procession of priests and bishops in flowing white robes. The leader of the procession swung an incense burner and behind him another priest held an ornate silver cross high above his head.

The pope carried a larger gold cross and a golden cloak over his traditional white robe as he walked on stage and waved to the crowd. Surrounding him were younger priests in yellow and white robes who held their hands raised in prayer, bibles tucked under their arms.

One of the younger priests handed Benedict the incense burner, which he swung back and forth as he walked around a table resplendent with silver candlesticks. A picture of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child sat in front of the table facing the crowd.

A string of armed guards in heavy dark coats stood in front of the stage between the pontiff and the faithful.

Thursday's Mass was celebrated on Mount Precipice, where Christian tradition says a mob tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. Later in the day, the pope was to head to the Basilica of the Annunciation to worship and for talks with local religious leaders. He is to return to the Vatican on Friday.

According to tradition, Jesus traveled through the Galilee with his disciples preaching and performing miracles in the final years of his life.