Pakistan Taliban racketeering hits borderlands

Pakistan Taliban racketeering hits borderlands
The blackmail network bankrolls the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, but also sows a crisis of confidence in local government the militants seek to usurp in favor of Islamist rule. (AFP)
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Updated 25 November 2022

Pakistan Taliban racketeering hits borderlands

Pakistan Taliban racketeering hits borderlands
  • After the Taliban takeover in neighboring Afghanistan, the group was emboldened by its sister movement’s success
  • The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan share lineage with the Afghan Taliban, but were most potent from 2007 to 2009

MINGORA, Pakistan: A lawmaker in Pakistan’s rugged northwest was sipping tea with voters when his phone chirped to life — the Taliban were calling with a demand for “donations.”
“We hope you won’t disappoint,” read the chilling text from a shady go-between of the Pakistan chapter of the Islamists, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
A second message pinged on-screen: “Refusal to provide financial support will make you a problem,” it warned.
“We believe a wise man will understand what we mean by that.”
After the Taliban takeover in neighboring Afghanistan, TTP racketeering has infested Pakistan’s borderlands, locals say, with the group emboldened by its sister movement’s success.
Since July, the provincial lawmaker — who asked to remain anonymous — has been cowed into sending the TTP sums totaling 1.2 million rupees (over $5,000).
“Those who don’t pay have to face the consequences. Sometimes they throw a grenade at their door. Sometimes they shoot,” he said.
“Most of the elites pay the extortion money. Some pay more, some pay less. But nobody talks about it.
“Everyone is scared for their life.”
The TTP share lineage with the Afghan Taliban, but were most potent from 2007 to 2009, when they spilled out of the jagged belt splitting Pakistan and Afghanistan and overran the Swat Valley just 140 kilometers north of Islamabad.
The Pakistani military came down hard in 2014, after militants raided a school for children of army personnel and killed nearly 150 people, mostly pupils.
The TTP were largely routed, their fighters fleeing to Afghanistan where they were hunted by US-led forces.
With Afghanistan back under Taliban rule, it has become an “open shelter” for the TTP, according to Imtiaz Gul, an analyst with Islamabad’s Center for Research and Security Studies.
“They now have freedom of action while living in Afghanistan,” he said.
“That’s a simple explanation for why the TTP attacks rose.”
In the year since the Taliban’s return, militant activity in Pakistan has spiked, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, with around 433 people killed.
“They started the same old game: target killings, bomb blasts, kidnappings — and making calls for extortion,” Swat community activist Ahmad Shah said.
The blackmail network bankrolls the TTP, but also sows a crisis of confidence in local government the militants seek to usurp in favor of Islamist rule.
Provincial MP Nisar Mohmand estimates 80 to 95 percent of well-off residents in surrounding districts are now blackmail victims.
Fellow legislators have been targeted for refusing to pay out, and some are too fearful to visit their precincts.
“They have their own system of reward and punishment,” said Mohmand. “They have established an alternate government, so how are people supposed to resist?“
The Afghan Taliban have long-standing differences with their Pakistani counterparts, and since capturing Kabul have pledged not to host international jihadist groups.
But the first telltale sign of a TTP blackmail attempt is the phone number — starting with the +93 international code indicating an Afghan SIM card.
Then comes a suggestive text, or voice message in Pashto — spoken with a Pakistani lilt.
AFP heard one message threatening an “action squad” would be dispatched to a landlord if he declined to pay.
“The days of cruelty are near. Don’t think we are a spent force,” it warns.
The sum “owed” is then hashed out, generally through an intermediary, before it is sent to the ragged bands of TTP fighters whose silhouettes haunt the mountain steeps.
Victims expect to be “tapped up” up to five times a year, the anonymous MP said.
Since the 2014 school slaughter, which horrified Pakistanis even marginally sympathetic to their cause, the TTP has pledged to avoid civilian targets, and claims extortion is done by criminals borrowing their brand.
But a civilian intelligence official in the area insisted they were “the root cause of the menace.”
Swat — a snow-capped mountain valley split by turquoise running waters — is one of Pakistan’s most famed beauty spots, but its reputation has a dark side.
In 2012 then 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the TTP while campaigning for girls’ education, a campaign that later earned her the Nobel Peace Prize.
This summer things seemed to have slipped irredeemably back toward those dark days.
After a decade-long hiatus, the anonymous MP started receiving blackmail texts once again.
“The situation was so bad that many people were thinking of migration,” said Shah. “Life was at a standstill.”
But there has been pushback, and several protests against the TTP have been held since the group’s high-profile kidnapping of three officials in August.
Businesses shut and thousands spilled into the streets in rallies up and down the valley.
Pakistan’s military claimed reports of strong TTP in the area were “grossly exaggerated and misleading.”
Still, in Pakistan’s borderlands, attacks and extortion continue unchecked — despite a professed negotiation truce between the TTP and Islamabad.
The Taliban’s return in Kabul, despite being pounded for 20 years by the world’s strongest armies, shows military might will not end the ordeal.
“We have to search a solution which is acceptable to both sides,” said government negotiator Muhammad Ali Saif.
“A lasting settlement will have to be found.”


