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Monday, 09 December 2013 01:47

Hagel to meet with Pakistan's prime minister

   ISLAMABAD (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Pakistan Monday for meetings with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the nation's new army chief, hoping to further repair a strained and sputtering relationship between Washington and Islamabad.

   His visit comes on the heels of the latest interruption of U.S. military shipments out of Afghanistan through the main border crossings into Pakistan. Anti-American protests along the route in Pakistan prompted the U.S. to stop the shipments from Torkham Gate through Karachi last week, due to worries about the safety of the truckers.

   The protests center on the CIA's drone program, which has targeted and killed many terrorists but has also caused civilian casualties. Pakistan has called the drone attacks a violation of the country's sovereignty, but the issue is muddied by the fact that Islamabad and the Pakistani military have supported at least some of the strikes in the past.

   Shireen Mazari, the information secretary for the political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, said in a statement Monday it's time for the government to speak forcefully to the U.S. to demand an end to the drone attacks. The party is leading the protests.

   The Pakistani government blocked the routes for seven months following U.S. airstrikes that accidentally killed two dozen soldiers on the Afghan border in November 2011. Pakistan finally reopened the routes after the U.S. apologized.

   The rift led the U.S. to sever most aid to Pakistan for some time, but relations were restored in July 2012. Since then, the U.S. has delivered more than $1.15 billion in security assistance to Pakistan, including advanced communications equipment, roadside bomb jammers, night vision goggles and surveillance aircraft.

   A senior defense official said these issues will come up in Hagel's meetings, and acknowledged the lingering tensions between the two countries. Over the past year, relations between Washington and Islamabad have been improving, and Sharif met with President Barack Obama and Hagel in late October in Washington.

   Hagel is expected to tell Pakistani leaders that the U.S. wants the border crossings to remain open, said the defense official, who was not authorized to discuss the private meeting plans publicly and requested anonymity.

   The U.S. has also been frustrated by Pakistan's unwillingness to target the Haqqani terrorist network, which operates along the border and conducts attacks on U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

   Defense officials said Hagel will be the first high-ranking U.S. official to meet with Gen. Rahaeel Sharil, who took over as head of Pakistan's powerful Army at the end of last month.

   Following their meeting in Rawalpindi, Hagel and Sharil echoed each other's desire to work to strengthen the countries' relationship.

   The last Pentagon chief to visit Pakistan was Robert Gates in January 2010.

   Hagel flew to Pakistan from Afghanistan, where he visited U.S. troops but declined to meet with President Hamid Karzai, who has rankled the U.S. by refusing to sign a security agreement before year's end.

Published in National News

   ISLAMABAD (AP) — The Pakistani government said Wednesday that 3 percent of 2,227 people killed in U.S. drone strikes since 2008 were civilians, a surprisingly low figure that sparked criticism from groups that have investigated deaths from the attacks.

   The number, which was provided by the Ministry of Defense to the Senate, is much lower than past government calculations and estimates by independent organizations that have gone as high as 300. The ministry said 317 drone strikes have killed 2,160 Islamic militants and 67 civilians since 2008.

   The attacks, which mainly target suspected Islamic militants near the northwestern border with Afghanistan, are widely unpopular in Pakistan because they are viewed as violating the country's sovereignty and killing too many civilians. The Pakistani government regularly criticizes the drone program in public, even though it is known to have secretly supported at least some of the strikes in the past.

   Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pressed President Barack Obama to end the attacks in a visit to the White House last week, but the U.S. considers the attacks vital to its battle against al-Qaida and the Taliban and gave no indication it was willing to abandon them.

   The latest strike occurred around midnight Wednesday, when missiles destroyed a vehicle in Miran Shah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal area, a major militant sanctuary, Pakistani intelligence officials said. No one was killed in the attack, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

   Defense Ministry officials could not be reached for comment on their civilian casualty figure, and the statement posted on the Senate's website did not give any indication why the number was so much lower than past government calculations and outside estimates.

