Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"We fired on the public,’ Mumbai suspect says"


The lone surviving gunman in the Mumbai attacks pleaded guilty Monday and gave a detailed account of the plot and his role in the rampage that left 166 people dead and paralyzed the city for three days.

The confession was a big boost to India's claims that terrorist groups in Pakistan were behind the attack, and that Islamabad was not doing enough to clamp down on them. Pakistan has acknowledged the Mumbai attacks were partly plotted on its soil, severely straining relations between the nuclear-armed archrivals.

In a verbal statement, Ajmal Kasab described his group's journey from Karachi, Pakistan on a boat, their subsequent landing in Mumbai on Nov. 26, and his assault on a railway station and a hospital with a comrade he identified as Abu Ismail.

The other gunmen, also armed with automatic rifles and grenades, attacked a Jewish center and two five-star hotels, including the Taj Mahal. The rampage ended at the historic hotel days later after commandos killed the attackers holed up there.

"I was firing and Abu was hurling hand grenades (at the railway station)," Kasab told the court. "We both fired, me and Abu Ismail. We fired on the public."

Earlier Kasab, 21, stood up before the special court hearing his case just as a prosecution witness was to take the stand and addressed the judge. "Sir, I plead guilty to my crime," he said, triggering a collective gasp in the courtroom.

The statement was recorded and signed by Kasab, formally reversing his plea from innocent to guilty in the trial that started April 17.

From shop assistant to terrorist
Kasab told the court he worked as a shop assistant in Jhelum town in Pakistan. Unhappy with the low wages he and a colleague named Muzzafar went to Rawalpindi city with the intention of becoming professional robbers, he said.

While attending a festival in Rawalpindi, they approached some men with long beards, correctly guessing they were Islamic radicals who could provide them weapons for robberies. The bearded men put them in touch with Lashkar-e-Taiba, which gave them weapons training, he said.

Before coming to India, Kasab said he lived in a house in Karachi for 1 1/2 months with 10 other young men. All of them were transferred to another home and taken to sea where they met four handlers. One of them was an Indian named Abu Zundal, he said.

After attacking the railway station and hospital, Kasab said he and Ismail drove to a nearby beach in a hijacked vehicle. He was later captured by police after a shootout in which Isamil was killed. He was treated for wounds and has since been held in solitary confinement in a Mumbai jail.

Kasab said his confession was not coerced. "There is no pressure on me. I am making the statement of my own will," he said.

The other gunmen, also armed with automatic rifles and grenades, attacked a Jewish center and two five-star hotels, including the Taj Mahal. The rampage ended at the historic hotel days later after commandos killed the attackers holed up there.

"I was firing and Abu was hurling hand grenades (at the railway station)," Kasab told the court. "We both fired, me and Abu Ismail. We fired on the public."

Earlier Kasab, 21, stood up before the special court hearing his case just as a prosecution witness was to take the stand and addressed the judge. "Sir, I plead guilty to my crime," he said, triggering a collective gasp in the courtroom.

The statement was recorded and signed by Kasab, formally reversing his plea from innocent to guilty in the trial that started April 17.

From shop assistant to terrorist
Kasab told the court he worked as a shop assistant in Jhelum town in Pakistan. Unhappy with the low wages he and a colleague named Muzzafar went to Rawalpindi city with the intention of becoming professional robbers, he said.

While attending a festival in Rawalpindi, they approached some men with long beards, correctly guessing they were Islamic radicals who could provide them weapons for robberies. The bearded men put them in touch with Lashkar-e-Taiba, which gave them weapons training, he said.

Before coming to India, Kasab said he lived in a house in Karachi for 1 1/2 months with 10 other young men. All of them were transferred to another home and taken to sea where they met four handlers. One of them was an Indian named Abu Zundal, he said.

After attacking the railway station and hospital, Kasab said he and Ismail drove to a nearby beach in a hijacked vehicle. He was later captured by police after a shootout in which Isamil was killed. He was treated for wounds and has since been held in solitary confinement in a Mumbai jail.

Kasab said his confession was not coerced. "There is no pressure on me. I am making the statement of my own will," he said.

Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit declined to comment on Kasab's court admission.

A total of 166 people were killed in the attacks by 10 gunmen in Mumbai, India's financial capital. It ended with troops storming the Taj Mahal Hotel where some gunmen were holed up.

