Month: August 2010

Gilgit-Baltistan: Clerics asked to preach tolerance instead of hatred

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GILGIT: Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Minister Mehdi Shah said that his government cannot afford to experiment every time sectarian violence breaks out, to establish peace and sectarian harmony in the region.

He was referring to the rounds of dialogue that the government has held in the past with representatives of rival sects, to bring about sectarian harmony. Even peace agreements, brokered by the government between top clerics of Sunni and Shia sects, have not been successful.

“Clerics should support the government in maintaining peace and harmony by preaching tolerance instead of hatred,” he said.

“We cannot do more experiments,” Shah told the media in Gilgit. “This is the last chance for the police to act as a professional force,” he added, without elaborating what the next step will be if his actions fail to bring about the desired results. Mehdi Shah had earlier transferred 68 policemen from Gilgit to other parts of the region, following the arrest of some policemen allegedly involved in the killing of people due to sectarian enmity.

The chief minister said that in view of the substandard performance of the police, inter-district postings have been made, adding that the vacant posts will be filled by police from areas other than Gilgit-Baltistan. Shah said that the cabinet has been taken into confidence regarding the actions taken against the terrorists.

During the ongoing search operation by the police, 10 more people have been taken into custody, along with arms and ammunition. So far, the police have rounded up more than 30 people for possessing illegal weapons and committing other crimes.  Uniforms of security forces have also been recovered from their possession, which could have been used for criminal purposes.

Gilgit remained tense on Sunday even though no untoward incident was reported from any part of the area.

Courtesy: The Express Tribune, August 30th, 2010.

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Gilgit-Baltistan: 30 trucks of relief goods from China

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GILGIT: Over 30 trucks of relief goods from China arrived in Gilgit-Baltistan on Sunday for those affected by the Attabad landslide lake disaster in January.

Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Minister Mehdi Shah received the Chinese delegation that accompanied the convoy from China to Sost via the Karakoram Highway. “We are thankful to our time-tested friend China, which has always helped us in the time of need,” said Shah, while addressing a ceremony in Sost that was arranged in honour of the Chinese delegation.

The relief supplies include rice, grains, flour and other essential food items. According to officials, at least 3,000 tons of stuff was in the trucks, which will be sufficient for the population for the next six months during which the Karakoram Highway remains blocked due to snowfall.

A massive landslide had blocked the Hunza River in January, creating a 24-kilometre-long lake. More than 25,000 people were rendered homeless after the lake swallowed about five villages upstream. The strategic Karokoram Highway was also blocked, severing Pakistan’s land link with China.

Courtesy: The Express Tribune, August 30th, 2010.

Gilgit-Baltistan: Government failed to convene GB Council Session

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ISLAMABAD: The federal government has failed to call a session of the Gilgit-Baltistan Council, six months after its formation.

The council was constituted by the federal government under Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) Empowerment and Self Governance Order-2009 in March this year, to satisfy a longstanding demand for greater autonomy.

When asked about the unusual delay in summoning the council, deputy secretary of the council, Talah Mohammad, said that a meeting could not be held due to some administrative matters and engagements of the prime minister. “The council is a new body and streamlining its administrative matters will take time,” he said.

He added that it was scheduled to meet in the first week of August but was postponed in the wake of unprecedented floods in the country. The session is expected to be held soon after Eid.

“There are numerous issues pending for which the meeting needs to be convened urgently,” another official said on condition of anonymity. “We are sitting idle since its formation and we do not know what to do,” he added.

Since G-B has no representation in the Council of Common Interests as well as in the NFC award, we want to register our concerns through this forum and demand that a session be held as soon as possible, he said.

Another member, Amjad Hussain Advocate, said that the meeting of the council was twice rescheduled and then cancelled due to engagements of the prime minister as well as the flood disaster. “It will hopefully meet after Eid,” he said.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 30th, 2010.