   A U.N. expert investigating drone strikes, Ben Emmerson, said earlier this month that the Pakistani Foreign Ministry told him that at least 400 civilians have been killed by the attacks in the country since they started in 2004.

   Emmerson called on the government to explain the apparent discrepancy, saying the figures provided by the Foreign Ministry since 2004 indicated a much higher percentage of civilian casualties.

   "If the true figures for civilian deaths are significantly lower, then it is important that this should now be made clear, and the apparent discrepancy explained," Emmerson said in an email.

   The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in London, has estimated that drones have killed at least 300 civilians in Pakistan since 2008, while the Washington-based New America Foundation put the figure at 185. These estimates are often compiled based on media reports about the attacks.

   Pakistan's overall death toll is lower than some other totals, although not to the same degree as its figure for civilians. The New America Foundation registered 2,651 people killed in the same period, while the Long War Journal website has 2,493.

   The danger of traveling to the remote tribal region targeted by the strikes makes it difficult to compile an accurate number of civilian casualties.

   The U.S. rarely speaks publicly about the CIA-run drone program in Pakistan because it is classified. But some American officials have insisted that the strikes have killed very few civilians and that estimates from the Pakistani government and independent organizations are exaggerated.

   Amnesty International called on the U.S. to investigate reports of civilians killed and wounded by drone strikes in Pakistan in a report released earlier this month that provided new details about the alleged victims of the attacks, including a 68-year-old woman killed while farming with her grandchildren.

   Mamana Bibi's grandchildren told the London-based rights group that she was killed by missile fire on Oct. 24, 2012, as she was collecting vegetables in a family field in North Waziristan. Bibi's relatives testified before members of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday.

   The Amnesty report also cited witnesses as saying that a volley of missiles hit a tent where 18 men with no links to militant groups were eating after work, then a second struck those who came to help the wounded on July 6, 2012 in North Waziristan. Pakistani intelligence officials at the time identified the dead as suspected militants.

   In its latest statement, the Pakistani government said 21 civilians were killed in 2008, nine in 2009, two in 2010 and 35 in 2011. But it insisted no civilians have been killed since then.

   Amnesty researcher Mustafa Qadri said he was skeptical about the government figures because it conflicted with their research and indicated a failure of the state to adequately investigate alleged civilian casualties.

   The London-based human rights group, Reprieve, called the government's civilian casualty figures inaccurate, based on higher numbers it said were submitted to the Peshawar High Court by the top official in North Waziristan earlier this year.

   An Associated Press study in early 2012 of 10 of the deadliest drone strikes in North Waziristan over the preceding 18 months found that of at least 194 people killed in the attacks, about 70 percent — at least 138 — were militants. The remaining 56 were either civilians or tribal police, and 38 of them were killed in a single strike.

   The Interior Ministry also said Wednesday that "terrorist" attacks have killed 12,404 people and wounded 26,881 others since 2002, although these figures were disputed by some senators. The government has been battling an insurgency by the Pakistani Taliban, which seeks to topple the country's democratic system and impose Islamic law. It was not clear if the figure involved only attacks on civilians, or also attacks on security forces.

   A roadside bomb killed five soldiers and wounded three others Wednesday in the South Waziristan tribal area, the Pakistani Taliban's main sanctuary before the army conducted a large ground offensive in 2009, said military officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military policy.

   Also Wednesday, a bomb exploded in a market in southwestern Pakistan, killing two people and wounding at least 20 others, said police official Ahmad Raza. The attack occurred in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province. The province is home to both Islamic militants and separatists who have waged a low-level insurgency against the government for decades.

Published in National News
Monday, 21 October 2013 03:40

Malala inspires school curriculum

   WASHINGTON (AP) — The 16 year old Pakistani teen targeted for a Taliban assassination because she championed education for girls has inspired the development of a school curriculum encouraging advocacy.

   George Washington University announced Monday that faculty members are creating multimedia curriculum tools to accompany a book recently released by the teen, Malala Yousafzai. Several faculty members will pilot the curriculum early next year for both college and high school instruction. Free of charge, it will focus on themes such as the importance of a woman's voice and political extremism, the university said.

