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MOSCOW: A female suicide bomber killed 14 people Sunday when she blew herself up at the main train station in the southern city of Volgograd, raising concerns about security in Russia just six weeks before the Sochi Olympic Games.

The unidentified woman set off her charge after being stopped by a police officer at the metal detectors at the entrance to the station while it was packed with people travelling to celebrate the New Year, regional officials said.

Footage of the blast captured by a nearby camera showed a huge fireball blow out the front doors and a row of windows from the grey stone three-story building, before huge billows of smoke poured out as people scattered along the street.

Russia's Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said officials had launched an inquiry into a suspected “act of terror”.

“A suicide bomber who was approaching a metal detector saw a law enforcement official and, after growing nervous, set off an explosive device,”Markin said in televised comments.

Officials said at least 34 people were injured by the blast that had the explosive equivalent of more than 10 kilogrammes (16 pounds) of TNT. It was the deadliest attack in Russia for almost three years.

The police officer who spotted the woman died in the attack while several others who were stationed at the metal detectors were wounded by the blast.

State television said their actions prevented “hundreds” from being killed.

The lifenews.ru website meanwhile posted a picture of what it said was the head of the young female bomber lying amid a pile of debris with her long brown hair spread across the floor.

“It was a very powerful blast,” train station store attendant Valentina Petrichenko told the Vesti 24 news channel.

“Some people started running and others were thrown back by the wave of the blast,” she said.

“It was very scary.” Volgograd Mayor Irina Guseva vowed on Vesti 24 television: “We will not allow panic to grip this city.”

Olympic security fears

The city of Volgograd, known as Stalingrad in the Soviet era, was already attacked in October by a female suicide bomber with links to Islamists fighting federal forces in the nearby volatile North Caucasus.

The October 21 strike killed six people aboard a crowded bus and immediately raised security fears ahead of the February 7-23 Winter Games in Sochi.

The Black Sea city lies 690 kilometres (425 miles) southwest of Volgograd and in direct proximity to the violence ravaging daily in North Caucasus regions such as Dagestan and Chechnya.

Militants are seeking to impose an Islamist state throughout Russia's North Caucasus. Their leader Doku Umarov has ordered rebels to target civilians outside the region and disrupt the Olympic Games.

President Vladimir Putin staked his personal reputation on the Games' success by lobbying for Sochi's candidacy before the International Olympic Committee and then spending more than $50 billion (36 billion euros) for the event.

The Kremlin said Putin was “immediately” informed of the attack.

“The president is receiving reports as the events develop and as new information comes in, first of all, this concerns the number of people injured and killed,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian state television.

Militant attacks have become part of daily life in the mainly Muslim Northern Caucasus but the Volgograd blast will be a particular concern to the authorities as the bomber struck a city of over one million in the Russian heartland.

The Volgograd attack is deadliest in Russia since the suicide bombing on Moscow's Domodedovo airport in January 2011 that killed 37.

'Security stepped up'

Russia's interior ministry said separately that it was immediately stepping up security at all the nation's main train stations and airports.

“These measures involve a greater police presence and more detailed passenger checks,” an interior ministry spokesman told the Interfax news agency.

Russian authorities have repeatedly vowed to take the highest security precautions in Sochi. There have been few indications to date of foreign sports fans cancelling their attendance out of security fears.

Female suicide bombers are often referred to in Russia as “black widows” women who seek to avenge the deaths of their family members in North Caucasus fighting by targeting Russian civilians.

Female suicide bombers set off blasts at two Moscow metro stations in March 2010 that killed more than 35 people.

So-called black widows were also responsible for killing more than 90 people when they took down two passenger jets that took off from a Moscow airport within minutes of each other in 2004.

BEIRUT: Former Lebanese Minister Mohamad Chatah, who opposed Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and four other people were killed in a massive bomb blast that targeted his car in Beirut yesterday, security sources said. Chatah, 62, a Sunni Muslim, was also a critic of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement and an adviser to former Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri.

