Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Protesters march in Tunis amid Arab League fears

Protesters angered over living conditions and government corruption staged a noisy but peaceful rally in Tunisia's capital Wednesday, and an Arab League official said the unrest illustrates "the great social shakes that are inflicting Arab societies."

"It is on everybody's mind that the Arab spirit is broken. The Arab spirit is down by poverty, unemployment, and the general decline in the real indicators of development," Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League said at an economic summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

In Tunis, crowds of people tramped down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, singing the country's national anthem and chanting against the former ruling party and the former president, who fled the country last week amid the countrywide grass-roots uprising.

The people strode to a police line and met the officers eyeball to eyeball, but there was no conflict. Witnesses said the police demeanor appeared more relaxed than in previous days, with the officers holding their ground but not acting aggressively.

At its height, thousands took to the streets, but the throng dwindled. Trams that moved through the protests were spray-painted with slogans denouncing the former ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally, and tram riders and drivers held protest signs too.

This is in contrast to other days in Tunis, when police lobbed tear gas and dispersed peaceful marchers with batons.

As protesters chanted, an army helicopter flew over the city and that drew a cheer from the crowd, which views the army as a calming factor in the street conflict and sees the police as aligned with former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his party.

Tunisian officials are attempting to keep afloat the country's unity government, formed earlier this week with members of the opposition and the Ben Ali party.

But there have been difficulties in getting that administration going because protesters upset over living conditions are demanding that more should be done to sweep the old guard out of power.

Tunisia's interim president, Fouad Mebazaa, and prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, resigned from the ousted leader's ruling party, state TV said Tuesday, a move seen as a gesture to placate angry street demonstrators and keep the unity government afloat.

But at least four ministers from opposition parties have pulled back from the new government, leaving some observers concerned that the coalition may collapse before it can set up new elections.

Asked whether the unity government will collapse if demonstrations continue, Minister of Social Affairs Moncer Rouissi said that everyone has the right to demonstrate but that will not stop the government from fulfilling its duties.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia last week after ruling the country for 23 years, following weeks of protests over what Tunisians said were poor living conditions, high unemployment, government corruption and repression.

The unrest over the past several weeks was triggered in December when Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed college graduate, set himself ablaze after police confiscated the fruit cart that was his source of income. He died early this month.

More than 100 deaths have occurred so far during the unrest in Tunisia, the U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Wednesday, and she announced that she plans to send an assessment team to Tunisia in the coming days.

In a keynote statement delivered at a news briefing in Geneva, Pillay noted that "human rights abuses were at the heart of Tunisia's problems, and therefore human rights must be right at the forefront of the solutions to those problems."

Pillay said that she expects her team, in addition to gathering information about the current and past human rights situation, to come back with a set of concrete proposals for action on issues relating to past abuses as well as future reforms.

Saying that "human rights lie right at the heart" of the developments that led to Ben Ali's departure, Pillay said her agency and others hope there will be "the beginning of a new Tunisia."

"We have all been watching anxiously as the historic events triggered by the courageous people of Tunisia have been unfolding, with astonishing speed, over the past few weeks. It is essential that we, the international community, give our full support to their call for freedom and for the full respect of human rights for everyone in Tunisia," Pillay said.

7.2 temblor jolts Pakistan, 200 structures damaged

A powerful earthquakemeasuring 7.2 on the Richter scale that hit a remote area ofsouthwest Pakistan today shook the ground from Delhi to Dubai,damaging about 200 structures though there were no reports ofdirect casualties.

Initial reports indicated that around 200 mud housesnear the epicentre of the quake in Balochistan province weredamaged though there were no reports of loss of lives,National Disaster Management Authority Chairman Nadeem Ahmedsaid.

The earthquake occurred at 1:23 am Pakistan time at adepth of 84 km, the US Geological Survey said.

Its epicentre was 45 km west of Dalbandin, a remotetown in Balochistan with a population of 15,000.

Pakistan Meteorological Department Director ArifMahmood said the quake was felt in Punjab, Sindh andBalochistan provinces of Pakistan and parts of Iran and India.

He said quakes of such magnitude in the past werefollowed by aftershocks.

Footage on television showed people fleeing theirhomes in several cities, including Quetta and Karachi, andgathering in streets and open spaces.

Some men prayed while women read from the Quran.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani directed theNational Disaster Management Authority to keep reliefprovisions ready for dealing with any emergency in theaftermath of the quake.

He directed the NDMA to rush tents, blankets, medicineand food to Quetta as a "standby arrangement for quickdelivery if required".

A contingency plan was also finalised during a meetingbetween the Prime Minister and the NDMA chief this morning.

Gilani said army, paramilitary and law enforcementpersonnel should be sent to make an assessment ofquake-affected districts.

Officials said there were apparently no casualties atthe epicentre because the region is sparsely populated.

People living near the epicentre in Kalat, Dalbadinand Kharan districts told CNN some mud-walled homes weredamaged but no one was hurt.

People in Balochistan and Sindh said they had feltbuildings sway during the quake.

The temblor shook the cities of Hyderabad, Quetta,Jaffarabad, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Multan andSargodha. Residents of high-rise buildings in Karachi rushedout into the streets. .

People in places as far apart as Dubai and New Delhi, 1,300 km from the epicentre, felt the quake.

The Pacific Tsunami Centre said the onshore quake hadnot triggered a tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

Quakes of 7.0 to 7.9 are classified by geologicalauthorities as major and are capable of causing widespread andheavy damage.

On October 8, 2005, a 7.6-magnitude quake 95 kmnortheast of Islamabad killed over 70,000 people.

Pakistan is still recovering from the impact ofdevastating floods that swept vast areas of the country lastyear and officials said another natural disaster couldseverely stretch resources.

At least 12 dead in another attack on Iraq's security forces

Insurgents targeted Iraq's security forces Wednesday for the second time in two days, when a suicide bomber drove an ambulance packed with explosives into a training center in the city of Baqubah, north of Baghdad.

At least 12 people were killed and more than 70 injured in the early morning attack, said Lt Col. Ghalib Attiyah, police spokesman for the province of Diyala. The bombing targeted a facility that is part of the Force Protection Service, responsible for protecting state institutions and dignitaries.

Also in Diyala on Wednesday, a man wearing an explosives vest detonated the explosives next to the convoy of a top provincial official, who was visiting a gathering of pilgrims held to mark the upcoming Shiite religious festival of Ashura.

The blast killed two and injured 15, including Sadiq al-Hussaini, the deputy chairman of Diyala's provincial council.

The bombings came a day after a suicide attack that killed at least 60 people who were lining up to join the police force in Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit. They added to fears of a renewed campaign by Sunni extremists against Iraqi security forces and government officials.

On Monday, a suicide bomber killed one person in an attack on the convoy of the governor of Anbar province, in western Iraq.

Suicide attacks are generally blamed on the extremist al-Qaeda in Iraq organization, which, although greatly weakened, maintains a stubbornly persistent presence in central and western Iraq.