   The tools won't just look at the teen's story, but also how the same issues get reflected elsewhere, such as when girls face child marriage and pressures to leave school, said Mary Ellsberg, the director of the university's Global Women's Institute.

   "It's going to be really interactive and really encourage students to do ... activities outside of school, it will encourage them to get engaged in the communities and as well to help the Malala Fund directly," Ellsberg said.

   The university's Global Women's Institute is partnered with the Malala Fund, a nonprofit that seeks to ensure girls around the world have access to education.

   In 2012 when a Taliban gunman walked up to a bus taking Malala and other children home from school in Pakistan's volatile northern Swat Valley and shot Malala in the head and neck. Another girl on the bus was also wounded. Malala now resides in Britain, where she was flown for medical care. Her memoir is "I am Malala."

   _____

   Online: http://www.malalafund.org/

Published in National News

   DALBADI, Pakistan (AP) — Survivors built makeshift shelters with sticks and bedsheets after their mud houses were flattened in an earthquake that killed 348 people in southwestern Pakistan and pushed a new island up out of the Arabian Sea.

   While waiting for help to reach remote villages, hungry people dug through the rubble to find food. And the country's poorest province struggled with a dearth of medical supplies, hospitals and other aid.

   Tuesday's quake flattened wide swathes of Awaran district, where it was centered, leaving much of the population homeless.

   Almost all of the 300 mud-brick homes in the village of Dalbadi were destroyed. Noor Ahmad said he was working when the quake struck and rushed home to find his house leveled and his wife and son dead.

   "I'm broken," he said. "I have lost my family."

   The spokesman for the Baluchistan provincial government, Jan Mohammad Bulaidi, said Thursday that the death toll had climbed to 348 and that another 552 people had been injured.

   Doctors in the village treated some of the injured, but due to a scarcity of medicine and staff, they were mostly seen comforting residents.

   The remoteness of the area and the lack of infrastructure hampered relief efforts. Awaran district is one of the poorest in the country's most impoverished province.

   Just getting to victims was challenging in a region with almost no roads where many people use four-wheel-drive vehicles and camels to traverse the rough terrain.

   "We need more tents, more medicine and more food," said Bulaidi.

   Associated Press images from the village of Kaich showed the devastation. Houses made mostly of mud and handmade bricks had collapsed. Walls and roofs caved in, and people's possessions were scattered on the ground. A few goats roamed through the ruins.

   The Pakistani military said it had rushed almost 1,000 troops to the area overnight and was sending helicopters as well. A convoy of 60 Pakistani army trucks left the port city of Karachi early Wednesday with supplies.

   Pakistani forces have evacuated more than 170 people from various villages around Awaran to the district hospital, the military said. Others were evacuated to Karachi.

   One survivor interviewed in his Karachi hospital bed said he was sleeping when the quake struck.

   "I don't know who brought me from Awaran to here in Karachi, but I feel back pain and severe pain in my whole body," he said.

   Jan said he didn't know what happened to the man's family. He was trying to contact relatives.

   Local officials said they were sending doctors, food and 1,000 tents for people who had nowhere to sleep. The efforts were complicated by strong aftershocks.

   Baluchistan is Pakistan's largest province but also the least populated. Medical facilities are few and often poorly stocked with supplies and qualified personnel. Awaran district has about 300,000 residents spread out over 29,000 square kilometers (11,197 square miles).

   The local economy consists mostly of smuggling fuel from Iran or harvesting dates.

   The area where the quake struck is at the center of an insurgency that Baluch separatists have been waging against the Pakistani government for years. The separatists regularly attack Pakistani troops and symbols of the state, such as infrastructure projects.

   It's also prone to earthquakes. A magnitude 7.8 quake centered just across the border in Iran killed at least 35 people in Pakistan last April.

   Tuesday's shaking was so violent it drove up mud and earth from the seafloor to create an island off the Pakistani coast.

