UN Report Finds Torture of Afghan Detainees

Posted January 20th, 2013 at 5:50 pm (UTC-5)
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The United Nations says torture is still widespread in Afghanistan's prisons, a year after the U.N. first documented abuse and the Karzai government promised to reform its detention practices.

A report issued Sunday by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan found “credible and reliable evidence” that more than half of the 635 “conflict-related detainees” interviewed at 89 facilities across the country had been tortured. That is about the same proportion the U.N. found in its first report in 2011.

In particular, the U.N. report found that the Afghan government appeared to be trying to hide the mistreatment, and refusing to prosecute those accused of torturing prisoners. The Afghan government disputed the U.N. team's findings.

The report documented how Afghan authorities leave detainees hanging from the ceiling by their wrists, beat them with cables and wooden sticks, administer electric shocks, twist their genitals, threaten to violently sodomize prisoners or kill them. The allege abuse was carried out in multiple detention centers.

The report said about 30 percent of the 79 detainees transferred to Afghan custody by foreign governments ended up being tortured, and that Afghanistan's spy agency operated secret facilities to avoid international scrutiny.

NATO-led forces in Afghanistan have been gradually handing over detainees to Afghan control ahead of the withdrawal of most international forces over the next year.

The U.S. and other nations in the International Security Force in Afghanistan ISAF nations halted transfers to nine Afghan-run facilities after the U.N. mission's 2011 study reported hundreds of instances of torture or abuseof detainees – in some cases, children – by Afghan authorities.

In a letter responding to the latest report, the Afghan government said its internal monitoring committee found “the allegations of torture of detainees were untrue and thus disproved.”

The Afghan government said it does not completely rule out the possibility of torture at its detention facilities, but that it was nowhere near the levels described in the report and that it was checking on reports of abuse.

The European Union said in a statement it was “deeply concerned” by the report.

Algeria Says Militants Captured, More Bodies Found at Gas Complex

Posted January 20th, 2013 at 3:05 pm (UTC-5)
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Algerian security officials say a search of a desert gas complex raided by Islamists last week has led to the capture of several militants and the discovery of 25 more bodies, indicating the four-day hostage crisis was much deadlier than first thought.

The officials said Algerian special forces detained five militants at the complex of In Amenas in eastern Algeria on Sunday. They said the 25 bodies also discovered at the site likely included hostages who were among the hundreds of Algerians and foreigners working at the facility when the Islamists seized it on Wednesday.

Algerian security forces killed most of the hostage takers in an assault on Saturday. Algeria's state news agency said the militants executed seven hostages during that operation, while Algerian troops killed 11 of the kidnappers. In an earlier report on Saturday, the Algerian government put the official death toll of the siege at 23 hostages and 32 militants, but said the figures were expected to rise.

In a video released Sunday on an Islamist website, militant leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for the attack on the gas complex in the name of al-Qaida, saying 40 militants from Muslim and Western nations carried out the raid.

He said his group is ready to “negotiate” with the West if it stops what he called its “bombing of Mali's people” – a reference to French air and ground strikes against al-Qaida-linked rebels in the West African state, which borders Algeria.

Western powers backed the Algerian government's military response to the hostage crisis and its refusal to negotiate with the perpetrators.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Sunday that responsibility for the killings “lies squarely” with what he called the “terrorists who launched this vicious and cowardly attack.” French President Francois Hollande welcomed what he described as Algeria's “most appropriate” response to “coldly determined terrorists.”

Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said said the Islamist assailants came from six nations. He said they had laid mines around the gas complex and security forces were trying to clear them.

Algeria has said an initial rescue operation at the facility freed 107 foreigners and 685 Algerians on Thursday. The foreign hostages included nationals of the United States, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Colombia, France, Japan, Malaysia, Norway, the Philippines and Romania. The complex is jointly run by Algerian, British and Norwegian firms.

British Prime Minister Cameron said three British hostages were confirmed dead, and another three were believed to have been killed. U.S. officials have confirmed the death of one American at the site.

The Japanese government said 10 of its citizens were unaccounted for at the site. It sent Japanese vice foreign minister Minuro Kiuchi to In Amenas on Sunday to find out what happened to them.

The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory to Americans in Algeria, warning of credible threats of additional kidnappings attempts against Western nationals.

Burma Says Troops Ordered Not to Attack Kachin Rebel HQ

Posted January 20th, 2013 at 12:10 pm (UTC-5)
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Burmese President Thein Sein says he is trying to create conditions for peace talks with ethnic-minority Kachin rebels.