Kasab's dramatic statement took those at the hearing by surprise.

"Everybody in the court was shocked the moment he said he accepts his crime. It was unexpected," public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam said. "We have finally extracted the truth."

"Everyone is surprised. I am also surprised," said defense lawyer Abbas Kazmi.

Pakistan probes militant groups
Monday's development came days after Pakistan gave a dossier to India with details of its investigation into the terrorist groups that New Delhi claims were responsible.

Late last month the special court also issued arrest warrants for 22 Pakistani nationals accused of masterminding the attacks. India blames Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The founder of the group, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, was arrested with two other senior figures by Pakistani authorities in December.

A court in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore freed Saeed, a hard-line Islamic cleric, in June saying there was no evidence against him. The federal government will appeal the verdict.

In his statement Monday, Kasab did not name Saeed although he had described him as a conspirator during interrogation.

Ashok Chavan, the chief minister of Maharashtra state of which Mumbai is the capital, congratulated the prosecution team and said "the court should give the maximum punishment" to Kasab.

Mexican drug cartels muscling out Latin rivals


Guatemala, Colombia, Peru see clash of trafficking cultures!

GUATEMALA CITY - Guatemalan drug boss Juan Jose "Juancho" Leon was summoned by Mexican traffickers for what he was told was business. Instead, dozens of attackers ambushed his entourage with grenades and assault rifles, killing Leon and 10 others in a brazen demonstration of power.

Mexican drug traffickers are branching out as never before — spreading their tentacles into 47 nations, including the U.S., Guatemala and even Colombia, long the heart of the drug trade in Latin America.

The expansion comes amid a military crackdown in Mexico and the arrests of major Colombian suppliers and poses a new challenge for efforts to stop the flow of drugs into the United States.

In dozens of interviews with officials and experts in seven countries, The Associated Press found that the Mexican mobs increasingly buy directly from the cocaine-producing Andes and have begun using countries as distant as Argentina to obtain the raw material for methamphetamine. Mexican gangsters have been arrested as far away as Malaysia as they seek new markets for cocaine and "meth" supply sources.

"There are more Mexican drug traffickers in South America today than at any time ever, period," said Jay Bergman, the Andean regional director for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help Colombia dismantle its major cartels but may have actually helped the Mexicans gain traction in South America in the process.

In the past two years, Colombia extradited 14 warlords to the U.S. on drug-running charges and another six major traffickers have been killed or arrested. Mexican emissaries and money are flowing into the country to fill the void.

"The belief is that the Mexicans are trying to get closer to the source of supply and take over the transport," said Jere Miles, chief of the unit that tracks trade-based money laundering for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

'Mexicans ... in Medellin'
Mexican traffickers have turned up in many Colombian cities and are working to get cash in the hands of peasants to boost coca production, said Colombian police director Gen. Oscar Naranjo.

"We have evidence of Mexicans sitting in Medellin, sitting in Cali, sitting in Pereira, in Barranquilla," he told the AP.

In neighboring Peru, the world's No. 2 cocaine-producing country after Colombia, Mexican traffickers are bribing customs officials at airports and seaports and laundering money by investing in real estate. At least four major Mexican cartels now buy cocaine directly in Peru, said Sonia Medina, chief public prosecutor for drugs and money laundering.

In the last three years, 40 Mexicans have been arrested in Peru on drug-trafficking charges, mostly low-level couriers smuggling 22 to 44 pounds of cocaine in suitcases, said Col. Leonardo Morales of Peru's anti-narcotics police.

Traffickers rent homes in Lima's best neighborhoods for weeks at a time. One suspect, Saulo Mauricio Parra Tejada, was arrested there in June after police found four suitcases with 234 pounds of cocaine in his car. A second man with Parra commandeered a taxi and fled in a shootout with police.

"We presume he was headed for the airport," Morales said.

Drug-related killings — with the sudden appearance of Mexican cartel-contracted hit men — are also on the upswing. Three Mexicans believed involved in the drug trade and 15 Colombians were murdered in Lima in the past two years.

"When Peru's mafias dealt pretty exclusively with Colombians, you didn't see that," said Eduardo Castaneda, a Peruvian anti-drug prosecutor.

Other Latin American countries have started playing a role as transshipment points for the chemicals used to make methamphetamine, a highly addictive street drug.

