Government and Tharus come to direct confrontation, Laxman Tharu arrested

Kamal Raj Sigdel, April 28, 2009


Instead of implementing the six-point agreement signed on March 14 between the government and the Tharus, the Maoist-led government has arrested Laxman Tharu, the leader of Tharuhat Joint Struggle Committee, which had resumed the agitation in the southern plains demanding immediate implementation of the agreement.


Analysts claim that the government decided to crack down upon Tharus on the pressure of the Madhesi parties, who have been the major "opponents" of the Tharus.

The ethnic minority, seventh largest community in population, have been protesting against the "One Madhes One Pradesh" project sponsored by Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum, Tarai Madhes Loktantrik Party and others.


Fulfilling Tharus' demands -- which means to replace 'Madhes' by 'Tarai', among others -- would mean offending Madhesi parties that have already warned the government of unfortunate consequences. MJF's support is key in keeping intact Maoist in power.


As the Tharus, who seems to be backed up by none of the political parties, appeared the lesser power, somewhat weaker, the government has taken a U-turn in its approach to resolve the recent ethnic crisis, largely associated with the Tharus. Hence the arrest.


Such an arrest is the first of its kind in the past three years after the country was declared a federal republic.


There have been numerous ethnic and regional movements -- such as the Madhesi agitation, Chure Bhaver Pradesh agitation, Limbuwan-Khumbuwan movement, and the likes – but not a single leader of any community launching such protests has been arrested.


The government harsh move is anticipated to further complicate the process of resolving current crisis.

Scientists Strengthen Spider Silk by Mixing In Metal

By David Brown
(c) 2009, The Washington Post

It's probably good that Charlotte isn't around to learn that her marvelous web has been improved upon — and by people, no less.

Spider silk is one of nature's engineering triumphs, stronger on a per-weight basis than steel. Scientists reported last week that they had made it three to 10 times as strong (depending on how strength is measured) by infiltrating it with atoms of metals such as titanium, aluminum and zinc.

The process turns out to recapitulate something that locusts and marine worms — animals not known for intelligence — do. It is helping illuminate some fine points of protein chemistry. It might eventually lead to new types of strong and light material similar to carbon fiber.

The discovery, made by Seung-Mo Lee, a graduate student in engineering at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, occurred largely by chance.

"This is how it often is," said his supervisor, Mato Knez, a chemist at the research center. "You work toward some special goal that you hopefully can reach, but on the way you frequently find something different. That is often the most fascinating science."

Knez's research interest is nanotechnology — creating infinitesimally tiny mechanical structures by manipulating small numbers of atoms. One of the techniques he uses is "atomic layer deposition" (ALD), in which substances are thinly coated with another material, often a metal.

When Lee, a native of Korea, came to Knez's laboratory, one of his projects was to investigate what ALD would do when applied to biological materials. Normally, it is used on hard, silica-based semiconducting materials, such as those in computer chips. But what would happen if the materials were soft and relatively fragile?

One way to get an answer would be to synthesize some sort of organic compound — perhaps a long chain, called a polymer — and subject it to ALD. But as a first pass at the question, Lee took an easier route. This was because he was pretty sure the process would destroy a soft material.

The ALD machinery he used is housed in the basement of a building. The place is cluttered and, as it turns out, home to many spiders. So one day two years ago, Lee got the idea of testing spider silk as a model "soft biomaterial."

Lee found an Araneus arachnid with a dragline, the thread it generates from two glands on its abdomen. He reeled the thread in over a paper clip and put it in the ALD chamber.

When he took it out, it was almost a different material. He could hold the thread with a pair of tweezers — dragline thread is somewhat less sticky than web thread — and bounce the paper clip up and down without breaking the strand.

He showed this trick to Knez, who could hardly believe his eyes. Like Lee, he expected that ALD — a process that involves heating something up to about 160 degrees Fahrenheit — would destroy the biomaterial.

"We expected to see it breaking down, and indeed it happened the opposite," Knez said.

Knez initially thought the process had coated the spider silk like a ceramic sheath. But Lee, the engineer, knew the thread would not remain springy and easily bendable if that were the case. He went looking for a better explanation.

He found that, unlike with hard materials, ALD infiltrated soft materials with metal atoms in addition to depositing atoms in a thin surface film. The result, however, wasn't a structure in which the metal atoms were packed together and touching one another. Instead, the titanium and other elements were sprinkled through the silk like raisins in a loaf of bread.

Actually, spider silk is considerably more complicated than bread.

Like all proteins, it is made of long strands of beadlike molecules called amino acids. The strands can lie next to each other in sheets or twist apart in helixes. When a section of a protein molecule is dominated by sheets or helixes, it takes on a regular, or "crystalline," structure. In sections where the strand of amino acids folds or bunches up irregularly, the structure is said to be "amorphous."

A crystalline section is a bit like a zipped zipper. An amorphous section is like a zipper with one (or both) ends open, so the two halves can take on numerous shapes. Spider silk can stretch up to 40 percent of its length without breaking. The mixture of crystalline and amorphous regions is what gives the strand this elasticity.

The whole mixture is held together in part by many "hydrogen bonds." These are not like the "covalent bonds" in chemical compounds, in which two atoms overlap and share electrons. Hydrogen bonds are not nearly as strong. They are more like mild magnetic attractions.

Lee's research suggests that when the spider silk was heated, many of the hydrogen bonds broke. The metal-containing compounds used in the ALD process are highly reactive, and they sought out sections of the protein that used to be part of the hydrogen bond dalliances but were suddenly available for more serious covalent attachments.

The result, Lee believes, was a strand that is a bit more amorphous overall than native spider silk but whose various regions are more tightly locked together. The thread is denser and stronger.

Knez said he doubts there will be a practical application for metal-infiltration in spider silk. But he suspects it may be useful with other biomaterials — man-made or possibly natural.

"If we can transfer the process, there are a huge amount of potential applications, things like artificial bones and artificial skin," he said. "There could be new materials for the automobile industry or aerospace. There is always the need for lightweight and mechanically stable material."

The Max Planck Institute is looking into patenting the process.

Ex-Korean President to Face Corruption Queries

By John M. Glionna
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

SEOUL, South Korea -- Former President Roh Moo-hyun will enter familiar territory for a onetime South Korean head of state this week when he is grilled by prosecutors over his alleged role in a national bribery scandal.

The former human-rights lawyer and judge is the third South Korean president since 1995 to face a corruption probe after leaving office. He is suspected of soliciting $6 million in bribes from a shoemaking magnate that were allegedly paid to his wife and son.

Roh, 62, has acknowledged that his wife accepted $1 million from footwear manufacturer Park Yeon-cha but denied involvement in any influence-peddling. He has characterized the $5 million his son received from Park as an investment loan.

