30 March 2009

Gunmen attack the Manawan Police Academy in Lahore, Pakistan.

At 7:31 am on 30 March 2009, the Manawan Police Academy in Lahore, Pakistan was attacked by an estimated 12 gunmen. The perpetrators were armed with automatic weapons and grenades or rockets and some were dressed as policemen. They took over the main building during a morning parade when 750 unarmed police recruits were present on the compound’s parade ground. Police forces arrived 90 minutes later and were able to take back the building by 3:30 pm. Five trainees, two instructors and a passer-by were killed. A suspect was captured alive in a field near the school. Three of the attackers blew themselves up to avoid arrest while three others were taken into custody as they tried to escape in police uniforms. The four were taken to undisclosed locations for interrogation by the security forces according to local media.

he Manawan Police Academy is a training school of the Pakistan Police located on the outskirts of Lahore. At around 7:30 am local time at least 12 gunmen, some dressed in police uniform, attacked the academy during the morning drill hour when around 750 unarmed police recruits were on parade. The gunmen apparently gained access to the site by scaling the perimeter wall before causing three or four explosions on the parade ground, using grenades or rockets, and opening fire with automatic weapons. Several civilians on the road adjacent to the compound were hit by fire from the gunmen apparently when the gunmen attacked a police guard detachment near to a gate.

The academy had only been in a peacetime defensive stance and probably contained just a small armoury of outdated weapons. The attackers proceeded across the parade ground and stormed the academy building, taking hostages from the police trainees and establishing three or four defensive positions including one on the rooftop.

Red star depicts the Manawan Police Training School.The vertical line on right is Border with India
Elite Forces of Punjab Police arrived on the site within 90 minutes of the attack and were cheered on by a crowd of spectators. The security forces took up position on rooftops around the compound, firing on the gunmen and sealing off any escape routes. The gunmen returned fire with automatic weaponry and grenades and also shot at a police helicopter. Several hours into the attack security forces used explosives to storm the building and retake it from the gunmen after ten to fifteen minutes of sustained firing, capturing the building by 3:30 pm. During the course of the attack and siege eight police personnel, two civilians and eight gunmen were killed and 95 people injured. At least four of the gunmen have been captured alive by the security forces.

A curfew was imposed in the area surrounding the academy. Several hundred civilians poured in from close-by localities to watch the operation despite the ‘curfew-like’ conditions in the area. Elite forces declared victory signs on completion of the successful operation. Punjab Police resorted to aerial firing and chanted slogans of Allahu Akbar after the siege successfully ended and hostages were freed and at least three of the would-be suicide bombers were caught alive.

The leader of Tehrik-i-Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud took responsibility for the attack. “Yes, we have carried out this attack. I will give details later,” Mehsud, an al Qaeda-linked leader based in the Waziristan tribal region told Reuters by telephone. He also said that his next target would be Washington D.C.

Mehsud was also accused by the government of Pakistan for carrying out the attack that killed popular Pakistani political leader, Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

Fedayeen al-Islam, a previously unknown group, claimed responsibility for the assault and added that it would carry out more attacks unless Pakistani troops withdraw from the tribal areas near the Afghan border and the end of US drone attacks in the country.

A person named Hijratullah, believed to be part of the group of attackers, was apprehended by local citizens when he was seen hiding in the nearby fields at first and then moving slowly towards the rescue helicopters with two grenades in his hand. He was confirmed by authorities as a resident of Paktika province of Afghanistan. Authorities also confirmed later to have arrested 3 more attackers after the Rangers forced them to lay down their arms. Another gunman Hazrat Gull of Miranshah in Waziristan was also arrested. 10 suspects belonging to a religious organisation were arrested from Sukkur. Police also arrested Qari Ishtiaq, who was said to be the commander of the Punjabi Taliban. He was arrested from Bahawalpur on the information provided by the Hijratullah who was jailed for 10 years due to his role. 7 other militants were arrested from different parts of Punjab on his information him.

7 February 2009

Bushfires in Victoria leave 173 dead in the worst natural disaster in Australia.

The road into the Victorian town of Kinglake is treacherous at the best of times. It is absurdly narrow and winding, with a maximum speed of 20km/h and grim signs saying “Sheer Drop: No Safety Barriers” as you circumnavigate your way to the township on the mountain peak at the northern end of the Yarra Valley.

If the road into Kinglake is scary on a sunny afternoon, God knows what it would have been like on that most awful day, February 7, 2009, when 173 people died in Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires, the deadliest natural disaster in Australian history.

The majority of them died in and around Kinglake and Kilmore East, many meeting their fate on that shocking road as they tried to escape when it was far too late, their cars colliding with trees, other fleeing vehicles, or rolling into the burning ravine in the afternoon darkness.

I attended two weddings over summer, both of which said something about Australia and its ongoing relationship with bushfire.

The first was in the Yarra Valley, which took us to Kinglake. The second was on top of Adelaide’s tallest hill, Mt Lofty, on January 3, the day that the Sampson Flat bushfire was burning out of control to the city’s northeast.

That fire was truly terrifying. It was burning out of control in every direction. It was stinking hot and the northerly wind was blowing a gale by 1pm, right across town.

As I was putting my tie on there was an almighty crash at the back of our suburban home; a 5m-long branch had fallen off the neighbour’s gum tree and smashed his back fence. There were lightning forecasts for late afternoon, prompting warnings that more fires could start across the ranges.