Evacuation from Gilgit – II

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We’ll never get on!” one man shouted, while a group of woman protested that the gates should be opened to allow one little boy who, after being buffeted and crushed by the women towering above him, had fainted and fallen onto the road. When an Army officer instructed the boy’s mother to take the boy to the back of the line to recover, rather than let her and her son into the airport, even the Gilgiti policemen providing security on the outside of the airport building began shouting it was a clear case of the predominantly ethnic Punjabi officers’ preferential treatment for ‘entitled persons’ and their exclusionary treatment of locals. Turning to the Police SP standing beside him inside the gate, a Major sternly ordered the SP’s men to get better control of the civilians outside. The SP retorted angrily that the gates should be opened to let the civilians inside; that the heat was too much, that children were falling ill, that civilians should have a chance to go as well. With his teeth gritted, the Major said, “You let us do our job inside, and you do your job outside.” Because the SP refused to listen, and demanded the keys, he was escorted out of the gate by the major while policemen yelled insults, threatening to either “fight or walk away and leave this all for the Army to handle.” The SP, who stood at the gates and was still working to calm himself, started yelling at his men to contain themselves, to show respect, to cease and desist any butameez behaviour. Because this fight – which was sustained by the dissonance that normally characterises inter-ethnic relations in Pakistan – had the potential to escalate so quickly and so badly, even the women began trying to intervene, declaring in strained and raised voices that they were fine, they could wait inside aram, aram sey (in a relaxed way).

Encouraged by the women, and perhaps also my own fervent shouts not to fight and to calm things down so we could get inside, the SP moved to the side and another senior Army officer came to the gates, shouting that “If you try to come in without a boarding pass, you will not come inside! Each passenger must have their own boarding pass!” With nods of hurried assent, and promises to behave, awaiting passengers stood expectantly, hoping the gates would be opened. But, once again, it became clear that even more ‘entitled persons’ were still boarding through the Army’s reserve entrance. It wasn’t for another very hot and raucous 10 minutes that slowly, and with great difficulty, the gate was opened slightly and we began to squeeze individually through the small gap allowed in the gate and hand over our boarding passes for approval. The crush to push the door completely open was so strong that, on more than one occasion, lathi sticks were used to strike at the heads and hands of those trying to force their way inside, while Rangers shouted “Women and children first! Women and children first!” Even after I had managed, somehow, to get my sons and me inside the main gate, I had to divert my attention back to the crowd outside where my husband still waited, holding our four-year-old daughter, whose head was lolling about, her eyes glazed over from the heat. Finally, he made his way to the main gate, but it was only after my fervent protests to the Rangers and Army officers guarding the gate that Wadood, a Gilgiti, was truly my husband that he and my daughter were allowed through.

Once inside the main gate, pandemonium continued as luggage was thrown over the gate by family members to the outstretched arms of women and children passengers now standing inside the terminal. Heavier bags fell hard onto women’s heads; one child caught a bag only to fall back hard on her backside on the concrete, her eyes welling up with tears. Some bags split open, the contents rolling around dangerously underfoot. Counting and recounting our bags, and grasping the hand of each child tightly, we ran into the terminal – well aware that there were now fewer seats reserved for civilians than we’d originally thought. After hurriedly scanning our baggage through the airports one X-ray machine and, after I fought away the attentions of a female security guard who wanted to search and re-search me again, I joined Wadood and the children and, with bags hanging off each shoulder and children in-tow, sweat streaming down our faces, necks and backs, we ran onto the tarmac. An airport employee indicated we should proceed past a group of Army officers and the attaché who had helped us earlier in the day. After reaching the group, where it was clear the SP was now being reprimanded in full sight by the major with whom he’d fought an hour before, the attaché said, “Where were you? You were late!” Astounded and uncertain of what this meant, I turned to see one of the C-130 crew members running toward us, gesturing with his arms, ‘No more!’ guaranteed

Exhausted and frustrated, I began to cry – turning to the attaché and asking, “How can we be late? We were among the first in line?” With a remorseful look on his face, he then pointed to a senior Army officer behind me, to whom I began pleading, “Please, we’ve been here for two days, and it took me many days to get this boarding pass – this is the only flight today, I know, please let us on?” Without a pause, he nodded and we ran toward the plane where it sat approximately 400 feet down the tarmac. Along the way, Wadood shouted to me, “I don’t think I want to do this – what if they overload the plane?” This caused a trickle of fear to run down my spine.

At the plane, and as it had been in the line outside, men and women were separated from each other. Women were helped up the steep metal stairs into the interior of the plane, while men waited impatiently to get on. I stayed behind the men’s line, preferring to stay beside Wadood lest we be separated and he get left behind. It had now become obvious that the majority of ‘non-entitled’ men who’d waited with us to board the plane had been stopped from walking to the plane by Army personnel behind us on the tarmac. I could only imagine how many women and children already on the plane would now be flying to Rawalpindi without their husbands, fathers, brothers or sons. One of the C-130 pilots stepped forward to reassure me that Wadood wouldn’t be left behind and, encouraged, I took the children with me into the plane, which was dark and stifling hot. Small squares of plywood were lined along the floor, which was itself covered with rollers in order to quickly push out transport supplies in times of emergency – such as this. One row of canvas seats had been arranged along each side of the flight for women to sit on. The majority of women, children and men found places to sit on the floor.

