Archive for June 9th, 2009

Media outlets report that an explosion has killed 5 people and wounded 25 at the Pearl-Continental Hotel in Peshawar. According to GEO News, the injured included mostly workers at the hotel, although BBC News cited an unconfirmed report that said foreign guests are also among those hurt by the bombing. AAJ Television reported, “Government investigator Sahibzada Anees said officials were trying to establish whether a device had been planted or it was a suicide attack. Television channels quoted witnesses as saying it was a gun and bomb attack.” A later report by CNN confirmed that this was a car bombing. The bomb, the news agency reported, had to get through the hotel gate and a security checkpoint. The bomb went off right at the entrance.

According to CNN’s correspondent Reza Sayah, “What stands out is that this is a huge civilian target and this is in the heart of Peshawar.” He framed this attack in light of the bombing of Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel in September 2008. Both hotels, noted the news agency, are owned by Sadruddin Hashwani‘s Hashoo Group.

UPDATE 1358 [EST]: CNN’s Reza Sayah says the official death toll is now 11, with the injured now numbering in the 50’s. According to him and other news agencies, the PC Hotel was a “favored destination for foreigners,” and CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson, who has stayed at the hotel, said it is is next door to a police station and near a major army barracks. According to Sayah though, US officials said no Americans who had registered with the embassy were staying at the hotel, [this does not mean there were no Americans at the PC, just that none who had registered were there]. I hope the news focuses also on the Pakistani victims of this attack. It seems there were many hotel workers killed, much like the Marriott bombing in Islamabad.

UPDATE 1430 [EST]: BBC News cited an eyewitness, Fazle Mubeen, who said two vehicles had been involved in the incident. “Policeman told me they had opened fire on two vehicles. Two men were killed in the first car. Then the second vehicle entered the premises and the blast happened.” Following the Marriott blast, Fidayeen-e-Islam, a little-known Pakistani militant group, told the BBC it had carried out the attack with the aim of stopping US interference in Pakistan. However, it is extremely common for unknown militant groups to claim responsibility for large-scale attacks in order to gain notoriety, even if they didn’t commit the attack. We’ll probably hear several claims of responsibility before pinpointing exactly who perpetrated the bombing.

UPDATE 1445 [EST]: Dawn News correspondent is reporting that this bombing was “not unexpected.” According to him, there had been intelligence reports that explosives had entered the city and Peshawar had put on high alert, with extra security at entrance points from the tribal belt. Dawn reported that 500 kilograms of explosives were used in the PC Hotel bombing.

UPDATE 1540 [EST]: CNN reports that officials are desperately searching for casualties. This is the seventh attack to occur in Peshawar in a month, media outlets report. The blast left a large crater, according to an Associated Press journalist, and TV footage suggests part of the hotel was badly damaged. CNN’s Reza Sayah said that government officials are saying it was a suicide bomber. Police told CNN that three men in a pickup truck shot at guards, drove in through the gates, and detonated the bomb somewhere in the parking lot. GEO News is reporting that most of the injured were hotel workers, and CNN cited one report that indicated a United Nations worker was among the dead.

Dawn News interviewed the Daily Times’ Ejaz Haider who commented on the security situation, noting the Pakistani military needs to “erode Pakistan’s insurgency from the inside,” and attack the Pakistan Taliban’s “center of gravity” – located in South Waziristan. He advocated the killing and capture of high-profile militants in order to sway the offensive further in the military’s favor.

UPDATE [1726 EST]: According to BBC News, “The attack killed a Serbian UN refugee agency worker and the injured include a British man and a German national…At least a dozen UN employees were staying at the hotel at the time of the explosion.” Most of the casualties of the attack were therefore Pakistanis, specifically those who worked at the hotel.

