Thursday, August 26, 2010

US-led airstrike kills 6 Afghan children

A US-led airstrike has killed six children and injured another child in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan, amid growing public discontent over civilian deaths.

The children were killed on Thursday afternoon local time after US-led forces bombarded a civilian house, a local police chief said.

The US-led forces launched the airstrike in response to Taliban mortar fire on their base.

The Taliban attack is also said to have killed one and injured another child, a Press TV correspondent reported.

Civilians have been the main victims of violence in Afghanistan, particularly in the country's troubled southern and eastern provinces, where they are killed by both militant and foreign fire.

The UN has put the number of civilian casualties at nearly 1,300 so far this year. It blames a quarter of the deaths on foreign troops.

The issue of civilian casualties has long been a source of friction between Kabul and Washington.

France's ban on the Islamic veil has little to do with female emancipation

A focus on women's rights is being used to justify intervention in religious and public life that would otherwise be unacceptable

Joan Wallach Scott
If there were any doubt about the motivation for the ban on Islamic face coverings passed by the French national assembly in July, the Sarkozy government's actions in August have laid them to rest.

The issue isn't women's emancipation, for all the pious rhetoric we've heard about equality being a "primordial value" of the French nation. It isn't the danger that terrorists and robbers will hide behind burqas in order to blow up buildings or rob banks - the exemptions in the law for motorcycle helmets, fencing and ski masks, and carnival costumes quickly dispel that argument. And it isn't about enforcing openness and transparency as an aspect of French culture.

Outlawing what the French call "le voile intégral" is part of a campaign to purify and protect national identity, purging so-called foreign elements - although many of these "foreigners" are actually French citizens - from membership in the nation. It is part of a cynical bid by Sarkozy and his party to capture the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus that has brought electoral gains to the rightwing National Front party and to disarm the Socialist opposition, which has so far offered little resistance to the xenophobic campaign.

The national assembly's action came on July 13, as the country prepared to celebrate the birth of republican democracy in the revolution of 1789. Banning the burqa on the eve of the FĂȘte Nationale provided a clear affirmation of true Frenchness.

It followed a year in which President Sarkozy included a minister of immigration and national identity in his cabinet. The title of the new post conveyed the message that if national identity were in trouble immigrants were the source. The president and his minister called for a countrywide conversation on the meanings of national identity. There were to be contests and town-hall meetings to articulate what it meant to be truly French. When that effort fizzled, they came up with more draconian measures. Sarkozy proposed, this month, to take away the citizenship of foreign-born French citizens if they were convicted of crimes such as threatening the life of a police officer. Children born in France to foreign parents (once presumed to automatically qualify for citizenship) would be denied citizenship if there were any evidence of juvenile delinquency.

This month, too, began the expulsion of the Roma, said to be illegally camped throughout the country and responsible for all manner of crimes. Despite an outcry from those who denounced the expulsions as echoes of Vichy (the government that collaborated with the Nazis in the 1940s), these activities have made "security" a prime focus for politicians and public opinion pollsters. Whether it will deliver another term to Sarkozy in 2012 remains to be seen.

The immediate effect is to conjure a fantasy spectre in which foreigners endanger France and are made to take the blame for all its economic, social and political problems. Instead of real solutions to economic stagnation, high unemployment, discrimination against minorities, violence in the banlieue, and a deteriorating educational system, to name a few, the country is offered a nightmare vision of veiled women and their male handlers, an enemy within the borders who must be uncovered and, in this way, disarmed.

That only a few thousand women wear face coverings in a country that has 4-6 million people from Muslim countries in its population raises the question of why this issue has become the focus of nationalist campaigns, not only in France, but in other western European countries as well. What is it about covered women that so draws the ire and fear of so many, some western feminists included? How have politicians, many of whom have worked hard to keep women out of political office, been able to use feminist themes of emancipation and equality in the politics of the "clash of civilisations"? Why has it been so easy to identify the veil as an instrument only of oppression, even when ethnographers and historians tell us it has multiple meanings, and when some women who wear it insist that they have chosen it because it positively signifies their femininity and their devotion to God?

One answer - and there are many more to be explored - is that the focus on Muslim women's rights covers over some of the dangerous elements of the "security state". The claim to be protecting women justifies state intervention in religious, family, and public life that would otherwise be unacceptable.

The same politicians who have long resisted laws on sexual harassment and the punishment of domestic violence become advocates for women when these are identified as Muslim offences. This puts aside the continuing issue of gender inequality as a national problem. And politicians demonstrate their prowess to their national constituencies by acting to protect these supposedly vulnerable women from the men who are said to violate their rights: the proposed law levies a small fine of €150 on a woman wearing a burqa in public, while the men presumed to have forced her compliance get a year in prison and a fine of €30,000.

The state's role is figured as the protection of its citizens (the analogy is to gallant men protecting the weaker sex), even if that requires the suspension of liberties in the name of security - now the country's highest priority.

