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News in brief: Suicide bomber attacks Mali's Timbuktu

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  • Zafar Khan
    Suicide bomber attacks Mali s Timbuktu Earlier in the day, a land mine explosion killed two Malian soldiers in the country s Gao region, east of Timbuktu. Last
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 6, 2013
      Suicide bomber attacks Mali's Timbuktu
      Earlier in the day, a land mine explosion killed two Malian soldiers in the country's Gao region, east of Timbuktu.

      Last Modified: 31 Mar 2013 06:33


      A suicide bomber has blown himself up in the northern Malian city of Timbuktu, raising fears of a new wave of violence as the European Union launches an ambitious new programme to overhaul Mali's ragtag army.

      An army officer said a Malian soldier had been wounded in the attack on Saturday at an army barricade in Timbuktu, the fabled city's second in nine days.

      "A jihadist suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt after trying unsuccessfully to force his way through the barricade at the west entrance to Timbuktu, which was guarded by Malian soldiers," the officer told the AFP news agency by phone.

      Earlier Saturday, a land mine explosion killed two Malian soldiers in the country's Gao region, to the east of Timbuktu, the defence ministry said. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks.

      'Entirely rebuilt'

      As France prepares to withdraw its 4,000 troops, the first of four Malian battalions will begin training with European instructors on April 2 as part of a wider effort to bring the army up to scratch as quickly as possible.

      "Objectively, it must be entirely rebuilt," said French general Francois Lecointre, who heads the European Union training mission in Mali.

      Underpaid, ill-equipped and riven by divisions, Mali's armed forces fell apart last year when well-armed militants seized the country's vast northern reaches. Today no one knows exactly how many soldiers are left, probably around 6,000 - about half of which will train with the EU mission over the next year.

      Class is at a dusty green-shuttered military academy 60km from the capital, Bamako, its grounds now packed with rows of EU-supplied troop transport vehicles, a field hospital, tents, and trunk-loads of equipment.

      After 10 weeks of training, the first 670 Malians are expected to be ready for combat and deployed to northern Mali, where French and Chadian troops are still on the lookout for pockets of fighters.

      The French are to hand over to an African force of 6,300, likely to come under a UN mandate in the coming weeks. But UN leader Ban Ki-Moon said last week that up to 11,200 troops were needed as well as a second "parallel" force.

      Growing insurgency

      All of these troops will confront a mounting series of attacks claimed by insurgents since France launched its military intervention against al-Qaeda-linked groups that had seized the north of the country.

      The French-led operation, which began on January 11, forced the militants from cities they had seized for 10 months in the chaotic aftermath of a March 2012 military coup. But French and African forces have faced continuing suicide blasts and guerrilla attacks in reclaimed territory.

      On March 21, a suicide bomber blew up a car near the Timbuktu airport, launching an overnight assault on the city. The blast killed one Malian soldier. Around 10 militants were killed in the ensuing battle with French and Malian forces, a French army spokesman said.

      The attack was claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of three rebel groups that had seized the north.

      MUJAO said it had "opened a new front in Timbuktu", which had not come under attack since French-led forces entered the city on January 28 - unlike Gao, the largest city in the north, which has been hit by a string of suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks claimed by MUJAO.

      Buddhist Attack Frets Sri Lanka Muslims
      OnIslam & News Agencies
      Friday, 29 March 2013 00:00


      COLOMBO — Anti-Muslim violence has hit a new dangerous level in Sri Lanka after extreme Buddhist monks led hundreds in an assault on a Muslim-owned clothing warehouse, injuring hundreds in the capital.

      “It has created a fear psychosis among the Muslims,” N.M. Ameen, president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, an umbrella organization of Muslim groups, told Agence France Presse (AFP).

      “We know a majority of the (Buddhist) people do not support this type of activity.”

      Ameen was commenting on an attack on a Muslim store in Pepiliyana on Thursday night.