Protests over China’s COVID-19 controls spread across country

Protests over China’s COVID-19 controls spread across country
Updated 27 November 2022

Protests over China’s COVID-19 controls spread across country

Protests over China’s COVID-19 controls spread across country
  • President Xi Jinping’s government faces mounting anger at its ‘zero-COVID’ policy
  • The ruling Communist Party faces growing complaints about the economic and human cost

BEIJING: Protests against China’s pervasive anti-virus controls that have confined millions of people to their homes spread to Shanghai and other cities after complaints they might have worsened the death toll in an apartment fire in the northwest.
Shanghai police used pepper spray against about 300 protesters, according to a witness. They gathered Saturday night to mourn the deaths of at least 10 people in an apartment fire last week in Urumqi in the Xinjiang region in the northwest.
Videos posted on social media that said they were filmed in Nanjing in the east, Guangzhou in the south and at least five other cities showed protesters tussling with police in white protective suits or dismantling barricades used to seal off neighborhoods. Witnesses said a protest occurred in Urumqi, but The Associated Press was unable to confirm details of other videos.
President Xi Jinping’s government faces mounting anger at its “zero-COVID” policy that has shut down access to areas throughout China in an attempt to isolate every case at a time when other governments are easing controls and trying to live with the virus.
That has kept China’s infection rate lower than the United States and other countries. But the ruling Communist Party faces growing complaints about the economic and human cost as businesses close and families are isolated for weeks with limited access to food and medicine.
Some protesters were shown in videos shouting for Xi to step down or the ruling party to give up power.
Party leaders promised last month to make restrictions less disruptive by easing quarantine and other rules but said they were sticking to “zero-COVID.” Meanwhile, an upsurge in infections that pushed daily cases above 30,000 for the first time has led local authorities to impose restrictions residents complain exceed what is allowed by the national government.
The fire deaths in Urumqi triggered an outpouring of angry questions online about whether firefighters who needed three hours to extinguish the blaze or victims trying to escape might have been obstructed by locked doors or other controls. Authorities denied that, but the disaster became a focal point for public anger about anti-disease restrictions, ruling party propaganda and censorship.
In Shanghai, protesters gathered at Middle Urumqi Road at midnight with flowers, candles and signs reading “Urumqi, November 24, those who died rest in peace,” according to a participant who would give only his family name, Zhao.
Zhao said one of his friends was beaten by police and two were pepper-sprayed. He said police stomped on his feet as he tried to stop them from taking his friend away. He lost his shoes and left barefoot.
According to Zhao, protesters yelled slogans including “Xi Jinping, step down, Communist Party, step down,” “Unlock Xinjiang, unlock China,” “do not want PCR (tests), want freedom” and “press freedom.”
Around 100 police stood in lines to prevent protesters from gathering or leaving, Zhao said. He said buses with more police arrived later.
Another protester, who gave only his family name, Xu, said there was a larger crowd of thousands of demonstrators, but police stood in the road and let them pass on the sidewalk.
Internet users posted videos and accounts on Chinese and foreign social media showing protests in Shanghai, Nanjing, Chengdu and Chongqing in the southwest and Urumqi and Korla in Xinjiang.
A video that said it was shot in Urumqi showed protesters chanting, “Remove the Communist Party! Remove Xi Jinping!”
Protests in Xinjiang are especially risky following a security crackdown against Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities that has included mass detentions.
Most protesters in the videos were members of China’s dominant Han ethnic group. A Uyghur woman in Urumqi said Uyghurs were too scared to take to the streets.


