US hours away from government shutdown

WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama on Monday prepared Americans for what he called an “entirely preventable” government shutdown while urging Republicans in Congress to reach an 11th-hour deal to avoid economic harm.

With no apparent movement in negotiations, the White House prepared to put in place a skeleton staff on Tuesday to operate essential functions like the National Security Council. Many staff were preparing for furloughs of uncertain length.

And Obama’s own plans seemed up in the air. He is scheduled to leave Saturday on a four-nation, week-long tour to Asia, but a shutdown could force a postponement.

“We have this trip scheduled, and we intend to take it,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “You know, we’ll see obviously what happens as the week unfolds.”

Hours before a shutdown was to begin, Obama placed phone calls to the two top congressional Republicans, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, but they appeared to restate well-worn positions and there was no sign of a breakthrough.

“The president made clear that Congress has two jobs to do: pay the bills on time and pass a budget on time. Failure to fulfill those responsibilities is harmful to our economy, small businesses and middle class families across the country,” the White House said.

The president and his aides worked to prepare Americans for the possibility of a shutdown, the resulting impact on the US economy and to pin the blame on Republicans who want to gut his healthcare law.

“I respect the fact that the other party is not supposed to agree with me 100 per cent of the time, just like I don’t agree with them. But they do also expect that we don’t bring the entire government to a halt or the entire economy to a halt just because of those differences,” he said.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Obama stressed that mail would be delivered and Social Security payments would be made, but warned that national monuments would close immediately to tourists, government office buildings would close and veteran centers would lack staff if a shutdown took place.

“A shutdown will have a very real economic impact on real people, right away. Past shutdowns have disrupted the economy significantly. This one will too.”

The law funding thousands of routine government activities expires at midnight.

Washington edged ever closer to a shutdown as the US Senate, controlled by Democrats, killed a proposal by the Republican-led House of Representatives to delay Obama’s healthcare law for a year in return for temporary funding of the federal government beyond Monday.

Obama stressed that the healthcare law, commonly known as Obamacare, would proceed regardless of whether the government shut its doors.

Publicly, Obama was optimistic about a last-second deal. Speaking during an Oval Office meeting with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama said he was not resigned to a shutdown happening and in his remarks to reporters later he said he hoped a deal could still be reached.

“Time is running out. My hope and expectation is that in the 11th hour once again that Congress will choose to do the right thing.”

As the hours ticked away toward a shutdown, Obama met with his Cabinet to discuss the potential disruptions of a shutdown for their respective agencies and ensure essential operations will take place.

Massive earthquake hits Balochistan: death toll rises to 306

KHUZDAR: The death toll from a massive earthquake that jolted southwest Pakistan rose to 306 on Wednesday, with officials saying thousands have been left homeless in remote parts of Balochistan province.

The 7.7-magnitude quake struck Tuesday afternoon in the province, toppling thousands of mud-built homes as it spread havoc through Awaran and Kech districts and the southwestern parts of the country.

Pakistan’s military on Wednesday rushed to reach the scene of the earthquake to launch a relief operation in the affected areas. Officials said the toll was expected to rise as rescue teams reach more villages in the remote area.

Provincial home secretary Asad Gilani confirmed 306 people had been killed and more than 400 injured from the huge quake.

“The dead and injured both include women and children,” Gilani said. “Our first priority is to retrieve the bodies and shift the injured to hospitals,” he said.

 

The rubble of a house is seen after it collapsed following the quake in the town of Awaran, southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan, September 25, 2013. — Photo by Reuters
The rubble of a house is seen after it collapsed following the quake in the town of Awaran, southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan, September 25, 2013.

 

“A total of six districts, Awaran, Kech, Gwadar, Panjgur, Chaghi and Khuzdar, and a population of over 300,000 have been affected by the earthquake,” Jan Muhammad Buledi, a spokesman for the Balochistan government, said while adressing a press conference.

The provincial government spokesman said aid workers were facing difficulties in reaching out to survivors since the communication system was severely affected by the earthquake. He said teams were working to recover bodies, but the priority was to move the injured to hospitals as soon as possible, a difficult task in a desolate area with minimal infrastructure.