The former president was summoned to meet with prosecutors Thursday. Recent postings on his Web site suggest that he is already appealing for public sympathy in the face of the would-be disgrace of being called before prosecutors.

"What I have to do now is bow to the nation and apologize," wrote Roh, who served as president from 2003 to 2008. "From now on, the name Roh cannot be a symbol of the values you pursue. I'm no longer qualified to speak about democracy and justice. ... You should abandon me."

Analysts differ over the probe's political implications and what the succession of fallen ex-presidents says about the fledgling brand of democracy in South Korea, which embraced public elections only in the late 1980s.

Some suggest that the Roh investigation is fallout from an entrenched practice of the political party in power, in this case the Grand National Party, seeking to embarrass leaders of the opposition party it replaced -- Roh's Uri Party.

"Politics in any country is a knife fight, and South Korea is no exception. Whoever loses power is set upon by the new group in a very bare-knuckled fashion," said David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.

Some analysts said new administrations in many nations are left to clean up the legal mess left by their predecessors. They pointed to President Barack Obama's questions as to the legality of Bush administration policies regarding the alleged torture of suspected terrorists.

Before Roh's brush with scandal, former Presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were convicted in 1996 of crimes, including bribery and treason. Both were pardoned after two years in jail.

Although Roh Moo-hyun had entered Seoul's Blue House as a reformer, his administration soon showed it was not above scandal.

Top policy adviser Byeon Yang-kyoon was convicted of using his influence to have a female friend hired as a university professor. The appointment came to light after it was revealed that the candidate had faked her university credentials.

During his term, Roh yielded to pressure from the South Korean parliament to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate reports that top officials from Samsung, the country's biggest company, had kept a slush fund to bribe politicians, prosecutors and others.

Many suspected that Roh initially resisted the move because he himself had accepted Samsung money during his run for the presidency. A top Samsung official was later found guilty of tax evasion.

Federal prosecutors already have questioned several of Roh's family members, including his wife and son, in connection with the suspected bribes involving the footwear company.

A handful of Roh's former aides and associates are also suspected of accepting money from Park in exchange for special consideration in business dealings. Park was indicted in December of unrelated bribery and tax evasion charges.

Roh's elder brother was also indicted in December in connection with a separate bribery scandal, officials said.

Experts in South Korea say the general public has been dealt an emotional blow by the investigation into Roh.

Chun Sang-chin, a sociology professor at Sogang University, said many voters believed Roh's campaign pledge that he was different from other politicians.

"People are really disappointed because they had believed that Mr. Roh was free of moral problems," he said. "But now people think that Roh is no longer different from the others."

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Yet one presidential scholar calls the Roh probe a sign that South Korea is moving past an era of corrupt presidents.

"All events involving presidents were kept inside a black box -- no one had access to the dark side of Korean politics," said Hahm Sung Deuk, a professor of public administration at Korea University. "Past presidents had the authority to take as much money as they wanted from big business and appoint their own members of congress. They were king. Now we no longer worship emperors who go above the law."

Hahm pointed to a front-page newspaper photo in Monday's Korea Times that showed Roh in 2007 appointing top prosecutor Lim Chae-jin, who is now in charge of investigating the former leader.

"A prosecutor investigating the president who appointed him," he said, "that would have never happened in the old days."

Young Boy on Pig Farm Offers Clue to Flu's Path

By Tracy Wilkinson and Cecilia Sanchez
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY -- With the death toll climbing, Mexican authorities at the center of a global flu epidemic struggled Monday to piece together its lethal march as attention focused on a 4-year-old boy and a pig farm.

The boy, who survived, has emerged as the earliest known victim in Mexico of the never-before-seen virus, Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said Monday. The boy's case provides an important clue of the strain's path.

The boy lived near a pig farm run by a U.S.-Mexican company, Granjas Carroll, in the municipality of Perote, in Veracruz state on the Gulf of Mexico coast. He contracted the disease April 2, Cordova said, and was part of a group of residents who came down with what at the time was labeled a particularly bad case of the flu.

Only one sample from the group, that belonging to the boy, was preserved and re-tested -- only after other cases of the new strain were later confirmed elsewhere, Cordova said. The boy had the same disease. It is unknown how many more of the hundreds of people who fell sick around April 2 in Perote also were infected by the more virulent strain.

In another ominous disclosure, officials said the first confirmed fatality of the disease, from an impoverished state neighboring Veracruz, worked as a door-to-door census-taker and might have had contact with scores of people.

Residents in the Perote hamlet known as La Gloria, since mid-March, have complained that contamination from the pig farm was tainting their water and giving them respiratory infections. In one demonstration in early April, they carried signs with pictures of pigs crossed out with an X and the word: Peligro -- Danger. Residents told reporters at the time that more than half of the town's 3,000 inhabitants were sick and that three children under 2 years old had died.

Local health officials mobilized when the outbreak was first reported, but they gave a different account: The infection might have started with a migrant farmer who returned from work in the U.S. and gave the disease to his wife, who in turn proved contagious to other women in the community.

Granjas Carroll, which claims to be Mexico's leading pig producer at a million heads a year, issued a statement Monday saying none of its employees have shown signs of illness and noting that the sick are people who had no contact with its pigs. It is but one of numerous farms in the region.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization announced Monday it is sending a team of experts to inspect pig farms in Mexico. The FAO's chief veterinary officer, Joseph Domenech, said the teams would attempt to determine whether the new strain is circulating among pigs and then trace linkage to human populations.

The first fatality from the disease that the government has confirmed occurred April 13. A 39-year-old woman, Maria Adela Gutierrez, died in the southern city of Oaxaca, capital of the state bordering Veracruz.

Gutierrez was a census-taker for the government's tax board, suggesting she could have had contact with many people at her most contagious point, before being hospitalized. But Martin Vazquez Villanueva, the regional health secretary in Oaxaca, denied local news reports that said she had infected 20 people, plus her husband and children.

The Mexican government has parsed out information about the outbreak and its victims only in bits and pieces, refusing to detail who the dead are and where and when they died. For the second consecutive day, the government was on the defensive against criticisms that it acted too slowly to contain the virus and to alert the public to the dangers.

"We never had this type of epidemic, this type of virus in the world," Cordova, the health secretary, said at a news conference Monday. "We don't know how many days this will go on because it's the first time in the world this virus has appeared."

The government took the extraordinary step of ordering all schools in the nation closed until May 6. Separately, the World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert level, and the U.S. and Europe advised against travel to Mexico.

Cordova said every state in Mexico is now reporting suspected cases of the virus, a major expansion of the spread of the disease. Just Thursday, the government reported the disease in Mexico City, the adjacent state of Mexico and nearby San Luis Potosi.