Mexico supplies 80 to 90 percent of the methamphetamine sold in the U.S., according to the DEA. The drug is made from pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, commonly found in cold and flu medicines and typically obtained in bulk from India and China.

In 2007, Mexico banned the import and domestic use of both chemicals. So the problem spread abroad. Last year, the United Nations identified, for the first time, the manufacture of methamphetamine and other illicit synthetic stimulants in 10 nations, including Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala and Honduras.

In Argentina, ephedrine imports rose from 5.5 tons in 2006 to 28.5 tons the following year, according to the DEA. Half the 1.2 tons of ephedrine Argentine authorities seized last year was bound for Mexico in a shipment of sugar.

Also last year, police took down a methamphetamine lab in Buenos Aires linked to the Mexican Sinaloa cartel. In all, 23 people — including nine Mexicans — were arrested.

Court papers say the cartel exploited Argentina's lax financial oversight and plodding judiciary to set up shell companies to import ephedrine from India and China. The papers say employees then ground up the ephedrine, liquefied it and shipped it in wine bottles to Mexico.

In another case, three young entrepreneurs were found in a ditch, hands bound with plastic. Investigators say they were pumped with bullets in a gangland-style killing for crossing Mexican mobsters.

Two of them, Sebastian Forza and Damian Ferron, apparently tried to shortchange Mexicans who were buying in bulk from them.

They owned pharmacies and "adulterated the ephedrine, thinking they'd take advantage of the Mexicans' stupidity," said Tony Greco, who recently retired from the DEA after six years in Argentina.

A month later, Argentina began to tightly restrict sales of ephedrine. Greco said Mexican gangs in Argentina have since returned to trafficking cocaine from Bolivia, where the U.N. says coca production is up for a third straight year and whose president, Evo Morales, expelled the DEA last year. Greco said the cocaine is shipped from there to Europe, Africa and Asia.

In the meantime, the sale of drugs used to make meth has also spread. In Honduras, authorities seized 3.5 million pseudoephedrine pills from smugglers last year, arresting four Mexicans. In El Salvador, police are investigating the disappearance of 2 million pseudoephedrine pills from a 2008 shipment, and cough medicine purchased in bulk has been sent north. Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have now all passed laws prohibiting most uses of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

Peru, where the drugs remain for sale, is among countries where traffickers routinely take a group of people, hit as many retail outlets as possible and buy the maximum amount of pseudoephedrine they can get, in what police call "smurfing."

In Malaysia, three Mexicans were arrested last year and charged with trafficking 63 pounds of meth. If found guilty, they face the death penalty.

Death threats to Guatemalan leaders
Guatemala is struggling to combat the Mexican crime invasion with loaned helicopters from the U.S. and organized crime investigators from the U.N. Guatemalans feel their country, wedged between Mexico and Colombia, has become like "the meat in a hamburger," then Interior Minister Francisco Jose Jimenez said last year.

The U.S. State Department has warned that a weak criminal justice system and pervasive corruption make it difficult for Guatemala to address the rise in drug activity.

In late November, 17 people were killed in an apparent battle between Mexican and Guatemalan gangs, reportedly over a stolen drug shipment, said Guatemalan Police Director Marlene Blanco.

Four months later, police discovered a training camp for the Zetas, one of Mexico's fiercest gangs, a few miles south of the Mexican border in Ixtcan. They also found 500 grenades and thousands of bullets believed stolen from the Guatemalan army, and in mid-June, Guatemalan authorities confiscated nearly 10 million pseudoephedrine pills in a shipping container in Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala's main port on the Pacific. It was the country's biggest seizure of the substance.

President Alvaro Colom, the national police chief and the interior minister all say they have received death threats from traffickers in recent months.

Since the Juancho Leon murder in March 2008, 33 Zetas have been captured and are behind bars, said Giulio Antonio Talamont, the country's prisons chief. They include senior Zeta commander Daniel Perez Rojas, a former Mexican soldier charged with orchestrating Leon's killing.

Drug lords are infamous in Mexico for their jail breaks.

So nervous Guatemalan authorities recently doubled the number of soldiers ringing the prison where Perez, alias "El Cachetes" or "Puffy Cheeks," and the other Mexicans are held. They jam cell phone signals and periodically rotate Perez from cell to cell for extra security, Talamont said.

The authorities are so nervous that they plan to hold Perez' trial later this year in a makeshift courtroom inside the prison.