   A Pakistani Navy team reached the island by midday Wednesday. Navy geologist Mohammed Danish told the country's Geo Television that the mass was a little wider than a tennis court and slightly shorter than a football field.

   The director of the National Seismic Monitoring Center confirmed that the mass was created by the quake and said scientists were trying to determine how it happened. Zahid Rafi said such masses are sometimes created by the movement of gases locked in the earth that push mud to the surface.

   "That big shock beneath the earth causes a lot of disturbance," he said.

   He said these types of islands can remain for a long time or eventually subside back into the ocean, depending on their makeup.

   He warned residents not to visit the island because it was emitting dangerous gases.

   But dozens of people went anyway, including the deputy commissioner of Gwadar district, Tufail Baloch.

   Water bubbled along the edges of the island. The land was stable but the air smelled of gas that caught fire when people lit cigarettes, Baloch said.

   Dead fish floated on the water's surface while residents visited the island and took stones as souvenirs, he added.

   Similar land masses appeared off Pakistan's coast following quakes in 1999 and 2010, said Muhammed Arshad, a hydrographer with the navy. They eventually disappeared into the sea during the rainy season.

   ___

   Santana reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Adil Jawad in Karachi contributed to this report.

Published in National News

   RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (AP) — A Pakistani court Tuesday indicted former president and army chief Pervez Musharraf on murder charges in connection with the 2007 assassination of iconic Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, deepening the fall of a once-powerful figure who returned to the country this year in an effort to take part in elections.

   The decision by a court in Rawalpindi marks the first time Musharraf, or any former army chief in Pakistan, has been charged with a crime.

   Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup and stepped down from office in disgrace nearly a decade later, now faces a litany of legal problems that have in many ways broken taboos on the inviolability of the once-sacrosanct military in Pakistani society.

   He has been charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder and facilitation for murder, said prosecutor Chaudry Muhammed Azhar.

   The former army commando appeared in person during the brief morning hearing, and pleaded not guilty, said Afsha Adil, a member of Musharraf's legal team.

   Bhutto was killed in 2007 during a gun and bomb attack at a rally in the city of Rawalpindi, the sister city to the capital of Islamabad. Prosecutors have said Musharraf, who was president at the time, failed to properly protect her.

   The judge set August 27 as the next court date to present evidence.

   Musharraf returned to Pakistan in March after nearly four years outside the country and vowed to take part in the country's May elections. But he has little popular support in Pakistan and ever since his return has faced a litany of legal problems related to his rule.

   He has been confined to his house on the outskirts Islamabad as part of his legal problems, and was brought to court Tuesday amid tight security.

   In addition to the Bhutto case, Musharraf is involved in a case related to the 2007 detention of judges and the death of a Baluch nationalist leader.

   He's also faced threats from the Pakistani Taliban who tried to assassinate him twice while he was in office and vowed to try again if he returned.

Published in National News

   ISLAMABAD (AP) — The State Department has warned Americans not to travel to Pakistan and evacuated nonessential government personnel from the country's second largest city because of a specific threat to the consulate there, a U.S. official said Friday.

   The move was not related to the threat of an al-Qaida attack that prompted Washington to close temporarily 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa.

   According to U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Meghan Gregonis, the U.S. is shifting its nonessential staff from the consulate in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore to the capital, Islamabad.

   Emergency personnel will stay in Lahore, and embassy officials do not know when the consulate will reopen, she said.

   "We received information regarding a threat to the consulate," said Gregonis. "As a precautionary measure, we are undertaking a drawdown of all except emergency personnel."

   The consulate in Lahore was already scheduled to be closed for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr from Thursday through Sunday.

   The personnel drawdown at the Lahore consulate was precautionary and wasn't related to the recent closures of numerous U.S. diplomatic missions in the Muslim world, said two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the order.

   Earlier this week, 19 U.S. diplomatic outposts in 16 countries in the Middle East and Africa were closed to the public through Saturday and nonessential personnel were evacuated from the U.S. Embassy in Yemen after U.S. intelligence officials said they had intercepted a recent message from al-Qaida's top leader about plans for a major terror attack.