Joan Wallach Scott is Harold F Linder professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study (US). She is the author, most recently, of The Politics of the Veil.

US: Drunk shouts 'terrorists,' urinates on mosque rugs

NEW YORK - In the latest in a spate of anti-Muslim incidents over the last two days, an intoxicated man entered a mosque in Queens on Wednesday evening and proceeded to urinate on prayer rugs, New York police officials said.

The man, identified as Omar Rivera, reportedly shouted anti-Muslim epithets and called worshippers who had gathered for evening prayer "terrorists." One witness told the New York Post the man was "very clearly intoxicated" and had a beer bottle in his hand at the time.

"He stuck up his middle finger and cursed at everyone," Mustapha Sadouki, who was at the mosque at the time, said. "He calls us terrorists, yet he comes into our mosque and terrorizes other people."
Rivera has been charged with criminal trespassing.

A recent string of incidents - including the stabbing of a Muslim cab driver and the desecration of a California mosque - has some members of the Muslim community worried that crimes against Muslims could reach crisis levels.

"Without a significant response by mainstream political leaders, this disturbing trend will only continue to grow," said Faiza Ali, a New York spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Around 6 p.m. Tuesday evening, a drunk 21-year-old student named Michael Enright allegedly attacked a cab driver in midtown Manhattan who had identified himself as a Muslim.

The cab driver told police that the two struck up a conversation in Arabic before Enright turned on him, screaming "This is a checkpoint, mother----er! I have to put you down." Enright reportedly proceeded to stab the driver's neck and face with a Leatherman knife.

Earlier this week, a mosque in Madera, Calif., had been vandalized with signs referring to the controversial plan to build an Islamic community center two blocks from the site of the September 11 terrorist attacks, according to CAIR.

"No temple for the God of terrorism at Ground Zero," one sign read. "Wake up America, the Enemy is here," read another. Both were signed "ANB," reportedly standing for the American Nationalist Brotherhood.

Imbrahim Hooper, another spokesman for CAIR, told that it is only after "times of severe crisis" like the Oklahoma City bombing or September 11 terrorist attacks that the organization has seen such an uptick in hate crimes against the Muslim community.

"I think we're beginning to see the result of this manufactured controversy about the Islamic community center in Manhattan," Hooper said. "I hope this is not an indication of a trend."

Hooper said the organization attributes the increasing number of incidents involving anti-Muslim rhetoric to an "Islamaphobia machine" that includes right-wing news, blogs and other media outlets.
When asked to specify exactly what media outlets are to blame, Hooper responded, "We don't need more enemies right now."

According to the organization's most recent Civil Rights Report, New York is among the five locations in the United States with the highest number of CAIR civil rights complaints. Most of these complaints, moreover, are made as a result of occurrences in a Muslim location or mosque.

Hate crimes represent a very small number of the overall complaints filed by CAIR since it first began recording data on Muslim civil rights in 1995.

Since 2004, the percentage of complaints that were classified as "hate crime" has been on the steady decline, according to the report.

The New York Police Department was not immediately available to comment on the state of crimes against Muslims in New York in recent weeks.'s Ryan McCartney contributed to this report.

US 'kill team' targeted Afghan civilians

A US-led soldier in AfghanistanFive US soldiers are charged with deliberately targeting Afghan civilians amid growing discontent over the rising civilian causalities in the war-torn country.

The troopers allegedly killed three Afghans in Kandahar Province this year and they were charged with murder in June.

Since then US army prosecutors have also filed additional charges of conspiracy to commit premeditated murder -- a plot that allegedly began when one soldier discussed how easy it would be to "toss a grenade" at Afghan civilians, The Seattle Times reported on Thursday.

One of the soldiers had reportedly formed what has been called a "kill team" to randomly execute Afghan civilians while on petrol.

Investigators say anyone who dared to report the events was threatened with violence. All five are awaiting court martial and could face life in prison or death if convicted.

Analysts say it could be one of the most serious war-crimes cases to emerge from the Afghan war.
A recent UN report says that nearly 1,300 civilians were killed by NATO or Afghan forces in the first six months of 2010.

Civilians have been the main victims of violence in Afghanistan, particularly in the country's troubled southern and eastern provinces.

The issue of civilian casualties has caused friction between Washington and the Afghan government.

Key Karzai Aide in Corruption Inquiry Is Linked to C.I.A.

KABUL, Afghanistan - The aide to President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan at the center of a politically sensitive corruption investigation is being paid by the Central Intelligence Agency, according to Afghan and American officials.

Mohammed Zia Salehi, the chief of administration for the National Security Council, appears to have been on the payroll for many years, according to officials in Kabul and Washington. It is unclear exactly what Mr. Salehi does in exchange for his money, whether providing information to the spy agency, advancing American views inside the presidential palace, or both.