Calderon changes Mexico's drug war strategy


APATZINGAN, Mexico - Mexican drug cartels armed with powerful weapons and angered by a nationwide military crackdown are striking back, killing soldiers in bold, daily attacks that threaten the one force strong enough to take on the gangs.

The daily bloodshed includes an ambush that killed five soldiers this month, a severed head left with a defiant note outside a military barracks on Saturday and the slaying Monday of a top federal intelligence official who was shot in the face in his car outside his office in Mexico City.

Mexicans were particularly shocked last week by televised images of kindergartners fleeing their school during a grenade-and-gun battle between traffickers and soldiers that lasted for nearly two hours in this small town in President Felipe Calderon’s home state of Michoacan.

The unrelenting bloodshed has forced a change in strategy for Calderon, who sent more than 24,000 federal police and soldiers out in December to reoccupy territory from Michoacan’s poppy-dotted mountains to the tourist-packed port of Acapulco.

Now, to supplement the massive presence of soldiers and tanks in small towns, he’s ordered the creation of an elite military special operations force capable of surgical strikes.

“We are not going to give in,” Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said. “In the states where there is most violence, we will be right there to confront the phenomenon.”

The drug trade is all-powerful in Mexico. Analysts estimate that cartels here make between $10 billion and $30 billion selling cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine to the U.S. market, rivaling Mexico’s revenues from oil exports and tourism. The gangs also make billions through robbery, kidnapping and extortion of businesses and would-be migrants.

The Calderon administration insists the crackdown is working — the government has already detained more than 1,000 gunmen and burned millions of dollars in marijuana plants. Traffickers are being extradited to the U.S. more rapidly than ever before, and police recently made the world’s biggest seizure of drug cash, $207 million neatly stacked inside a Mexico City mansion.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials say it’s too early to judge the crackdown’s success. Seizures at the U.S. border indicate the flow of drugs north may actually be increasing — 20 percent more cocaine and 28 percent more marijuana has been seized in the past six months, compared with the same period a year earlier.

Violence soaring
Violence nationwide in Mexico seems to be increasing. The country’s three leading newspapers estimate shootouts, decapitations and execution-style killings have claimed the lives of about 1,000 people this year, on track to soar past last year’s count of 2,000. The government doesn’t count drug-related killings, and a top federal police official, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, has referred to the newspaper figures as the best numbers available.

This month’s death toll for soldiers and sailors is the worst for the military in more than a decade — violence that shows the gangs’ desperation, officials say.

On Saturday, drug gangs left the head of a 37-year-old auto mechanic wrapped in a sheet outside an army base near the port city of Veracruz, along with a note that read: “We are going to continue, even if federal forces are here.” The grisly message came shortly after the government said it was sending troops to the city to respond to a shooting attack.

Many Mexicans fear even the army is outgunned.

'We are scared to go out of houses'
“Calderon’s war on drugs has been a big disappointment for us,” said Pedro Ortega, a family doctor in Aguililla, a Michoacan farming town at the center of the drug trade. “The reality is that we are scared to go out of houses, scared about what could happen to our children.”

Calderon’s overall approval ratings remain high — 68 percent according to a recent Ipsos-BIMSA poll. But 40 percent blame the military presence for the increasing violence, and 36 percent believe the traffickers are winning, according to the nationwide survey of 1,050 adults from April 26 to May 1, which had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Aguililla was one of the first towns to receive soldiers. Convoys of Humvees rolled down the streets, black helicopters clattered low over the houses and soldiers at checkpoints frisked motorists for guns. But residents say the military presence has been sporadic since then, and most of the time they are left without protection from the traffickers.

“There is no government here. We just pray to God to take care of us,” said 60-year-old Soledad Lombera, sobbing at a cross of candles in her house, an alter she created days after her son Francisco Alvez was found shot and buried on a nearby ranch.

Outsiders ordered to leave
Like many towns in the heart of drug country, Aguililla is strategically difficult to control, approachable by winding roads on which assailants ambushed and killed 11 state police last year. At night, the paved central plaza is taken over by gun-wielding thugs in sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks.

Outsiders are not welcome. A group of Mexican newspaper reporters who tried to cover the killings in Aguililla were blocked by a gang of men bearing automatic rifles who ordered them to leave, said the reporters, who asked that their names not be used for fear of reprisals.

