Pakistani military blocks anti-drone convoy from entering tribal region

Imran Khan says two-day convoy has been a success despite failing to reach intended destination

Makeshift roadblocks, security threats and warnings from Pakistan’s army forcedImran Khan to abandon his unprecedented attempt to lead a cavalcade of anti-drone protesters deep into the country’s restive tribal belt on Sunday.

Leading a convoy of thousands, the former cricketer was within striking distance of South Waziristan, where the CIA uses remote-controlled planes in the fight against Islamist militants, when he abruptly turned back.

Later Khan said he had changed plan because of warnings from the army and the risk of becoming stuck after the military-imposed curfew.

Addressing an impromptu rally of his supporters, he said the convoy had still been a huge success because he had gone to areas his political rivals “can only look at on maps”.

“We want to give a message to America that the more you carry out drone attacks, the more people will hate you,” Khan told the crowd of around 2,500 supporters. But after two days of travel, the U-turn seemed to surprise some, including a senior party official who got out of his car on the heat-baked roadside surrounded by arid scrubland and declared he had no idea what was going on.

Others expressed anger, saying Khan was more interested in using the event to burnish his popularity before a general election due at some point in the next six months.

“I am very disappointed,” said Khalil Khan Dawar, an oil industry worker who had travelled all day to get to the edge of the tribal agency. “We had to get to South Waziristan. For him this is not just about drones, it is about popularity and elections.”

Some have also questioned the relevance of Kotkai, the town in South Waziristan where Khan hoped to hold his rally, to the drone debate. Most drone attacks now take place in North Waziristan, and Pakistani army efforts to wrest control from militants have forced many of Kotkai’s residents to leave.

The abandonment of the much-publicised attempt to reach Kotkai was the second sudden change of plan on the same day. Earlier Khan had appeared to reassure a largely female delegation of the US peace group Code Pink that there would be no attempt to enter the tribal areas and that instead a rally would be held in the town of Tank.

By midday it was decided to push on regardless, apparently out of a desire not to disappoint the throngs of people who had joined his convoy along the road from the capital, Islamabad. That was despite the all-too evident disapproval of authorities who had placed shipping containers across the road at three different points.

The vehicles, including buses crammed with supporters waving the red and green flag of Khan’s political party, ground to a halt as throngs of protesters worked to push the obstacles out of the way, in one instance destroying a small building in the process.

Indignities and discomforts are nothing new to the mostly middle-aged and female activists of Code Pink, some of whom have been arrested while campaigning against US drone strikes. But being trapped on a bus travelling towards Pakistan’s tribal areas proved too much even for the most hardened of campaigners. “We had only one toilet break in nine hours,” said Medea Benjamin, leader of the 35-strong team of Americans who had agreed to join Khan on the march. They chose not to continue into, in the words of Benjamin, a “chaotic” situation.

To add to their miseries, their minders urged them to stay behind the curtains of their bus – emblazoned on its side with huge images of people killed by drone strikes – throughout much of the journey, particularly in many of the areas affected by militant groups. “It was hard for these people because they are protesters and they wanted to get out there,” said Shahzad Akbar, a lawyer who was looking after the group. “But there’s no way we are going to let them get out in some of those towns!”

Billed as a protest against drone strikes, which Khan and his supporters claim kill large numbers of innocent civilians as well as flouting Pakistan’s sovereignty, the procession had the feel of a political rally on wheels. Many of the vehicles eschewed anti-drone slogans and instead carried pictures of PTI politicians anxious to be included on the party’s official ticket in the upcoming elections.

Pakistan FM: Fake Vaccination Program to Blame for Polio Outbreak

Slams UN Travel Restrictions, Citing WHO Involvement in Afridi Campaign

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry has issued a statement today angrily lashing the World Health Organization (WHO) for pushing travel restrictions against their country over a polio outbreak, noting a phony vaccination program the UN organization was involved in was the source of the outbreak.

PakistanA fake campaign of vaccination was conducted in Pakistan in which the UN agencies were also used. I am referring to the Dr. Shakeel Afridi case,” noted the spokeswoman, adding “this further reinforced the negative perception about the agenda behind the polio eradication campaign.”

Dr. Afridi operated a phony vaccination program in early 2011 on behalf of the CIA, and with tacit support from the WHO. Instead of vaccinating children against polio, they were collecting the DNA of children to look for relatives of terrorists. The program led to the death of Osama bin Laden.