      The attack was carried out by hundreds of Sinhalese led by Buddhist monks who stormed the Fashion Bug store and set fire to merchandise before escaping.

      Eyewitnesses said the police stood and watched although after the trouble spread they brought it under control.

      Several Muslims were wounded in the unjustified attack. However, no arrests were made, police spokesman Buddhika Siriwardena said.

      "We have deployed extra units of STF (Special Task Force commandos) and police to guard the area," Siriwardena told AFP.

      "The situation was brought under control within a few hours."

      The authorities have not declared a motive for the attack, but official sources said it appeared to be part of the ongoing targeting of minority Muslim businesses by a group of Sinhala-Buddhist hardliners.

      Two weeks ago, a hardline Buddhist group known as "Bodu Bala Sena", or Buddhist Force, called for the demolition of a 10th century mosque in Kuragala.

      The call for destroying the ancient mosque comes shortly after the group campaigned against halal food in Sri Lanka, forcing Muslims to abandon halal logo to help ease tension with the Buddhist majority.

      The Muslim appeal to the president for protection is not the first.

      Over the past months, the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka has called on the President to consider their requests to stem the rising tide of anti-Muslim extremism in the country.

      Muslims have urged the president to publicly condemn the hate campaign of the Buddhist extremists.

      They have also called for defending equal rights for all citizens in the country as well as instructing the police to take necessary action to stop incidents of harassment against minorities and their businesses.


      Muslims in Sri Lanka have been living in fear over the past couple of months from the rising hate campaigns led by Buddhist extremist groups.

      “The top monks can’t tolerate this. What is the government doing? Things have gone out of control,” Muslim politician Azath Salley told Xinhua

      “The Bodu Bala Sena should be brought under control,” he said.

      Salley warned that things have gone out of control and the government is silent over the issue.

      Sri Lankan Muslims, known as “Moors”, are the third largest ethnic group in the country after the Sinhalese, who make up 70 percent of the populace, and Tamils, who account for 12.5 percent.

      Analysts say successive governments have been under pressure to give in to the Buddhist majority whenever there is an ethnic clash.

      Sri Lanka has been thrown into tension following a string of serious incidents involving extremist Buddhist provocations against Muslims.

      In June, some 200 demonstrators led by several dozen Buddhist monks converged on a small Islamic center in Colombo’s suburb of Dehiwala.

      Throwing stones and rotten meat over the mosque gate, protestors shouted slogans demanding the closure of the Muslim worship place.

      Last April, a number of Buddhist monks disrupted Muslim prayer services in the village of Dambulla. The attackers claimed that the mosque, built in 1962, was illegal.

      Weeks later, monks drafted a threatening letter aimed at Muslims in the nearby town of Kurunegala, demanding Islamic prayer services there be halted.

      Bangladesh protesters demand blasphemy law
      Hundreds of thousands of marchers call for law that would include death penalty for bloggers who insult Islam.
      Last Modified: 06 Apr 2013 13:41


      One person has been killed as hundreds of thousands of people continued protests in Bangladesh to demand that the government introduce an anti-blasphemy law that would include the death penalty for bloggers who insult Islam.

      Nowsher Khan, a local leader of the Awami League was killed in Bhanga, a town south west of Dhaka on Saturday, when Hefazat-e-Islami party supporters clashed with Awami League supporters.

      The protest on Saturday, called the "long march", with many travelling from remote villages, was sparked after a group of bloggers allegedly began criticising conservative religious parties that are widely popular despite Bangladesh's secular constitution.

      Allegedly backed by Jamaat-e-Islami party, Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamic group which draws support from tens of thousands of seminaries, organised the rally in support of its 13-point demand including enactment of a blasphemy law to prosecute and hang atheist bloggers.

      Dhaka has been virtually cut off from the rest of the country since Friday afternoon, after secularists called a 22-hour nationwide strike to obstruct the march.

      Both secular and Muslim protesters have taken to the streets over the war crimes trials of leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami party in cases related to the 1971 war against Pakistan in which three million people were killed and many thousands of women were raped.

