Archive for May, 2010

Rising Pakistani lake threatens villages downstream

An enormous lake created by a freak landslide is about to burst its banks, and experts fear that dozens of villages in northeast Pakistan could be washed away. Many have already been evacuated.

Rising Pakistani lake threatens villages downstream

An enormous lake created by a freak landslide is about to burst its banks, and experts fear that dozens of villages in northeast Pakistan could be washed away. Many have already been evacuated.

By Saeed Shah, McClatchy Newspapers
May 29, 2010
Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan —
An enormous lake created by a freak landslide is about to burst its banks, and experts fear that dozens of villages in northeast Pakistan could be washed away. Many have already been evacuated.

An enormous lake, created in the far northeast of Pakistan this year by a freak landslide, is about to burst its banks, and experts fear that it could unleash a wall of water that would wash away everything in its path.

The lake was created in January when a massive landslide came down on the village of Attabad, damming the Hunza River. Officials at the National Disaster Management Authority, a government body for tackling crises, said Thursday that the lake would reach the top of its dam by the weekend.

Army engineers frantically cut a channel through part of the lake dam and completed a “spillway” by the middle of May, which aims to provide a safe channel for the water to drain from the lake back into the path of the river. The lake was 4 feet below that channel late Thursday, but reports said the water was rising about 1 inch per hour.

“The chances of an outburst are very remote,” said Sajid Naeem, a spokesman for the National Disaster Management Authority. “But we are ready if there is such a breach.”

The government has been strongly criticized for not acting before the lake grew so large.

The azure-blue lake — fed by melting glaciers and rainfall, and now more than 12 miles long and about 360 feet deep — already has swallowed a number of villages. Thirty-six more villages that are in its path downstream have been evacuated, and more than 16,000 people have been moved to higher ground and put into temporary camps or have sheltered with friends and family.

The lake also has cut off the strategically important Karakoram Highway, which links Pakistan and China.

“Our village is just a few feet above the river, so in case the water comes, it would be a disaster,” said Binyamin, a 28-year-old who goes by one name and is from the village of Rahimabad, 50 miles downstream.

Rahimabad’s 2,000 residents were moved to higher ground 10 days ago and housed in tents on the grounds of school buildings.

Anita Mustafa, a 12-year-old girl from Rahimabad who was evacuated along with seven family members, told McClatchy Newspapers by phone: “There’s a lot of heat here, and we can’t study in the camps. It is so hot people are getting skin diseases.”

Averting disaster depends on the spillway, which is 80 feet deep, 150 feet wide and 1,500 feet long, according to officials.

David Petley, a specialist on landslides at Britain’s Durham University, published a report in March that warned of a possible tsunami if the dam wall suddenly gave way.

If the spillway isn’t big enough or its walls crumble, a catastrophic collapse of the dam could be triggered, sending a wall of water downstream.
Under the worst-case scenario, a 65-foot-high wave would gush down the mountainous district of Hunza all the way to the Tarbela dam — a distance of some 500 miles — through a network of narrow river valleys, ending close to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.

May 29, 2010 Posted Under: News update   Read More

Pak has to end terror against India: US

Just days ahead of the US-India Strategic Dialogue in Washington, the United States indicated that the onus is on Pakistan to remove obstacles in the way of talks between India and Pakistan.

During a briefing in Washington DC, Robert O Blake, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs in the US State Department, said, “One of the most important obstacles to expansion of those relations is the continuing infiltration from Pakistan by Punjab-based groups, such as Lashkar e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed and others.”

In this context, Blake said that “one of the first things that has to happen is for there to be visible progress in stopping this.” He added that the United States had consistently called for greater action on the part of Pakistan to stop the activities of anti-India groups.

He also emphasized the view within the Obama Administration that terrorist groups in Pakistan were “operating together as a syndicate.”

Blake also did not believe that Kashmir would immediately figure on the agenda once discussions between India and Pakistan resumed. The “immediate” issue was that of counterterrorism, and once they have developed a degree of confidence, they might then be able to take up some of these “more sensitive territorial issues.”

There has been a sense within the Obama Administration that Pakistan’s inaction on countering India-focused terrorist groups had impeded normalisation of relations with India, though that criticism has been muted in public because elements in Washington do not want to rile the Pakistan establishment.

The US-India Strategic Dialogue will comprise several heads with counterterrorism figuring prominently when External Affairs Minister SM Krishna meets US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday. The focus will also be on countries in India’s neighbourhood. Blake mentioned “Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East, probably China.”

Also likely to figure in the talks will be Iran, as Blake pointed out, “This is a very important issue for both of our countries. I think the United States and India both share a concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and both of us are opposed to any kind of nuclear arms for Iran.”

But there are tricky issues to be navigated. Among them is access to Pakistani-American David Coleman Headley, considered by India to be a major figure behind the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Blake refused to put a timeframe for Indian investigators to question him. 

Blake also said the US was “not frustrated” over the pace at which liability legislation, a key element to completing the India-US civilian nuclear deal, was churning through the system in India. As he explained, “It has some political resonance in India because of the Bhopal disaster. So people are – obviously look at this very closely and they should. It deserves that kind of scrutiny.”

May 29, 2010 Posted Under: News update   Read More

Suicide squads kill 80 in attack on two minority mosques

Wearing suicide bombs, firing automatic weapons and hurling grenades, Taleban militants stormed two mosques in the eastern city of Lahore yesterday, leaving at least 80 people dead in one of the country’s worst terrorist incidents.