   None of the consulates in Pakistan or the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad were affected by the earlier closures.

   On Thursday, the State Department issued a travel warning saying the presence of several foreign and indigenous terrorist groups posed a potential danger to U.S. citizens throughout Pakistan.

   The country has faced a bloody insurgency by the Pakistani Taliban and their allies in recent years that has killed over 40,000 civilians and security personnel, and is also believed to be home base for al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Most of the militant attacks have been in the northwest and southwest along the border with Afghanistan.

   Gunmen killed six people and wounded 15 others Friday in an attack on a former lawmaker outside a mosque in Quetta, the capital of southwest Baluchistan province, said police officer Bashir Ahmad Barohi. The lawmaker escaped unharmed. A day earlier, a Taliban suicide bomber killed 30 people at a police funeral in Quetta.

   Pakistan's major cities, including Lahore, have also experienced periodic attacks.

   A powerful bomb exploded at a busy market street in Lahore in early July, killing at least four people and wounding nearly 50.

   Lahore is considered Pakistan's cultural capital and has a population of at least 10 million people.

   A CIA contractor shot to death two Pakistanis in Lahore in January 2011 who he said were trying to rob him. The incident severely damaged relations between Pakistan and the U.S. The contractor, Raymond Davis, was released by Pakistan in March 2011 after the families of the victims were paid over $2 million.

 

___

 

Associated Press writer Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Pakistan, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Published in National News
Tuesday, 06 August 2013 01:38

Gunmen kill 13 bus passengers in Pakistan

   QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) — A local official says gunmen have abducted and killed 13 bus passengers in southwest Pakistan.

   Kashif Nabi says the passengers were taken from a convoy of five buses Monday night heading from Baluchistan province to Punjab province. Tribal police found their bodies Tuesday in a nearby ravine.

   Nabi says paramilitary troops provide protection for bus convoys moving through Baluchistan. But the attackers distracted the troops by attacking a nearby oil tanker. The troops responded, and one soldier was killed.

   Another group of gunmen attacked the buses and took 13 passengers with them.

   No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

   Baluchistan is home to both Islamic militants and separatist insurgents. It's not clear whom the attackers were targeting, but separatists have a history of attacking Punjabis.

Published in National News

   ISLAMABAD (AP) - Pakistan's newly-elected prime minister is calling for an end to American drone strikes in tribal areas.

   Nawaz Sharif's call came in his first speech in parliament, minutes after lawmakers elected him the country's premier.

   But he gave little details on how he might bring about an end to the strikes, which many in Pakistan have called an affront to the country's sovereignty.

   The U.S. considers the strikes vital to battling militants such as al-Qaida, who use the tribal areas of Pakistan as a safe haven.

   Sharif's comments are in line with previous statements he has made calling for an end to the controversial strikes.

 

   

 
Published in National News
Saturday, 11 May 2013 08:03

Election day violence in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Election day attacks in Pakistan have killed at least 16 people and wounded dozens more even as voters defy the danger posed by militants to cast ballots in a historic day at the polls.

The violence was a continuation of what has been a brutal election season that saw at least 130 people killed in bloody Taliban attacks, mostly against liberal secular parties who have supported military operations against the militants.

It's the first time Pakistan is making the transition from one elected government to the next.

The closely watched vote in the nuclear armed nation pits a former cricket star against a once-exiled, two-time prime minister and an incumbent blamed for many problems.

Published in National News

   ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani officials say gunmen have attacked an election rally in the southern Punjab province and abducted the son of former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

   A police official, Abdul Rehman, says gunmen stormed the rally in the town of Multan, opened fire and seized Ali Haider Gilani on Thursday.

   A Punjab government official, Rao Iftikhar Ahmad, says one of Gilani's guards was killed and five people were wounded in the attack.

   Thursday is the last day of campaigning for Pakistan's election scheduled this Saturday.

   But the race has been marred by a string of violent attacks against candidates and election events.

Published in National News
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