      Youth protests

      Abdul Quader Mollah was sentenced to life in prison in February spurring youth protests calling for a death sentence for him instead. This led to counter-protests by religious parties in the country.

      Clashes erupted days later when well-known protester and blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was killed, followed by more deaths in ensuing violence.

      Speaking to Al Jazeera, Shakil Ahmed, the head of output for Ekattor television in Bangladesh, said that the protests on Saturday were peaceful and had been fuelled by misinformation on both sides.

      "Wrong information has been spread out by some of the activists," said Ahmed.

      Al Jazeera's correspondent, who cannot be named for safety reasons, speaking from Dhaka on Saturday, said that very huge crowds had gathered.

      She confirmed that protests were peaceful but said that one death had been reported on Friday night and another on Saturday morning.

      An activist from the ruling Awami League was reportedly shot dead after the secularists clashed with hundreds of seminary students holding a rally in support of the march, local police chief Yasir Arafat told AFP news agency.

      "Authorities have become more and more experienced in dealing with the protests ... Right now they are trying to contain the crowds and are making sure that it does not get violent."

      Our correspondent said that while there was a lot of support for the march from the countryside where Hefazat-e-Islam is good at mobilising people from, the country is very divided.

      'Explosive' situation

      Zafar Sobhan, the editor of the Dhaka Tribune, speaking to Al Jazeera's via Skype from Dhaka, said that while the government was had maintained a "neutral line" and was "scrambling" to prevent an "explosive" situation, he thinks it was unlikely that a blasphemy law would be introduced.

      He said that the march was less about a blasphemy law but was more of a reaction to calls for the death penalty for political party leaders being tried for war crimes.

      "The march is more of a, if you [the bloggers] are going to demand the death penalty against us [the political party leaders, then we are going to demand a death penalty against you."

      Our correspondent said that the real pressure would be felt in the country's economy.

      "Every time there is a strike it shuts down the economy ... Economic issues are likely to put pressure on the ruling Awami party."

      Last week, four online writers were arrested on charges of hurting religious sentiment through their Internet writings against Islam.

      Sobhan said the arrests were being seen as a "heavy-handed measure" to appease Islamists.

      Operators of top Bangladeshi blogs blacked out their sites on Thursday to protest against the government move.

      They say the government has been kowtowing to the religious activists.

      Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan on Wednesday said the government had identified 11 bloggers, including the four detainees, who had hurt the religious sentiments of the nation's majority Muslim population.

      The government has blocked about a dozen websites and blogs to stem the unrest. It has also set up a panel, which includes intelligence chiefs, to monitor blasphemy on social media.

      Under the country's cyber laws, a blogger or Internet writer can face up to ten years in jail for defaming a religion.

      Mali's Tuareg people retain dream of independence amid persecution
      Life under sharia law during the Islamist invasion was hard. But for many Tuareg, life under the Mali army was impossible
      Andy Morgan in Ouagadougou
      guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 3 April 2013 18.29 BST


      Muslim Holidays Irk German Rulers
      OnIslam & News Agencies
      Thursday, 28 March 2013 00:00


      BERLIN – A Muslim leader has called for German authorities to grant two days of official holiday for Muslims to celebrate their religious festivals, inviting criticism from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling conservatives.

      "It would underline tolerance in our society," Aiman Mazyek, chairman of Germany's Central Council of Muslims, told the regional Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Reuters reported.

      He said German Muslims should be granted two official days to celebrate `Eid Al-Fitr, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, and `Eid Al-Adha, which marks the end of hajj.

      He said the move would be "an important sign of integration".

      Mazyek said that Muslims in public services such as the police could stand in for colleagues over Christian holidays like Easter.

      Germans will have Friday and Monday as public holidays to mark Easter.

      Germany has Europe's second-biggest Muslim population after France, and Islam comes third in Germany after Protestant and Catholic Christianity.

