Afghan troops prepare for offensive

QALAT, Afghanistan

Hundreds of Afghan government troops prepared yesterday for a new offensive against Taliban guerrillas in the south and east, including along the border with Pakistan.

The planned offensive came amid a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who told a joint news conference in Kabul with President Hamid Karzai that the infiltration of terrorists into Afghanistan “is something that requires continuing attention.”

“It’s happening all across the globe. It proves the point that the global war on terror is not a problem in one country or for one country,” Rumsfeld said.

A spate of attacks on Afghan police positions along the border and inland and heavy fighting in the past two weeks in a remote mountainous region of southern Zabul province have raised fresh doubts about the precarious grip Karzai has over parts of the country.

Karzai, who took power after U.S.-led forces ousted the hardline Taliban regime in late 2001, has postponed for two months the process of approving a new constitution, his spokesman said yesterday.

The president insisted, however, that historic elections – the first in Afghanistan in decades – will take place as planned in June 2004.

The delay in holding a council meeting of 500 delegates to form the constitution followed demands from the commission in charge that it needs more time to get input from ordinary Afghans.

There have been public quarrels between conservative elements, including within Karzai’s government, who want the constitution to enshrine Islamic Sharia law, and secularists who want it to embrace liberal traditions.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Rodney Davis said that more than 100 Taliban guerrillas have been killed in the fighting since Aug. 30 – centered on the Dai Chupan district of southern Zabul province. Four American troops have also been killed in the past month, one in Dai Chupan.

The latest raid on the insurgents came Saturday night and involved American aircraft, Davis said.

While the situation in Dai Chupan has calmed in recent days, Afghan officials say forces are still hunting Taliban believed to have moved to nearby areas.

Hundreds of Afghan troops have been sent to the town of Naubaghar, some 45 miles east of Qalat – the capital of Zabul province – to join another offensive against Taliban insurgents, said Ahmad Zia Masoud, a spokesman for the governor of neighboring Ghazni province.

“We have reports about many Taliban are in this area … but we haven’t launched our operation yet,” Masoud said.

Dozens of U.S. troops in armored personnel carriers were also deployed in the area, he said.

There were fresh reports of fighting near the Pakistani border, where suspected Taliban insurgents attacked a police station. There were no casualties during the two-hour firefight late Saturday and early yesterday in Ziruk, in eastern Paktika province, said Sayed Khan, a police spokesman in the province.


Former Liberian leader still tied to nation

MONROVIA, Liberia

Charles Taylor used fear, patronage and state monopolies to control what diplomats and business leaders estimate amounted to 90 percent of Liberia’s economy – everything from imported rice to diamonds, timber and lucrative shipping registry fees.

Tracking that money, and breaking Taylor’s control of what’s left, is crucial to rebuilding war-ruined Liberia. But diplomats say Taylor, working the phone from his new villa in exile in the jungles of southern Nigeria, isn’t letting go easily.

These officials, citing intelligence reports, paint this picture of the ousted warlord-president’s attempts to keep his hand in the pot:

Within days of his Aug. 11 acceptance of asylum in Nigeria, Taylor began making multiple calls each day to successor Moses Blah – violating his exile agreement – and Foreign Minister Lewis Brown. He also is trying to collect debts from Liberian business figures in Monrovia and attempting to solicit donations for unknown purposes.

“We don’t know why he’s raising money. What’s clear is that he’s keeping contact with the remnants of his government,” Geoff Rudd, the European Union’s top diplomat in Liberia, told The Associated Press.

Taylor, a longtime rebel leader who won the presidency in 1997, yielded power and flew out in a Nigerian presidential jet last month, bowing to pressure from the United States, African leaders and rebels laying siege to his capital.

He left behind a country in ruin from 14 years of power struggles.

Liberia, once sub-Saharan Africa’s most prosperous nation, today has no electrical system, a train system that runs on back-powered hand carts, and a water plant operated as a charity by the EU.

Taylor never made good on promises to repair Liberia – but not for lack of funds, Liberians and Western diplomats say. There are estimates he has up to $1 billion stashed in Swiss bank accounts.