UPDATE 2311 [EST]: GEO News reports that the death toll has gone up to 12 people killed, although other news agencies still put the number at 11. Dawn quoted the Capital City Police Chief who said, “The assailants first killed the security guards on the main gate to lower the electronic barrier and then went inside the main parking lot, firing indiscriminately. A mini-truck laden with explosives then entered the hotel premises and exploded in the main parking lot close to the main building.” The Financial Times spoke to a senior security official in Peshawar who said,”We had intelligence reports suggesting that Baitullah Mehsud was planning such an attack. He is top of our list of suspects,” [the official also stated that the likely perpetrators were militants loyal to Mehsud].

Here’s also an interesting link to the Lede blog at the NY Times, which reported the United States had been planning to buy the hotel to expand its diplomatic presence in Peshawar – not sure what I make of that story.

UPDATE [TUES]: The NY Times now reports that the death toll from Tuesday’s bombing has now reached 16. The owner of the PC hotel [and the Marriott in Islamabad] Sadruddin Hashwani told news agencies that the government should have provided better security, and he pledged to reopen the hotel in two months. Two foreign United Nations workers were among those killed. The hotel was housing other UN workers, many of whom were there for the IDP relief efforts in the region.

Below is a good analysis and back-and-forth between CNN’s Nic Robertson and Richard Quest.

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Image Credit: NYT, IDPs line up for food rations

Despite news of violence continuing in Karachi, there was still a stream of positive news from Pakistan, particularly among Western media outlets. According to news agencies, hundreds of tribesmen got involved in the operation against the Taliban. The three-day offensive followed the bombing of a mosque Friday that killed 38 people in Upper Dir district. BBC News reported, “Villagers blamed the bombing on Taliban fighters.”

The Associated Press, in its coverage, reported “as many as 1,600 tribesmen joined a citizens’ militia in Upper Dir.” The news agency cited local police chief Atif-ur-Rehman, who said tribesmen “attacked five villages in the Dhok Darra area which are thought to be militant strongholds…The citizens’ militia had occupied three of the villages since Saturday and was trying to push the Taliban out of two others on Sunday…Some 20 houses of local tribesmen suspected of harboring Taliban fighters were destroyed.”

Rehman told the AP, “It is something very positive that tribesmen are standing against the militants. It will discourage the miscreants.” His statement was echoed by military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, who told a television news network, “Citizens should ponder upon the way of life they are introducing, if that is acceptable to us…If not, they have to raise a voice against them. They have to rise against them.”

Although the long-term benefit of tribal militias, or lashkars can be debated, [see my related analysis on this topic], the development is still significant, and  is demonstrative of a wider trend. Last week, a NY Times piece entitled, “Taliban Stir Rising Anger of Pakistanis,” reported, “after months of televised Taliban cruelties, broken promises and suicide attacks, there is a spreading sense — apparent in the news media, among politicians and the public — that many Pakistanis are finally turning against the Taliban.” The news agency added,

The shift is still tentative and difficult to quantify. But it seems especially profound among the millions of Pakistanis directly threatened by the Taliban advance from the tribal areas into more settled parts of Pakistan, like the Swat Valley. Their anger at the Taliban now outweighs even their frustration with the military campaign that has crushed their houses and killed their relatives.

This anger against the Taliban can be an “important turning point” for Pakistan, but it is still a small window of opportunity. Javed Iqbal, NWFP’s Chief Secretary, told the Times, “This is a profound moment in our history…My greatest fear is whether there is sufficient realization of this among people who make decisions.”

One way this opportunity can be squandered is if the government fails to take care of the nearly 3 million people displaced by the offensive. Last week, Pakistan’s foreign ministry told news agencies, “Less than a quarter of the $543 million the United Nations has requested for refugees has arrived,”  and Pakistani IDPs cited the Pakistan Humanitarian Situation Report, which noted “funding remains a serious challenge for all sectors.”

According to UNHCR, as of June 5, people continue to flee Swat for safer districts, and 260,000 IDPs now reside in 21 camps in NWFP. Camps in Mardan are currently at full capacity, and newly displaced are directed to camps in Charsada, Peshawar and Swabi districts. On Tuesday, GEO News reported that UNHCR has set up two new camps to accomodate the growing number of displaced Pakistanis, but noted “the organization hit a shortage of funds” and may not be able to provide the required relief.