Cordova said this new form of swine flu is now suspected in the deaths of 149 people and that 1,995 possible cases have been reported at Mexican hospitals, all patients suffering serious pneumonia; of those, 172 have been confirmed as the new strain, he said.

"We are at the most critical moment of the epidemic," he said, adding that the number of cases would continue to rise.

Latin America Appears to Warm to IMF

By Juan Forero and Joshua Partlow
(c) 2009, The Washington Post

QUITO, Ecuador — Few guests have felt so unwanted in Ecuador as the International Monetary Fund.

The country's president regularly vilifies the Washington-based multilateral organization as an arm of imperialism, and the fund's representative here left after being declared persona non grata.

But with Ecuador hit hard by the worldwide economic crisis, the government has quietly resumed talks with IMF officials, mirroring a trend in Latin America as one country after another overlooks the fund's sometimes ignominious reputation in the region to seek its assistance.

Ecuador still publicly shuns the IMF as President Rafael Correa's government openly seeks help from China and small multilateral lenders. But for the loans Ecuador needs — economists say as much as $2 billion to alleviate a crushing $3.5 billion trade deficit — the Correa administration may be forced to go to the IMF, which has the ability to make large loans fast. Economic Policy Minister Diego Borja has met with fund representatives in Washington and held videoconference calls with its officials, according to economists in the capital of Quito who are familiar with the country's efforts to deal with the crisis.

"It's perfectly logical that they meet with the fund," said Ramiro Crespo, president of Analytica Securities, an investment bank in Quito. "And the fund is trying to accommodate itself to Ecuador."

Flush with money and a new leadership, the fund has revamped its loan requirements to make it easier for countries, particularly those the IMF judges to have sound economic policies, to borrow. The policy is being watched especially closely in Latin America, both because of the broad scope of the loans and the once-prickly relationship the fund had with many countries here.

Nicol s Eyzaguirre, the fund's Western Hemisphere director, described a nimble organization more focused on helping countries avert crisis and strengthen investor confidence than offering condition-laden bailouts.

"If we are willing to put our money where our mouth is, investors should not fear," said Eyzaguirre, a former Chilean finance minister. "The fund could step in, if the countries want, with our money — and it's a wall of money."

With commodity prices bolstering national treasuries, the IMF's loans to Latin America fell from $48 billion in 2003 to just $803 million last year. This year, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala are already in the pipeline for loans, and Mexico is receiving $47 billion.

Eyzaguirre said the fund hopes to appeal by stressing "prevention rather than cure," which in the past came with what some countries considered harsh structural adjustments to their economies.

The question many economists are asking is whether an organization that had become a punching bag for some Latin American leaders is implementing enough changes to attract countries like Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador, whose governments publicly severed ties with the IMF.

"This would be an opportunity for both sides to show that the IMF can be a different kind of institution than what it was in the past, instead of being so much of a policeman for the rich countries," said Nora Lustig, an Argentine economist teaching at George Washington University.

(Optional add end)

Already, some leaders have offered conciliatory words to the fund. President Luiz In cio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Latin America's biggest economy, recently expressed his government's willingness to back the fund.

"I spent 20 years of my life carrying a banner and shouting in the street, in the gates of factories, on platforms: `Get out IMF,' " Lula, a former union leader, said at the World Economic Forum in Rio de Janeiro this month. "And these days, I called my finance minister and told him: `We are going to loan money to the IMF.' "

Among the countries most averse to dealing with the IMF is Bolivia, which had closely followed Washington's prescribed changes. But instead of prosperity, by the early part of this decade, Bolivia remained mired in poverty and instability.

Javier Comboni Salinas, a former Bolivian finance minister, said the fund's history in the remote, land-locked country makes it politically unpalatable for President Evo Morales, a critic of globalization and the IMF, to embrace the organization.

Argentina, too, disparages the fund, which is blamed for helping generate an economic collapse in 2001 and then not helping extricate the country from the quagmire. Under then-President Nestor Kirchner, Argentina recovered while openly disregarding fund orthodoxy.

Under the current president, Cristina Fern ndez de Kirchner, Nestor Kirchner's wife, Argentina has sought help in the face of plummeting commodity prices by going to China for a three-year, $10 billion currency swap designed to improve confidence in its weakening currency. Since 2006, the government has not permitted the fund to do its article IV consultation, an annual economic report card the IMF conducts in dozens of countries.

"The fact that Argentina has not wanted to receive this mission is a completely childish attitude," said Pablo Guidotti, a former Argentine treasury secretary.

But as the economic crisis has worsened in Latin America, even Argentina has softened the rhetoric.

At the Group of 20 summit in London this month, Fern ndez de Kirchner and other world leaders signed a document supporting IMF supervision of "our economies and our financial systems." Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taianasaid Central Bank reserves would grow by $2.5 billion because of IMF allocations channeled to member countries in the wake of the $250 billion pledged to the fund at the summit.

An IMF spokesman also said the article IV consultation would resume soon — a requirement if Argentina is to qualify for assistance.

In Bolivia, too, the IMF has been quietly at work, providing technical assistance and writing reports for the government on monetary and fiscal issues. Bolivia has not sought the fund's help, but IMF officials said they have a working relationship with Morales' government.

In Ecuador, High Stakes in Case Against Chevron

By Juan Forero
(c) 2009, The Washington Post

LAGO AGRIO, Ecuador — Deep in the northern Ecuadoran rain forest, next to pits filled with noxious sludge, a lawyer on his very first case argued that a U.S. oil company had deliberately fouled a swath of jungle nearly the size of Delaware during two decades of production.

Wearing a straw hat for the recent outdoor hearing, Pablo Fajardo was delivering the final arguments in a lawsuit that began in New York in 1993 against Texaco but is wrapping up here against Chevron, which bought Texaco in 2001. The stakes are high — and so tinged with nationalism that Ecuador's President Rafael Correa has openly sided with the plaintiffs, 48 individuals representing tens of thousands of people in the region.

If the judge rules against Chevron, the company could face the largest damages award ever handed down in an environmental case, dwarfing the $3.9 billion awarded against ExxonMobil for the 1989 spill in Alaska.

A report by a court-appointed team last year concluded that pollution caused mainly by Texaco's Ecuadoran affiliate, Texaco Petroleum, had led to 1,401 cancer deaths in this stretch of Amazonian jungle. The team's leader, Ecuadoran geologist Richard Cabrera, reported finding high levels of toxins in soil and water samples near Texaco's production sites and assessed damages at up to $27.3 billion.

"This is a simple case," said Fajardo, 37, a former oil worker. "We ask, is there damage or not? If there is damage, who pays? And if there is payment, how much and to whom?"