“Taylor was into everything,” Rudd said.

Taylor’s regime had dealings in gold, diamonds, gas and rice imports, timber exports, printing and Liberia’s shipping registry business, which is among the world’s largest.

Diplomats and Liberian business figures describe a system in which six or seven prominent Liberians close to Taylor control all but 10 percent of the country’s export and import businesses.

The Liberians speaking out insist on anonymity for fear of retribution. Longtime international officials in Monrovia, also unwilling to give their names, confirm the accounts.

Gasoline – an essential commodity powering generators in a country without electricity since 1992 – is offloaded at the government-controlled port for less than $1 a gallon.

At the pumps, it sells at the state-dictated price – around $3.20 a gallon.

Rice – Liberia’s staple – is charged import duties and other taxes totaling $5.50 per 110-pound sack, much higher than in other West African countries, said Georges Haddad, a Lebanese businessman who Liberians say is the nation’s sole rice importer.

Haddad said he imports about 1 million bags of rice a year but does not run a monopoly.

Taylor at one point took ownership of 52 percent of the country’s sole printing company for free. “He made them an offer they couldn’t refuse,” the EU’s Rudd said without elaborating.

Seventy percent of the world’s container ships fly Liberia’s star-and-striped banner under a so-called “flag of convenience” arrangement that lowers shipping lines’ taxes. Diplomats say that generates about $24 million annually.

“Which bank account is that money going into? We’ll need to figure that out,” Jacques Klein, an American serving as the U.N. envoy to Liberia, said.

How much the country’s mineral and natural reserves netted Taylor’s government may never be known. For years, Liberians watched Taylor accrue lavish mansions and plantations.

One businessman said anyone who spoke about Taylor’s take from gold and diamonds might not live long. With government forces specializing in torture and summary execution, rights groups said, few dared speak out.

With Taylor gone, they are starting to.

“We’re endowed with such great resources,” said Philip Wesseh, publisher of Liberia’s The Inquirer newspaper. “It’s in the way it is managed. We shouldn’t be a poor country.”

An EU study said Liberia had about $172 million in revenues in 2002. That year, the government budgeted expenditures of $62 million – but received less than 45 percent of that, the study said.

“Where the balance went, we don’t know,” Rudd said.

Taylor refused outside audits of government ledgers.

It also is not known exactly how much money Taylor has in Swiss bank accounts.

“He had to buy weapons, keep his people happy and get all those Mercedes-Benzes for his girlfriends,” said Robert Ferguson, a U.S. Embassy official who tracks Liberia’s business community.

Switzerland promised in June to freeze all assets linked to the indicted war-crimes suspect, who was the target of U.N. sanctions concerning arms, travel and timber.

Taylor’s exile agreement with Nigeria prohibits him from any dealings with Blah or from influencing the peace process, diplomats said. Full terms of the exile deal have not been disclosed.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo – credited with taking the lead in persuading Taylor to leave – has been asked by foreign officials in Liberia to shut off Taylor’s phones, Rudd said.

“He’s just trying to destabilize the situation. I think he’s trying to prove that he’s not the problem, that this place is insecure, that people will always fight,” Rudd said.


Calif. candidates target Prop. 54

FRESNO, Calif.

The leading Democrat and Republican vying to replace Gov. Gray Davis are both taking aim at another issue on the Oct. 7 recall ballot: Proposition 54, which seeks to limit what racial data the government can collect.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is transferring $3.8 million in questioned contributions from Indian tribes and unions to a committee to fight the measure, his campaign consultant said yesterday.

Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, under fire for his positions on immigrant issues, said Saturday for the first time that he also opposes the measure.

“There is no way we can match that,” Proposition 54’s backer, Ward Connerly, said in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times. The University of California regent acknowledged the measure would likely be defeated.

Opponents say the initiative would undermine civil rights enforcement because it would stop the collection of statistics that could show a pattern of discrimination in anything from schooling to law enforcement. Connerly has said statistics can’t prove discrimination, and that it’s time to stop being so race conscious.

