Friday, August 14, 2009

3 die, 70 wounded in blast near NATO HQ in Kabul

KABUL – A suicide car bomb exploded near the main gate of the NATO-led international military mission Saturday, killing three Afghans and wounding 70, officials said. The Taliban claimed responsibility.

The pinpoint attack penetrated a heavily guarded neighborhood that also houses the U.S. Embassy and Afghan presidential palace just five days before Afghanistan's nationwide elections.

Bloodied and dazed Afghans wandered the street after the blast, and children — many of whom congregate outside the NATO gate to sell gum to Westerners — were among the wounded. Windows of nearby antique shops were shattered and blood smeared the ground.

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, said three Afghan civilians were killed and 70 wounded in the blast. Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a U.S. spokeswoman for the NATO-led mission, said the explosion occurred near the gate of NATO's International Security Assistance Force. She had no immediate information on damage to the headquarters.

"I was drinking tea in our office when a big explosion happened," said Abdul Fahim, an Afghan in his mid-20s who sustained leg injuries. "I lay on the ground and then I saw wounded victims everywhere, including police and civilians."

A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility for the blast and said the bomb contained 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) of explosives. Mujahid at first said the bomber was on foot, then later called back and said it was a suicide car bomb attack.

NATO headquarters has several large, cement blocks and steel gates that prevent anyone from reaching the entrance, and the bomber was not able to breach those barriers. Afghanistan's Transportation Ministry lies across the street from NATO headquarters.

The bomber was able to evade several rings of Afghan police and detonate his explosives at the doorstep to the international military mission, an assault possibly aimed at sending a sign that the Taliban can attack anywhere it wants. The NATO mission — where top commander U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal works — sits beside the U.S. Embassy and shares the same street as the presidential palace.

The blast — before Afghans go to the polls this Thursday — could also reinforce the Taliban's threat of violence to any Afghan who participates in the elections.

Afghanistan has braced for attacks because of the vote. International workers in the country were planning on working from home over the next week or had been encouraged to leave the country.

The blast rattled the capital and sent a black plume of smoke skyward. It was the first major attack in Kabul since February, when eight Taliban militants attacked three government buildings simultaneously, an assault that killed 20 people and the eight attackers.

Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said a suicide bomber named Ahmad carried out Saturday's attack.

A driver from the nearby Defense Ministry said he took at least 12 people to the hospital. Most were seriously wounded, said the driver, who spoke to an Associated Press reporter at the scene but didn't want to give his name because of safety concerns.

Kabul has been relatively quiet over the last half year, though militants have launched a barrage of rockets into the capital this month, most of which landed harmlessly in open spaces.

Security has increased over the last several weeks in preparation for Thursday's vote.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pakistan army says Taliban training boys to fight

MINGORA, Pakistan – In a voice barely above a whisper, I.H. stared at his feet as he recounted haltingly how the Taliban kidnapped him and a classmate as they played in the street. They cleaned dishes for a few days in a militant training camp in northern Pakistan before escaping during Friday prayers, he said.

The Pakistani army says it has so far found 20 boys like I.H., who is only being identified by his initials for his safety, in the battle-scarred Swat Valley, scene of a major offensive against the Taliban this spring.

They believe the Taliban hoped to turn the boys into informants, fighters or even suicide bombers. Some escaped, others were rescued by authorities. Maj. Nasir Khan said many more are believed to be in the hands of militants.

Eleven such boys — the youngest only about 7 years old — were presented to journalists Monday at a military base in Swat's main town of Mingora.

The Taliban have been known to use children as fighters before in Afghanistan, and the army seems keen to capitalize on the boys' capture, hoping their stories will help turn public opinion against the militants.

The spring offensive in Swat — to clear the region of militants after they flouted a peace deal and expanded their area of control — was relatively popular in Pakistan. The government now hopes to extend its grip on Swat to prevent the Taliban fighters likely hiding in the mountains from mounting their own counteroffensive to regain control of the strategic area.

The U.S. sees Pakistan's ability to take on the Taliban as key to its own troops' success across the border in Afghanistan. But some Pakistanis support the Taliban, especially in the lawless tribal areas that border Afghanistan, and the army's military campaign against them also has involved public relations battles.

Taliban spokesman Maulvi Omar could not be reached for comment on the militants' use of children.