For Fajardo and his team, two 20-something lawyers financed by a Philadelphia law firm, the blame rests squarely with Texaco and, now, Chevron. They say that for 18 years, from the time Texaco started full-scale production in Ecuador in 1972, the company unloaded drilling mud and wastewater into hundreds of unlined pits or directly into waterways. They accuse Texaco of choosing savings over safety, and say the company botched a highly publicized cleanup of its production sites in the 1990s.

Chevron argues that Texaco complied with Ecuadoran law and that the case is driven more by emotion than science. A cornerstone of its defense is that Ecuador's government relieved Texaco of responsibility after the $40-million, three-year cleanup, which ended in 1998. Chevron also blames Texaco's successor and former partner, Petroecuador, saying that the state oil company is responsible for hundreds of oil spills since it took over operations in 1990.

Attorneys for Chevron call Cabrera's report a sham and say he was cozy with the plaintiffs. The company has issued its own expert reports to support its assertion that there is no link between oil and cancer in this swath of jungle.

Judge Juan Nunez said he will begin reviewing about 145,000 pages of evidence after reports on the effects of the discharges on fishing and agriculture are completed.

"This trial should finish this year," he said, speaking in his bare office here in Lago Agrio, a dusty oil town named for Sour Lake, Texas, where Texaco got its start in 1903. "This has taken too long."

The case has attracted the attention of energy companies worldwide and, closer to home, the interest of Ecuador's 46-year-old populist president.

Correa, who took office in 2007 and has frequently tangled with oil companies, has said that Texaco's "savage exploitation" of oil "killed and poisoned people." He has also called Texaco's cleanup a charade, in which the company simply covered polluted sites with dirt, and labeled Chevron's Ecuadoran attorneys "sellouts."

Last April, Correa called for criminal investigations of former government officials who had signed off on Texaco's cleanup in 1998. In September, the attorney general indicted two Chevron attorneys and seven former government officials — two years after prosecutors had dismissed a similar criminal complaint against the same people.

That is not the way Chevron had hoped events would unfold when its lawyers filed motions in federal court in New York earlier this decade vouching for the professionalism of the Ecuadoran judicial system and asking that the trial be moved here. In 2003, proceedings began, alternating between Lago Agrio's ramshackle courthouse and visits to oil production sites and waste pits. But nearly six years later, Chevron's rosy assessment has given way to a sobering recognition that it may lose the case.

"We're concerned that no court in Ecuador is going to be able to hear or rule freely," said James Craig, a Chevron spokesman. "Clearly, the thumbs of politics are weighing heavily on the scales of justice in Ecuador, and the president has played a major part in that."

During the trial's latest stage, the so-called judicial inspections of ageing waste sites, local Cofan Indians in traditional garb and residents who say Texaco's operations left them ill showed up to watch the opposing lawyers spar. Judge Nunez, a baseball cap worn low over his forehead, listened intently.

Among those who came on a recent day was Gabriel Ruales, who recounted how his family used to bathe and fish in a nearby river. He had brought along a 15-year-old son who suffers from a mental disorder and was seated in a wheelchair. "The water was completely salty, poisoned," Ruales said.

Carmen Isabel Bone, a nurse's assistant, also said the local drinking water had been poisoned. "I ask the authorities to give us justice," she said, blaming Texaco for ailments ranging from the flu and skin rashes to cervical cancer.

Diego Larrea, a Quito-based lawyer for Chevron, argued that no medical or scientific evidence has been presented to back such claims. "What we have here is the myth of the jungle," he told Nunez.

Fajardo shot back, reading from a 1977 letter to state energy officials in which Texaco admitted to a serious leak from a waste pit. An internal 1972 memo, also in Nunez's hands, instructed Texaco officials in Ecuador to report only spills that attracted the attention of the news media or regulators.

In another letter submitted in court, from 1980, Texaco officials told state energy officials that lining pits — a precaution against leaks that is common in the United States — would be prohibitively expensive. "It was cheaper to pay the fines than make the improvements," Fajardo told the judge.

Chevron says such documents were taken out of context and has submitted its own documentation to show that Texaco responded to accidents.

Afghan Capital Deserted as Celebration Canceled

By Pamela Constable
(c) 2009, The Washington Post

KABUL, Afghanistan — The streets of the Afghan capital were deserted Tuesday in a tense, silent observance of an annual holiday that evokes an era of patriotic heroism for some Afghans and a period of brutal, devastating civil war for others.

For the first time in 16 years, there was no military parade through city streets and no cheering throngs of retired mujaheddin donning pie-shaped pakul hats and faded combat jackets in memory of their triumphant guerrilla fight against Soviet occupation forces during the 1980s.

The national stadium and mosque were prepared for the occasion with multi-colored banners and posters of the Afghan holy war's fallen heroes, but the public ceremony was abruptly canceled in favor of a small private remembrance held inside the heavily guarded presidential compound.

Although the government said it changed plans because it preferred to use the parade funds to help victims of a recent earthquake, it was widely assumed that officials were concerned about the possibility of a terrorist attack. The area around the empty stadium was patrolled by hundreds of police and NATO troops.

Last year's ceremony erupted in mayhem when heavily armed attackers, hiding on a nearby rooftop, opened fire on the reviewing stand where President Hamid Karzai and other dignitaries were singing the national anthem. One member of parliament and two other people were killed, and Karzai was hurried to safety.

Some Afghans, especially veterans of the grueling 10-year war against the former Soviet Union, saw the cancellation of the public ceremony as an unforgivable slight to the millions of Afghans who were killed, injured, displaced or orphaned by the conflict, which helped speed the demise of Soviet communism.

"I am very disappointed. Many people sacrificed a lot in the war, and this is the only day we have to honor them," said Mir Agha, 47, a former fighter whose legs are paralyzed from a shrapnel wound. With a young boy pushing him in a wheelchair, he slowly circled the empty parade ground Tuesday.

A few patrolling police, virtually alone in the wide boulevard between the stadium and the mosque, paused to snap photos of a huge portrait of Ahmed Shah Massood, the famous anti-Soviet guerrilla leader who was assassinated in 2001.

Naeem Farahi, a legislator from the United Front party that includes many former mujaheddin, said the cancellation was a national disgrace and a sign of the government's weakness. "I lost 18 family members in the war, and I feel shame for the souls of all the martyrs," he said. "With thousands of foreign troops here, can't they protect one event?"

Most years, National Mujaheddin Day has been a festive occasion full of martial pomp. In 2005, newly trained Afghan National Army troops paraded while American and Afghan officers watched side by side. Karzai, addressing the crowd, urged all Afghans abroad to come back and "live a happy, comfortable life and participate in the reconstruction of their country."