Trump faulted for dinner with white nationalist, rapper Ye

Trump faulted for dinner with white nationalist, rapper Ye
Updated 27 November 2022

Trump faulted for dinner with white nationalist, rapper Ye

Trump faulted for dinner with white nationalist, rapper Ye

NEW YORK: Former President Donald Trump is renewing attention to his long history of turning a blind eye to bigotry after dining with a Holocaust-denying white nationalist and the rapper formerly known as Kanye West just days into his third campaign for the White House.
Trump had dinner Tuesday at his Mar-a-Lago club with West, who is now known as Ye, as well as Nick Fuentes, a far-right activist who has used his online platform to spew antisemitic and white nationalist rhetoric.
Ye, who says he, too, is running for president in 2024, has made his own series of antisemitic comments in recent weeks, leading to his suspension from social media platforms, his talent agency dropping him and companies like Adidas cutting ties with him. The sportswear manufacturer has also launched an investigation into his conduct.
In a statement from the White House, spokesman Andrew Bates said: “Bigotry, hate, and antisemitism have absolutely no place in America — including at Mar-A-Lago. Holocaust denial is repugnant and dangerous, and it must be forcefully condemned.”
Trump, in a series of statements Friday, said he had “never met and knew nothing about” Fuentes before he arrived with Ye at his club. But Trump also did not acknowledge Fuentes’ long history of racist and antisemitic remarks, nor did he denounce either man’s defamatory statements.
Trump wrote of Ye on his social media platform that “we got along great, he expressed no anti-Semitism, & I appreciated all of the nice things he said about me on ‘Tucker Carlson.’” He added, “Why wouldn’t I agree to meet?”
The former president has a long history of failing to unequivocally condemn hate speech. During his 2016 campaign, Trump waffled when asked to denounce the KKK after he was endorsed by the group’s former leader, saying in a televised interview that he didn’t “know anything about David Duke.” In 2017, in the aftermath of the deadly white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump was widely criticized for saying there was “blame on both sides” for the violence. And his rallies frequently feature inflammatory rhetoric from figures like US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who spoke earlier this year at a far-right conference organized by Fuentes.
The latest episode, coming just one week after Trump launched his third run for the Republican nomination, also underscored how loosely controlled access to the former president remained, particularly without a traditional campaign operation in place.
Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club came under intense scrutiny amid revelations that Trump was storing hundreds of documents with classified markings there — sparking a federal investigation. But the club — and the people it gave access to Trump — had long been a source of consternation among former White House aides.
Mar-a-Lago is not only Trump’s home, but also a private club and event space. Paid members and their guests dine alongside him and often mingle with him; members of the public can book weddings, fundraisers and other events, and Trump often drops by.
Ye first shared details of the dinner in a video he posted to his Twitter account Thursday. Ye said he had traveled to Florida to ask Trump to be his 2024 running mate, and that the meeting had grown heated, with Trump “perturbed” by his request and Ye angered by Trump’s criticism of his estranged wife, Kim Kardashian.
“When Trump started basically screaming at me at the table telling me I was gonna lose. I mean, has that ever worked for anyone in history, telling Ye that I’m going to lose?” Ye asked in the video. “You’re talking to Ye!“
Ye also said Trump was “really impressed with Nick Fuentes,” whom he described as “actually a loyalist” and said he’d asked Trump, “Why when you had the chance did you not free the January 6th-ers?” referring to the defendants who were alleged to have participated in the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump released a series of statements Friday trying to explain the circumstances of the meeting.
“Kanye West very much wanted to visit Mar-a-Lago. Our dinner meeting was intended to be Kanye and me only, but he arrived with a guest whom I had never met and knew nothing about,” Trump said in his first statement released by his campaign.
Not long after, Trump took to his social media network to say that Ye and “three of his friends, whom I knew nothing about” had “unexpectedly showed up” at his club.
“We had dinner on Tuesday evening with many members present on the back patio. The dinner was quick and uneventful. They then left for the airport,” he wrote.
Hours later he again posted, saying he had told Ye that he “should definitely not run for President,” and that “any voters you may have should vote for TRUMP.”
“Anyway, we got along great, he expressed no anti-Semitism, & I appreciated all of the nice things he said about me on ‘Tucker Carlson.’” he added. “Why wouldn’t I agree to meet? Also, I didn’t know Nick Fuentes.”
Fuentes, meanwhile, said after the trip that, while he couldn’t rule out that Trump had heard of him, “I don’t think he knew that I was me at the dinner.”
“I didn’t mean for my statements and my whole background to sort of become a public relations problem for the president,” he added on his show.
The meeting drew immediate criticism from Trump critics as well as some supporters, including David Friedman, who served as Trump’s ambassador to Israel.
“To my friend Donald Trump, you are better than this. Even a social visit from an antisemite like Kanye West and human scum like Nick Fuentes is unacceptable,” Friedman wrote in a tweet. “I urge you to throw those bums out, disavow them and relegate them to the dustbin of history where they belong.”
On Saturday, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a potential 2024 rival, also denounced antisemitism, without directly referencing the dinner or the president under whom he served.
“Anti-Semitism is a cancer,” Pompeo wrote, adding: “We stand with the Jewish people in the fight against the world’s oldest bigotry.”
Biden, asked about the Trump dinner meeting while vacationing in Nantucket, Massachusetts, replied, “You don’t want to hear what I think.”