Mr. Salehi's relationship with the C.I.A. underscores deep contradictions at the heart of the Obama administration's policy in Afghanistan, with American officials simultaneously demanding that Mr. Karzai root out the corruption that pervades his government while sometimes subsidizing the very people suspected of perpetrating it.

Mr. Salehi was arrested in July and released after Mr. Karzai intervened. There has been no suggestion that Mr. Salehi's ties to the C.I.A. played a role in his release; rather, officials say, it is the fear that Mr. Salehi knows about corrupt dealings inside the Karzai administration.

The ties underscore doubts about how seriously the Obama administration intends to fight corruption here. The anticorruption drive, though strongly backed by the United States, is still vigorously debated inside the administration. Some argue it should be a centerpiece of American strategy, and others say that attacking corrupt officials who are crucial to the war effort could destabilize the Karzai government.

The Obama administration is also racing to show progress in Afghanistan by December, when the White House will evaluate its mission there. Some administration officials argue that any comprehensive campaign to fight corruption inside Afghanistan is overly ambitious, with less than a year to go before the American military is set to begin withdrawing troops.

"Fighting corruption is the very definition of mission creep," one Obama administration official said.
Others in the administration view public corruption as the single greatest threat to the Afghan government and the American mission; it is the corrupt nature of the Karzai government, these officials say, that drives ordinary Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. Other prominent Afghans who American officials have said were on the C.I.A.'s payroll include the president's half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, suspected by investigators of playing a role in Afghanistan's booming opium trade. Earlier this year, American officials did not press Mr. Karzai to remove his brother from his post as the chairman of the Kandahar provincial council. Mr. Karzai denies any monetary relationship with the C.I.A. and any links to the drug trade.

Mr. Salehi was arrested by the Afghan police after, investigators say, they wiretapped him soliciting a bribe - in the form of a car for his son - in exchange for impeding an American-backed investigation into a company suspected of shipping billions of dollars out of the country for Afghan officials, drug smugglers and insurgents.

Mr. Salehi was released seven hours later, after telephoning Mr. Karzai from his jail cell to demand help, officials said, and after Mr. Karzai forcefully intervened on his behalf.

The president sent aides to get him and has since threatened to limit the power of the anticorruption unit that carried out the arrest. Mr. Salehi could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. A spokesman for President Karzai did not respond to a list of questions sent to his office, including whether Mr. Karzai knew that Mr. Salehi was a C.I.A. informant.

A spokesman for the C.I.A. declined to comment on any relationship with Mr. Salehi.

"The C.I.A. works hard to advance the full range of U.S. policy objectives in Afghanistan," said Paul Gimigliano, a spokesman for the agency. "Reckless allegations from anonymous sources don't change that reality in the slightest."

An American official said the practice of paying government officials was sensible, even if they turn out to be corrupt or unsavory.

"If we decide as a country that we'll never deal with anyone in Afghanistan who might down the road - and certainly not at our behest - put his hand in the till, we can all come home right now," the American official said. "If you want intelligence in a war zone, you're not going to get it from Mother Teresa or Mary Poppins."

Last week, Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, flew to Kabul in part to discuss the Salehi case with Mr. Karzai. In an interview afterward, Mr. Kerry expressed concern about Mr. Salehi's ties to the American government. Mr. Kerry appeared to allude to the C.I.A., though he did not mention it.

"We are going to have to examine that relationship," Mr. Kerry said. "We are going to have to look at that very carefully."

Mr. Kerry said he pressed Mr. Karzai to allow the anticorruption unit pursuing Mr. Salehi and others to move forward unhindered, and said he believed he had secured a commitment from him to do so.

"Corruption matters to us," a senior Obama administration official said. "The fact that Salehi may have been on our payroll does not necessarily change any of the basic issues here."

Mr. Salehi is a political survivor, who, like many Afghans, navigated shifting alliances through 31 years of war. He is a former interpreter for Abdul Rashid Dostum, the ethnic Uzbek with perhaps the most ruthless reputation among all Afghan warlords.

Mr. Dostum, a Karzai ally, was one of the C.I.A.'s leading allies on the ground in Afghanistan in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The agency employed his militia to help rout the Taliban from northern Afghanistan.

Over the course of the nine-year-old war, the C.I.A. has enmeshed itself in the inner workings of Afghanistan's national security establishment. From 2002 until just last year, the C.I.A. paid the entire budget of Afghanistan's spy service, the National Directorate of Security.

Mr. Salehi often acts as a courier of money to other Afghans, according to an Afghan politician who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation.

Among the targets of the continuing Afghan anticorruption investigation is a secret fund of cash from which payments were made to various individuals, officials here said.

Despite Mr. Salehi's status as a low-level functionary, the Afghan politician predicted that Mr. Karzai would never allow his prosecution to go forward, whatever the pressure from the United States. Mr. Salehi knows too much about the inner workings of the palace, he said.