This year Karzai is running for re-election amid a violent Taliban insurgency and is actively seeking the support of ex-mujaheddin leaders such as former Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, making the cancellations politically embarrassing as well.

But many Afghans approve of the decision not to publicly honor the aging freedom fighters, whose heroic entry into the capital 17 years ago was followed by a chaotic conflict among various armed militias that destroyed much of the city and sent many thousands of residents into flight.

Today, after five years of extremist Taliban rule and seven years of democracy, numerous senior leaders of the old, anti-Soviet militias hold positions of political and economic power. None has ever been held to account for the death and destruction of the early 1990s, and some are reported to have become wealthy through drug trafficking and smuggling schemes.

"To me this is the day that destroyed everything," Abdul Aziz, a Justice Ministry official and university professor, said Tuesday. "There are two dark days in the recent history of Afghanistan: the day the communists came, and today."

Safia Saddiqui, a legislator from eastern Afghanistan, said the only reason the holiday continues to be held is because so many ex-freedom fighters still retain powerful posts. "If they weren't in the government, I don't think the people would want to celebrate," she said.

The occasion was also awkward for those caught between two versions of history. One was Abdullah Abdullah, a former aide to Massood and later a foreign minister under Karzai. He now plans to challenge Karzai for the presidency. Once, Abdullah would have been a fixture at Mujaheddin Day. This week, when asked his views on the controversial holiday, he instructed aides to say, "no comment."

Rights groups want flawed Bill set right

Rights groups want flawed Bill set right
The Kathmandu Post
KATHMANDU, April 25 - Amid increasing concern over the worsening rights situation under the Maoist-led government, Nepal's human rights activists have joined hands to intensify pressure on the government to end impunity. They have created an ad-hoc committee to pressurize the government to address the flaws in the proposed supplementary bill concerning disappearances.

The committee has started a campaign to convince lawmakers to correct mistakes in the bill prior to presenting it for parliamentary scrutiny during the winter session. The committee was formed on Friday on the initiative of Human Rights and Democratic Forum (FOHRID).

A number of national and international rights organisations, including Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), US-based Human Rights Watch, and National Human Rights Commission have already recommended correction of a number of serious flaws in the ordinance, warning

 any attempt to pass the same without correction would mean continued impunity and failure of the entire effort to establish lasting peace.

The Committee also discussed identification of flaws in the proposed bill. Advocate Birendra Prasad Thapaliya, Chairperson of FOHRID, elaborated why and how the government should address the issue of impunity. He said correcting the flawed bill on disappearances would be the first step of the government toward ending impunity.

 Despite some corrections, the bill fails to meet international standards. The parliament, said Raju Chapagain, National Advisor of OHCHR, was the right place to fix the flaws.

Though the government has corrected some flaws in the ordinance, it has now been  transformed into a supplementary bill, and serious blunders such as definition of "disappearance", provision for punishment for convicted criminals, appointment of commissioners, and security for the witness and victims are yet to be fixed.  The supplementary bill erroneously states that only state or state involved disappearances will be accounted for, which means the disappearances perpetrated by groups which have undeclared support of the state will be ignored.

Rights activists have also demanded a provision recognising "organised crimes of disappearances" as crimes against humanity and regarding such cases there should be no time limit to register complaints.

International rights activists to visit Nepal

Bruce Van Voorhis: No socio-economic rights without civil and political rights

By JESSICA HILL, Inquirer Editorial Assistant
Bruce Van Voorhis, writer and editor for the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong, and his group, the Galion Kiwanis Club, have announced a special plan of teaching about human rights in areas, including Nepal where normal standards of human rights do not exist.

There are two broad groups of human rights, says Van Voorhis --  Civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights.

He says that people cannot participate in exercising their economic, social and cultural rights if their civil and political rights are not protected.

Van Voorhis said he team of 25 fulltime staff members along with interns and volunteers are trying to bring human rights awareness to Nepal,  other countries such as Bangla-desh, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

These countries have been currently dealing with issues of torture, disappearances, rule of law, hunger and caste-based discrimination.

According to Van Voorhis, any of the countries he deals with rule by law instead of establishing rules of law.

This means that leaders in these countries make or fail to repeal laws that contradict a person's right to basic human rights.

The laws limiting a person's rights affect the poor or minorities. This is evident in culture where if a woman marries of her own desire rather than agreeing to an arranged marriage, often times the bride's family will scar her face with acid if they find her to show the world that she has disgraced her family.

Also, certain countries have laws in place which allow witness protection services only once a case has been filed. However, to file a case, police must have a statement from a named witness. This creates danger for the potential witness and deters many people from reporting injustices.

In some of the countries he works with, Van Voorhis said he encounters "disappearances."

In Nepal between 1998 and 2005, more than 12,000 people disappeared from their homes. These disappearances are ways of removing people who were planning to testify against a powerful group. They can also be a way to bring someone in to torture until a confession for a crime can be obtained.

Many times these people who have disappeared are imprisoned for months or even years or they are never seen again. This often leaves their families wondering if they are alive and fearing that if they are vocal about the disappearance they may be the next to vanish.

While organizations such as the United Nations exist, they have limited power to help people who are being denied their human rights, Van Voorhis said. The UN can issue sanctions against countries who disobey, but often times these sanctions are not enough to deter the mistreatment.

"Human beings are the climax of God's work," Van Voorhis said. They must be treated as such.

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Why Is Gmail Still in Beta?

It's been around for five years already!
Gmail turned five on Wednesday, April 1. Launched in 2004 as an invitation-only e-mail service, the Google product now has more than 100 million users. Yet it's still in "beta"—a term of art traditionally reserved for prototype software that's ready for testing. What gives?

Semantics. Usually technology companies keep products in beta for a short period of time—as a transitional phase between "alpha" (when in-house testers or focus groups try out the software) and the official release. Beta releases also tend to be more buggy than the final version. Neither of these qualities accurately describes Gmail (although there was a worldwide service outage in February); the label is just a way for Google to signal users that they're still tweaking the e-mail service and adding new features. Company spokespeople won't say exactly when Gmail will be out of beta, but apparently there's an "internal checklist" that's lacking in some crucial checkmarks.

Google has decided to leave its product in beta rather than issuing updates in the familiar system of numbered software versions—1.0, 2.0, and so on. Those distinctions make more sense when tech consumers are purchasing software on CD-ROMs or downloading it onto their hard drives. The Google take is that the beta label better conveys the "constant feature refinement" consumers expect from Web-based applications. Of course, the end of Gmail's beta era won't signify the end of feature updates, so for anyone who isn't on the Gmail product team at Google, the distinction means very little. In fact, it may just be a marketing ploy to give Gmail a cutting-edge feel. Even co-founder Larry Page once admitted that using a beta label for years on end is "arbitrary" and has more to do with "messaging and branding" than a precise reflection of a technical stage of development.

