- Floods paralyse Indonesian capital, heavy rains continue
- Firebrand cleric raises fear of "soft coup" in Pakistan
- Sahara hostage siege turns Mali war global
Posted: 16 Jan 2013 07:59 PM PST
JAKARTA (Reuters) - Heavy monsoonal rains triggered severe flooding in large swathes of the Indonesian capital Jakarta on Thursday, with many government offices and businesses forced to closed because staff could not get to work.
Weather officials warned the rains could get worse over the next few days and media reports said that thousands of people in Jakarta and its satellite cities had been forced to leave their homes because of the torrential downpours this week.
"For the next two or three days it is estimated that there may be increasing activity of the Asian Monsoon which could increase weather activity in southern Sumatra and Java," said Soepriyo, an official at the Meteorological, Climatological and Geophysical Agency.
An estimated more than 100 mm (12 inches) of rain had fallen overnight in the capital. This year's rainy season has brought some of the heaviest downpours for five years.
In the centre of Jakarta, whose streets overflow with vehicles at the best of times, traffic was brought to a near standstill by waist high flood waters.
The city's main airport remained open but many roads leading there were reportedly blocked. Most commuter train services and the bus system were closed.
The Jakarta Stock Exchange did open but trading was light.
The presidential palace, the finance and agricultural ministries and the central bank were all open, spokesmen said.
However, the trade ministry said it was forced to close because of a power cut triggered by the flooding.
(Reporting by Michael Taylor and Rieka Rahadiana, writing by Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by Michael Perry)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 16 Jan 2013 07:55 PM PST
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - To Pakistan's ruling party, a firebrand cleric camped outside parliament with thousands of protesters is looking more and more like the harbinger of their worst fear: a plan by the military to engineer a "soft coup".
In their eyes, Muhammad Tahirul Qadri seems like the perfect candidate for such a mission. A practised orator who has electrified crowds with his anti-corruption rhetoric, the doctor of Islamic law leapt into action to back the last power grab by the army in 1999.
The aim this time, some politicians suspect, is to use Qadri to bring down the current administration and provide a pretext for the army to hand pick a caretaker cabinet.
"What we are seeing is dangerous and evidence that unconstitutional third forces are up to their tricks again," said Mahmood Khan Achakzai, a politician who has been a frequent critic of the army's record of interfering in politics.
The military has denied any link to Qadri, and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has built up a reputation for standing more aloof from politics than predecessors who have not hesitated to dismiss civilian governments. Pakistan has been ruled by the military for more than half of its 65 years as an independent nation.
Critics note, furthermore, that the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which has a long record of confrontation with the military, has often been quick to portray itself as a victim of bullying by the military to distract attention from its shortcomings.
But the timing of Qadri's return from six years of living in Canada, just a few months before elections are due, and his role in supporting a 1999 coup by former army chief Pervez Musharraf have nonetheless rung alarm bells.
Qadri, who led a convoy of buses carrying thousands of protesters into the capital, Islamabad, on Monday, has repeatedly demanded that the army should have a say in the formation of an interim administration that is due to oversee the run-up to elections in May.
"You meet army officers in the night; I'm asking that you consult with them on the caretaker set up under the sunlight," Qadri said in a speech on Tuesday in remarks clearly addressed to the government.
The PPP's fears over the potential for military meddling centre on the impending formation of a caretaker cabinet.
Pakistan passed a constitutional amendment last year that requires the government and opposition to agree on the composition of the temporary administration.
The amendment is designed to prevent any ruling party exploiting the advantages of incumbency to manipulate elections by using state power to skew the playing field.
The PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League, the main opposition party, have spent months negotiating a list of mutually acceptable names for the transitional cabinet, including a number of politicians noted for resisting military rule.
"The PPP has lost three generations of leaders fighting against dictatorships," said a senior member of the PPP. "You think we will give up now? We will take up this battle at all levels."
Military officers privately do little to conceal their contempt for the PPP, whose government has been unable to end militant violence, bring down sharp food price inflation or get the economy on track since it took power in March, 2008.
They are also dismissive of the Pakistan Muslim League.
One officer, speaking in a personal capacity, said the army had no desire to seize power but might be forced to play a role as mediator between political factions if the cleric's protests trigger a prolonged crisis.
"If this gets worse, then the army may have to intervene (as a moderator)," he told Reuters.
After years of suspicion and ill-will between the generals and the PPP-led coalition led by President Asif Ali Zardari, Qadri's protests have seemed to signal a shift in the political landscape, with unpredictable consequences.