His killing occurred three weeks before the long-delayed opening of a trial of five Hezbollah suspects indicted for the Feb 2005 bombing which killed former Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, Saad’s father, and 21 other people. Hezbollah has denied involvement in the 2005 attack. Preliminary UN investigations implicated Syrian officials.

The deadly car bomb that ripped through downtown Beirut shook buildings and rattled windows, triggering fear among many people that “nowhere is safe” anymore in Lebanon. The country, which fought a long civil war between 1975 and 1990, is no stranger to violence and has seen a rise in attacks linked to the fighting in neighboring Syria, but yesterday’s explosion in the heart of Beirut brought the unrest even closer to home.

Street cleaner Ali Aoun was carrying out his daily chores when the car exploded, killing six people, including prominent anti-Syria politician Mohammad Chatah. “The pressure of the blast was so powerful. All the buildings shook around me,” he said as he swept up piles of broken glass outside a badly damaged office building.  “I can’t believe I am still alive.”

Chatah was an advisor to Saad Hariri, whose late father, the billionaire prime minister Rafiq Hariri, led the rebuilding of the city centre after it was reduced to rubble in the civil war, which claimed an estimated 150,000 lives. But the elder Hariri, a prime minister, was killed in a massive explosion targeting his convoy in 2005, just blocks away from yesterday’s blast. “This area is supposed to be safe, perhaps the safest in all the country,” said Ziad, a businessman who gave only his first name.

A tweet posted on his Twitter account less than an hour before the blast accused the Shiite movement of trying to take control of the country. “Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security and foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years,” the tweet read. The explosion sent shock waves among residents and emptied the streets in downtown where people, seeking a respite from recent turmoil, had ventured out to enjoy the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

The conflict in neighboring Syria has polarized Lebanon and ratcheted up sectarian tensions. Hezbollah has sent fighters to Syria to fight alongside Assad, who comes from the Alawite sect, a heterodox offshoot of Shiite Islam. Some of the Sunni Syrian rebel groups are linked to al Qaeda, which is also seeking to topple Assad. Former minister Marwan Hamadeh, who survived a car bombing in 2004, told Al Arabiya television: “Hezbollah will not be able to rule Lebanon, no matter how much destruction it causes or blood it spills”.

KUWAITIS SAFE
Meanwhile, Kuwait Embassy in Beirut reassured that all Kuwaitis, both citizens and diplomats, are safe and sound after an explosion. In a statement, the embassy said that all Kuwaiti citizens are safe and that it condemns such a terrorist act that led to the death of the innocent and the destruction of properties. The Embassy called on all Kuwaiti nationals to contact these local numbers in case of emergency or help: 71582888 – 71171441 – 03041166. Earlier, Kuwait Foreign Ministry advised Kuwaiti citizens to leave Lebanon for their safety. Due to the ongoing instability in the country, this cautionary advice is still in effect.

CAR WRECKED
Sources at the explosion site said Chatah was on his way to attend a meeting at Hariri’s headquarters when the explosion tore through his car. Hariri himself has stayed away from Lebanon for more than two years, fearing for his safety. A Reuters witness at the scene said his car was “totally destroyed, it is a wreck.” Chatah’s identity card, torn and charred, was found inside his car.

Iran, which backs Hezbollah, came under attack in Beirut last month. On Nov 19, two suicide bombings rocked the embassy compound in Lebanon, killing at least 25 people including an Iranian cultural attache and hurling bodies and burning wreckage across a debris-strewn street. A Lebanon-based Al- Qaeda-linked group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, claimed responsibility and threatened further attacks unless Iran withdraws forces from Syria, where they have backed Assad’s 2-1/2-year-old war against rebels.

The sound of yesterday’s blast was heard across the city at around 9:40 am and a plume of black smoke was seen rising in the downtown business and hotel district. It shattered glass in nearby apartment blocks and damaged restaurants, coffee shops and offices in the chic district of downtown Beirut. “I heard a huge explosion and saw a ball of fire and palls of black smoke. We run out of our offices to the streets,” said Hassan Akkawi, who works in a finance company nearby.- Agencies

LOS ANGELES: A California man who used the Internet and Facebook to connect with Al Qaeda pleaded guilty Friday to a federal terrorism charge after admitting he attempted to assist the organisation by providing weapons training, the US attorney's office said.

Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen, 24, unexpectedly entered the plea before US District Court Judge John F. Walter, who scheduled sentencing for March 21, prosecutors said in a statement. Reporters were not notified of his court appearance and were not present.

Nguyen faces a maximum of 15 years in federal prison.

Nguyen's lawyer, Yasmin Cader, refused to comment on his decision, quickly hanging up the phone on a reporter, and US Attorney's spokesman Thom Mrozek said prosecutors also would have no comment. The judge who accepted the plea previously had expressed scepticism about whether Nguyen had any special skills to offer Al Qaeda.

Nguyen had confessed to federal agents after he was unmasked by an undercover FBI agent posing as a recruiter for the terrorist group.

He said that he planned to offer himself as a trainer of some 30 Al Qaeda forces to ambush troops in Syria, where he had already spent five months fighting with rebels, Assistant US Attorney Judith Heinz said after his arrest in October. She said he underwent 50 hours of interrogation during which he confessed to his plan.

Nguyen's admission was contained in a plea agreement filed in federal court, according to a US attorney's press release issued after the plea was entered and accepted.

''Nguyen admitted that approximately one year ago he travelled to Syria where he joined opposition forces,'' the statement said.

''Using a social network site during a four-month period he was in Syria, Nguyen told people that he was fighting against the Assad regime and that he had had a 'confirmed kill.''

Nguyen returned to the US, where he told associates that he had offered to train Al Qaeda forces in Syria but was turned down, the US attorney's office said.

At a hearing last fall, Judge Walter asked Heinz what Nguyen had to offer the terrorist group and she said, ''He was providing himself''.

The judge noted that Nguyen was never a member of the US armed forces, having been rejected because of a hearing problem.

''I don't see evidence that this defendant had any particular skill in firearms,'' he said, ''or that he had the ability to procure or deliver weapons. ... This is the part of the case that escapes me.''

It was not immediately known what changed his mind between then and the entry of the plea.

Prosecutors said that between Aug 3 and Oct 11 Nguyen met with a man he thought was an Al Qaeda recruiter but who actually was working for the FBI, telling him about what he'd done in Syria and saying he wanted to return to jihad.

On Oct 1, Nguyen purchased a ticket for travel from Mexico to Pakistan and he was arrested by FBI agents on Oct 11 as he was about to board a bus from Santa Ana, California, to Mexico. He had been told he would be meeting ''his sheik'' in Peshawar, the prosecutor had said. When he was arrested, authorities said he exclaimed, ''How did you guys find out?''

KARACHI: Bangladesh on Tuesday sought an explanation from Pakistan’s envoy in Dhaka regarding a resolution adopted by the Pakistani parliament condemning execution of Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Molla for his involvement in war crimes of 1971.

Bangladesh's foreign ministry, in a statement, said that Molla’s trial and punishment was the country’s internal affair and the resolution adopted by Pakistan’s National Assembly in this regard was uncalled for.

Pakistan’s high commissioner in Dhaka, Mian Afrasiab Mehdi Hashmi Qureshi was summoned to explain the matter in this regard, it said.

The 65 years old Jamaat-e-Islami leader was hanged on Thursday for his involvement in war crimes during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.

The lower house of parliament in Pakistan on Monday blew hot and cold over the execution, ending up with just an expression of “concern” by a divided house at what Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said was “judicial murder.”

The government and its allies as well as the opposition Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan tried hard for a show of parliamentary consensus on the 42nd anniversary of “fall of Dhaka” as they supported a resolution proposed by the opposition Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) seeking to condemn the execution of Bangladeshi Jamaat-i-Islami’s Abdul Quader Molla.

But the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) refused to sign the draft and openly opposed it for different reasons in speeches before the house passed a toned down resolution by voice vote.

