Taliban prisoner issue almost resolved, peace talks expected ‘soon’: sources, officials

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield

KABUL/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Peace talks between warring Afghan factions are expected to start as soon as they iron out their main differences over the release of the “most dangerous” Taliban prisoners, officials and sources from both sides said.

Despite a major push by the United States, there has been a delay in the intra-Afghan talks as the Afghan government and some key NATO members are uncomfortable about the release of Taliban commanders accused of conducting large-scale attacks that killed civilians in recent years.

An Afghan government source said the prisoner issue had largely been resolved and they would release an alternative set of prisoners with talks expected to start mid-July.

“The Taliban agreed because it was delaying the talks,” he said, adding the government had also demanded a guarantee from the Taliban that it was no longer holding any Afghan security force prisoners.

A source close to the Taliban said the group was willing to move forward so long as most of the 5,000 prisoners demanded were released.

“I don’t think releasing or not releasing 200 or 300 prisoners will matter in the process, the Taliban can agree for (those) prisoners to remain in Afghan government custody,” the source said.

Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen could not be reached for comment but has reiterated in recent weeks that the group expects the full terms of their February agreement with the United States, including the release of 5,000 prisoners, to be implemented before talks can start.

Pakistan, seen as a key regional player in getting the Taliban to peace talks, said it expected negotiations to begin very soon and was optimistic that sticking points, including the prisoner issue, would be resolved.

“I think we are almost there,” Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told Reuters in an interview on Thursday. “The impediments have been addressed one by one and now there is a general agreement that this is the way forward…I’m expecting things to be begin quickly.”

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Hamid Shalizi and Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Islamist group youth leader accused of shooting Pakistani minister – police

FILE PHOTO: Pakistan's Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal speaks to media outside the accountability court in Islamabad, Pakistan October 2, 2017. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood/File Photo

By Asif Shahzad

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – The gunman accused of shooting and wounding Pakistan’s interior minister is a youth leader of a hardline religious group that sees its mission as enforcing death for blasphemers and ridding government of secular influence, police said in a report.

Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal was shot on Sunday as he was leaving a constituency meeting surrounded by supporters in Punjab province.

He is in hospital and out of danger but the attack has shaken the political establishment ahead of a general election expected in July.

The suspected gunman, arrested at the scene, is Abid Hussain, 21, a youth leader of the Islamist Tehreek-e-Labaik party, police said in an interrogation report seen by Reuters on Tuesday.

The party, known as Labaik, has made the emotive issue of blasphemy its rallying cry in a country where for years hardline Islamists have vied for power with civilian politicians and a coup-prone military.

Hussain told police he was inspired by the teachings of founders of the Labaik and joined a party blockade of the capital, Islamabad, in November aimed at forcing out a government minister they accused of blasphemy over a change to an oath-taking law.

According to police, Hussain said he had dreamt Ali Hajveri, an 11th century Muslim preacher revered in South Asia, “ordered me to kill Ahsan Iqbal”.

Labaik denied that Hussain was a member of the party.

“We have nothing to do with him,” spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters.

But a founding member of Labaik, Pir Afzal Qadri, said Iqbal and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party had invited trouble by committing blasphemy when they changed an election law in a way some said weakened an oath declaring Mohammad the last true prophet.

“They have done so much wrong,” Qadri said in a video message. “It is their fault, they themselves are responsible for this. These people are inviting attacks.”

‘SEND THEM TO HELL’

Iqbal’s shooting has stoked fears of a repeat of the pre-election Islamist violence that has blighted polls before, including the 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

It has also compounded unease about blasphemy.

Even accusations of blasphemy can lead to mob killings and those convicted of blasphemy face the death penalty, though no death sentences for it have been carried out.

Many clerics say even to suggest change to the blasphemy law is blasphemy.

In November, Labaik blocked a main road into the capital for several days over the small change to the election law. The government explained the change as a clerical error and reversed it. The minister responsible resigned.

Hussain joined the protests determined to “send any blasphemer to hell”, police said in their report.