Schwarzenegger, speaking to Spanish language station KUVS-TV in Sacramento, said he believes it is necessary to collect racial data for use in such fields as health and education.

“If you take that out, it will be disastrous,” he said.

Bustamante campaign consultant Richie Ross said the lieutenant governor is following his conscience by putting the union and Indian contributions into the fight against Proposition 54.

Bustamante, the only well-known Democrat among the 135 replacement candidates, has been criticized for accepting millions of dollars from unions and from tribes with lucrative casinos by taking advantage of a loophole in the state’s campaign financing rules.

He skirted the $21,200 individual contribution approved by voters in 2000 by accepting the multimillion dollar donations to his 2002 campaign committee for lieutenant governor. Because that committee was created before the state’s new campaign finance law took effect, it is not subject to the contribution caps imposed on newer campaign accounts. The money was then transferred into his recall committee account.

Though the action may be legal, critics say it’s wrong.

Republican state Sen. Ross Johnson filed a lawsuit asking a judge to forbid the lieutenant governor from collecting donations that exceed the limit.

Even state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres said it “doesn’t pass the smell test.” It’s a legal loophole, Torres said, but “do I think he should’ve used it? Probably not.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe defended Bustamante’s decision yesterday on NBC’s Meet the Press, saying “It is legal, and it is disclosed.”

Bustamante had previously defended his acceptance of the money, saying it “levels the playing field” with his wealthy opponents. He has yet to run a campaign television ad because, Ross said, he doesn’t have enough money, while other candidates have already aired several.

But Ross said yesterday that Bustamante wants to avoid a political fight that has nothing to do with the issues voters care about. “It’s not the lawsuit. Our attorneys are very sure about our position on that,” he said.

The lieutenant governor was set to announce the plan yesterday at a campaign rally in Fresno. He was then scheduled to accept the endorsement of the Tribal Council of the Santa Rosa Rancheria at a Lemoore casino.

Davis, meanwhile, was expected to ride in the East Los Angeles Mexican Independence Day Parade on yesterday, the same parade that Schwarzenegger’s campaign says organizers asked the Republican actor not to attend.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Todd Harris yesterday demanded an apology from the governor for a comment Davis made about the actor.

The Sacramento Bee reported that Davis remarked to a voter at a union rally Saturday, “You shouldn’t be governor unless you can pronounce the name of the state,” apparently in reference to Schwarzenegger’s Austrian accent.

“Gray Davis ought to apologize to Arnold Schwarzenegger and to every other immigrant who comes to California in pursuit of the American dream. This is wedge-issue politics at its worst and the people of California deserve better,” Harris said.

Davis spokesman Peter Ragone said he was with the governor at the rally Saturday and didn’t hear him make the comment.

“I would say the real question here is whether or not Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sorry for his support of Prop. 187, and is he sorry for his personal attacks on Cruz Bustamante’s appearance, and if you want to talk about wedge-issue politics, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s surrounded himself with the kings of wedge-issue politics,” Ragone said.


Bomb kills 6, injures 34 in marketplace

SRINAGAR, India

Violence surged sharply in Indian-controlled Kashmir Saturday with a series of separatist attacks across the Himalayan region. At least nine people were killed and more than 40 wounded, police said.

In the deadliest attack, a bomb exploded in a busy wholesale market on the outskirts of Srinagar. killing six people and wounding 34, said Tirath Acharya, a spokesman for the Border Security Force.

A Pakistan-based militant group, Hezb-ul Mujahedeen, claimed responsibility in a telephone call to a local news agency in Srinagar, the summer capital of India’s Jammu-Kashmir state.

A man identifying himself as a group spokesman said the attack was aimed at Indian security forces, the Current News Service said.

The claim could not be independently confirmed.

The bomb was planted in a car parked at the Parimpora market, the main fruit traders center. It exploded as an Indian army convoy was passing by, wounding Brig. S.K. Chopra.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Mukhtiar Singh told The Associated Press three soldiers also were wounded. Singh would not comment on Chopra’s injuries.