Seven journalists have been killed in Mexico since October, making it the world’s second-most dangerous place to report, after Iraq.

Aguililla’s mayor, Miguel Avila, said the crackdown won’t work unless Mexicans get better jobs as an alternative to growing and smuggling drugs.

“If you don’t let people make money in one way, you have to offer them another,” Avila said. “All the people in the United States buying these drugs give people a big incentive to produce them.”

Obama urges 'new black mindset'


He told the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) there were "no excuses" for minority children not to succeed.

Mr Obama's comments came in a speech at a dinner marking the 100th anniversary of the NAACP.

It is his first speech focusing on race since he became US president.

The BBC's Jon Donnison in Washington says the tone of the speech was passionate, even preacher-like.

"Make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America," Mr Obama told the NAACP members gathered for the anniversary dinner in New York.

He said discrimination was still felt by minorities in the US, including African Americans, Latinos, Muslim Americans and gay people.

But he told the NAACP members they had to take responsibility for their lives and their communities.


No one has written your destiny for you - your destiny is in your hands
Barack Obama

"Government programmes alone won't get our children to the promised land - we need a new mindset, a new set of attitudes," he said.

The president said African American communities had "internalised a set of limitations" and "come to expect so little from the world and from ourselves".

But he said African American children should instead aspire to be scientists, engineers, Supreme Court judges and presidents.

"We have to say to our children: 'Yes, if you're African-American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighbourhood, you will face challenges that someone in a wealthy suburb does not.'

"But that's not a reason to get bad grades, that's not a reason to cut class, that's not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school," he said.

"No one has written your destiny for you - your destiny is in your hands. You cannot forget that, that's what we have to teach our children."

Mr Obama also said he wanted to see a return to strong parenting and adults taking responsibility for the discipline of all children in their community.

He drew on his own experiences of growing up with a single mother, praising her for giving him "the chance to make the most of life".

Row over US black scholar arrest


rof Henry Louis Gates was held last week in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to the top university where he teaches.

Police were called after a woman reported she saw two black males with backpacks trying to force entry.

Cambridge police have now dropped a disorderly conduct charge, calling the arrest "regrettable and unfortunate".

The 58-year-old professor had reportedly told arresting officers "this is what happens to black men in America".

Handcuffed on porch

His lawyer said Prof Gates had just returned from a trip overseas and, upon arriving at the property with a driver, found his front door jammed and had to force it open.

By the time police arrived at the house, he and the driver had managed to get inside the property.

"Professor Gates informed the officer that he lived there and was a faculty member at Harvard university," lawyer Charles Ogletree said in a statement.

After providing the officer with his university ID card and driver's licence, the African-American studies scholar was handcuffed on his front porch, the lawyer said.

A police report said the academic had "exhibited loud and tumultuous behaviour".

Anger as Indian ex-leader frisked


Several MPs have condemned reports that Mr Kalam was made to wait, take off his shoes and undergo a body frisk by the staff of Continental Airlines.

Protocol exempts former presidents and other dignitaries from such searches.

India's civil aviation minister has promised to "look into the matter" and "take action" against the airline.

A spokeswoman for Continental Airlines said the search was a "normal security procedure".

Mr Kalam was president from 2002 to 2007. The incident took place in April as Mr Kalam boarded a Continental Airlines flight to the US.

But this is the first time the news of the incident has been reported.

'Outrageous'

"It is an issue which puts the whole nation into shame," senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Arun Jaitley said in parliament.

The issue enraged other parliamentarians too.

"This is an act of ill intention and we will not tolerate it at any cost," Janeshwar Mishra of the Samajwadi Party said.

Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel told parliament that airlines are given a list of people who are exempt from security checks at Indian airports.

"This act of frisking the former president... is absolutely unpardonable and beyond the scope of the laws of our country," Mr Patel said.

"We will look into the matter. If the former president has been insulted, we will take action."

But Continental Airlines maintained that there was no special treatment for dignitaries.

"There is no special rule for VIPs [very important persons] and VVIPs [very very important persons]. This is the process the airline adheres to," a spokesperson for the carrier said.

The airlines' representative told the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency that Mr Kalam was "very co-operative" and "happily underwent the entire process".

According to reports, the former president was made to remove his shoes and the contents of his pockets, and a hand-held metal detector was run over his body.