“We are seriously lacking medical facilities and there is no space to treat injured people in the local hospitals,” he said. “We are trying to shift seriously injured people to Karachi through helicopters and others to the neighbouring districts.”

 

Survivors of the earthquake walk on rubble of a mud house after it collapsed following the quake in the town of Awaran.—Photo by Reuters
Survivors of the earthquake walk on rubble of a mud house after it collapsed following the quake in the town of Awaran.

 

“There is nothing, patients are dying,” Rehmatullah Muhammad Hassani, an earthquake survivor told Dawn.com via phone from the District Headquarter Hospital in Awaran.

He said the patients were facing difficulties in getting basic first aid treatment in the hospital. “There are no doctors and paramedics,” Hassani said.

Hassani said that a large number of mud-walled houses had collapsed as result of the powerful earthquake tremors. “We fear there are people still trapped under the rubble,” he said. The Awaran resident added that authorities had yet to launch an effective rescue operation to retrieve the people stuck from under the rubble.

Nazar Muhammad, a paramedic, said 70 injured had been brought to district hospital Awaran for medical treatment. He said: “We have no surgery equipment and we are only providing basic first aid to the survivors.”

The army has sent 100 personnel as medical staff and 1,000 troops to the area to help with rescue efforts and has established a medical centre in Tarteej, one of the worst-affected villages.

The scale of the affected territory is daunting. Awaran’s population is scattered over an area of more than 21,000 square kilometres. More than 60,000 people live within 50 kilometres of the epicentre, according to the UN disaster agency, mostly in easily collapsible mud homes.

Television footage showed collapsed houses, caved-in roofs and people sitting in the open air outside their homes, the rubble of mud and bricks scattered around them.

Abdul Rasheed Baloch, a senior official in the district, said teams had worked through the night to try to retrieve bodies and survivors from the rubble. “Around 90 per cent of houses in the district have been destroyed. Almost all the mud houses have collapsed,” he said.

Some of the dead have already been laid to rest in their villages, he said.

 

A family of Pakistani earthquake survivorss sit with their belongings near their collapsed mud houses in the Mashkail area of southwest Baluchistan province. - Photo by AFP
A family of Pakistani earthquake survivorss sit with their belongings near their collapsed mud houses in the Mashkail area of southwest Baluchistan province.

 

The US Geological Survey issued a red alert on Tuesday, warning that heavy casualties were likely based on past data, and the provincial government declared an emergency in Awaran.

Tremors were felt on Tuesday as far away as New Delhi and Dubai in the Gulf, while people in the Indian city of Ahmedabad near the border with Pakistan ran out into the streets in panic.

Office workers in Pakistan’s largest city Karachi rushed out of their buildings in an experience reminiscent of the 2005 earthquake to that hit the country.

A 7.6 magnitude quake in 2005, centred in Kashmir, had killed at least 73,000 people and left several million homeless in one of the worst natural disasters to hit Pakistan.

Iran’s Red Crescent reported no damage from the latest quake over the border from Pakistan.

A survivor of an earthquake sits as he takes tea on the rubble of a mud house after it collapsed following the quake in the town of Awaran. - Reuters Photo

Zardari says not interested in becoming prime minister

ISLAMABAD: Outgoing Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari said in comments aired Saturday he will not seek to become prime minister and will instead focus on leading his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) after stepping down.

Zardari vacates the presidency on Sunday and will be replaced the following day by Mamnoon Hussain, a businessman and close ally of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The centre-left PPP ran a rudderless general election campaign earlier this year and was defeated by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

“I will not try to become the prime minister of Pakistan,” Zardari, who defied expectations by holding onto power for a record five years, said in excerpts of an interview shown on a private TV channel.

“In my view running the party is more important than becoming prime minister,” he added.

Zardari, a controversial figure who was once sentenced to 11 years in prison for alleged corruption, said that as the presidency was the highest office in Pakistan it would not be appropriate for him to become prime minister.

The widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto leaves office with the country gripped by an energy crisis, a flagging economy and a Taliban insurgency.

He is expected to split his time between Pakistan and Dubai as he bids to revive the PPP’s fortunes, along with his son Bilawal, who turns 25 this month, meaning he can run for parliament.