In a speech in Rangoon, Mr. Thein Sein said government forces are within an “arm's length” of the main Kachin Independence Army base in the town of Laiza, on the border with China. He said he has ordered troops not to attack the base as a show of good will.

A Thailand-based spokesman for the Kachin rebel group said Burmese troops raided a rebel position Sunday several kilometers from Laiza, despite a unilateral government cease-fire that was supposed to go into effect Saturday. The rebel official said the government offensive involved artillery and ground troops.

Mr. Thein Sein's government had no immediate comment on the rebel claim about the fighting near Laiza.

The Burmese president called Sunday for the Kachin Independence Army to return to the negotiating table as soon as possible to develop what he called a “sustainable peace.”

Burmese troops and Kachin rebels have been fighting since 2011, when a 17-year cease-fire broke down. It is the last active civil war in Burma, whose reformist government has reached cease-fire agreements with other ethnic minority rebel groups.

The fighting in Kachin state has displaced tens of thousands of people and overshadowed major political reforms introduced since Burma ended decades of military rule in 2011.

Activists: Syrian Air Strike Kills 7 Near Damascus

Posted January 20th, 2013 at 10:45 am (UTC-5)
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Syrian rights activists say government warplanes have bombed a rebel-held area on the southern outskirts of Damascus, killing seven people, including five members of one family.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the air strike targeted the village of al-Barika on Sunday. It said a couple and three of their children were among the dead.

Government troops also battled rebels in several areas east of Damascus.

Rebels trying to end the 12-year rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have seized large parts of northern Syria and established footholds in suburbs near Damascus since an uprising began in 2011. But, the insurgents have been unable to advance on the Mr. Assad's seat of authority in the capital because of superior government firepower. Pro-Assad forces regularly hit the more lightly-armed rebels with air and artillery strikes.

Algeria Says Bodies of More Hostages Found at Gas Complex

Posted January 20th, 2013 at 9:45 am (UTC-5)
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Algerian officials say security forces searching a desert gas complex raided by Islamists have found the bodies of more hostages killed by the militants in the four-day seizure of the facility this week.

Security officials said Sunday an additional 25 bodies were discovered at the complex at Ain Amenas in eastern Algeria. They said the bodies appeared to be those of hostages who were among the hundreds of Algerians and foreigners working at the facility when it was seized by the Islamists on Wednesday. Algerian security forces ousted the militants from the complex in a deadly assault on Saturday.

Algeria's state news agency said the militants killed seven hostages during that operation, while Algerian troops killed 11 of the hostage-takers. In an earlier report on Saturday, the Algerian government said the overall death toll from the gas complex siege stood at 23 hostages and 32 militants.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Sunday that three British hostages were confirmed dead, and another three were believed to have been killed. U.S. officials have confirmed the death of one American at the site.

Mr. Cameron said responsibility for the killings “lies squarely” with what he called the “terrorists who launched this vicious and cowardly attack.” French President Francois Hollande endorsed Algeria's handling of the situation, saying it was the “most appropriate” response to “coldly determined terrorists.”

Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said said Sunday the Islamist assailants came from six nations. He said they had laid mines around the gas complex and security forces were trying to clear them.

Algeria said it had freed 107 foreign hostages and 685 Algerians in an initial assault on the facility on Thursday.

The foreign hostages included nationals from the United States, Britain, Japan, Norway, Romania, the Philippines, France, Malaysia and Austria. The complex is jointly run by Algerian, British and Norwegian firms. Japanese officials have said several of their nationals are missing.

The U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory to Americans in Algeria, warning of credible threats of additional kidnappings of Western nationals.

The militants said they carried out the attack in retaliation for French military operations in Mali.

Rebels Accuse Burma Army of Ignoring Cease-Fire Order

Posted January 20th, 2013 at 6:25 am (UTC-5)
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Ethnic Kachin rebels in northern Burma say government troops are ignoring a cease-fire order that was supposed to go into effect Saturday.

President Thein Sein issued the order Friday to troops in northeastern Kachin state near the border with China. However, the rebel Kachin Independence Army said Sunday that attacks involving artillery and troops are continuing.

The fighting has marred optimism about Burma's political reforms, as it emerges from decades of military dictatorship.

Thein Sein urged international donor nations on Saturday to help in the development of the country's battered economy and in improving the living standards of its impoverished population. He assured them that the government was serious about ending armed ethnic conflicts.

3 Killed in Yemen Drone Strike

Posted January 20th, 2013 at 6:05 am (UTC-5)
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Officials in central Yemen say a drone strike has killed at least three militants.

Authorities said Sunday missiles fired from the unmanned aircraft successfully targeted a car, killing the suspected members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

One witness said the car was engulfed in flames.