Once the plane had been fully loaded, only a few minutes after I had settled the children and I into a dark corner, the door was shut and locked and one by one, the engines roared into life. At the front of the plane stood three air crew members; another six or seven stood at the back of the plane near where our extra luggage had been thrown. The children – smiling excitedly at the sound of the plane preparing for take-off – didn’t exhibit any of the fear that had begun to paralyse a number of passengers, many of whom were well aware of the dangers of the route south over the confluence of the Karakoram, Himalayan and Hindu Kush mountain ranges. Women and men pulled tasbih from their pockets as the plane taxied to the end of the runway; prayers were uttered with lips moving silently. The young woman sitting beside me reached over to clasp my forearm and we smiled lightly at each other. The heat inside was intense; suddenly, a burst of white vapour began pouring from two ducts above our heads. After realising it was a form of air-conditioning, there was nervous laughter among the passengers. At the same time, a number of exhausted travelers began to break their daily roza, asking fellow passengers to please share their water, or their juice, or their food….

The plane groaned as it lumbered down the runway. As the wheels lifted off the tarmac, the plywood sheets on which we sat rolled sharply several inches to the back of the plane. Some women screamed and others braced their feet against the walls and floors to try to stop the rolling. The plane climbed, and climbed, and climbed. After nearly fifteen minutes we could tell, by the pull of gravity beneath us and the dipping and weaving of the plane’s wings, that we were approaching and then flying around Nanga Parbat’s massive peak. During this time there was very little discussion among passengers. Twenty minutes later, though, we all began looking around us to see how our neighbours were doing, to ask – in voices raised above the din of the engines – what had brought us to Gilgit, or was leading us away from it, to compare our experiences managing the floods’ fallouts, and to discuss how long it might take before regular road access was restored to this already isolated part of Pakistan. The region’s multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic character resonated in each small discussion. At different times, I recognized Shina, Burushaski, Khower, Balti and Uigyr being spoken, in addition to Pakistan’s lingua franca, Urdu.

As the plane began its heavy descent, people once again began to whisper prayers and reach out to hold strangers’ hands. With our ears popping, some of us tried to guess if bad weather near Islamabad was causing the plane to buffet and dip and rise so sharply; we remembered the Airblue crash in Islamabad in late July. Finally, the loud whine of the landing gear being lowered heralded our arrival to Chaklala Air Base in Rawalpindi. The landing was smooth, but as the plane braked to a halt the plywood sheets on which we sat rolled again sharply toward the front of the plane. Relieved and now chatting happily, passengers disembarked. The flight had lasted an hour.

After passenger busses left us at a small terminal building near where the plane landed, and where another American C-130 was taking off with a load of relief supplies, we gathered our things and prepared to take the long walk to the air base’s main entrance in search of a taxi. At the first of several exit gates, a small car pulled up and, from inside and without even asking where we were planning to go, an Air Force pilot called out that he would provide us a lift. After offering our profuse thanks and then climbing into the car, I recognised the pilot as being the same who had reassured me Wadood wouldn’t be left behind on the tarmac in Gilgit.

‘Nadir’ (name changed) provided us the happiest end to an otherwise bleak, frightening day. He confirmed the perils of mountain flying in Gilgit-Baltistan, told us that the Air Force had lost a number of C-130s in the region, and said that the pilots selected for the Gilgit-Islamabad run receive ‘the highest possible training’ with additional expertise in high-altitude flying. When I asked if the route was really as dangerous as we’d heard, he said, “Yes, but only if you lose an engine or the weather changes suddenly. At those altitudes, and with the mountains all around, you have very little in the way of leverage in case of an emergency.’ As he dropped us off at our hotel in Islamabad, I thanked Nadir for all his help, saying that we were certainly among the lucky ones this awful summer. Smiling slightly and while looking at our wrinkled clothes, the beads of sweat rolling down our faces, our dirty hands and faces, my dupatta askew, our hair tousled and our eyes red and bleary, Nadir said, ‘Well you’re very welcome, but I don’t think you’re quite done with being among those ‘affected’ by the floods just yet….’

Courtesy: The Dawn August 27, 2010

Gilgit-Baltistan: Search operation continues in different parts of Gilgit city

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GILGIT: After last night’s unrest and curfew, the search operation in Yaadgar Mohalla and Navanagral areas of Gilgit continues on the second day, SAMAA reported on Thursday.