The cost was enormous, however, as the revelation of the program forced aid agencies whose names were falsely tied to the fiasco to withdraw from the country, and had many fearing that polio vaccination programs after Afridi’s arrest were also suspect.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry says the WHO’s obsession with “single vaccination” programs that only ensure Pakistani children get the polio vaccination, while ignoring many others that are just as important, has also fueled conspiracy theories about why only the one vaccination is being pushed, and militant attacks on vaccination workers has added to that speculation.

by Jason Ditz

Police Move Against Them, But Pakistan Protesters Slow NATO Supplies

KP Provincial Officials At Odds With Party Leadership

The Pakistani Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), the ruling party of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwah (KP) Province, is virtually synonymous with leader Imran Khan. So when their leader (and for years only seated MP) called on supporters to blockade NATO supplies traveling through KP to Afghanistan, many party organizers immediately took to the streets.

PakistanBut the PTI seems increasingly split on the blockade, with provincial officials giving police the okay to crack down on the demonstrators, sparking anti-PTI protests by PTI officials.

Police told the demonstrators they could protest alongside the highway where NATO supplies were crossing, but couldn’t stop the trucks. They also filed charges against 35 members of their own ruling party for involvement in the protests over the weekend.

Despite the police presence, reports suggested that NATO’s supplies have been slowed, and a number of trucks supposed to arrive in Afghanistan are still in Pakistan

US drone strikes could be classed as war crimes, says Amnesty International

Joint report with Human Rights Watch judges US attacks in Yemen and Pakistan to have broken international human rights law

US officials responsible for the secret CIA drone campaign against suspected terrorists in Pakistan may have committed war crimes and should stand trial, a report by a leading human rights group warns. Amnesty International has highlighted the case of a grandmother who was killed while she was picking vegetables and other incidents which could have broken international laws designed to protect civilians.

The report is issued in conjunction with an investigation by Human Rights Watch detailing missile attacks in Yemen which the group believes could contravene the laws of armed conflict, international human rights law and Barack Obama’s own guidelines on drones.

The reports are being published while Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister, is in Washington. Sharif has promised to tell Obama that the drone strikes – which have caused outrage in Pakistan – must end.

Getting to the bottom of individual strikes is exceptionally difficult in the restive areas bordering Afghanistan, where thousands of militants have settled. People are often terrified of speaking out, fearing retribution from both militants and the state, which is widely suspected of colluding with the CIA-led campaign.

There is also a risk of militants attempting to skew outside research by forcing interviewees into “providing false or inaccurate information”, the report said.

But Amnesty mounted a major effort to investigate nine of the many attacks to have struck the region over the last 18 months, including one that killed 18 labourers in North Waziristan as they waited to eat dinner in an area of heavy Taliban influence in July 2012. All those interviewed by Amnesty strongly denied any of the men had been involved in militancy. Even if they were members of a banned group, that would not be enough to justify killing them, the report said.

A house in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan destroyed by a drone missile in 2008. Eighteen people including Islamist militants were killed. Photograph: Reuters

A house in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan destroyed by a drone missile in 2008. Eighteen people including Islamist militants were killed. Photograph: Reuters

Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions,” the report said. It called for those responsible to stand trial.

The US has repeatedly claimed very few civilians have been killed by drones. It argues its campaign is conducted “consistent with all applicable domestic and international law”.

The Amnesty report supports media accounts from October last year that a 68-year-old woman called Mamana Bibi was killed by a missile fired from a drone while she was picking okra outside her home in North Waziristan with her grandchildren nearby. A second strike minutes later injured family members tending her.

If true, the case is striking failure of a technology much vaunted for its accuracy. It is claimed the remote-controlled planes are able to observe their targets for hours or even days to verify them, and that the explosive force of the missiles is designed to limit collateral damage. As with other controversial drone strikes, the US has refused to acknowledge or explain what happened.

Amnesty said it accepts some US drone strikes may not violate the law, “but it is impossible to reach any firm assessment without a full disclosure of the facts surrounding individual attacks and their legal basis. The USA appears to be exploiting the lawless and remote nature of the region to evade accountability for its violations,” it said.

In Yemen, another country where US drones are active, Human Rights Watch highlighted six incidents, two of which were a “clear violation of international humanitarian law”. The remaining four may have broken the laws of armed conflict because the targets were illegitimate or because not enough was done to minimise civilian harm, the report said.

It also argued that some of the Yemen attacks breach the guidelines announced by Obama earlier this year in his first major speech on a programme that is officially top secret. For example, the pledge to kill suspects only when it is impossible to capture them appears to have been ignored on 17 April this year when an al-Qaida leader was blown up in a township in Dhamar province in central Yemen, Human Rights Watch said.

An attack on a truck driving 12 miles south of the capital Sana’a reportedly killed two al-Qaida suspects but also two civilians who had been hired by the other men. That means the attack could have been illegal because it “may have caused disproportionate harm to civilians”.