      It has between 3.8 and 4.3 million Muslims, making up some 5 percent of the total 82 million population, according to government-commissioned studies.

      A number of German states have recently signed agreements with Muslims bodies under which Muslim festivals were recognized as official holidays.

      In December, the northwestern state of Bremen signed a contract with Muslim groups to allow Muslims to take days off work for their religious festivals.

      It followed the signing of a similar contract in Hamburg between Muslims and authorities to recognize religious Muslim holidays.


      But the proposal won flaks from within Merkel’s ruling conservatives.

      Wolfgang Bosbach, a prominent member of Merkel's traditionally Catholic Christian Democrats (CDU), said there was "no Islamic tradition in Germany".

      He insisted that religious holidays in Germany reflected the country's Christian heritage.

      Another CDU lawmaker, Patrick Sensburg, urged respect among Germans for existing Christian holidays and more shopping restrictions on Sundays.

      Guntram Schneider, social minister in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia for the center-left Social Democrats, expressed concern over the economic costs of giving Muslims two days off.

      Muslims in Germany have been in the eye of storm in recent years.

      An earlier study in 2010 by the University of Munster found that 66 percent of western Germans and 74 percent of eastern Germans had a negative attitude towards Muslims.

      A more recent study from the Allensbach Institute suggested that this had not changed over the past two years.

      Asking Germans about Islam, only 22 percent said they agreed with Germany's former president Christian Wulff's statement that Islam, like Christianity, was part of Germany.

      According to a 2010 nationwide poll by the research institute Infratest-dimap, more than one third of the respondents would prefer "a Germany without Islam."

      The Story of Passover in the Quran
      3/26/2013 - Religious Interfaith - Article Ref: IC1104-4628
      Number of comments: 11
      By: Shahul Hameed
      IslamiCity* -


      Kosher cigarettes approved for Passover
      Israeli cigarette brands join list of products checked for contact with grains and other forbidden ingredients before holiday
      Associated Press in Jerusalem
      guardian.co.uk, Monday 25 March 2013 17.58 GMT


      The secret war in Thailand's deep south
      Just a few hours from tourist-packed beaches, a conflict is simmering that has claimed thousands of lives


      Bangladesh minorities bear brunt of violence
      Homes and places of worship targeted as violence sweeps country in aftermath of controversial war crimes verdicts.
      Saif Khalid Last Modified: 24 Mar 2013 10:19


      Muslims join pledge on women's rights
      Hardliners defied as historic blueprint to tackle violence against girls and women is agreed at the United Nations


      A remarkable coalition of Conservative Muslim, Roman Catholic, and liberal Western countries have joined together to approve a historic United Nations blueprint to combat violence against women and girls. In doing so, they ignored strong objections from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood that it clashed with Islamic principles and sought to destroy the family.

      But within hours of it being agreed came news of a crime which emphasises how badly action on violence against women is needed: the second gang rape of a woman in India, this time a Swiss tourist on a cycling trip. The country is still grappling with the legal and political aftermath of the gang rape and murder three months ago of a woman on a New Delhi bus. That outrage set off nationwide protests about India's treatment of women and spurred the government to hurry through a new package of laws to protect them.

      The UN agreement should encourage changes of attitude and new laws in nations where women's access to rights and freedom from institutional discrimination need substantial reform. It came after two weeks of tough and often contentious negotiations, but, in the end, on Friday night, 131 countries achieved consensus on a 17-page document. Michelle Bachelet, head of the UN women's agency, called the document historic because it sets global standards for action to prevent and end "one of the gravest violations of human rights in the world, the violence that is committed against women and girls". She added, to loud applause: "People worldwide expected action, and we didn't fail them. We did it!"

      The final text urges all countries "to strongly condemn all forms of violence against women and girls and to refrain from invoking any custom, tradition and religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination."