Seven people were killed and 200 wounded when police tried to clear the blockade.

Qadri said Iqbal, as interior minister, was responsible for the attack on him as he had ordered the police action.

“It is regrettable that the whole world is making hue and cry just because he got one bullet, and not a single arrest has so far been made in the martyrdom of the seven people,” Qadri said.

Police said Hussain had cited the example of Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of the governor of Punjab who gunned down the man he was meant to protect in 2011 over the governor’s call for reform of the blasphemy law.

Qadri, who was convicted of murder, sentenced to death and executed in 2016, has become a martyr for hardliners, and Labaik emerged out of a movement that lionized him.

Hussain bought a pistol several months ago and later got hold of bullets, police said in the report.

Two days before the shooting, he got a WhatsApp message from a resident of the town where Iqbal was shot, telling him the minister was due.

Hours before the meeting, Hussain washed, put on smart clothes and went early to wait, police said.

“When Ahsan Iqbal came down from the stage and was encircled with party workers, Abid stood up and fired.”

(Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Robert birsel)

Pakistan summons U.S. ambassador after Trump’s angry tweet

David Hale, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, speaks at the Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi, Pakistan, July 26, 2016.

By Drazen Jorgic

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan has summoned the U.S. ambassador to protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s angry tweet about Pakistani “lies and deceit”, which Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif dismissed as a political stunt.

David Hale was summoned by the Pakistan foreign office on Monday to explain Trump’s tweet, media said. The ministry could not be reached for comment but the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad confirmed on Tuesday that a meeting had taken place.

Trump said the United States had had been rewarded with “nothing but lies and deceit” for “foolishly” giving Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid in the last 15 years.

“They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” he tweeted on Monday.

His words drew praise from Pakistan’s old foe, India, and neighboring Afghanistan, but long-time ally China defended Pakistan.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Tuesday chaired a National Security Committee meeting of civilian and military chiefs, focusing on Trump’s tweet. The meeting, which lasted nearly three hours, was brought forward by a day and followed an earlier meeting of army generals.

Relations with Washington have been strained for years over Islamabad’s alleged support for Haqqani network militants, who are allied with the Afghan Taliban.

The United States also alleges that senior Afghan Taliban commanders live on Pakistani soil, and has signaled that it will cut aid and take other steps if Islamabad does not stop helping or turning a blind eye to Haqqani militants crossing the border to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

In 2016, Taliban leader Mullah Mansour was killed by a U.S. drone strike inside Pakistan and in 2011, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. troops in the garrison town of Abbottabad.

Islamabad bristles at the suggestion that it is not doing enough to fight Islamist militants, noting that its casualties at the hands of Islamists since 2001 number in the tens of thousands.

“DEAD-END STREET”

Foreign Minister Asif dismissed Trump’s comments as a political stunt born out of frustration over U.S. failures in Afghanistan, where Afghan Taliban militants have been gaining territory and carrying out major attacks.

“He has tweeted against us and Iran for his domestic consumption,” Asif told Geo TV on Monday.

“He is again and again displacing his frustrations on Pakistan over failures in Afghanistan as they are trapped in dead-end street in Afghanistan.”

Asif added that Pakistan did not need U.S. aid.

A U.S. National Security Council official on Monday said the White House did not plan to send an already-delayed $255 million in aid to Pakistan “at this time” and that “the administration continues to review Pakistan’s level of cooperation”.

Afghan defense spokesman General Dawlat Waziri said Trump had “declared the reality”, adding that “Pakistan has never helped or participated in tackling terrorism”.

Jitendra Singh, a junior minister at the Indian prime minister’s office, said Trump’s comment had “vindicated India’s stand as far as terror is concerned and as far as Pakistan’s role in perpetrating terrorism is concerned”.

But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, asked during a briefing about Trump’s tweet, did not mention the United States.

“We have said many times that Pakistan has put forth great effort and made great sacrifices in combating terrorism,” he said. “It has made a prominent contribution to global anti-terror efforts.”