Zardari’s spokesman, Farhatullah Babar told AFP the president will relocate to Lahore “to start yet another chapter in political struggle” with analysts suggesting he will try to revive the party dominated by the Bhutto-Zardari family.

Many observers see Bilawal as a reluctant heir to the legacy of his assassinated mother Bhutto. His low-key persona and lack of personal power base puts him in stark contrast to Zardari.

Obama seeking congressional OK for Syria action

WASHINGTON: Delaying what had loomed as an imminent strike, President Barack Obama abruptly announced Saturday he will seek congressional approval before launching any military action meant to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons in an attack that killed hundreds.

With Navy ships on standby in the Mediterranean Sea ready to launch their cruise missiles, Obama said he had decided the United States should take military action and that he believes he has “the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorisation.”

At the same time, he said, “I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective.”

Congress is scheduled to return from a summer vacation on September 9.

The president didn’t say so, but his strategy carries enormous risks to his and the nation’s credibility, which the administration has argued forcefully is on the line in Syria.

Obama long ago said the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that Syrian President Bashar Assad would not be allowed to cross with impunity.

Only this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat when the House of Commons refused to support his call for military action against Syria.

Either way, the developments marked a stunning turn in an episode in which Obama has struggled to gain international support for a strike, while dozens of lawmakers at home urged him to seek their backing.

Halfway around the world, Syrians awoke Saturday to state television broadcasts of tanks, planes and other weapons of war, and troops training, all to a soundtrack of martial music. Assad’s government blames rebels in the August 21 attack, and has threatened retaliation if it is attacked.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he was appealing to a Nobel Peace laureate rather than to a president, urged Obama to reconsider. A group that monitors casualties in the long Syrian civil war challenged the United States to substantiate its claim that 1,429 died in a chemical weapons attack, including more than 400 children.

By accident or design, the new timetable gives time for UN inspectors to receive lab results from the samples they took during four days in Damascus, and to compile a final report. After leaving Syria overnight, the inspection team arrived in Rotterdam a few hours before Obama spoke.

The group’s leader was expected to brief Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday.

Republicans expressed satisfaction at Obama’s decision, and challenged him to make his case to the public and lawmakers alike that American power should be used to punish Assad. “We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised,” House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other House Republican leaders said in a joint statement.

“In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9th. This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people.” It appeared that effort at persuasion was already well underway.

The administration arranged a series of weekend briefings for lawmakers, both classified and unclassified, and Obama challenged lawmakers to consider “what message will we send to a dictator” if he is allowed to kill hundreds of children with chemical weapons without suffering any retaliation.

While lawmakers are scheduled to return to work September 9, officials said it was possible the Senate might come back to session before then. Obama said Friday he was considering “limited and narrow” steps to punish Assad, adding that US national security interests were at stake.

He pledged no US combat troops on the ground in Syria, where a civil war has claimed more than 100,000 civilian lives.

With Obama struggling to gain international backing for a strike, Putin urged him to reconsider his plans. “We have to remember what has happened in the last decades, how many times the United States has been the initiator of armed conflict in different regions of the world,” said Putin, a strong Assad ally.

“Did this resolve even one problem?” Even the administration’s casualty estimate was grist for controversy. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organisation that monitors casualties in the country, said it has confirmed 502 deaths, nearly 1,000 fewer than the American intelligence assessment claimed.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the organisation, said he was not contacted by US officials about his efforts to collect information about the death toll in the August 21 attacks.

“America works only with one part of the opposition that is deep in propaganda,” he said, and urged the Obama administration to release the information its estimate is based on.

Top Jamaat leader found guilty of Bangladesh war crimes

DHAKA: A Bangladeshi court on Monday found a top Jamaat-e-Islaami (JI) leader guilty of masterminding atrocities during the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan and sentenced him to life imprisonment, as violence broke out across the country between police and his supporters.

The decision angered both supporters who said the trial was politically motivated and opponents who said he should be executed.

A special tribunal of three judges announced the decision against Ghulam Azam in a packed courtroom in Dhaka, the capital.

The panel said the former leader of the Jamaat-e-Islaami party deserved capital punishment, but received a jail sentence instead because of his advanced age and poor health.