"Karzai will protect him," the politician said, "because by going after him, you are opening the gates."
Mr. Salehi is a confidant of some of the most powerful people in the Afghan government, including Engineer Ibrahim, who until recently was the deputy chief of the Afghan intelligence service. Earlier this year, Mr. Salehi accompanied Mr. Ibrahim to Dubai to meet leaders of the Taliban to explore prospects for peace, according to a prominent Afghan with knowledge of the meeting.

Mr. Salehi was arrested last month in the course of a sprawling investigation into New Ansari, a money transfer firm that relies on couriers and other rudimentary means to move cash in and out of Afghanistan.

New Ansari was founded in the 1990s when the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan. In the years since 2001, New Ansari grew into one of the most important financial hubs in Afghanistan, transferring billions of dollars in cash for prominent Afghans out of the country, most of it to Dubai.

New Ansari's offices were raided by Afghan agents, with American backing, in January. An American official familiar with the investigation said New Ansari appeared to have been transferring money for wealthy Afghans of every sort, including politicians, insurgents and drug traffickers.

"They were moving money for everybody," the American official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The flow of capital out of Afghanistan is so large that it makes up a substantial portion of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. In an interview, a United Arab Emirates customs official said it received about $1 billion from Afghanistan in 2009. But the American official said the amount might be closer to $2.5 billion - about a quarter of Afghanistan's gross domestic product.

Much of the New Ansari cash was carried by couriers flying from Kabul and Kandahar, usually to Dubai, where many Afghan officials maintain second homes and live in splendorous wealth.

An American official familiar with the investigation said the examination of New Ansari's books was providing rich insights into the culture of Afghan corruption.

"It's a gold mine," the official said.

Following the arrest, Mr. Salehi called Mr. Karzai directly from his cell to demand that he be freed. Mr. Karzai twice sent delegations to the detention center where Mr. Salehi was held. After seven hours, Mr. Salehi was let go.

Afterward, Gen. Nazar Mohammed Nikzad, the head of the Afghan unit investigating Mr. Salehi, was summoned to the Presidential Palace and asked by Mr. Karzai to explain his actions.

"Everything is lawful and by the book," a Western official said of the Afghan anticorruption investigators. "They gather the evidence, they get the warrant signed off - and then the plug gets pulled every time."

This is not the first time that Afghan prosecutors have run into resistance when they have tried to pursue an Afghan official on corruption charges related to New Ansari.

Sediq Chekari, the minister for Hajj and Religious Affairs, was allowed to flee the country as investigators prepared to charge him with accepting bribes in exchange for steering business to tour operators who ferry people to Saudi Arabia each year. Mr. Chekari fled to Britain, officials said. Afghanistan's attorney general issued an arrest warrant through Interpol.

American officials say a key player in the scandal is Hajji Rafi Azimi, the vice chairman of Afghan United Bank. The bank's chairman, Hajji Mohammed Jan, is a founder of New Ansari. According to American officials, Afghan prosecutors would like to arrest Mr. Azimi but so far have run into political interference they did not specify. He has not been formally charged.

In the past, some Western officials have expressed frustration at the political resistance that Afghan prosecutors have encountered when they have tried to investigate Afghan officials. Earlier this year, the American official said that the Obama administration was considering extraordinary measures to bring corrupt Afghan officials to justice, including extradition.

"We are pushing some high-level public corruption cases right now, and they are just constantly stalling and stalling and stalling," the American official said of the Karzai administration.

Another Western official said he was growing increasingly concerned about the morale - and safety - of the Afghan anticorruption prosecutors.

So far, the Afghan prosecutors have not folded. The Salehi case is likely to resurface - and very soon. Under Afghan law, prosecutors have a maximum of 33 days to indict a person after his arrest. Mr. Salehi was arrested in late July.

That means Afghan prosecutors may soon come before the Afghan attorney general, Mohammed Ishaq Aloko, to seek an indictment. It will be up to Mr. Aloko, who owes his job to Mr. Karzai, to sign it.

"They are all just doing their jobs," the Western official said. "They are scared for their lives. They are scared for their families. If it continues, they will eventually give up the fight."

Dexter Filkins reported from Kabul, and Mark Mazzetti from Washington. Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Washington.

Palestinian children in East Jerusalem face classroom shortage, says report

Almost half attend private and unofficial schools as city spends four times as much on elementary schooling for Jewish students

Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
Almost half the Palestinian children in East Jerusalem are forced to attend private or unofficial schools because of a lack of classroom facilities provided by the Israeli authorities, according to a new report.

Six per cent of Palestinian children are not enrolled in school at all, says Failed Grade, a report published today by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel and Ir Amim, a Jerusalem-based rights organisation.

It estimates that East Jerusalem schools are short of around 1,000 classrooms, and says that only 39 were built in the last academic year. "The continuing neglect of the Arab education system in Jerusalem has caused a severe shortage of classrooms. The result is that in the 2010-11 school year the families of thousands of Palestinian children will have to pay large sums of money to get the education they should have been getting for free," it said.