The health and food dimensions of the crisis are also worrying. Currently, the World Food Program [as of June 4] has distributed monthly food rations to 2.65 million displaced people in camps and host communities. 35 Humanitarian Hubs, or centers where IDPs can register for assistance, receive food and critically needed shelter and cooking utensils, and be directed into available shelter within the local communities, have been set up, [see map]. However, despite these efforts, the Situation Report notes the pipeline of food “cannot be sustained and is expected to run out in late June or early July.” According to the WFP website, the UN has appealed for $162 million to meet basic food needs of IDPs for two months.”

Image Credit: AP/Dawn Two boys carry Food Back to their tents

Image Credit: AP/Dawn Two boys carry Food Back to their tents

The Sit Rep also asserted, “Current stocks of essential drugs will be depleted as of June.” Urgent funding is required to cover health costs for those who are displaced, noted the report. Moreover, according to Dawn on Monday, Pakistan’s “rundown” health care system is in danger of collapsing. Hospitals have been overwhelmed by the refugee influx, and the resulting crisis “has exhausted doctors, used up limited supplies of medicines and buried hospitals in a mountain of red tape as they try to get money and medicine for the crisis.” Although the government has allocated one million rupees for medicine for the refugees, Dawn cited Dr. Arshad Khan, the Health Ministry’s “top man in Mardan,” who said “it will be months before the refugees see any because of bureaucratic hurdles attached to the money.”

Reading these assessments, it seems evident that the problem in tackling Pakistan’s humanitarian crisis lies not just in funding but also the allocation/delivery of resources as well as coordination. The News columnist Noreen Haider wrote last Tuesday, “There is very little coordination among the various agencies and provincial governments working for the IDPs. There is still a huge shortfall of the items actually required by the IDPs, especially those off-camp and their host families, but no one seems to have any exact data regarding that.” Haider, in her piece, also noted that Pakistan’s emergency assistance body, the National Disaster Management Authority has failed “to set up the provincial [PDMA] and district disaster management authorities…supposed to deal with crises on this scale.”

A new report released by the International Crisis Group echoed these assertions, quoting PML-N General Secretary, Iqbal Jhagra, who said, “The institutions that were set up after the earthquake [PDMA & NDMA] should have pre-planned for this [crisis]. We knew this option [of a military operation] was there. So when you know this, what do you do?” De-centralized relief efforts have further exacerbated the problem, added ICG. The organization further noted, “By other accounts, the civilian bureaucracy, cumbersome and unresponsive to IDP needs, has become a hurdle in relief delivery.”

Ultimately relief should not only be supplied to those displaced by the conflict, but also those shouldering the burden of this crisis. Given that the majority of IDPs are living outside camps with relatives, these people must also be provided support. Families once housing and feeding five to ten people are now providing refuge to double or even triple that amount.

Moreover, the doctors and nurses providing health care to those in crisis must also be taken into consideration.  According to the World Health Organization, “There are only 12 doctors to every 10,000 people in Pakistan and 10 hospital beds to every 10,000 people.” Dawn reports the outpatient unit at Dr. Khan’s 213-bed district hospital used to see 100 people a day before the war. “Now it is up to an average of 500 a day.” Dr. Khan from Mardan told Dawn, “Our staff is disheartened. They are not motivated, the pay structure of doctors and paramedical staff is terribly low and under government rules we can’t hire more people.”

While the recent upsurge against the Taliban is positive, it is important to remember that sentiment is tenuous. The government must properly addres the growing humanitarian crisis in the country to ensure this small window of opportunity does not completely vanish. **Because I don’t want to leave this post on a completely tragic note, here are some other positive pieces related to Pakistan’s Rising Tide Against the Taliban:

For CHUP’s past coverage on Pakistan’s displaced, click here. For ways to help, visit the Swat Plea or Pakistani IDPs.

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