The legal arguments over drones are extremely complex, with much controversy focusing on whether or not the places where they are used amount to war zones.

Amnesty said some of the strikes in Pakistan might be covered by that claim, but rejected a “global war doctrine” that allows the US to attack al-Qaida anywhere in the world.

“To accept such a policy would be to endorse state practices that fundamentally undermine crucial human rights protections that have been painstakingly developed over more than a century of international law-making,” the report said.

by  in Islamabad

Taliban Halts Polio Vaccines—and Pakistan’s Kids Will Pay

Polio victim Musa, right, 15, is accompanied by his older brother, Nordahan, at the ICRC physical rehabilitation center in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 27, 2012.

 In Pakistan’s tribal areas, anger over drones and suspicions over vaccinators disrupts an effort to eradicate a deadly disease

There is no military drone as stealthy as a virus—and there may be no virus as stealthy as polio. That is a very bad thing for the 161,000 children under five in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area, any number of whom will enter this summer healthy and active, and exit it unable ever to walk again. And, given the slippery nature of the polio virus, what happens in North Waziristan could soon be happening all over Asia.

(READ: A 1954 cover in TIME: “Closing In on Polio”)

Until very recently, polio appeared to be at the very brink of eradication—which would make it only the second disease ever to be wiped out in the wild, following smallpox, which was finally vaccinated out of existence in 1977. As recently as 1988, there were 350,000 cases of polio world wide, distributed across 125 countries. Thanks to an aggressive, 24-year eradication campaign headed by UNICEF, WHO, the CDC and Rotary International, however, there were only 650 cases worldwide last year and only 73 so far this year—confined to just three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

But that was then—then being just last week. Now politics, the drones, the Taliban, the CIA and even the death of Osama bin Laden have gotten in the way. Yesterday, the Taliban commander in North Waziristan canceled the UNICEF-led vaccinations that were to have taken place next in the region next week—vaccinations that were to have provided crucial second doses to 143,000 kids and first doses for the rest. The work can only resume, the Taliban announced, when American drone strikes stop.

“Under these circumstances we cannot continue,”  North Waziristan surgeon general Dr. Muhammed Sadiq told the New York Times by phone.

Using children as medical poker chips is indefensible under any circumstances, but the Pakistanis do have other reasons to be suspicious of Westerners bearing vaccines. In the months leading up to bin Laden’s killing in May 2011, a local doctor who was also working for the CIA ran a hepatitis vaccination campaign in and around Abbottabad, where bin Laden was holed up. The real purpose of was to try to obtain DNA samples that would confirm bin Laden or his family members were indeed in residence. That, surely, figured in the Taliban’s decision.

(READ: Was the Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA a hero or a villain?)

“[This has been] a huge setback for us,” Dr. Rahim Jan Afridi, head of medicine in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, told TIME’s Aryn Baker in Pakistan last week. “Our polio campaign has suffered immensely. Our teams are getting attacked, and we are having a hard time hiring health workers because they are worried about being called a spy.”

The medical effects of all this are already being felt: Pakistan had had only 22 cases of polio so far this year, but new cases have lately turned up in all four of the country’s provinces. They will surely not be the last. In a world in which millions of people suffer from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other epidemic diseases, a few dozen or even a few hundred cases of polio seem like a small thing. But they’re actually very big.

For every clinical case of polio there are 200 subclinical ones that can present themselves merely as a bad summer cold; but that’s 200 active carriers who can and do spread the wild virus. Even people who are infected with what will turn out to be a crippling strain of the disease do not know they’re sick for a week or more, as the virus makes the long journey from the throat to the gut to the bloodstream—multiplying explosively all the way—and finally to the anterior horns of the spinal cord and the medulla oblongota of the brain where it wipes out the cells that signal the muscles, paralyzing them forever.

(READ: The CIA vaccine ruse: a setback for global health?)

All this stealth infection means that smallest hole in the vaccination net can cause the virus to pour out. In 2003, there were just 784 cases worldwide confined to six countries and then too, the belief was that the virus was at the brink of being snuffed out for good. That same year, however, northern Nigerian clerics banned the vaccine, saying, alternately, that it contained the AIDS virus or was being used to sterilize Muslim girls. Within two years, the Nigerian strain had exploded across 16 countries, as far away as Indonesia.

Much the same thing will likely happen again if the vaccinations don’t resume—and soon—in Pakistan. It is humanity’s great disgrace that children are often the collateral casualties of war. Denying them even the medicine they need to stay well is one more dimension of that moral crime.

Aryn Baker/Peshawar

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