Law enforcement agencies started a search operation last night after imposing curfew in both Yadgar Mohalla and Navanagral.

The curfew was imposed in parts of Gilgit following an exchange of fire between two rival groups and burning of four houses by angry people.

Tension began when some unknown gunmen opened fire at a passenger van near Yadgar Roundabout. However, all passengers survived unhurt.

After the attack, aerial firing started in Yadgar and Navanagral localities, spreading fear among the people.

The Home Department of Gilgit-Baltistan Government immediately imposed curfew in the valley and ordered security forces to take action.

According to reports, security forces found it difficult to take action in the night. People have been asked to avoid coming out of their houses during the curfew.

The government decided to launch search operation in Yadagar, Navanagral and its adjacent areas, where rangers, Northern Area Scouts and police have been deployed.

Law enforcement agencies have arrested four suspects during the ongoing search operation. Tension prevails in the troubled areas and Gilgit’s markets and bazaars have remained closed today.

Courtesy: SAMAA News

Google plugs free PC-to-phone calling into e-mail

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SAN FRANCISCO — Google Inc. is adding a free e-mail feature that may persuade more people to cut the cords on their landline phones.

The service unveiled Wednesday enables U.S. users of Google’s Gmail service to make calls from microphone-equipped computers to telephones virtually anywhere in the world.

All calls in the U.S. and Canada will be free through at least the end of the year. That undercuts the most popular PC-to-phone service, Skype, which charges 1.2 cents to 2.1 cents per minute for U.S. calls. It also threatens to overshadow another free PC-to-phone calling service called MagicTalk that was just introduced by VocalTec Communications Ltd.

Skype, Google and many other services have been offering free computer-to-computer calling for years.

Google hopes to make money on its PC-to-phone service by charging 2 cents or more per minute for international calls. The international rates will vary widely, sometimes even within the same country. Google posted a rate chart at https://www.google.com/voice/b/0/rates.

People also will be able to receive calls on their PC if they obtain a free phone number from Google or already have one.

The phone numbers and technology for the new PC-calling service are being provided by Google Voice, a telecommunications hub that the company has been trying to expand. It had been an invitation-only service until two months ago when Google Voice began accepting all number requests.

Google disclosed last year that it had assigned about 1.4 million phone numbers through its Voice service, which can field calls made to a person’s home, mobile or office number. Craig Walker, a Google product manager who helped develop Voice, said the service has expanded its reach since then, but he wouldn’t provide specifics.

Besides planting Voice’s technology into Gmail, Google also plans to promote the service by setting up red phone booths at universities and airports scattered across the United States. People will be able to make free calls from the booths to U.S. and Canadian numbers and save on international calls.

Google also plans to enable people to transfer, or “port,” their existing home or mobile phone to Voice to widen the service’s appeal. Walker said Wednesday that flexibility will be available soon.

The PC-to-phone calling option initially is being offered only to consumers who have accounts on Google’s Web-based e-mail, but the company left open the possibility that it will be expanded to the millions of businesses and government agencies that rely on Gmail as part of an applications suite that includes other programs such as word processing.

The added competition comes at an inopportune time for Skype S.A., the Luxembourg-based company that recently filed plans for an initial public offering of stock. Skype has 560 million registered users, including 8.1 million paying customers (most people use the free PC-to-PC service). After four years under the ownership of eBay Inc., Skype was sold to a group of private investors last November for about $2 billion. The company has been doing well since the sale, earning $13 million on revenue of $406 million during the first half of this year.

Source: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hMlI3unek2g1VlhbeAYy4uAL2OogD9HQO2PO0

Gilgit-Baltistan: Shoot on Sight order issued

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GILGIT: A shoot-on-sight order was issued after two rival groups resorted to heavy aerial firing soon after Iftar near Yadgar Chowk here on Wednesday, police said.

Two people were gunned down in the same area on Tuesday. Sources said that paramilitary troops and police came to the area only after the shootout subsided.

More than 70,000 bullets were fired. Three houses were burnt, but there were no casualties.

Gilgit’s assistant commissioner told Dawn that the situation eased after the administration called in Punjab Rangers and Northern Area scouts.

Police sources said that no arrest had been made nor did they register any case.

Incidents of firing were also reported from Nagaral, Kashrote, Majini Muhallah and some other parts of the region.

Gilgit has seen a spree of target killings over the past four days. Four people were killed in two days.

Courtesy: The Dawn August 26, 2010