The boys on Monday said they had spent time in training camps — though how long was unclear. They themselves mostly said just a few days, but the army said they were probably with the Taliban for a month or more.

Three of the boys appeared to be younger than 10 and were visibly traumatized, occasionally breaking down in tears. The others were mostly in their mid-teens. Of the six who spoke to the AP, most said they were made to clean dishes or undergo rigorous physical training. None said he had been trained to carry out a suicide attack.

Feriha Peracha, a clinical neuropsychologist called in by the army to assess the boys, said some of them were clearly depressed and traumatized. However, she said it was unlikely all had been kidnapped as they claimed.

"It's only one or two maximum out of this group that I would say was probably actually taken by force," Peracha said.

The Taliban have been known to persuade boys to join their ranks or even paid impoverished families to hand over a young future fighter, Khan said.

"They are like the Mafia. Some children are inspired by them. They command respect because people are afraid of them," he said.

Peracha said most of the boys she interviewed tested below average on intelligence tests and came from poor families, which may have made them easy targets for the militants. One displayed psychotic symptoms.

I.H., who said he's 12 but looks much younger, said he was snatched off the streets and driven to a training camp.

"We were just playing" in the village when a car drove up, he said. "They blindfolded us."

B.K., a 15-year-old from Mingora, said he was lured into a car.

"They took me to a mountain place that was a training center" where he and other boys were woken before dawn for prayers, followed by strenuous physical exercise, he said.

"I was told that I would be trained for jihad to fight against the army and to kill soldiers," he said, adding that there were another 50 to 60 boys at the camp. He said an uncle managed to negotiate his release.

M.K., a 16-year-old who already had some gray hair, said he was returning home after buying groceries when a car pulled up and offered him a lift. But when they reached the turn for his house, the bearded men in the car gagged and blindfolded him, and drove him to a training camp where there were about 250 other boys, aged between 12 and 18.

"They told us jihad (holy war) is the duty of every Muslim," M.K. said. He said he was told it was OK to kill your parents if they disagreed.

"I was shocked. I was thinking, how can someone kill their parents?" the boy said, his voice barely audible.

Khan said that once the boys are picked up by the army, they are questioned before they are allowed to return home.

Army officials took blood and hair samples from the boys Monday, to run DNA tests and to check whether any of them had been drugged while they were in the training camps.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Akthar Abbas said it's clear some of the boys were being trained as fighters or worse.

"They were being trained as suicide bombers. There is fear still at the back of their minds," he said.

Abbas said they are setting up a rehabilitation program for the boys to provide them with education and psychotherapy.

"We will try to convert them as useful society members."

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Mystery ends: Pilot's remains found in Iraq desert

WASHINGTON – The remains of the first American lost in the Gulf War have been found in Iraq, the military said Sunday, a sorrowful resolution of a nearly two-decade old question about the fate of Navy pilot Capt. Michael "Scott" Speicher.

The Pentagon said the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology on Saturday positively identified the remains, buried in the desert and located after officials received new information from an Iraqi citizen about a crash.

Speicher's disappearance has bedeviled investigators since his fighter was shot down over the Iraq desert on the first night of the 1991 war.

The top Navy officer said the discovery is evidence of the military's commitment to bring its troops home. "Our Navy will never give up looking for a shipmate, regardless of how long or how difficult that search may be," said Adm. Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations.

Over the years, critics contended the Navy had not done enough, particularly right after the crash, to search for the 33-year-old Speicher. A lieutenant commander when he went missing, Speicher later reached the rank of captain because he kept receiving promotions while his status was unknown.

The Pentagon initially declared Speicher killed. But uncertainty — and the lack of remains — led officials over the years to change his status a number of times to "missing in action" and later "missing-captured." The family Speicher left behind, from outside Jacksonville, Fla., continued to press for the military to do more to resolve the case.

Speicher's story has never waned in that city. A large banner flying outside a firefighters' credit union has a photo of him with the words: "Free Scott Speicher." At his church, a memorial was put up in his honor and the swimming complex at his alma mater, Florida State University, was named for the pilot.

Family spokeswoman Cindy Laquidara said relatives learned on Saturday that Speicher's remains had been found.