A lengthy beta phase is not exclusive to Gmail. As of September 2008, almost half of Google's products were in beta, including Google Docs and Google Finance. Google News was in beta from its launch in April 2002 until January 2006. (When the Google News creator, Krishna Bharat, announced the change, he noted that the news team had successfully made the product more personal, with e-mail alerts and the option to create personalized pages.) Beta lag is not exclusive to Google, either: Flickr launched in February 2004 as a beta product and retained the label even after Yahoo acquired it in 2005. Then, in 2006, Flickr updated from beta to "gamma"—a sly joke to indicate that the service is always changing.

Apple deploys the beta label in a more traditional fashion. In March 2008, for example, the company made iPhone 2.0 beta software available to select developers and customers. That July, it officially rolled out the update for the general public. And Google doesn't always let its products dither in beta for years on end. The company dropped the beta label from its Chrome browser after just 14 weeks; and the Google search engine spent less than two years in beta after being released in 1997.

The tech community is divided on the issue of protracted beta releases. A ZDNet article from 2005 called out Google and Flickr for extended use of the label and noted that the practice could blur the line "between prime time and half-baked." Tim O'Reilly, the open-source advocate, has used the term perpetual beta positively as an indication of open-source development processes wherein users are "treated as co-developers."

Agents: Lions and Stafford agree on 6-year deal

DETROIT (AP) - The Detroit Lions hope Matthew Stafford ends their decades-long search for a star quarterback. Stafford and the Lions agreed on a six-year contract, agent Tom Condon told The Associated Press on Friday night. Condon and Ben Dogra, who also represents Stafford, negotiated the deal with $41.7 million in guarantees and a maximum value of $78 million.

Rihanna seeking return of pricey jewelry

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Rihanna is seeking the return of $1.4 million in jewelry she was wearing the night she was allegedly beaten by Chris Brown. Donald Etra, an attorney for the "Umbrella" singer, filed a motion Tuesday asking that Los Angeles police and prosecutors return a pair of earrings and three rings, which were seized as evidence. The motion states that Brown's attorney, and a Los Angeles Police Department detective overseeing the case, do not object to the return of the items. They have agreed that photographs can be used if the case goes to trial, the documents state.

Woman charged with trying to extort Pitino

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - College tuition. Two cars. A fully paid off house. Ten million dollars. That's what the FBI says the estranged wife of an equipment manager tried to extort from Louisville men's basketball coach Rick Pitino. The alleged demands were made public Friday in a criminal complaint released shortly after Karen Cunagin Sypher surrendered to federal authorities and made an initial appearance in federal court. Along with the extortion allegations, Sypher is accused of lying to the FBI.

Accused man says SC wildfire not his fault

CONWAY, S.C. (AP) - Marc Torchi and his family have been getting death threats since South Carolina officials blamed him for the wildfire that has destroyed more than 70 homes and scorched 31 square miles, causing an estimated $16 million in damage. But Torchi is flabbergasted county firefighters aren't taking responsibility after they came to his Conway home not once but twice to put out a small yard fire that apparently rekindled four days later.

Gore, Gingrich debate the Earth's future

WASHINGTON (AP) - Al Gore paused during his descent from atop the Democratic stairs toward a witness table where he and an old rival, Newt Gingrich, were to debate the very future of Planet Earth. He glided over to a former aide and grinned. "Just like old times," Gore said.

In Iraq, Clinton says country on right track

BAGHDAD (AP) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Saturday that this week's deadly suicide bombings in Iraq are a sign that extremists are afraid the Iraqi government is succeeding. Making her first trip to Iraq as America's top diplomat, Clinton said the country has made great strides despite the recent violence that killed at least 159 people on Thursday and Friday.

Tentative deal between Chrysler and Canada union

TORONTO (AP) - Chrysler and the Canadian government had told Canadian Auto Workers they wanted concessions that would make the automaker's labor costs competitive with that of non-unionized Toyota in Canada. On Friday night they got what they asked for as Chrysler and union negotiators reached a tentative labor agreement, CAW President Ken Lewenza said.

Finance officials at odds over IMF funding plan

WASHINGTON (AP) - Finance officials are pledging to keep the momentum going in their efforts to combat a severe global downturn but have hit a stumbling block in differences over how to boost the resources of the International Monetary Fund. The debate underscored what could be a growing divide within the 185-nation IMF, with emerging economic powers such as China, Russia, Brazil and India insisting that old-line powers such as the United States, France and Britain listen to their ideas on different funding approaches for the IMF.

Fear, anger and fatalism over swine flu in Mexico

MEXICO CITY (AP) - The schools and museums are closed. Sold-out games between Mexico's most popular soccer teams are being played in empty stadiums. Health workers are ordering sickly passengers off subways and buses. And while bars and nightclubs filled up as usual, even some teenagers were dancing with surgical masks on. Across this overcrowded capital of 20 million people, Mexicans are reacting with fatalism and confusion, anger and mounting fear at the idea that their city may be ground zero for a global epidemic of a new kind of flu - a strange mix of human, pig and bird viruses that has epidemiologists deeply concerned.

New Tree Species Is Discovered in Ethiopia

By Thomas H. Maugh II
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

As many as 10,000 new species of plants, animals and insects are discovered each year, but usually they are isolated individuals or small clusters of specimens hidden away in forests or other isolated areas. Often they are small specimens that are easily overlooked.

But on recent visits to Ethiopia, Swedish botanist Mats Thulin discovered a new species of tree that covers an area of more than 3,100 square miles, an area the size of the island of Crete.

Botanist David J. Mabberley of Britain's Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew described the new tree in a report Friday in the journal Science, noting that it probably has been overlooked by botanists because few have visited the region where Ethiopia's Ogaden National Liberation Front is fighting for self-rule.

The area is also difficult to get to, he said, and the trees can be seen from drivable roads in only a few places.

The newly identified tree, called Acacia fumosa, grows to about 18 feet to 20 feet tall, with a canopy that spreads 24 feet to 30 feet in diameter. It sprouts pink flowers during the dry season when it is leafless. It differs from closely related species in the color of its flowers and in its gray, smooth bark, among other things.

The total number of trees in the region "must be in the millions," Mabberley wrote.

People living in the sparsely populated region are familiar with the tree, he noted, but have no uses for it other than as firewood. He speculated, however, that gum from the tree might be used in foods and glues.

The discovery was a result of the Flora of Somalia project established to look for new plants in the region. So far, researchers have discovered and described more than 400 new species of flowering plants in the country.