"We can't say who is behind him. But all we know is that he can't pull this off without backing from someone," Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the veteran leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Pakistan's biggest religious party, said on television.
The political temperature soared even higher on Tuesday when Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in connection with a corruption case. Authorities have yet to carry out his instructions.
An aide to Ashraf said the military was behind this move as well, but the chief justice is known to be independent-minded.
If Qadri succeeds in bringing down the government, then a man whose name had faded from the limelight since he left Pakistan for Canada in 2006 will have sabotaged the PPP's bid to be the first civilian government to complete a full term.
That would undermine Pakistan's struggle to bury the legacy of decades of military dictatorship by building institutions strong enough to resolve the nuclear-armed country's multiple crises.
The military has a track record of picking interim administrations in past decades that have then overstepped their mandates by hounding the army's political opponents or manipulating elections.
Army officers in Bangladesh, which was part of Pakistan until it broke away in 1971, have used a similar approach to appoint a technocratic government to implement reforms.
But some commentators and Western diplomats argue that times have changed and the military has lost the appetite for embroiling itself in struggles with increasingly assertive political parties and a hyperactive media.
"The military has no interest in disrupting the path to elections: in fact their interest is the opposite, supporting the transfer of power from one elected government to another, which is a political milestone in Pakistan's history," said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington.
Much will depend on whether Qadri has enough rhetorical firepower left to persuade his followers to maintain their protest, or whether the government decides to order the police to apply pressure to disperse them.
"There is nothing wrong with raising your concerns and protesting," said Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira. "But if you try to hold the capital hostage and disrupt the lives of its people, the law will take its course."
(Additional reporting by Michael Georgy and Mubasher Bukhari; Editing by Michael Georgy, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Robert Birsel)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 16 Jan 2013 07:16 PM PST
ALGIERS/BAMAKO (Reuters) - Islamist fighters have opened an international front in Mali's civil war by taking dozens of Western hostages at a gas plant in the Algerian desert just as French troops launched an offensive against rebels in neighbouring Mali.
Nearly 24 hours after gunmen stormed the natural gas pumping site and workers' housing before dawn on Wednesday, little was certain beyond a claim by a group calling itself the "Battalion of Blood" that it was holding 41 foreign nationals, including Americans, Japanese and Europeans, at Tigantourine, deep in the Sahara.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed one Briton had been killed and "a number" of others were being held hostage. Algerian media said an Algerian was killed in the assault. Another local report said a Frenchman had died.
"This is a dangerous and rapidly developing situation," Hague told reporters in Sydney on Thursday, adding Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron had spoken with the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
"We have sent a rapid deployment team from our foreign office in order to reinforce our embassy and consulate staff there. The safety of those involved and their co-workers is our absolutely priority and we will work around the clock to resolve this crisis."
One thing is clear: as a headline-grabbing counterpunch to this week's French buildup in Mali, it presents French President Francois Hollande with a daunting dilemma and spreads fallout from Mali's war against loosely allied bands of al Qaeda-inspired rebels far beyond Africa, challenging Washington and Europe.
A French businessman with employees at the site said the foreigners were bound and under tight guard, while local staff, numbering 150 or more, were held apart and had more freedom.
Led by an Algerian veteran of guerrilla wars in Afghanistan, the group demanded France halt its week-old intervention in Mali, an operation endorsed by Western and African allies who fear that al Qaeda, flush with men and arms from the defeated forces of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, is building a haven in the desert.
Hollande, who won wide praise for ordering air strikes and sending troops to the former French colony, said little in response. In office for only eight months, he has warned of a long, hard struggle in Mali and now faces a risk of attacks on more French and other Western targets in Africa and beyond.
The Algerian government ruled out negotiating and the United States and other Western governments condemned what they called a terrorist attack on a facility, now shut down, that produces 10 percent of Algeria's gas, much of which is pumped to Europe.
The militants, communicating through established contacts with media in neighbouring Mauritania, said they had dozens of men at the base, near the town of In Amenas close to the Libyan border, and that they were armed with mortars and anti-aircraft missiles.
They said they had repelled a raid by Algerian forces after dark on Wednesday. There was no government comment on that. Algerian officials said earlier about 20 gunmen were involved.
LIVES AT RISK
The militants issued no explicit threat but made clear the hostages' lives were at risk: "We hold the Algerian government and the French government and the countries of the hostages fully responsible if our demands are not met and it is up to them to stop the brutal aggression against our people in Mali," read one statement carried by Mauritanian media.