      The document reaffirms that women and men should enjoy all human rights "on an equal basis", recommits governments to comprehensive sex education, calls for sexual and reproductive health services such as emergency contraception and safe abortion for victims of violence, and calls on governments to criminalise violence against women and punish gender-related killings. Françoise Girard, president of the New York-based International Women's Health Coalition, said: "This is the first time we have an agreed document recognising emergency contraception as a necessary service to preserve women's health."

      Terri Robl, the US deputy representative to the UN Economic and Social Council, called the agreement an important step but said the text is "only a beginning." She expressed regret at its failure to state that ending violence must apply to all women, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity, or to refer specifically to "intimate partner violence". While the document is not legally binding, Britain's UN ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, said "it sets a certain standard by which all member states can monitor their performance and can be monitored by others".

      A number of Muslim and Catholic countries, including Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Honduras, and the Holy See, expressed reservations about elements of the text – but Libya was the only country to dissociate itself from the final document, though it did not block consensus. Libya's top cleric raised similar concerns as those of the Muslim Brotherhood, rejecting the document for violating Islamic teachings. The Libyan delegation objected to paragraphs calling for sex education for all adolescents and youth, and for priority to programmes for girls' education.

      At the start of the meeting, Ms Bachelet said data from the World Health Organization and other research shows that an average of 40 per cent – and up to 70 per cent of women in some countries – face violence in their lifetimes.

      Anti-Islam writer “infiltrates” Muslim conference, finds it “innocuous”
      But he says that it's all part of the Muslim Brotherhood's plot to win "the hearts and minds of the young"


      Sultanate of Sulu: Pawn or legacy?
      As an armed Filipino group asserts its claim over Sabah, we analyse growing tensions over the island in Borneo.
      Inside Story Last Modified: 06 Mar 2013 14:26


      Malaysia rejects ceasefire in Sabah
      PM Razak says rebels must lay down arms and surrender unconditionally as 31 armed gunmen killed in latest offensive.
      Last Modified: 07 Mar 2013 12:32


      A look at Turkey's call to prayer competition and the phenomenon of individuality within Islamic culture.
      Witness Last Modified: 13 Mar 2013 09:16


      Bangladesh deploys troops as clashes escalate
      At least 23 people killed during strike called in protest over death sentence given to Jamaat-e-Islami party leader.
      Last Modified: 03 Mar 2013 16:01


      At least 23 people have been killed in fresh clashes across Bangladesh at the start of a nationwide strike called over a death sentence given to an Islamist party leader for war crimes in the Muslim-majority nation.

      Delwar Hossain Sayedee, of Jamaat-e-Islami, was found guilty on Thursday of murder, religious persecution and rape during the 1971 independence war, triggering violent clashes between Jamaat supporters and police across the country.

      Security forces were deployed in the northern district of Bogra, as local media reported Jamaat activists attacking police outposts early on Sunday.

      Eleven people were shot dead in the northern district of Bogra and one policeman was killed in clashes with protesters in the western district of Jhenidah, police officials said, adding two people were killed late on Saturday.

      More than 10,000 stick-wielding protesters attacked five police stations in Bogra, forcing police to open fire, they said.

      The Jamaat-e-Islami, country's largest Islamic party, has enforced a nationwide two-day strike, that begins on Sunday, to protest against the verdict and killing of its activists in police "brutalities".

      A police chief told AFP news agency that at least four people had died in the town of Shahjahanpur.

      "The toll could rise," Shahjahanpur district's deputy police chief Moqbul Ahmed said, adding that troops had been deployed to boost security.

      Our correspondent in Bangladesh, who we are not naming for security purposes, says there has been no let up in the violence since the verdict was issued.

      "Troops are on the streets in Bogra - after police stations came under attack - and it is the only district in Bangladesh where the army has been deployed, because they are very concerned about what's happened in the last 24 hours."

      "Section 144 of the penal code has now been imposed, which means that gatherings of four or more people are banned," our correspondent added.