Finance Chiefs Show Optimism, Prod China

By Anthony Faiola and Kevin Sullivan
(c) 2009, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Financial ministers from major nations expressed cautious optimism Friday that the global crisis may be touching bottom and also called on China to continue "its commitment to move to a more flexible exchange rate."

The Group of Seven finance ministers — a club of wealthy nations made up of the United States, Japan, Canada and the major nations of Europe — reached no new agreements during their gathering in Washington. Pledging to continue hammering out the details of a $1.1 trillion plan made by world leaders in London earlier this month to combat the global recession, they said they were making progress on specific commitments from a variety of nations to boost funding at the International Monetary Fund by hundreds of billions of dollars. Officials will meet again Saturday and Sunday for the annual spring meetings of both the IMF and the World Bank.

Notably, the finance ministers suggested that China should move toward a more flexible exchange rate, effectively acknowledging criticism by the United States and other Western nations that the Chinese have been keeping their currency artificially weak to boost exports.

The G-7 meeting was followed by a less formal gathering of the Group of 20 nations, which also includes China, Brazil, India and other major countries with developing economies.

The G-7 ministers expressed optimism that the crisis is ebbing and that global growth could return by the year's end. Their meeting, however, came on a day with mixed signals from the global economy. In the United States, new-home sales came in slightly better than expected, and Ford's losses, while steep, beat analysts' expectations. But trouble signs persisted. In Britain, for instance, the economy shrank 1.9 percent during the first three months of the year after shrinking 1.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008 {ndash} marking its worst performance since at least 1948.

The new figures mean that the British government will probably have to borrow even more than the vast amounts announced earlier this week to fund its ambitious recovery plans, analysts said.

That massive borrowing — already more than $1 trillion over the next five years — has caused a storm of criticism from opposition leaders who say it will saddle Britain with a "decade of debt." And it gave new ammunition to political opponents who say that Prime Minister Gordon Brown's prediction of a return to economic growth before the end of this year is unrealistic.

Britain has Europe's second-largest government deficit as a percentage of gross domestic product — better than only Ireland and roughly the same as Romania, according to European Union statistics.

"There is not one other major country in the world in a position as bad as the United Kingdom," David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, said Wednesday.

In Washington, after the G-7 concluded, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner struck a note of optimism. "Financial conditions in some markets have shown modest improvement, and there are signs that the U.S. housing markets are beginning to stabilize," he said.

The meetings Friday underscored the lingering importance of the G-7, which had long served as the leading global forum for debating financial issues. As the financial crisis has unfolded in recent months, however, it has seemed to be supplanted by the larger Group of 20 nations. Case in point: It was the leaders of G-20 nations, not the G-7, who hatched the $1.1 trillion plan in London earlier this month to combat the global financial crisis.

But wealthy nations still appear eager to have it both ways and are clinging to the G-7 — where their power is greatly amplified — as a more pragmatic forum for hammering out some of the more dicey details needed to make that $1.1 trillion dream a reality.

Deadly Swine Flu Outbreak Affects Mexican Life

By Tracy Wilkinson and Thomas H. Maugh II
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY -- An outbreak of swine flu that may have killed up to 60 people prompted authorities Friday to close schools throughout this sprawling city of 20 million people and order emergency health measures in an attempt to contain the disease.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials said they had found one new case in San Diego, bringing the total number of cases in the United States to eight. All have recovered fully. In Geneva, the World Health Organization said the strain in Mexico was identical to the one that has shown up in California and Texas. In Mexico City, nervous parents, some wearing surgical masks and carrying toddlers, formed long lines at clinics Friday morning. They were full of questions, about symptoms, how they can stay home from work to care for the sick, where to obtain the medicines.

"We are monitoring the evolution of the epidemic and, so far, it is under control," national Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said Friday. He said the rate of deaths is slowing and there are no plans to close the country's borders because of the outbreak.

Of the deaths believed linked to the outbreak, he said, 20 have been confirmed as being caused by swine flu; 40 are being investigated. A total of 1,004 people are reported to be ill with flu symptoms, including a high fever, severe headache and persistent cough, Cordova said.

International health officials said they were considering whether to raise the alert for a possible pandemic or global outbreak.

But researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have so far found no links among the U.S. victims or any common behaviors, acting director Dr. Richard Besser said Friday in a telephone news conference. That suggests "there has been transmission through several cycles" -- meaning several intermediaries passed it among themselves before the virus reached the identified victims.

If that is the case, Besser added, many people have already been exposed to the virus and it is too late to contain a potential outbreak in the United States. The good news is that none of the intermediaries appear to have developed serious illness, suggesting that the disease is not especially virulent.

^(Begin optional trim)

None of the American victims has had any contact with pigs, and only one has traveled to Mexico recently, he said. Six of the eight U.S. cases were in San Diego and Imperial counties in California and two in Texas' Guadeloupe County.

"It's really critically important we learn what is happening in Mexico," Besser said. "Sorting out which of the cases are caused by swine flu is an important public health question. ... There is much uncertainty, more than anyone would like."

The CDC has been testing samples from Mexico and found that half of 14 samples proved positive for swine flu with "similarity" to the strain that appeared in the United States, he said. "It's safe to say it's the same virus, from what we know."

^(End optional trim)

Investigators are analyzing why the disease is so much more severe in Mexico, Besser said, adding that a CDC team would travel to Mexico.

U.S. health experts noted, meanwhile, that deaths from influenza are common. In an average year in the United States, about 35,000 people die of the flu, and in bad years nearly twice that number. Such deaths are most often among the very young and the elderly.

Cordova, the Mexican health secretary, said the virus was "different" because it wasn't striking the most vulnerable populations, but young adults and people who were otherwise healthy. That is potentially alarming because the 1918 influenza epidemic also struck the young and healthy.

"We have confirmation that this is a mutant of a virus that comes from pigs that ... never had provoked an epidemic, that is, had never spread among humans," Cordova said.

The new swine virus is unlike any that researchers have seen. It appears to be a combination of segments from four viruses from three continents, including a human segment, an avian segment and pig segments.

Government officials took the rare step of a national synchronized television broadcast late Thursday night to order parents to keep children home from school in Mexico City and the surrounding State of Mexico. It was possible that schools will remain closed next week, officials said, adding they were examining whether it would be necessary to shut down businesses and offices as well as a precaution.

Museums, theaters and movie houses will be closed for the weekend, and Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard also canceled all public events, including concerts and sports matches.

Most of the flu cases have been reported in Mexico City, but a small number of cases have appeared in six other states, the government said.

By closing schools in Mexico City and the State of Mexico, nearly 7 million students -- from pre-school through university -- had the day free from classes. The Mexican press said it was the first general closure of schools since the 1985 earthquake that leveled parts of the capital and killed 10,000 people.