The group also said its fighters had rigged explosives around the site and any attempt to free the hostages would lead to a "tragic end." The large numbers of gunmen and hostages involved pose serious problems for any rescue operation.
Smaller hostage-taking incidents have been common in the Sahara and financial gain plays a part in the actions of groups whose members mingle extremist religious aims with traditional smuggling and other pursuits in the lawless, borderless region.
Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said the raid was led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and recently set up his own group in the Sahara after falling out with other local al Qaeda leaders.
A holy warrior-cum-smuggler dubbed "The Uncatchable" by French intelligence and "Mister Marlboro" by some locals for his illicit cigarette-running business, Belmokhtar's links to those who seized towns across northern Mali last year are unclear.
French media said the militants were also demanding that Algeria, whose government fought a bloody war against Islamists in the 1990s, release dozens of prisoners from its jails.
The militants said seven Americans were among the 41 foreign hostages - a figure U.S. officials said they could not confirm.
Norwegian energy company Statoil, which operates the gas field in a joint venture with Britain's BP and the Algerian state company Sonatrach, said nine of its Norwegian employees and three of its Algerian staff were being held.
Also reported kidnapped, according to various sources, were five Japanese working for the engineering firm JGC Corp, a French national, an Austrian, an Irishman and the Britons.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said: "I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation."
He said he lacked firm information on whether there were links to the situation in Mali. Analysts pointed to shifting alliances and rivalries among Islamists in the region to suggest the hostage-takers may have a range of motives.
In their own statements, they condemned Algeria's secularist government for "betraying" its predecessors in the bloody anti-colonial war against French rule half a century ago by letting French warplanes fly over its territory to Mali. They also accused Algeria of shutting its border to Malian refugees.
Panetta said Washington was still studying legal and other issues before providing more help to France in the war in Mali.
Hollande has called for international support against rebels who France says pose a threat to Africa and the West, and admits it faces a long struggle against well-equipped fighters who seized Timbuktu and other oasis towns in northern Mali and have imposed Islamic law, including public amputations and beheading.
Islamists have warned Hollande that he has "opened the gates of hell" for all French citizens.
Some of those held at the facility, about 1,300 km (800 miles) inland, had sporadic contact with the outside world.
The head of a French catering company said he had information from a manager who supervises some 150 Algerian employees at the site. Regis Arnoux of CIS Catering told BFM television the local staff was being prevented from leaving but was otherwise free to move around inside and keep on working.
"The Westerners are kept in a separate wing of the base," Arnoux said. "They are tied up and are being filmed. Electricity is cut off, and mobile phones have no charge.
"Direct action seems very difficult. ... Algerian officials have told the French authorities as well as BP that they have the situation under control and do not need their assistance."
French army chief Edouard Guillaud said ground forces were stepping up their operation to engage directly "within hours" the alliance of Islamist fighters, grouping al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM and Mali's home-grown Ansar Dine and MUJWA.
West African military chiefs said the French would soon be supported by about 2,000 troops from Nigeria, Chad, Niger and other states - part of a U.N.-mandated deployment that had been expected to start in September before Hollande intervened.
Chad's foreign minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat, told Radio France International his country alone would send 2,000 troops, suggesting plans for the regional force were already growing.
In Mali, residents said a column of some 30 French Sagaie armoured vehicles had set off toward rebel positions from the town of Niono, 300 km (190 miles) from the capital, Bamako.
A Malian military source said French special forces units were taking part in the operation. Guillaud said France's strikes, involving Rafale and Mirage jet fighters, were being hampered because militants were sheltering among civilians.
Many inhabitants of northern Mali have welcomed the French attacks, although some also fear being caught in the cross-fire.
Hollande said on Tuesday that French forces would remain in Mali until stability returned to the West African nation.
The conflict, in a landlocked state of 15 million twice the size of France, has displaced an estimated 30,000 people and raised concerns across mostly Muslim West Africa of a radicalisation of Islam in the region.
But many who have lived for many months under harsh and violent Islamist rule said they welcomed the French.
"There is a great hope," one man said from Timbuktu, where he said Islamist fighters were trying to blend into civilian neighbourhoods. "We hope that the city will be freed soon."
(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher and Andrew Callus in London, Balazs Koranyi in Oslo, Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott, Daniel Flynn in Dakar, John Irish, Catherine Bremer and Nick Vinocur in Paris, David Alexander in Rome, Andrew Quinn in Washington and Jane Wardell in Sydney; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Peter Cooney and Michael Perry)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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