Azam was in the dock when the verdict was delivered while protesters outside rallied to demand his execution.

Both the defense and the prosecution said they will appeal.

Azam led Jamaat-e-Islaami in then-east Pakistan in 1971 when Bangladesh became independent through a bloody war.

He is among several Jamaat leaders convicted by a tribunal formed in 2010 by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to try those accused of collaborating with the Pakistani army in the war.

Bangladesh says the Pakistani army killed 3 million people and raped 200,000 women during the nine-month war, and some 10 million people took shelter across the border in India.

Azam led the party until 2000 and is still considered to be its spiritual leader.

Jamaat-e-Islami claims his trial and others were politically motivated, which authorities deny.

The party called for a nationwide shutdown after the tribunal announced Sunday it would have the verdict Monday. Protests stemming from previous verdicts have sometimes turned deadly.

On Monday, police clashed with party supporters in parts of Dhaka while party activists set fire to a few vehicles that tried to defy the strike call, the Bengali-language Prothom Alo newspaper reported.

Police fired rubber bullets to disperse an opposition procession in Dhaka’s Jatrabari area, and some photographers and cameramen were injured in the chaos, the newspaper said.

Similar violence was also reported in some other parts of the country, several TV stations said.

The tribunal said Azam was guilty of all 61 charges under five categories: conspiracy, incitement, planning, abetment and failure to prevent killing.

He and his party were accused of forming citizens’ brigades to commit genocide and other serious crimes against the pro-independence fighters during the war.

Azam had openly campaigned against the creation of Bangladesh and toured the Middle East to get support in favor of Pakistan.

He routinely met with Pakistan authorities during the war.

A mouthpiece of the party routinely published statements by Azam and his associates calling for crushing the fighters who fought against the Pakistani military in 1971.

The prosecution in the trial said Azam must take ”command responsibility” for months of atrocities perpetrated by his supporters. Mahbubul Alam Hanif, a leader of the ruling Awami League, said he had expected capital punishment for Azam, but still he was happy that he was finally tried.

The verdict created resentment among the family members of those killed in 1971.

”Our wait for last 42 years has gone in vain. It’s extremely frustrating,” said Shyamoli Nasrin Chowdhury, the widow of a physician who was killed in 1971. ”This verdict has just increased our pain.”

Earlier in the morning, Azam was taken to the tribunal from a prison cell in a government hospital, where he was being treated for various complications, amid tight security as his party enforced the nationwide general strike to denounce the verdict.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, has criticised the tribunal, saying it is intended to weaken the opposition.

Jamaat-e-Islami is the main political ally of Zia’s party.

Hasina’s government says it had pledged before the 2008 election, which it won in a landslide, to prosecute those responsible for war crimes.

Terrorist threat stops IDPs’ return to Orakzai

KALAYA/TANK, July 4: The return of thousands of internally displaced persons from Mohammad Khwaja relief camp in Hangu to Chaper Perozkhel area in Orakzai Agency was postponed at the eleventh hour on Tuesday over threats of terrorist attacks.

Fata Disaster Management Authority had made preparations for the return of over 26,000 IDPs to Chaper Perozkhel area from Tuesday (July 2).

The next date for the IDPs’ return will be announced later on, according to the relevant officials.

The political administration and FDMA had joined hands for the rehabilitation of IDPs from the Mohammad Khwaja relief camp in Hangu to Chaper Perozkhel area in Orakzai Agency after the return of normalcy in the region.

Dozens of trucks, pickups and coaches were sent to the camp on Monday evening to take IDPs home.

IDPs had loaded their belongings in vehicles and were all set to leave for their native towns early in the morning when the administration suddenly called off the programme ‘for the time being’ for security reasons.

Officials said suspected militants had sneaked into Chaper Perozkhel area and therefore, acts of sabotage were imminent.

IDPs had vacated their houses and migrated to the relief camp in Hangu three years ago when the military operation launched there.

IDPs, including Hamid, Aitbar Khan, Khan Mohammad and Dilbar, told reporters here that the political administration had taken the action due to non-clearance of the area from militants.