Contrary to a mild comment made by the foreign ministry on Friday, Chaudhry Nisar used some tough language in the house, saying Mr Molla’s hanging had “opened old wounds again.”

The original JI draft had wanted the house to “strongly condemn” the hanging, but an amended draft that was moved by a party member from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, only “expressed concern” of the house over the hanging of Molla for what it called “supporting Pakistan in 1971.”

It urged the Bangladesh government to “not revive the issues of 1971” and “terminate all cases registered against the leaders of Jamaat-i-Islami, Bangladesh, in a spirit of reconciliation.”

Country-wide protests and funeral prayers in absentia were held by the activists and supporters of the JI in Pakistan following the hanging in Dhaka.

Pakistan’s armed forces are alleged to have carried out war crimes in1971 and the Bangladesh government has been seeking a public apology from Pakistan which is yet to abide by the demand of its South Asian neighbour officially.

SANAA: Assailants stabbed a Japanese diplomat repeatedly Sunday after dragging him out of his car in the Yemeni capital, scene of a spate of attacks on foreigners, the embassy and witnesses said.

The consul and second secretary at the embassy suffered five stab wounds in the morning attack in the Hadda neighbourhood, an embassy spokesman said.

“He is ok now. He is in hospital,” said the spokesman, who declined to disclose the name of the consul.

It was unclear if the attack was an attempt to kidnap the diplomat.

The spokesman said he had been driving ahead of the consul, but when he arrived at the embassy, the consul was no longer following.

The diplomats had been driving without guards, he added.

Witnesses said six masked men attacked the diplomat in a small street, about 250 metres away from the Japanese mission.

They pulled him out of his car and one of the assailants hit him on the head with a pistol butt, before pushing him to the ground and driving off in his vehicle.

Local residents said they administered first aid in a nearby shop, until an embassy vehicle arrived and took him away.

An AFP correspondent found traces of blood in the street.

Foreigners are frequently attacked or kidnapped in Yemen, home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula which is viewed by the United States as the network's deadliest franchise.

But armed tribesmen also kidnap foreigners to use as bargaining chips to gain government concessions. A Dutch couple was set free last week after spending six months in captivity.

In late November, unidentified gunmen killed a Belarussian defence contractor and wounded another in an attack outside their hotel in Sanaa.

A German embassy guard was killed in October last month as he resisted an attempt to kidnap him. Hit-and-run assassinations are frequent in Yemen and are mostly blamed on Al-Qaeda militants, or stem from tribal disputes.

The United Nations closed its offices in Sanaa on Thursday over fears of possible car bombs attacks, and the American and Turkish schools were shut, but Western embassies remained opened.

The alert came after a December 5 brazen daylight attack on the defence ministry complex in Sanaa that killed 56 people, among them expatriate medical staff.

In August, a security alert originating in Yemen prompted an unprecedented closure of American embassies across and beyond the Middle East.

Yemen has been battling through a tough political transition since veteran president Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted from power in February 2012, following a year of deadly protests against his 33-year rule.

The transition aims to culminate in a new constitution and pave the way for parliamentary and presidential elections in February 2014, but it faces many hurdles.

“Only when I left home, I realised that not everybody is a Muslim,” said Kausar Jackpot. “I mean, I knew that Muslims were a minority in some countries but I did not realise that it meant having to deal with non-Muslims all the time.”

 

Kausar was called Mr Jackpot because he did not have to go through what others do for settling down in this country. He got his visa in a diversity lottery, came here, learned driving and became a cabbie. He never had to work at half the legal wage at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants as most people on non-working visas do.

“I also learned that those who believe in other gods are nice too and some Muslims are bad as well,” said Jackpot.

This was another weekend evening at the Tavern and we had just finished a dinner of “aloo parathay” with matar-qeema. Now we were waiting for green tea and shisha.

“Yes, you are always right, Sir,” said Teaspoon Hameed. “Living with others jolts your entire belief-system.”