Authorities in Yemen reported dozens of apparent U.S. drone strikes in 2012.

U.S.-backed Yemeni government forces have been fighting al-Qaida militants in the country for years.

Al-Qaida took control of parts of southern Yemen in 2011 during an uprising that ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Suspected militants have carried out suicide bombings and other attacks targeting Yemeni officials.

Algeria: Death Toll from Hostage Crisis May Rise

Posted January 20th, 2013 at 5:10 am (UTC-5)
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Algeria says the death toll from the hostage crisis at a natural gas complex could rise. The government said Sunday several countries have indicated some of their citizens remain missing after an end to the bloody conflict at the complex in eastern Algeria.

On Saturday, Algeria's Interior Ministry said the nation's hostage crisis had ended with 23 hostages and 32 militants killed.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Sunday that three British nationals are confirmed dead, and another three are believed to have been killed. U.S. officials previously said at least one American is known to have died.

Algeria's Interior Ministry said security forces managed to free 107 foreign hostages and 685 Algerians.

Algeria's official APS news agency said the country's special forces stormed the complex Saturday in their “final assault” on Islamists who had been holding scores of hostages in the desert facility. However, few details have emerged from the remote location where the rescue mission took place.

France endorsed Algeria's handling of the situation Saturday, saying it was the “most appropriate” response since it was not possible to negotiate with the “coldly determined terrorists.”

In Washington, President Barack Obama condemned the actions of the kidnappers, saying they were entirely to blame.

British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond also said the terrorists bear the “sole responsibility” for the deaths.

Several Americans were among those being held. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in London after meeting with Hammond that he had only “sketchy information” about the American hostages and would not comment until he had better details. He also renounced terrorist attacks on Americans across the globe.

“Just as we cannot accept terrorism attacks against our cities, we cannot accept attacks against our citizens and our interests abroad. Neither can we accept an al-Qaida safe haven anywhere in the world.”

Foreign hostages at the gas complex are believed to have included nationals from the U.S., Britain, Japan, Norway, Romania, the Philippines, France, Malaysia and Austria. The complex is jointly run by Algerian, British and Norwegian firms. Japanese officials say several of their nationals are missing.

The U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning Americans in Algeria, saying there are credible threats of the kidnapping of Western nationals.

The militants say they attacked the facility Wednesday in retaliation for French military operations in Mali.

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Germans Vote in Regional Election

Posted January 20th, 2013 at 4:45 am (UTC-5)
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Germans are voting in a regional election that is seen as a test for Chancellor Angela Merkel, eight months before nationwide legislative elections.

Polls opened Sunday in the northern state of Lower Saxony, which is governed by state premier David McAllister of Ms. Merkel's center-right alliance.

Analysts say the race has narrowed to a virtual tie with the center-left Social Democrat-Greens opposition.

The election is the last test before September, when polls for Bavaria will take place followed by national elections, which will determine whether Ms. Merkel will win a third term.

Thousands Rally to Support US Gun Rights, 5 Injured

Posted January 19th, 2013 at 9:25 pm (UTC-5)
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Thousands of American activists — some carrying carrying rifles and pistols — gathered peacefully Saturday at state capitals across the country for rallies promoting gun rights, as the U.S. government considers new restrictions on firearms.

Rallies stretched from New York and Connecticut to South Dakota, Texas, Alabama, Arizona and Oregon — in some places drawing dozens of people and others attracting several thousand demonstrators. Separately, authorities say five people were injured at gun shows in three separate states when firearms accidentally discharged.

Activists used social media to promote the “Guns Across America” rallies, which were fashioned as a response to new gun control proposals unveiled this week by President Barack Obama.

In Austin, Texas, some 600 demonstrators converged on the state capitol grounds to protest the Obama proposals and, in some cases, show their antipathy toward the president with signs and banners. An estimated 1,000 gun rights activists gathered in the capital of Tennessee and 2,000 more showed up in the New York state capital.

In Hartford, Connecticut, police said about 1,000 gun advocates rallied, with at least one man carrying an assault rifle nearly identical to the type used by a lone gunman in December to kill 20 children and six adults in nearby Newtown.

The Associated Press said the man carried an AR-15 assault weapon and wore a green and white ribbon on his lapel — the colors of the Newtown elementary school where the massacre took place.

Earlier Saturday, President Obama used his weekly radio address to tell the public his administration is taking “a series of steps” to protect America's children from gun violence. He said those actions include strengthening the existing system of background checks for potential gun buyers, and pressing for new research on ways to reduce gun violence.