UN warns 500,000 more people will need humanitarian aid in South Sudan

UN warns 500,000 more people will need humanitarian aid in South Sudan
Updated 27 November 2022

UN warns 500,000 more people will need humanitarian aid in South Sudan

UN warns 500,000 more people will need humanitarian aid in South Sudan
  • Conditions worsened by violence, public health challenges, climate change

JUBA, South Sudan: Some 9.4 million people in South Sudan will need humanitarian assistance and protection services next year, half a million more than the current number, the UN  has said in a report.

According to the 2023 South Sudan Humanitarian Needs Overview report, more people will face food insecurity in 2023. Currently, nearly a third of 12.4 million people living in South Sudan are facing severe food insecurity.

Humanitarian conditions have been worsened by endemic violence, conflict, access constraints, operational interference, public health challenges and climate change effects such as flooding and drought, the report said.

The need for assistance will be greatest in counties in the Upper Nile and Western Equatoria States that have been facing conflict.

“Something has to change in South Sudan because the number of people in need continues to rise every year and the resources continue to decrease,” said Sara Beysolow Nyanti, the Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan, in a statement. Nyanti appealed to the government to ensure conditions of peace and to foster development in order to reduce the need for humanitarian aid.

Violence continues to plague the country, posing a threat to a peace deal signed in 2018 by former rivals President Salva Kiir and deputy Riek Machar.

Machar has in recent times accused Kiir of violating the peace agreement.

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions displaced in a civil war before the peace deal was signed.


Taiwan president resigns as party leader after election loss

Taiwan president resigns as party leader after election loss
Updated 26 November 2022

Taiwan president resigns as party leader after election loss

Taiwan president resigns as party leader after election loss

TAIPEI: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen resigned as head of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party following local election losses on Saturday suffered by
her party.

Voters in Taiwan overwhelmingly chose the opposition Nationalist party in several major races across the self-ruled island in an election in which lingering concerns about threats from China took a backseat to more local issues.

Tsai had spoken out many times about “opposing China and defending Taiwan” in the course of campaigning for her party. But the party’s candidate Chen Shih-chung, who lost his battle for mayor of Taipei, only raised the issue of the Communist Party’s threat a few times before he quickly switched back to local issues as there was little interest, experts said.

Tsai offered her resignation on Saturday evening, a tradition after a major loss, in a short speech in which she also thanked supporters.

“I must shoulder all the responsibility,” she said. “Faced with a result like this, there are many areas that we must deeply review.”

While international observers and the ruling party have attempted to link the elections to the long-term existential threat that is Taiwan’s neighbor, many local experts do not think China — which claims the island as its territory to be annexed by force if necessary — has a large role to play this time around.

“The international community has raised the stakes too high. They’ve raised a local election to this international level, and Taiwan’s survival,” said Yeh-lih Wang, a political science professor at National Taiwan University.

BACKGROUND

While international observers and the ruling party have attempted to link the elections to the long-term existential threat that is Taiwan’s neighbor, many local experts do not think China has a large role to play this time around.

During campaigning, there were few mentions of the large-scale military exercises targeting Taiwan that China held in August in reaction to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit.

