Friday, March 4, 2011

Fighting rages in Libya's east

At least 30 civilians have been killed after security forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan leader, attempted to retake the rebel-held town of Az Zawiyah, near the capital Tripoli, that has for days been defying his rule, witnesses have said.

The rebellion in Az Zawiyah - the closest rebel-held territory to the capital and also the site of an oil refinery - has been an embarassment to the Libyan authorities who are trying to show they control at least the west of the country.

Eastern regions of the country, around the city of Benghazi, have already fallen out of Gaddafi's control after a popular revolt against his four decades of rule.

"I have been to hospital less than 15 minutes ago. Dozens were killed and more were wounded," Mohamed, a Zawiyah resident, told the Reuters news agency.

"We have counted 30 dead civilians. The hospital was full. They could not find space for the casualties.

"We receive updates from the hospital and they say the number of casualties is rising."

Another resident, Ibrahim, said between 40 and 50 people were killed in the clashes.
Their accounts could not be independently verified because reporters' movements in Libya are restricted.

Anita McNaught, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Tripoli, said a source close to the Libyan government had told her that Az Zawiyah "has been retaken by government forces".

Libyan state television is also reporting that pro-Gaddafi forces have now taken the town from rebel hands.

A rebel leader in Az Zawiyah was also killed in the clashes on Friday.

"Many people were killed in Harsha, which is now occupied by them," Youssef Shagan, a rebel spokesman, told the Reuters news agency, referring to a small town just outside Az Zawiyah.

"They shot at civilians. We still control [Az Zawiyah's] central square. They are four to five kilometers away. Our army commander has been killed in Harsha. We have appointed a new one."

'Victory or death'

Friday's violence in Az Zawiyah comes amid more reports of battles between loyalist forces and anti-Gaddafi fighters in several other strategic cities.

Heavy shelling and machine gun fire has been reported near Ras Lanuf, the eastern oil port located 660km from Tripoli.

Reuters said rebels fired a sustained barrage of mortar bombs and rockets at a military base in Ras Lanuf on Friday, which was met with artillery fire from the army.

"There are lots of flames, thuds and bangs. There is the wailing of sirens and puffs of smoke in the air," a Reuters correspondent said.

The AFP news agency said at least four people were killed in the fighting.

Rebels had vowed "victory or death" as they headed towards the oil terminal, with reports that trucks of armed anti-Gaddafi fighters are heading towards the area.

"We're going to take it all, Ras Lanuf, Tripoli," Magdi, an army defector, told Reuters.

Government forces are said to be battling to regain control of rebel-held towns close to Tripoli, trying to create a buffer zone around what is still Gaddafi's seat of power.

Earlier, opposition fighters said Libyan forces carried out an air strike near a military base on the western outskirts of Ajdabiya, a town captured by the opposition, but said there was no casualties or damage.

Witnesses said a bomb was dropped on Friday and other rebel fighters say two rockets were fired at the base near the eastern town, but also missed.

Al Jazeera reporters near the town say sandstorms have hit the region, making further strikes unlikely.

But Hoda Abdel-Hamid, Al Jazeera's correspondent in the eastern city of Benghazi, said she had heard reports that volunteers going to the front line of fighting were feeling "very vulnerable from the air".

Opposition protesters in the country's east have set up advanced positions 50km west of Brega, which lies in between Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte and the opposition-held port of Benghazi, and sits near ethnic fault lines between tribes loyal to the leader.

Rebel fighters, who are poorly equipped and not well trained, are also said to have pushed further west on Friday, heading along the main coastal road out of Uqayla, a village 280km from Benghazi.

Pakistan assembly fails to denounce Bhatti's death

While Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani announced a national mourning for the slain minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, many politicians and political parties in the country have chosen to remain silent on the issue. In the country's parliament, a joint statement also could not be iss
ued as many MPs refused to condemn the killing.

The main opposition parties, headed by the PML-N party of Nawaz Sharif, has remained strangely silent. Religious parties, which include the Jamaat-e-Islami party have termed the murder a plot to malign Pakistan.

A similar silence was seen when Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was shot earlier this year. After that killing, most political figures including Nawaz Sharif, and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, who is the chief minister of Punjab, stayed away from the funeral prayers of the slain governor.

"This silence is seen as an endorsement for the murder," MP Asia Nasir, a Christian, said in parliament. Nasir also pointed to the picture of Muhammad Ali Jinnah hanging on one wall in parliament and told the assembly that it was a sad day for minorities.

"We dont matter anymore. We are left out," she said.

The Christian community protested on Thursday and Friday. They are angry the government did not give adequate protection to the minister.

Questions are also being asked about who it was that gave the vital, information that led to the minister's death. As police rounded up several suspects in the murder probe, what became clear was that his assailants had known his secret routine of not living in his official residence and leaving for his private residence every day.

Bhatti was using his official residence as a smokescreen and actually lived in a rented house with his family, where he was gunned down on Wednesday.

A police official said fifteen people, including a cleric of a local mosque have been picked up for interrogation.

China ups arms spendings 12.7%

China has raised its defense budget by 12.7% - up from a single-digit  rise  last year - taking military spending for 2011 to $91.5 billion. The return to double-digit hikes in the defense budget will be observed with some anxiety among China's neighbours including India and Japan which co
mplained of Beijing muscle-flexing over core issues and territorial disputes.

The hike comes soon after the first test flight of a Chinese stealth fighter jet and plans to launch an aircraft carrier.

India, which has the world's third-largest military after the Unied States, has a defense budget less than half that of China's, its largest neighbour across the disputed Himalayan border.

This week, India hiked the defense budget by 11.6% to $36.28 billion.

China justified the rise, up from 7.5% last year, as 'far lower' than that of other nations when calculated as a ratio of its GDP.

A senior official went on record to say that China hoped to 'resolve' the boundary question.

"China's defence spending increase is far lower than 2% of its GDP. India's defence spending is far higher than 2% of its GDP," said parliamentary spokesperson Li Zhaoxing ahead of the annual session of the National People's Congress.

"At present, there are friendly and stable relations between China and India," said Li in response to a media query. "This has created a good atmosphere for the sides to resolve the boundary question through consultation."

China's GDP is three times larger than India's.

Saturday, February 12, 2011