Pakistani officials say tough U.S. measures threaten to push Pakistan further into the arms of China, which has pledged to invest $57 billion in Pakistani infrastructure as part of its vast Belt and Road initiative.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic in ISLAMABAD, Syed Raza Hassan in KARACHI, Malini Menon in NEW DELHI, Mirwais Harooni in KABUL; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Pakistan opposition leader Khan says under virtual house arrest

A protester throws stones at police during clashes in Rawalpindi, Pakistan October 28, 2016.

By Asad Hashim and Drazen Jorgic

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan accused the government of placing him under virtual house arrest in Islamabad on Friday as his supporters in nearby Rawalpindi fought running battles with the police.

Police tear-gassed and baton-charged the rock-throwing protesters in Rawalpindi, 20 km (12 miles) from Islamabad, as both sides prepared for his plan to shut down the capital next week to try to force Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign.

There was no immediate report of injuries and the violence eased as darkness fell, but a handful of protesters defying a ban on public gatherings continued to clash with police.

Police also fired tear gas and briefly clashed with protesters near Khan’s house in Islamabad.

The protests added to rising political tension ahead of Khan’s vow to lock down the capital on Wednesday to try to force Sharif to quit because of corruption allegations.

Sharif is also under pressure from his own camp, where relations between his ruling PML-N party and the powerful military have been strained by a newspaper leak about a security meeting that angered army officials.

Khan, a former cricket hero, told reporters outside his home that he had been placed “under almost house arrest” by scores of police officers stationed around his home in Islamabad.

He said he had canceled plans to attend a rally by a political ally in Rawalpindi and urged supporters to instead focus on the mass protests on Wednesday.

“To all my activists, you have to prepare for Nov. 2, you have to escape capture,” he said.

BAN ON GATHERINGS

Khan called for nationwide protests on Friday after 38  activists from his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party were arrested a day earlier during a raid by baton-wielding police on an indoor youth rally in Islamabad.

Police said the rally contravened a city order issued hours earlier that banned all public gatherings in Islamabad and Rawalpindi ahead of next week’s protests.

Khan, who led a weeks-long occupation that paralyzed the government quarter of Islamabad in 2014 after rejecting Sharif’s decisive election win, has vowed to contest orders banning public gatherings in court.

Sheikh Rashid, a Khan ally from the Awami Muslim League (AML) party, went ahead with his rally in Rawalpindi on Friday.

TV footage showed the portly AML leader being ferried to the rally on the back of a motorbike through the side streets of Rawalpindi. He then climbed on top of a van, shook his fist in the air to supporters and dared police to arrest him.

Police said they did not have orders for his arrest.

Authorities blocked main roads leading to the Rawalpindi rally with shipping containers and obstructed the rally site with trucks and containers, keeping PTI supporters from gathering there en masse.

VOW TO SHUT SCHOOLS, AIRPORT

Islamabad Deputy Commissioner Mushtaq Ahmed said Khan’s party would need official permission, in the form of a so-called “No Objection Certificate” (NOC), to host any events, including Wednesday’s shutdown strike.

“You need an NOC for anything – whether it’s a media function or a marriage function. Even for a birthday party of more than five people, you need an NOC,” he told Reuters.

Khan has said next week’s protests would bring a million people onto the streets and sit-ins would force the closure of schools, public offices and the main international airport.

Khan’s latest challenge to Sharif’s government is based on  leaked documents from the Panama-based Mossack Fonseca law firm that appear to show that his daughter and two sons owned offshore holding companies registered in the British Virgin Islands. Sharif’s family denies wrongdoing.

Holding offshore companies is not illegal in Pakistan, but Khan has implied the money was gained by corruption. He admitted in May that he used an offshore company himself to legally avoid paying British tax on a London property sale.

The ruling party has dismissed Khan’s shutdown plan as a desperate move by a politician whose popularity is waning ahead of the next general election, likely to be held in May 2018.

“Pakistan is going towards becoming a developed country, and the opposition is worried that if this system of development continues until 2018, then by then their politics will be finished,” Sharif told a gathering of party workers on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Kay Johnson; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Tom Heneghan)