NATO death toll in Afghanistan this year hits

KABUL: A NATO soldier was killed in an insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan on Sunday, the military alliance said on Monday, bringing the death toll among foreign troops this year to 600.

NATO’S International Security Assistance Force announced the death in a statement, but gave no further details. Another NATO troop was killed in a bomb blast in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan on Sunday.

The latest death brings to 600 the number of foreign soldiers who have died in the Afghan war this year, compared with 521 in all of 2009, according to an AFP tally based on a count kept by the icasualties.org website.

A total of 2,170 NATO soldiers have been killed since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan which overthrew the hardline Islamist Taliban regime, including almost 1,350 US troops.

The United States and NATO have more than 150,000 soldiers in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban-led insurgency, which is at its most intense in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.

International and Afghan forces are currently engaged in a major offensive around Kandahar city — capital of the province of the same name — aimed at pushing the insurgents out of the area to bring an end to the nine-year war.

The US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan said on Sunday that an increasing number of Taliban leaders are showing interest in talks with the US-backed government in Kabul as pressure mounts from the intensifying NATO military campaign.

“What we’ve got here is an increasing number of Taliban at high levels saying, ‘Hey, we want to talk,'” Richard Holbrooke said in an interview with CNN.

“We think this is a result in large part of the growing pressure they’re under from General (David) Petraeus and the ISAF command.”

But he cautioned that the feelers so far add up to “contacts and discussions” rather than peace negotiations to end a war now in its 10th year.

The New York Times reported last week that Taliban leaders were being offered safe passage by NATO troops from their sanctuaries in Pakistan, and in one case were flown to Kabul in a NATO aircraft.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has set up a High Council for Peace to pursue a dialogue with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

Explosives in US-bound parcels from Yemen: Obama

Security officials in Britain and Dubai intercepted two parcel bombs being sent from Yemen to the United States in a “credible terrorist threat,” US President Barack Obama said on Friday.

The parcels were bound for “two places of Jewish worship in Chicago,” Obama said. The Anti-Defamation League, a prominent Jewish organisation, earlier warned of a danger to US Jewish institutions from packages mailed from Britain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Suspicion fell on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which had taken responsibility for a failed plot to blow up a US passenger jet on Christmas Day in 2009.

The group, thought to include Yemenis and Saudis, is affiliated with al Qaeda, whose militants killed about 3,000 people using hijacked planes in the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.

“Initial examinations of those packages has determined that they do apparently contain explosive material,” Obama said in a televised briefing, calling it “a credible terrorist threat against our country.”

The White House said “both of these packages originated from Yemen” and Obama was notified of the threat on Thursday night.

Speaking just days before the US congressional elections on Tuesday, Obama said a top aide had spoken to Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and that Saleh had pledged full cooperation in the investigation.

One of the packages was found on a United Parcel Service cargo plane at East Midlands Airport, about 160 miles (260 km) north of London. The other was discovered at a FedEx Corp facility in Dubai.

UPS and FedEx, the world’s largest cargo airline, said they were halting shipments from Yemen.

A TRIAL RUN?

One U.S. official and some analysts speculated that the parcels may have been a test of cargo screening procedures and the reaction of security officials.

“This may be a trial run,” the US official said.

The White House said Saudi Arabia helped determine that the threat came from Yemen, while Britain, the United Arab Emirates and “other friends and partners” also provided information.

“The United States is grateful to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for their assistance in developing information that helped underscore the imminence of the threat emerging from Yemen,” said Obama’s homeland security adviser, John Brennan.

In the United States, UPS planes were checked and then cleared in New Jersey and Philadelphia. The Transportation Security Administration said they were searched “out of an abundance of caution.

The US Department of Homeland Security said it was tightening aviation security measures as a result of the scare. The British government said it was “too soon to say” whether it would follow suit but it was “urgently considering” what steps to take about freight coming from Yemen.

British police said an item found on the UPS plane was sent for further testing. CNN said it was an ink toner cartridge converted into a bomb.

An official source in the United Arab Emirates said “an explosive device was found in the package that originated in Yemen” and the parcel was similar to the one found in Britain.

“We were on to this,” Brennan said. “Clearly they are looking to identify vulnerabilities in our system.”

He said it was it was not clear how the devices were supposed to be activated.

The man accused of the failed Christmas Day bombing, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has told US investigators he got the device and training from al Qaeda militants in Yemen.

Since then, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and one of its leading figures, American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, have become priority US targets. The United States has stepped up military aid to Yemen, which has been trying to quell the resurgent branch of al Qaeda.

Dhaka may get 2-4 mayors

Dhaka City Corporation may be split into two or four parts, and elections to those are likely after that, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday said.

The plan will, however, be finalised in consultation with the experts, she added.

Hasina, also president of Awami League, said this at a meeting with the city lawmakers–all from the AL-led grand alliance.

She called on the lawmakers to work sincerely in their constituencies so that people cast their votes for the alliance-backed candidates.

The two-hour long meeting began at 6:00pm at the prime minister’s Ganobhaban residence.

Coming out of the meeting, Rashed Khan Menon, president of the Workers Party, a component of the grand alliance, told The Daily Star that the prime minister is dissatisfied with poor civic service under the present DCC mayor.

Menon, MP from Dhaka-8, said the number of mayors will depend on how many parts the city corporation will be divided into.

“A bill to split the DCC will be placed in parliament after examining all relevant aspects,” he added.

AKM Rahmatullah, lawmaker from Dhaka-10, told The Daily Star that some MPs at the meeting proposed that DCC be split into four (east, west, north and south).”But the prime minister said the decision in this regard will be taken after discussions with the experts.”

Hasina also directed the MPs to do welfare activities in their constituencies so that people vote for AL-nominated candidates in the DCC polls, he added.

Rahmatullah said the meeting also discussed programmes to celebrate the Victory Day.

“Since it will be the 40th anniversary of our victory, this year’s calls for grander celebrations,” he quoted her as saying.

Mostafa Jalal Mohiuddin, MP from Dhaka-7, said the population in the capital is growing fast and so the city needs to be divided into several parts for better administration and development.

“The prime minister has asked us to think more about the issue,” he told the correspondents.

Replying to a query, Mohiuddin said, “The parliamentary committee on the local government and rural development ministry will decide on this issue after consulting the minister concerned and the city MPs.”

Earlier on September 22, the Election Commission decided to hold the long overdue DCC polls by December and union parishad between January and February next year.