The fire ended up burning out 125,000ha, destroying 27 homes, and came so close to the city that residents were evacuated in Golden Grove, a place so urban and so typical of Australian suburbia that no-one who lives there had ever dreamt of drawing up a fire plan.

Every cat and dozens of dogs at a boarding kennel died when the premises burnt to the ground.

But not one person lost their life.

Why the difference between what happened in Victoria in 2009 and in South Australia last month, on a day which authorities were validly likening to SA’s Ash Wednesday disaster of 1983, when 75 people died?

A major investigation is underway into how the Sampson Flat fire was fought and, crucially, how the affected communities responded to it. The investigation involves experts from across Australia, men and women who have studied bushfires from WA to Canberra and Tassie to NSW. The anecdotal and media reports so far suggest one clear difference between Victoria in 2009 and SA in 2015.

Almost everybody got the hell out of there.

The so-called “stay and defend” policy was the subject of much debate after Victoria in 2009. This week I read a report by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authority Council, which was based on interviews with 1914 people who survived the Victorian fires. The survey found that 50 per cent of people intended to stay and defend their property that day, and 19 per cent intended to leave early or before they came under threat.

The remaining 31 per cent were undecided or had no strategy, with 17 per cent saying they intended to stay and defend but leave if they felt threatened, 9 per cent saying they intended to wait until the fire arrived and then come up with the plan, and 5 per cent not citing a plan.

Talk about a margin for error. The only group that had what I would regard as a viable plan was the 19 per cent who got out in advance.

One leading Australian fire expert, Dr Richard Thornton, said in an interview during the week that 2009 demonstrated so tragically that many people were simply cutting it way too fine. He also questioned whether people who intended to stay and defend were psychologically and physically prepared for the onslaught.

The wedding at Mt Lofty was almost cancelled that day. It wasn’t until late morning that we got confirmation that it was still going ahead. It started at 4pm. It was a creepy drive up the hill, so much wind and electricity in the air, to the very mountain that was left black by the big blaze of 1983.

After nightfall, I was standing on the lawn at the back of the function centre, looking over the escarpment to the northeast of the ranges. A thick red line of fire stretched across the horizon. It was 40km away but it was so vast and so intense that, every so often, the red would glow deeper as the wind blew, reaching higher into the air.

“Our house is over there,” a bloke called Luke told me over a beer. He and his wife live in Lobethal, one of several towns where residents had been advised to leave the day before as the fire intensified.

They had taken their kids to the grandparents and, figuring that there was nothing they could do, decided to come to their mate’s wedding anyway and have a good time. At that stage they thought it would be days before they got to enter the fire zone to see if their house was still standing.

“Still,” Luke said, “it’s only a f—ing house.”

It was a laconic Australian way of putting it, and one which makes a hell of a lot more sense than stay and defend.

28 October 2009

A bombing in Peshawar kills 117 and wounds 213.

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Militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan punctuated Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s arrival here with deadly attacks on Wednesday, underscoring their ability to cause chaos even in the face of offensives on both sides of the border.

In Pakistan, a devastating car bomb tore through a congested market in the northwest city of Peshawar, killing as many as 101 people, many of them women and children. Pakistani authorities said the attack was the country’s most serious in two years, and the deadliest ever in Peshawar, which has become a front line for Taliban efforts to destabilize the government through violence.

In the Afghan capital, Kabul, Taliban militants stormed a guesthouse, killing five United Nations employees and three other people in a furious two-hour siege. The attack was meant to scare Afghans away from voting in a runoff election on Nov. 7 between President Hamid Karzai and his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, a Taliban spokesman said.

The violence cast a shadow over the visit of Mrs. Clinton, who was meeting with government ministers in Islamabad, 90 miles southwest of Peshawar, when news of the Peshawar explosion came over television screens. Mrs. Clinton immediately condemned the bombing, which in killing women and children in Peshawar seemed aimed at the very constituencies she has championed in her travels to other developing countries.

“These attacks on innocent people are cowardly; they are not courageous, they are cowardly,” Mrs. Clinton said at a news conference with the Pakistani foreign minister, her voice raw with anger.

“They know they are on the losing side of history,” she said of the militants. “But they are determined to take as many lives with them as their movement is finally exposed for the nihilistic, empty effort it is.”

24 January 2009

26 people die when Cyclone Klaus makes landfall near Bordeaux, France.

Klaus was a European windstorm or cyclone which made landfall over large parts of central and southern France, Spain and parts of Italy in January 2009. The storm was the most damaging since Lothar and Martin in December 1999.The storm caused widespread damage across France and Spain, especially in northern Spain.

The storm caused twenty-six fatalities, as well as extensive disruptions to public transport and power supplies, with approximately 1.7 million homes in southwest France and tens of thousands of homes in Spain experiencing power cuts. Severe damage to property and major forest damage was caused.Peak gusts were over 200 km/h; sustained winds of over 170 km/h were observed, which are hurricane-force winds.Thousands were evacuated from nearby housing estates in La Nucía, north of Benidorm in Alicante, as the Spanish Army helped to fight a forest fire, which was started by a felled electricity pylon. There were also forest fires in the region of Catalonia, while Spain put emergency services on high alert. Waves over 20 metres high were registered off the northern coast of Spain and dolphins were stranded on beaches in the region as a result of high winds. The storm left millions without electricity and fixed and mobile telephony.