^Wilkinson reported from Mexico City, and Maugh from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.

Concern Grows as Taliban Expand Reach in Pakistan

By Mark Magnier and Zulfiqar Ali
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- After a fitful day of meetings and government threats, a group of Taliban fighters grabbed their guns Friday, jumped into their trucks and headed back toward the Swat Valley, relieving fears that they might continue on toward Islamabad, the capital of this nuclear-armed state.

But local residents of the Buner district, the object of the Taliban expansionary push, remained badly shaken, well aware of the militants' record in neighboring Swat of burning schools, beheading policemen and beating unmarried couples walking in public or holding hands.

"I can't think of going back to Buner," given the security situation, said Afsar Khan, 40, a municipal council member, who has fled to Peshawar with his family.

Moreover, many residents worried that the militants' departure was largely a charade. They said a limited number of militants made a big show of leaving but as many of their colleagues remained quietly behind. Some officials reckoned that at least 300 fully armed Taliban arrived from Swat but only a few dozen appeared to return.

Some experts also expressed doubt that the Taliban's action was anything but a tactical retreat that would give their forces an opportunity to regroup and expand their grip at a more opportune time.

Khan was injured when the Islamist militants detonated a bomb at a Jirga, or community meeting, he was attending earlier this month on how to counter the Taliban influx. Five others died, he said. Taliban militants followed up by attacking and occupying his family compound, known as Sultan House.

A reporter working in Buner who asked not to be identified said residents have been extremely afraid in recent days, especially women threatened with violence if they left their homes. Schools remained open and girls were attending, he said, but almost all female students wore parda, or veils. And FM radio stations were under Taliban control and were broadcasting sermons and other religious programming.The Taliban's rapid expansion into Buner in recent weeks has shocked many in Pakistan and around the world because the district is just 60 miles from Islamabad. The unabashed power grab has come as President Asif Ali Zardari formally recognized their authority to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, in Swat Valley, raising fears they were unstoppable.

In the past, the Taliban's influence in Pakistan has been largely confined to frontier and tribal areas near the Afghan border of less immediate concern to many urban, middle class, Pakistanis.

Taliban officials said Friday that they'd ordered their Swat colleagues to head back home. "But local Taliban in Buner will remain," Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan told reporters in Buner.

"I am a guarantor of peace in (the) region," regional Taliban leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad added, after visiting a seminary and meeting with fellow Taliban leaders. "The outsiders from other districts should leave the area as it is a threat to peace."

Pakistani television showed several Taliban militants leaving Buner on pick-ups, openly brandishing automatic weapons. Some waved to people who gathered to see them off.

A key factor in the Taliban's actions appeared to be threats by the central and provincial governments to launch military operations against them if they remained in place. Officials also threatened to tear up the Sharia deal in Swat if the Taliban didn't live up to its end of the bargain.

Supporters of that arrangement, which gives the militants de facto control over a large area of territory, argued it would buy peace, but critics say it amounts to temporary appeasement that only makes the hardliners stronger.

Taliban Commander Mufti Aftab said Friday their only purpose for "visiting" Buner was to preach peacefully. "We do not want to see Buner destroyed by security forces," he added.

Zardari, under growing domestic and international pressure to act tough, said in a statement that the government is committed to fighting militancy and won't succumb to threats.

The Pakistani army, ill-equipped and generally uncomfortable fighting insurgents, also added its voice to the choir.

"The army is determined to root out the menace of terrorism from society," said Pakistani military chief General Ashfaq Kayani.

The army arguably helped create the problem in Swat, however, by engaging Taliban militants half-heartedly in 2007 and then retreating, which appeared to have emboldened them. Members of Pakistan's security services reportedly maintain close relations with militant groups, some of which they helped spawn.

"We have the sixth largest army in the world," opposition lawmaker and columnist Ayaz Amir said Friday. "It's time the military at least ensures our internal security."

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said at a congressional hearing Friday that extremists who have crossed the border from Afghanistan "pose an ever-more serious threat to Pakistan's very existence."

To help combat the menace, the U.S. military is expanding its partnership with the Pakistani military and trying to promote greater coordination between Afghan and Pakistani military forces at the border, Petraeus said.

Irfan Husain, a journalist and lecturer at the National Defense University, Pakistan's main scholarly institution for the military, said the Taliban doesn't have the manpower to storm and hold Islamabad in a conventional manner.

But members are already in the capital and will continue to make their presence felt by bombing schools and hotels, blowing up police stations and issuing edicts against stores selling videos, spreading terror to further their agenda, he said.Opposition lawmaker Amir said the Taliban movement has expanded inexorably in recent years, but may have made a tactical error this time.

"The ink had hardly dried on the Swat deal and they moved into Buner," he said. "That set off alarm bells, shook the government out of its complacency and made people sit up wondering which would be the next domino to fall. These guys over-reached this time, very poor tactics."

^Times staff writer Magnier reported from New Delhi, and special correspondent Ali from Peshawar. Special correspondents Mubashir Zaidi and Fauzia Elahi in Islamabad contributed to this report.

Bombs Kill 70 in Iraq

By Ernesto Londono and K.I. Ibrahim
(c) 2009, The Washington Post

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Two suicide bombers killed nearly 70 people Thursday in the bloodiest day in Iraq in several weeks.

Shortly after the explosions in Baghdad and Diyala province, Iraqi authorities said they had detained the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, who uses the alias Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

The assertion, made by Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, the spokesman for Iraq's security forces, was startling because many intelligence officials believe Baghdadi is a mythical figure created to give the Sunni insurgent organization an Iraqi face.

Iraqi authorities in the past have made similar claims that turned out to be incorrect.

The deadliest attack occurred west of Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, north of Baghdad. The bomber detonated explosives inside a restaurant in the town of Moqtadiya, said Lt. Col. Qassim Ali Nassir, an official at the provincial security center. At least 42 people were reportedly killed in that attack, including at least 26 Iranian pilgrims. Dozens more were wounded.

In Baghdad, a female suicide bomber detonated explosives near an Iraqi National Police checkpoint in central Baghdad, killing at least 25 people and wounding more than 50, authorities said.

Sunni insurgents in recent weeks announced they would step up efforts to attack American troops and their allies in the Shiite-led Iraqi government. Since the announcement in March, a wave of suicide bombings across the country has renewed fears of a resurgence of violence.

The attacks come as the U.S. military is shutting down outposts to prepare for the first deadline of the phased withdrawal plan Iraqis mapped out during the negotiation of a bilateral agreement that became effective Jan. 1.

<I>Special correspondents Zaid Sabah, Aziz Alwan and Dalya Hassan contributed to this report.

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