The gunmen staged almost simultaneous attacks on the mosques, belonging to the minority Ahmadi sect, which are several miles apart in the heart of Pakistan’s second-biggest city. They killed and wounded scores of worshippers who had gathered for Friday prayers, and took hundreds hostage until police overpowered those attackers who had not blown themselves up.

At one of the mosques, in Model Town, a middle-class neighbourhood, there were 1,500 people inside the prayer hall. “They came into the mosque from the back and started firing,” said Rana Ayaz, a senior local police official. “They were armed with hand grenades and suicide vests and other weapons.” Faraz Ahmed, who was inside the mosque, described six blasts before the shooting began. At least 30 people died in the attack.

At almost the same time, another group of 12 gunmen entered the mosque in Garhi Shahu, a congested residential and commercial district, after killing the security guards at the gate. Two militants blew themselves up in the prayer hall, where 1,200 worshippers were assembled, while others opened fire. One of the gunmen climbed to the top of a minaret and fired at police.

A two-hour gun battle followed, with ambulances racing through the streets to get to victims. More than 50 people were killed and more than 100 injured in the second attack. Tariq Salim Dogar, the Punjab provincial police chief, said that two of the militants had been captured, one seriously wounded. A group calling itself Punjabi Taleban claimed it was behind the attacks.

Lahore, a city of eight million people near the Indian border, has increasingly been a target of al-Qaeda and Taleban groups. This year more than 220 people have been killed by militants in the city; 3,300 people have died nationwide over the past three years.

Analysts attribute the rise to the Government’s failure to put in place a comprehensive counter-terrorism policy — especially in the Punjab province.

The number of madrassas or Islamic seminaries espousing militant Islam has risen in recent years despite a government pledge to curb extremism.

The assault on the Ahmadi community illustrates the threat that minority religious groups face in Pakistan, where a long struggle with sectarianism has been exacerbated by the rise of the Taleban and al-Qaeda.

The Ahmadis, who number four million in Pakistan, are reviled by zealots as heretics and have experienced years of persecution at the hands of the State.

The sect was declared a non-Muslim minority in 1973 under pressure from hardline Islamists. Hundreds have been jailed for calling themselves Muslims. Waseem Sayed, a US-based Ahmadi spokesman, said: “We are a peaceful people — we are monitoring the situation and hoping and praying that the authorities are able to take all necessary action.”

May 29, 2010 Posted Under: News update   Read More

Obama defends Gulf of Mexico oil spill response

US President Barack Obama has defended his government’s handling of the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

He unveiled a series of measures, including a continued moratorium on drilling permits for six months.

The move comes after an opinion poll said 60% of Americans were unhappy with the government’s response.

Meanwhile, BP said its “top kill” effort was making progress in stemming the oil flow, from what some experts say is the country’s worst-ever spill.

New estimates from a panel of US scientists said at least 12,000 barrels (504,000 gallons) were leaking into the Gulf every day, far exceeding the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

The leak was caused by an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig on 20 April, which also killed 11 workers.

Corruption charges

Speaking at the White House, President Obama vowed to hold BP accountable for the “horrific disaster”.

He stressed that his government, and not oil company BP, was in charge.

He admitted the government did not have the technology to deal with the damaged oil well nearly a mile (1.6km) below the surface, meaning that Washington must rely on BP to plug the ruptured well.

The president’s comments came as questions were increasingly being asked about whether he had been sufficiently engaged in handling the disaster, says the BBC’s Adam Brookes in Washington.

In a shake-up of the offshore oil industry, as well as halting exploratory deepwater drilling for another six months, Mr Obama suspended test drilling on 33 rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

In addition, he cancelled the sale of some offshore leases off the coasts of Alaska and Virginia.

Correspondents say the move marks a shift in policy since March, when President Obama gave the go-ahead to widen the scope for offshore drilling in order to reduce dependency on oil imports.

Hours earlier, Mr Obama sacked Elizabeth Birnbaum, the head of the the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the agency which oversees drilling operations.

He blasted the “scandalously close relationship” between oil companies and regulators, and said officials granting exploration permits would no longer be responsible as well for ensuring safety.

Also on Thursday, Mr Obama’s top spill response official – Coast Guard commander Admiral Thad Allen – approved part of an ambitious plan to build barrier islands to stop oil from coming ashore in Louisiana.

‘Worst spill’

The oil leak has already soiled more than 110km (70 miles) of Louisiana’s coastline, threatening fragile marshlands and putting the Louisiana fishing industry at risk.

In the first official estimate of the size of the oil leak, US Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt said government teams estimated the flow ranges from 12,000 barrels (504,000 gallons or 1.9 million litres) to 25,000 barrels per day.

Up to now, BP had estimated the leak at 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) per day, while cautioning that figure was unreliable.

If the new estimates are confirmed, it would mean the leak has far eclipsed the previous worst oil spill in US history – the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

Making matters worse, US officials warned the coming hurricane season could be one of the worst on record.

But BP said its latest attempt to stem the flow was making progress.

The company said it did not know how long the “top kill” procedure would take, but that efforts were advancing “on several fronts”.

The top kill, which began on Wednesday, involves pumping heavy drilling fluids into the top of the well to try to halt the oil flow. If it succeeds, cement would then be injected to seal the well.

May 27, 2010 Posted Under: News update   Read More