“So I think if you can’t even raise this issue in Taipei,” Wang said. “You don’t even need to consider it in cities in the south.”

Candidates from the Nationalist party won the mayoral seat in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, as well as in Taoyuan, Taichung and New Taipei city.

Taiwanese were picking their mayors, city council members and other local leaders in all 13 counties and in nine cities. There was also a referendum to lower the voting age from 20 to 18, which was defeated, according to local media.

Chiang Wan-an, the new Taipei mayor, declared victory Saturday night in a large rally. “I will let the world see Taipei’s greatness,” he said.

Not all votes had been formally counted by the time of his speech, but Chiang and the other candidates’ numerical lead allowed them to declare victory.

Kao Hung-an, a candidate in the relatively new Taiwan People’s Party, won the mayoral seat in Hsinchu, a city home to many of Taiwan’s semi-conductor companies.

Campaigns had resolutely focused on the local: air pollution in the central city of Taichung, traffic snarls in Taipei’s tech hub Nangang, and the island’s COVID-19 vaccine purchasing strategies, which had left the island in short supply during an outbreak last year.

The defeat for the ruling DPP may be partly due to how it handled the pandemic.


DR Congo to hold next presidential polls in December 2023

DR Congo to hold next presidential polls in December 2023
Updated 26 November 2022

DR Congo to hold next presidential polls in December 2023

DR Congo to hold next presidential polls in December 2023
  • President Felix Tshisekedi came to power in January 2019, succeeding Joseph Kabila after 18 turbulent years as leader

KINSHASA: The Democratic Republic of Congo will hold its next presidential polls on Dec. 20, 2023, the country’s electoral commission said on Saturday.
The announcement comes as rebels have advanced in the restive east of the African country, displacing tens of thousands of people from their homes.
The electoral commission’s president said “persisting insecurity in some parts of the territory” would be a challenge to holding a “free, democratic and transparent” vote.
In the DRC, the presidential poll is held at the same time as parliamentary, provincial and local elections.
The president-elect would then take office in January 2024.
President Felix Tshisekedi came to power in January 2019, succeeding Joseph Kabila after 18 turbulent years as leader.
It was the country’s first peaceful handover of power.

FASTFACT

President Felix Tshisekedi came to power in January 2019, succeeding Joseph Kabila after 18 turbulent years as leader.

He has already announced his intention to run for a second term, despite clashes over the results.
Other possible contenders could include Martin Fayulu, the runner-up in the 2018 presidential polls who claims he was deprived of a victory in the vote.
There has been no immediate announcement from former prime minister, Adolphe Muzito, and the ex-governor of the southern region of Katanga, Moise Katumbi, who are also seen as potential candidates.
Augustin Matata Ponyo, another ex-premier, has said he will run.
Ponyo last year went on trial on charges he embezzled public funds, but the constitutional court ruled it did not have the authority to judge him.
The court’s lineup has however now changed, and has said it could try him.
Tshisekedi’s inauguration ceremony in 2019 capped more than two years of turmoil sparked by Kabila’s refusal to step down when he reached the constitutional limit on his term in office.
The last two presidential elections before that, in 2006 and 2011 — both won by Kabila — were marred by bloodshed and dozens died in a crackdown on protests after he chose to remain in office in 2016. A country the size of continental western Europe, the former Belgian colony lived through two regional wars in 1996-97 and 1998-2003.
The March 23 rebel group took up arms in late 2021 after years of dormancy, claiming the DRC had failed to honour a pledge to integrate its fighters into the army, among other grievances.
After four months of relative calm, the conflict erupted again on Oct. 20 and the rebels made a push towards Goma.
The fighting has dashed relations between the DRC and Rwanda, with Kinshasa accusing its smaller neighbor of backing the M23 — something UN experts and US officials have also said. Kigali denies the charges.
Tshisekedi and Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta met in Angola on Wednesday, agreeing to a cessation of hostilities in eastern DRC from Friday evening.
M23 rebels were to withdraw from “occupied zones,” failing which an East African regional force would intervene.
But the rebels, a largely Congolese Tutsi militia, said on Thursday the ceasefire “doesn’t really concern us,” and called for “direct dialogue” with DRC’s government.
The frontlines seemed quiet on Saturday morning, but residents in the eastern DRC remained sceptical that it would hold.