      Thailand and rebels agree to peace talks
      Deal negotiated by Malaysia pledges to work towards peace talks with Muslim rebels aimed at ending decade long unrest.
      Last Modified: 28 Feb 2013 10:26


      Kosovo celebrates five years of independence
      Armed forces parade in Pristina on anniversary of declaration of independence from Serbia.
      Last Modified: 17 Feb 2013 18:14


      Kosovo celebrated the fifth anniversary of their declaration of independence from Serbia with a parade of police and armed forces in the main square of Pristina, the capital.

      Sunday's celebration is the first time such forces have been used in a parade since the end of the 1998-99 war with Serbia.

      Ninety-six nations have recognised Kosovo's independence, but Serbia claims the territory as its own. The European Union is currently mediating talks between the two former foes.

      Muslims Connect Toronto Families
      OnIslam & Newspapers
      Saturday, 16 February 2013 00:00


      CAIRO – Muslim activists in Toronto are holding special events to help newcomers to adjust to life in the metropolitan Canadian city and connect their families to the community.

      "We have peer mental-health survivors, who discuss how they've settled,” Camille Mohammed, coordinator of the North American Muslim Foundation’s program, told Toronto Star on Saturday, February 16.

      "They have the same kind of background and experience as some of the newcomers, so they feel more comfortable interacting and discussing what they’re going through."

      Mohammed is among Muslim coordinators for a special program for immigrants in Toronto.

      The project, themed "Circle of Health — Wellness Program for Newcomers", offers support and vital information for new immigrants.

      The program would gather 500 Muslim immigrants to help them adjust, emotionally and physically, to life in the city.

      The program also includes, as part of the Family Day, kids' activities, films and booths for small businesses and entrepreneurs, in addition to smaller food and health promotion workshops.

      Among newcomers would be the Ahmed family, who moved to Toronto from Saudi Arabia in 2011, and the Iqbalhs, who arrived from Pakistan just last May.

      Sabina Ahmed, for example, had problems with her meat-loving husband, Riyaz, who did not want to change his diet.

      “It was really tough because of the job, the stress,” she says.

      The family was offered tips for healthy eating and living at the free bi-weekly Circle of Health workshops that began in December.

      The sessions tackle issues such as stress management; the effects of food on mood; and healthy ethnic cooking.

      Mohammed, the program coordinator, has also developed the sessions and materials in Urdu, Farsi, Dari, Hindi, Mandarin and Telugu languages.

      Family Day is a statutory holiday occurring on a Monday in February.

      In the provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Saskatchewan, it is observed on the third Monday of February, occurring on February 18 this year.


      As the dietary habits engaged many newcomers, mental health components were even more important and complex.

      "There is a big stigma attached,” Mohammed said.

      “I knew that was something I wanted to address and I knew it wasn’t being addressed in the Muslim community."

      Facing new challenges about employment, housing, culture, climate and language, it was normal for newcomers to face stress, anxiety and sadness.

      Gulshan Alibhai, of the Canadian Mental Health Association, was five when her family came from Uganda.

      Her parents thought they made good food choices with fast food.

      “When I go and talk about my experience, they almost always have an aha moment,” she says.

      “They start looking at how the junk food and fast food affects their mental health.”

      Session leaders are able to refer participants to outside resources.

      “The major thing that it is providing is taking people out of isolation." Mohammed says.

      The sessions have already benefited some Muslim families in Ontario province.

      For Salma Iqbalh, who immigrated with her husband and two teenage boys, the sessions have helped connect their family to their community.

      “For me and my husband, it is a big change,” she says.

      The Ahmad family has also benefited after changing their dietary system to allow more vegetables, little fruit and no whole grains.

      Feeling light after meals, the biggest change for Sabina was with her husband who has lost weight.

      As for the diet, “Now it’s easy,” she says.

      Muslims make around 2.8 percent of Canada's 32.8 million population, and Islam is the number one non-Christian faith in the country.

      A recent report from the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life said that Muslims are expected to make up 6.6% of Canada’s total population in 2030.