The dejected IDPs expressed concern over the situation and said they had been spending miserable life at the camp for three years.

They wanted their early return to native towns, saying they were sick of life in tents.

Political agent of Orakzai Agency Mohammad Aslam said the decision of postponing the return of IDPs to Chaper Perozkhel had been taken for the time being over security grounds.

He said the announcement of the IDPs’ return would be made soon.

Mr Aslam said security for IDPs was the responsibility of the political administration and it didn’t want to put them in trouble yet again.

IDPS LEAVE FOR SOUTH WAZIRISTAN: Around 1,565 IDP families left the Kor Fort transit camp in Tank on Tuesday for native towns in South Waziristan Agency.

IDPs belong to Shehwar, Jantha Chak Sardek, Kaza Kach, ZeriWam, Nazarkhel, Shewzi, Hangi Walid, Ahmed Wam, Ghazhetkhel, Ghar Wam, and Sagar Ghazi villages.

Brig Mohammad Asghar, political agent Islam Zeb, APA Abdul Jamal Nasir, DPO Mohammad Anwar Kudi and other military and government functionaries were present on the occasion.

The returning IDPs were garlanded and special prayers were offered for peace and development of the region on the occasion.

Mr Zeb said it was the 10th phase of rehabilitation drive and that 10,014 families comprised 46,295 individuals had so far left for hometowns in the last nine rehabilitation phases.

He said the returning IDPs were provided with free transport facility, six-month ration and Rs25,000 cash each.

The PA said with cooperation of Pakistan army, several developmental projects, including the setting up of model villages, a commercial market, complex, chicken and fish farms and educational institutions had been completed in South Waziristan.

On the occasion, the IDPs’ elders thanked the army and the political administration for taking interest in the developments of the tribal region.

Democracy to flourish despite conspiracies: Zardari

bilawal-670

NAUDERO: President Asif Ali Zardari on Thursday said that many forces were hatching conspiracies against democracy and hoped that the real democracy would flourish in the country with the support of people.

Addressing a gathering here on the eve of 34th martyrdom anniversary of Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the President said, “We took bold decisions in the larger interest of the country and people, and to secure the future of our coming generations despite so many challenges.”

President Zardari said that the PPP government had proved that only democracy was a panacea to all problems and the people were conscious, who could not be betrayed through any drama.

Paying glowing tribute to Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the President said that today the entire world acknowledged the philosophy of Quaid-e-Awam, who empowered the downtrodden segments of the society and gave the country a unanimous 1973 Constitution.

He said that he preferred to write history instead of remaining mere in media headlines.

The PPP had made the history by transferring all powers to the elected prime minister and the Parliament, which was tantamount to empowering the people. It was the PPP’s policy that the power rested with the people.

The President said that during the last five years, the PPP- led coalition government put the country on the right path. But some of the opponents were giving the expression that the country’s economy was weak, which was totally wrong as multinational companies were investing in the stock market.

He said that the PPP government maintained good regional relations.

He added that there were political differences but not personal enmity with any one that was why that there was no political prisoner in the country as on today.

Earlier, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari while speaking to the gathering, said that it was Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who gave Constitution to the country, empowered the poor, made Pakistan’s defence impregnable by making it an atomic power, but he was judicially murdered by an army dictator.

Then his daughter Shaheed Benazir Bhutto pursued his mission but she was also implicated in false cases and her brothers were martyred. But the two leaders were still alive in people’s hearts, he added.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said the energy policy of his mother not discontinued the country would not have been facing power crisis today.

He said that after martyrdom of Benazir Bhutto, President Zardari raised the slogan of ‘Pakistan Khapey’ when the country’s solidarity was in danger. He continued the policy of his leaders and fought for the rights of the people, he added.

Bilawal said that the PPP Government restored the 1973 Constitution and parliament’s powers, gave provincial autonomy, announced 7th NFC Award, besides media freedom and women rights.

He said that the country had been made self-sufficient in food. The Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and handing over of Gwadar Port to China were the landmark achievements of the PPP government.

Bilawal said that the PPP workers were the real asset of the party and they would continue the mission of their leaders.

Later, a two-minute silence was observed, followed by Dua and Fateha for the departed soul of Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.