Alternative education is provided by Islamic organisations, churches and profit-making bodies. Almost 8% of Palestinian children attend schools funded by Islamic authorities. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency also runs schools for the children of refugees.

In May 2001 Israel's high court ruled that the Israeli education ministry and the municipality of Jerusalem were obliged to provide education for every Palestinian child who is a resident of the city. Since then there have been repeated legal petitions concerning the provision of schooling for Palestinian children but, according to the report, the authorities "did not seriously confront the fundamental problems of the system".

In a Knesset debate this year, representative Jamal Zahalka claimed that educational provision for Palestinian children in East Jerusalem was worse than anywhere in the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, or in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

The Jerusalem municipality runs classes in the eastern sector of the city in unsuitable rented buildings because of a shortage of purpose-built schools, according to the report. "Rooms are small and crowded and often unventilated," it says. "These rented buildings do not have integrated classrooms, teachers' rooms, libraries or laboratories, nor do they have playgrounds." Many have inadequate toilet facilities.

Many Palestinian children are forced to travel long distances to school. The report quotes Jamal Khalil, who lives in the Shuafat refugee camp and whose 10-year-old son spends four hours each day travelling to and from school, crossing two checkpoints at a monthly cost of 500 shekels (£85). Another son does a three-hour round trip to a different school.

The crisis is resulting in low academic performance and a high drop-out level among a population with an "alarming" poverty rate, according to the report. This can be seen in the "dozens of high-school-age Palestinian boys working in the markets and the warehouses ... to the dozens of grade school-age children scrambling between the cars at some of the city's main intersections selling various goods to drivers."

According to the Jerusalem municipality education budget for 2008-9, an average of 2,372 shekels (£400) was spent on each child in the Jewish elementary school system, compared with 577 shekels on each child in the Arab elementary system.

The drop-out rate for Palestinian school students in East Jerusalem is 50%, compared with 11.8% for Jewish students.

Yemen says US officials exaggerate Qaeda threat

Yemen claims that the U.S. exaggerates the size & danger of al-Qaeda in the country, insisting that fighting the group's local branch remains Sanaa's job.

A Yemeni official has denied "press leaks published in U.S. and Western media that exaggerate the size of al-Qaeda and the danger that it poses to Yemen's stability and security," according to Saba state news agency.

" Yemen insists that fighting terrorism in Yemen remains the responsibility of Yemeni security authorities "

Yemeni officialAn unnamed U.S. counter-terrorism official had told AFP Wednesday that the United States was increasingly concerned about the threat posed by al-Qaeda in Yemen and that it was moving to pile pressure on the militants.

He said al-Qaeda affiliates had regrouped in Yemen and emerged as a "virulent" danger.

"They're not feeling the same kind of heat -- not yet, anyway -- as their friends in the tribal areas" of Pakistan, he said, adding that "everyone involved on our side understands that has to change."

The U.S. official spoke following reports in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post citing U.S. officials as saying that the new assessment of the threat raised the prospect of expanded U.S. operations in Yemen, including CIA drone strikes.

"Yemen insists that fighting terrorism in Yemen remains the responsibility of Yemeni security authorities," the Sanaa official said, according to Saba.

"Yemeni forces, with the support of friends and brothers, are capable of bearing their full responsibilities in eliminating al-Qaeda elements," he said.

Yemen has intensified its military campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group's local franchise, since December, mainly after the Christmas Day botched attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had spent time in Yemen.

The U.S. military conducted a secret air strike in May against a suspected group of Al-Qaeda militants in the remote desert of Marib province, the New York Times reported earlier this month, citing unnamed U.S. officials.

The U.S. administration has also confirmed it is actively hunting down Anwar Al-Awlaqi, a U.S.-born cleric in Yemen who has praised Abdulmutallab, and blessed a shooting rampage last year at Fort Hood in Texas by a Muslim U.S. Army soldier.

Tajik leader wants children out of madrassas

DUSHANBE (Agencies)
The president of mostly Muslim Tajikistan urged parents to withdraw their children from religious schools abroad, an appeal reflecting fears of radical Islam gaining ground in the Central Asian nation.

President Imomali Rakhmon, a former Soviet collective farm boss who has ruled the mountainous ex-Soviet state for nearly two decades, blasted Islamic religious schools for allegedly fostering terrorism.

"Many parents think that by sending their children to study in madrassas in Muslim countries they will be giving them a good financial position in the future," he said in remarks carried on state television.

" Unfortunately, most of them do not learn from mullahs, but from terrorists and extremists. They must all return home, otherwise they will become enemies and traitors "

President Imomali Rakhmon"Unfortunately, most of them do not learn from mullahs, but from terrorists and extremists. They must all return home, otherwise they will become enemies and traitors," he added.

Rakhmon did not name a particular country in the speech.

The government's religious affairs committee said two months ago that there were "dozens of Tajiks" studying at religious schools and universities abroad.