"The family's proud of the way the Defense Department continued on with our request" to not abandon the search, she said. "We will be bringing him home."

Laquidara said the family would have another statement after being briefed by the defense officials; she did not know when that would be.

More than a decade after he was shot down in a combat mission, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 finally gave investigators the chance to search inside Iraq. That led to a number of new leads, including the discovery of what some believed were the initials "MSS" scratched into the wall of an Iraqi prison.

The search also led investigators to excavate a potential grave site in Baghdad in 2005, track down Iraqis said to have information about Speicher and make numerous other inquiries in what officials say was an exhaustive search.

Officials said Sunday that they got new information last month from an Iraqi citizen, prompting Marines stationed in the western province of Anbar to visit a location in the desert which was believed to be the crash site of Speicher's FA-18 Hornet.

The Iraqi said he knew of two other Iraqis who recalled an American jet crashing and the remains of the pilot being buried in the desert, the Pentagon said.

"One of these Iraqi citizens stated that they were present when Captain Speicher was found dead at the crash site by Bedouins and his remains buried," the Defense Department said in a statement.

The military recovered bones and multiple skeletal fragments and Speicher was positively identified by matching a jawbone and dental records, said Rear Adm. Frank Thorp.

He said the Iraqis told investigators that the Bedouins had buried Speicher. It was unclear whether the military had information on how soon Speicher died after the crash.

Some had said they believed Speicher ejected from the plane and was captured by Iraqi forces, and the initials were seen as a potential clue he might have survived. There also were reports of sightings.

While dental records have confirmed the remains to be those of Speicher, the pathology institute in Rockville, Md., is running DNA tests on the remains recovered and comparing them with DNA reference samples previously provided by family members.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with Captain Speicher's family for the ultimate sacrifice he made for his country," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in the Pentagon statement. "I am also extremely grateful to all those who have worked so tirelessly over the last 18 years to bring Captain Speicher home."

Speicher was shot down over west-central Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991.

Hours after his plane went down, the Pentagon publicly declared him killed. Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney went on television and announced the U.S. had suffered its first casualty of the war. But 10 years later, the Navy changed his status to missing in action, citing an absence of evidence that Speicher had died. In October 2002, the Navy switched his status to "missing/captured," although it has never said what evidence it had that he ever was in captivity.

A review in 2005 was conducted with information gleaned after Baghdad fell. The review board recommended then that the Pentagon work with the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the Iraqi government to "increase the level of attention and effort inside Iraq" to resolve the question of Speicher's fate.

Last year, then Navy Secretary Donald Winter ordered yet another review of the case after receiving a report from the Defense Intelligence Agency, which tracks prisoners of war and service members missing in action.

Many in the military believed for years that Speicher had not survived the crash or for long after. Intelligence had never found evidence he was alive, and some officials felt last year that all leads had been exhausted and Speicher would finally be declared killed.

But after the latest review, Winter said Speicher would remain classified as missing, despite Winter's strong reservations about the pilot's status and cited "compelling" evidence that he was dead.

Announcing his decision, Winter criticized the board's recommendation to leave Speicher's status unchanged, saying the review board based its conclusions on the belief that Speicher was alive after ejecting from his plane. The board "chose to ignore" the lack of any parachute sighting, emergency beacon signal or radio communication, Winter said.

Speicher's family — including two college-age children who were toddlers when Speicher disappeared — believed more evidence would surface as Iraq becomes more stable.

One of Speicher's high school classmates who helped form the group "Friends Working to Free Scott Speicher" said Sunday his biggest fear was that Speicher had been taken alive and tortured.

"This whole thing has been so surreal for all of the people who have known Scott," said Nels Jensen, 52, who now lives in Arkansas.

Jensen said the group was frustrated the military didn't initially send a search and rescue team after the crash, and then grew more perplexed as reports of his possible capture emerged. "Never again will our military likely not send out a search and rescue party for a downed serviceman," Jensen said.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., had pressed several years ago to get the military to renew a search for Speicher and he once visited the Baghdad prison cell where it was thought Speicher may have carved his initials in the wall.

"We all clung to the slim hope that Scott was still alive and would one day come home to his family," Nelson said Sunday.

The new informant told officials in Iraq of another possible location of Speicher's grave a site very near where his shattered airplane was found in 1993, Nelson said in a statement.