      Sri Lanka Faiths Slam Anti-Muslim Hatred
      OnIslam & News Agencies
      Friday, 15 February 2013 00:00


      COLOMBO — Worried that their country could plunge into a new wave of communal violence, Muslims and Buddhists are coming together to condemn attacks against the Muslim community.

      "This group is trying to pit Sinhalese people against Muslims,” Mohamed Ifthikar, 59, a food company marketing manager, told Khabar South Asia on Friday, February 15.

      "That is not helpful. We want to live with each other as brothers and sisters of the same family."

      Living in the Colombo suburb of Kelaniya for more than 30 years along with his wife and two daughters, Ifthikar has never had any problems with his Sinhalese neighbors.

      "In fact, when my family went out of Colombo on picnics, it was my Sinhalese friends who looked after my house,” he said.

      "They always share sweetmeats with my family during their annual festival in April."

      Ifthikar was worried about the rise of a controversial group known as “Bodu Bala Sena”, or Buddhist Force, which has been accused of inciting attacks against Muslims.

      The group has been campaigning for a ban on halal meat, a campaign resisted by the Sri Lankan government.

      The Buddhist group has denied any role in attacks on Muslims, saying several “duplicate groups” were pretending to be them.

      Sri Lanka has been thrown into tension following a string of serious incidents involving extremist Buddhist provocations against Muslims.

      In June, some 200 demonstrators led by several dozen Buddhist monks converged on a small Islamic center in Colombo’s suburb of Dehiwala.

      Throwing stones and rotten meat over the mosque gate, protestors shouted slogans demanding the closure of the Muslim worship place.

      Earlier in April, a number of Buddhist monks disrupted Muslim prayer services in the village of Dambulla. The attackers claimed that the mosque, built in 1962, was illegal.

      Weeks later, monks drafted a threatening letter aimed at Muslims in the nearby town of Kurunegala, demanding Islamic prayer services there be halted.

      Violence hounds Kashmir’s cautious path to democracy
      Militant separatists are killing the elected village leaders, in the latest setback for a region beset by schisms. Andrew Buncombe reports from Goripora


      Village leader Zoona Kumar did not recognise the man who came to her house three weeks ago with a plan to kill her. His face was concealed by a scarf and he said nothing as he took out a gun, jammed it at her throat and fired.

      “There was a knock on the door. I went to the door. I don’t know how many men there were,” she said, propped up in bed, her right eyelid sewn shut. “There had been no threats, not a clue. Everyone had been supportive of what we were doing.” Although Mrs Kumar lost an eye in the shooting, doctors at a Srinagar hospital were somehow able to save her life. Others have not been so fortunate.

      Since 2011 when about 34,000 village council leaders – or sarpanches – were elected in Indian-controlled Kashmir in an experiment in grass-roots democracy, at least eight have been killed and countless more threatened, apparently by Pakistan-based militant separatist groups. Thousands of those who took up posts in order to help local development now say they want to quit.

      The wave of attacks on sarpanches has threatened to undermine one of the central achievements of the Indian authorities in Kashmir. It has also underscored the tensions in a place that India and Pakistan have fought three wars over and where troops are still regularly killed on the unofficial border known as the Line of Control.

      Last night, most of Indian-controlled Kashmir was under curfew amid fears that the execution of an alleged militant hanged in Delhi could spark attacks against Indian targets. But for local administrators, the threat of violence looms every day.

      As with Mrs Kumar, when Habibullah Mir stood for office in Goripora, about 45 miles west of Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar, he wanted to help people in a village that has electricity for no more than an hour a day. “You only have to look at our home,” said his widow, Hajra Begum, sitting in their freezing, unfinished house. “He was too busy to finish building this.”

      Most of his time, she said, was spent arranging drainage projects, road construction and the installation of lavatories at the local school and the mosque. He rarely came home before 11pm. But someone brought that work to an end. At lunchtime on 11 January, as Mr Mir was overseeing work at the mosque, he was approached by a man no one had seen before who said he had some private business with him.