Analysts say deepening economic hardship and social problems are pushing Tajiks toward radical Islam, threatening stability in the otherwise secular nation of seven million.

Industrial output declined by 6.3 percent last year in Tajikistan, one of the poorest former Soviet republics.

Escaped militants
Central Asia governments have been clamping down on what they see as growing religious extremism in the predominantly Muslim but secular former Soviet region, following a rise in clashes between security forces and armed gangs that local governments say could be linked to the Taliban.

Twenty-five militants whom the government alleges are members of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) escaped from prison late Sunday, killing six guards and seizing weapons in a nighttime jaibreak.

Government officials said the militants were likely headed for the remote Rasht Valley region near the Afghan border, where many of them were arrested last year during a government clampdown on the restive area.

Guards along the rugged border with Afghanistan -- as well as neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and China -- were put on high alert to prevent the escaped militants from leaving the country.

The escapees include nationals of Afghanistan and six Russian citizens, all of them natives of the volatile North Caucasus region, where Russian authorities are battling an Islamist insurgency.

Human rights groups have accused Central Asian governments of using the Islamist threat as an excuse to crack down on political dissent in a region where, as in Soviet times, alternative views are often branded as extremist.

Tajik authorities frequently arrest and jail members of Muslim movements that are not endorsed by the government, describing them as extremists. The government has also sought to close down unregistered schools teaching Islam in Tajikistan.

Rakhmon said the government's religion committee would determine how many religious leaders the country needs and "send them to religious institutions that do not have extremist or terrorist aims".

Austria far right wants vote on minaret, veil ban

Austria's far-right Freedom Party, mindful of a forthcoming regional election in Vienna, has called for a special vote on whether to ban minarets and Islamic face veils.

Analysts say the debate will play a major role in the Oct. 10 regional election in the capital Vienna, a stronghold of the struggling Social Democrats in conservative Austria.

The non-binding referendum that Freedom wants can be called by Austria's parliament and could influence government policy. There has not been such a vote at a national level in post-war history though some provinces including Vienna have held such polls.

Around 1.2 million can vote in the province which comprises the capital city, Austria's financial and political hub.

Freedom, an anti-foreigner party which captured 17.5 percent of votes at a national level two years ago, says the proposed poll would also ask whether Muslims should promise to recognise the Austrian legal system above sharia, or Islamic law.

"Vienna should be the first province to hold such a poll as this is where the most Muslims live and because there are a growing number of legitimate protests against Islamic building projects," said Freedom leader Heinz-Christian Strache.

The poll would ask voters whether there should be a ban on headscarves in public and a complete ban on full face veils.

Strache said he wanted to see protests in Vienna like those in New York, where hundreds have rallied against a proposed Muslim cultural centre and mosque near the World Trade Center site.

The far right has gained ground in Europe recently, with Geert Wilder's anti-Islam party doubling its seats in the Dutch parliament after elections last month.

Swiss voters backed a ban on building minarets in a referendum last November, a vote that drew widespread international criticism.

Mosques and "Vienna blood" Around 120,000 of Austria's half a million Muslims live in Vienna, making up around 8 percent of the population there.

The debate started when the head of Austria's Islamic community said he would like to see a mosque with a visible minaret in each of the country's nine provinces. There are four such mosques in Austria, a predominantly Catholic country.

Freedom, which says mosques can be "hotbeds for radical Islam", is running an energetic campaign with catchy slogans, a formula it has used in the past to attract many young voters.

The latest Vienna polls show the Social Democrats on 50 percent and Freedom in second place with 19 percent.

Its posters feature a headshot of Strache, 41, a grinning former dental technician, with the slogan "More guts for our Vienna blood: too much foreignness does no one any good."

Strache, rejecting parallels to "Nazi language," has said "Vienna blood" only refers to the title of a famous Johann Strauss operetta and is about being traditionally Viennese.

The idea of a special "blood" resonates in the country which produced Adolf Hitler. Strache says his campaign is against "too much foreignness not foreigners," according to news agency APA.

Other leaders have criticised Strache's campaign as incitement. "You don't get any lower than Strache," Austria's Social Democrat Chancellor Werner Faymann told the daily Oesterreich.

Muslim Cab Driver Stabbed in N.Y. Bias Attack

A New York City cab driver was attacked Tuesday night in an apparent anti-Muslim bias attack. According to the NYPD, Michael Enright, 21, of Brewster, N.Y., hailed a cab in Manhattan, asked the driver Ahmed H. Sharif, 43, about his Muslim faith, and the slashed and stabbed him with a knife in the throat, face and arm, The New York Times reports.

In the midst of the controversy surrounding the so-called "Ground Zero" mosque and anxiety over illegal immigration, this is just the latest and most gruesome manifestation of xenophobia and Islamophobia. Over the weekend, an African-American passerby was taunted and jeered by a crowd in Lower Manhattan who were protesting the plan to build an Islamic Community Center, known as Park51, two blocks from Ground Zero. They mistakenly believed the man to be a Muslim counterprotestor, and the interaction was caught on video.