Chopra’s jeep was blown “nearly 40 yards by the impact of the blast,” said M.A. Shah, a police officer at the scene.

Hezb-ul Mujahedeen is the largest of more than a dozen Islamic guerrilla groups fighting for Kashmir’s independence, or its merger with mostly Muslim Pakistan. It is part of an alliance of 15 militant organizations based in Pakistan’s part of Kashmir.

More than 63,000 people have died in the 13-year insurgency in India’s only Muslim-majority state.

The Kashmir region is divided between India and Pakistan, although both claim it in its entirety. The nuclear-armed rivals have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir since they became independent from British rule in 1947.


Bermuda left ravaged by Hurricane Fabian

HAMILTON, Bermuda

The dark clouds of Fabian lifted Saturday, revealing the devastation wrought by the most powerful hurricane to hit Bermuda in 50 years: pulverized trees, shorn rooftops and tens of thousands of homes without power.

Four people were missing from the storm, which unleashed 120 mph winds when it slammed into the British territory Friday afternoon.

By Saturday, the storm had moved on and the reality of the devastation had set in. “We have experienced a considerable beating,” said John Burchall, a spokesman for the Bermuda government.

Divers were looking for the missing – two police officers and two civilians – whose vehicles were swept off a causeway Friday, but poor visibility hampered the search.

Nine people sought medical attention Saturday for minor injuries, according to Valerie Pethen, another government spokeswoman. Most roads to hospitals had been cleared.

Power was still out in 26,000 homes because debris was blocking repair crews. Dozens of people remained in five shelters, and others were staying at hotels because of damage to their homes. Hospitals had power but many hotels were running on generators.

Hurricane Fabian’s lashing winds shattered part of a wall in the airport causeway and officials said a decision would be made late Saturday on whether to reopen yesterday.

There were reports of widespread flooding, and unconfirmed reports of looting. Many of Bermuda’s famed golf courses were in ruins.

Premier Alex Scott toured damaged areas on Saturday.

“I am so very glad I am a Bermudian because I know what is going to happen next,” Scott said. “We are going to come together like we always do. The world will watch us and learn about real community.”

Dwayne Caines, a police spokesman, said the hurricane did major damage to the roofs of many homes.

“We’ve gotten lots of reports of slate that covers many roofs blowing away. We’ve had minor structural damage from debris such as broken windows and downed power lines.”

Three men survived 20-foot swells after spending 10 hours at sea during the worst of the storm. Jay Simmons’ 46-foot boat broke its moorings at central Spanish Point at noon Friday, but he wouldn’t let the new $200,000 boat go down without a fight.

Simmons, 44, enlisted his brother Vaughan Simmons, 46, and Brendan Robinson, 48, to save the vessel, although Robinson was swept overboard in choppy seas.

“My life flashed before my eyes a few times,” he said. “I don’t think I have ever seen anything like this and I don’t think I will again. We are lucky to be alive.”

At 5 p.m. EDT, Fabian was about 860 miles northeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Isabel had formed about 660 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands.

Isabel, the ninth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, had maximum sustained winds of 40 mph Saturday morning and was expected to strengthen as it moved west at about 14 mph.

It was not expected to make landfall for several days.

Fabian tested Bermuda’s vaunted ability to withstand a fierce storm. The wealthy British territory requires newly built houses to withstand sustained winds of 110 mph. It also has a study infrastructure with many of its power and phone lines underground.

Bermuda had not seen a Category 3 hurricane like Fabian since 1953, when Edna ravaged the island chain with its 115 mph winds.

Many tourists who decided to wait out the storm watched Fabian roll into the harbors Friday from their rattling hotel windows.

“It’s terrific to watch but it’s still intimidating,” said Susan Chandler, 52, a New Yorker on vacation.

Islanders bolted themselves inside homes or fled to hotels, some of which reported gushing leaks.

Robert O’Leary, 59, from the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, was in Bermuda visiting his pregnant daughter. “We’ll call the baby Fabian, I guess,” said O’Leary, who nervously passed the time sipping Bermuda rum.

About 62,000 people live in the territory.

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