      According to Ali Mohammed Mir, his brother, who was working at the mosque, the stranger also covered most of his face with a scarf and wore a dark pheran, a traditional Kashmiri shawl, baggy enough to conceal a small, hand-carried stove of embers or, in this case, a pistol. “There was a cement mixer on, there was lots of noise,” said Ali Mohammed Mir, explaining why he heard no gunshot. “Ten minutes later people came shouting that Habibullah Mir had been shot.”

      His brother, who grew apples on a half-acre of orchards and who had three children, was hit by a single bullet in the neck. Villagers raced to the nearest hospital, in the town of Sopore, but Mr Mir was dead on arrival. He was buried alongside his father in the village graveyard, just yards from the muddy track where he was killed.

      The attacks on Mr Mir and Mrs Kumar took place within a couple of days of each other and just a few miles apart. Both of the sarpanches were elected in the Sopore district, an area known as a stronghold of anti-Indian militants 20 years ago and where such individuals are still active today.

      S M Sahai, the Inspector General of police for Kashmir, said that while investigations were continuing, there was an assumption the attacks were ordered by militants, who might have “outsourced” the work to others. To try to reassure the sarpanches, he said, police were being redeployed to areas considered to have a higher threat. “But I think they know there is a limit to how much can be done,” he admitted.

      Officials estimate there may be 300 militants living on the Indian side of the Line of Control, of whom 50 are considered “active”. Most are linked to militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahedin, based across the border in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Starting in the late 1980s and peaking in the early 1990s, the militancy and attendant operations by security forces have claimed at least 50,000 lives. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus have been forced from the Muslim-dominated region.

      Today, despite claims by the state Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, of “a significant decline in violence”, Kashmir remains home to at least 600,000 security personnel. They have repeatedly been accused of human rights abuses.

      To the visitor, their ubiquity within the winter landscape is startling; a lone soldier silently stands watch in an orchard of pollarded trees; a line of troops make their way along either side of an ice-edged country road in the early morning; troops hold up traffic in the marketplace.

      “There are a number of reasons for the decline in militancy – international pressure on Pakistan, disenchantment, a fence between the two countries,” Mr Abdullah said. Development projects in Kashmir were also important, but he added: “We would be stupid if we thought that by building roads and hospitals and schools that we would no longer have a problem. You cannot buy or shoot your way to a solution. You have to talk.”

      While elected village leaders are commonplace elsewhere in India, in Kashmir the system had not operated for more than 30 years. Although Mr Abdullah insisted his motive for reintroducing them was to help development, others have seen them as strengthening the hand of the Indian state. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a staunch separatist, condemned the attacks on the sarpanches but called on local officials to join the “freedom movement”.

      “When the elections happened, we appealed to those taking part not to participate,” he said. “We are under occupation and no sort of election … is suitable or purposeful for resolving the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. We are under occupation and we demand we be given self-determination.”

      Sarpanch leaders across the state have demanded the government do more to protect them. They have also urged members to stay in their posts. More than 80 have formally resigned while thousands have expressed a desire to do so, even taking out advertisements in local papers.

      Strikingly, Mrs Kumar, the woman who answered the door to a stranger and who was shot, may not be among those giving up the post that made her proud by being able to help others. Having already turned down an offer of extra police protection, she said this week: “I cannot say whether I will resign or not. I will wait to see how I feel.”

      Riots flare as militant hanged


      One person was killed as protests broke out in at least two parts of Indian-controlled Kashmir yesterday, despite a strict curfew to prevent violence after the execution of a Kashmiri man convicted in a deadly attack on India’s Parliament in 2001.

      Mohammed Afzal Guru was hanged in Delhi on Saturday. The authorities ordered people in the disputed Kashmir region to remain indoors indefinitely in anticipation of anti-India protests.

      Today, scores of people defied the curfew.
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