One would hope that such incidents are merely the isolated behavior of a few unstable individuals, but there is ample evidence that hostile views towards Muslims and immigrants are on the rise throughout the country.

Rasmussen Reports posted poll results on Monday showing recent increases in both the percentage of Americans closely following the "mosque" controversy and strongly opposing the community center's construction. According to Rasmussen, "58% who are following the story very closely, up from 22% in mid-July. Now 62% oppose the building of a mosque near where the World Trade Center stood in Lower Manhattan, compared to 54% in the previous survey."

That comes on the heels of last week's report from the Pew Research Center that there has been a "sharp decline," in the percentage of Americans who can correctly identify President Obama's religion. Only 34 percent say Obama is a Christian, down from 48 percent in 2009. Forty-three percent say they do not know what Obama's religion is, while 18 percent incorrectly state he is a Muslim, up from 12 percent last year.

These poll results reflect the climate of fear-mongering about dubious allegations of radical connections to the Park51 project and terrorist threats that could supposedly emanate from there. They also may be related to the antipathy toward immigrants that is fueling recent discussion among prominent Republicans of revoking the birthright citizenship bestowed upon all Americans, even those born to undocumented immigrants, by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

UK has 480,000 new sexually transmitted infections

BBC News

There were almost half a million new cases of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the UK last year, figures show.

Experts at the Health Protection Agency (HPA) say young people are most affected.

And one in 10 of 15-24 year olds with an STI become infected again within a year.

Health ministers said they would look at what more could be done to increase young people's awareness of risks.

The 482,696 new cases represent a 3% rise from the 2008 figures, continuing a "steady upward trend" that the HPA said had been seen over the past decade.

Urban and deprived areas have the highest rates of STIs. Hotspots include Hackney and Lambeth in London, as well as Nottingham, Manchester and Blackpool.

Top 10 STI hotspots in England

* Hackney
* Lambeth
* Southwark
* Hammersmith and Fulham
* Islington
* Haringey
* Wandsworth
* Tower Hamlets
* Westminster
* Brighton and Hove

The rise is in part due to more testing, and the use of tests which are more sensitive at picking up signs of an infection - but experts believe unsafe sexual behaviour is also part of the story.

Dr Gwenda Hughes, an STI expert at the HPA, said: "These figures highlight the vulnerability of young women.

"Many studies have shown that young adults are more likely to have unsafe sex. Often they lack the skills and confidence to negotiate safer sex.

"Re-infection is also a worrying issue. Teenagers are repeatedly putting their own and others' long-term health at risk."

There were 217,570 diagnoses of chlamydia in 2009 - a 7% increase on the previous year. Cases of genital herpes went up by 5% to 30,126.

And diagnoses of gonorrhoea have gone up by 6% from 16,451 cases in 2008 to 17,385 last year.

Dr Colm O'Mahony, a consultant physician in sexual health, told BBC Radio 5 live, that the safe sex message was still not getting through to young people.

"In general, most STIs occur in young people because they lack the knowledge and self-esteem to actually avoid getting sexually transmitted infections - and that's what we've been shouting about for years," he said.

“People are well aware of the risks and that's part of the problem” Tio Terry

* Are you concerned about your sexual health?

"We really need proper sex and relationship education in schools, and it needs to be a statutory obligation or this relentless increase will just continue unabated."

The HPA says the bacteria which cause gonorrhoea are becoming more resistant to the most commonly used antibiotics.

Professor Cathy Ison, from the agency's Centre for Infections, said: "We could see gonorrhoea becoming a very difficult infection to treat within the next five years.
Number of new STI cases

"The infecting bacteria are very versatile. We're trying to encourage companies to develop effective new antibiotics."

Sexual health charities described the figures as "alarming" and joined the HPA in urging people to use condoms, and to have a health check if they have had unsafe sex.

Natika Halil, from the FPA, said: "Young men don't wear condoms and it appears it's young women who end up with the infection.

"The message from this data to the new government is that they mustn't be tempted to cut services and campaigns in sexual health, or ignore the urgent need for statutory sex and relationships education in schools."

Health Minister Paul Burstow said: "Left untreated, STIs can lead to infertility.

"We're going to look at what more can be done to increase young people's awareness of risks, to prevent infection and to access screening and treatment."

Suspects who confess to police will have sentences cut


Suspects who own up to their crimes in police interviews could have their sentences cut under cost-saving proposals to be announced within weeks. Criminals who confess at the earliest possible stage would spend less time behind bars than those who wait until they appear in court to plead guilty if the reforms go ahead.

Ministers believe they can make sweeping savings by discouraging criminals from waiting until the eve of their trials before pleading guilty, which wastes court time and costs thousands in legal fees.

Under the proposals, judges would reward those who admit their crimes in the police station with more lenient sentences, and reduce the incentives for those who suddenly switch their plea to guilty before the start of a Crown Court trial.

Of the 104,000 cases which come before the Crown Court each year, 73 per cent result in guilty pleas without the need for a trial. The Bar Council estimates that one day at Crown Court costs the taxpayer up to £10,000.

One minister told the Times: “We are trying to stop the cat-and-mouse game that can be very expensive when a bit of common sense could be applied. The costs get absurdly high and the taxpayer picks up the bill.”

The reforms are said to be backed by Keir Starmer, QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Nick Green, QC, chairman of the Bar Council, and Lord Justice Leveson, the judge in charge of sentencing.

But legal experts have warned that a guarantee of escaping jail altogether could encourage suspects to make false confessions.

Senior lawyers also cautioned that early guilty pleas could mean that police officers are less motivated to investigate cases thoroughly.

The new Sentencing Council has begun a review of the guidelines for reducing sentences and a consultation will take place in the autumn.

Lord Justice Leveson, chairman of the Sentencing Council, said in June: “There is room to recognise those who go the extra distance by admitting their guilt to the police. It might encourage more guilty pleas, which is a perfectly legitimate approach and does not adversely impact on judges’ discretion.”

Nick Green, chairman of the Bar Council, said he had encouraged Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, to reward offenders who plead guilty in a police interview, rather than waiting until moments before the trial.

“In Snaresbrook Crown Court, where I sit each year as a recorder, it’s a regular occurrence. Minutes before the trial is due to start, you hear word that the defendant is talking to counsel, and they plead guilty. It’s a waste of court time, it’s a waste of everybody’s time. Even 10 per cent pleading guilty early would save the cost of 100,000 cases.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said a full assessment of sentencing and rehabilitation was underway. “It would be premature to speculate on the outcome of this assessment. We will consult on any proposals for reform in the autumn.”

Zardari denies Pakistan flood crisis bungling and warns of Taliban rise


Pakistan's embattled president, Asif Ali Zardari, today warned that Taliban extremists could take advantage of the country's floods crisis, as he defended his own much-criticised handling of the catastrophe.

Zardari said the furore surrounding his overseas trip at the start of the disaster actually showed how much he is "wanted" at home. He said it would take at least three years for the country to rebuild the devastated areas, but "I don't think Pakistan will ever fully recover". However, he said he believed Pakistanis had the resilience to withstand the challenge.

The president and his government have been widely castigated for their management of the disaster, which began last month and has inundated about a fifth of the country's land mass and affected 20 million people. His comments came as Taliban militants killed at least 36 people in three separate attacks in the troubled north-west of Pakistan, and the raging waters hit new areas in the south of the country, with the UN admitting that the floods are outrunning relief efforts.

"Obviously the only political forces waiting in the quarters is the rightist forces," Zardari told the Guardian. "The ideal hope for the radical [is] that hopefully the structure of the state will fail and he will evolve and come out the winner. It's like when they assassinated my wife. It was not just an action to get rid of a prime minister-to-be, it was an action because her personality was a challenge to their ideology."

Zardari's wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in 2007 as she campaigned for election, catapulting her widower to the leadership of her Pakistan Peoples party and, two years ago, the presidency. Speaking about the potential threat to the flooded country, Zardari suggested Pakistani Taliban may kidnap children dislocated by the flooding and put them in terrorist training camps.

"I always see such organisations and such people [extremists] taking advantage of situations like this," said Zardari. "They evolved through the human crisis of Afghanistan, they evolved in such a situation. [We must] try to be the buffer between them taking the children, keeping them in the orphanages, and trying to create them into robots."

There is concern that impact of the floods – mass destitution, destruction of much of the country's crops and an outbreak of disease – could push Pakistan towards chaos. Some have suggested the government may be toppled.

The exiled MQM leader, Altaf Hussain, whose party is part of the ruling coalition, said a "French revolution" was required, calling on the military to "weed out corrupt politicians and feudal lords".

Pakistan has been ruled for most of its existence by its military but Zardari insisted that the multiple crises would stop another coup.

"I don't think anybody in their right mind would want to take responsibility; it's only democracy that can carry the yoke," he said.

"Yes, there will be disappointments, so political forces are there for that reason. We will rebuild Pakistan a better place. But in between we'll have to go through the trauma of bad medicine, good medicine, pain; we'll have to live through that."

The president, who was already unpopular in Pakistan because of allegations of corruption, was heavily criticised for going ahead with an official visit to France and Britain earlier this month while the flood calamity was unfolding.

Zardari said that the trip had allowed him to build his relationship with David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

"It [the criticism] gives me a reassurance that I'm so wanted," said Zardari. "I'm so wanted and so desired by people, that [they say] 'why are you out?' I have my own reason for being where I was at what time. I know that this is a long-term situation, and one has to have the capacity to sustain oneself for three years and not exhaust yourself immediately."