“There’s a reason that they call you Teaspoon,” said Johnny Jumper, laughing at his courteous response. “But you are right; living with people of other faiths does change your outlook.”

Hameed is a sweet man and is always very courteous. Some of his friends think that he is too sweet, so they call him Teaspoon Hameed.

And Johnny is called Jumper because he always carries a jump-starter in his cab and when other cabbies need help, they call him.

This was a winter evening and it was snowing outside. It was also the beginning of the weekend. Snow on such evenings, if it’s not severe, always means good business for cab drivers. People use cabs even for short distances, which in summer they prefer to walk.

So the Tavern gang finished their tea and drove away to downtown Washington. They would spend most of the night driving people to and from Adams Morgan where most of the bars and restaurants are.

It was past midnight when Khalid Simple parked his car outside Madame’s Organ Blues Bar. Khalid was called Simple because whenever somebody came to him with a problem, he would, “OK, no problem. It is simple.”

It was a productive evening. Simple had already earned $150, so he decided to take a break. Although he was parked outside a bar, Simple could not drink as he was driving. Most cabbies in his group did not drink and those who did, visited bars on Sunday evenings when the business was slow.

Simple loves winters, even the harsh North American winter. The temperature drops. The wind stops. A complete silence fills the space. It gets so quiet that he can hear the leaves falling.

Then comes the rain; the slow winter rain. It begins with little drops that leave their mark on the roads but cannot be seen. Soon it starts to snow. A white powder covers everything – from roofs and trees to cars and streets. Everything assumes a new shape, mysterious and beautiful.

Simple was trying to remember an Urdu or Punjabi couplet appropriate for this freezing night but could not. “They are all written for our mild winter, not this deep-freezer night,” he murmured.

As he took another sip of hot coffee from his cup, someone knocked at the window. It was a homeless person who asked him to buy him coffee and some food.

Simple opened the window an inch and asked the man to go to a nearby donut shop. “The manager is my friend, I will call him. You go,” he said. Soon the man returned with his coffee and donuts, thanked him and walked away.

“A winter night is neither mysterious nor beautiful if you are homeless and have to sleep in a park under the falling snow,” thought Simple.

“You need to be in a warm room, under thick blankets to enjoy it.”

Criss-crossing the city on a cab, looking for passengers, was not comfortable either but it was better than being homeless, he said to himself.

When Simple first came to America, he did nightshifts at a gas station facing a park. In the winter, he often saw people sleeping there, during the snowfalls too. Hiding under heaps of blankets and plastic sheets, they barely moved as the snow piled up on them.

Simple often wondered if they would wake up! But they did. Every morning, while returning from work, he would see them outside a fast food restaurant, waiting to be served.

He wanted to know how they felt sleeping in a park in sub-zero temperatures. So he asked one. The man asked Simple to buy him a cup of coffee. He invited him inside and while the homeless man was enjoying his coffee and donuts, he asked: “How do you sleep in the park during snowfalls?”

“Come and try,” said the man and resumed munching his donut.

Simple apologised. The homeless man accepted his apology with a smile and asked if he could buy him another cup of coffee. When Simple nodded, he said: “Not now. Before you leave.”

“Why not now?” Simple asked.

“It will give me an excuse to spend more time in this warm room,” he said. Then pointing to the park, he added: “It is cold and uncomfortable out there.”

This under-statement disturbed Simple. He thought the man would be full of bitterness about his homelessness and the harsh weather. May be he was but he did not say so.

“Did I really need to learn it from him? Their misery should have been obvious to me and to all others who watch the homeless,” Simple thought as he waited outside Madame’s Organ. “Why should he confide in me? Just because I bought him a cup of coffee? It was very mean of me.”

Then Simple remembered how people walk past the parks where the homeless spend snowy, winter nights. “We ignore them as we ignore other ordinary things that we do not need to notice, like walking by a row of homes,” he said to himself. “We do not notice them because we know it’s none of our business what people do inside these centrally-heated homes.”

Simple then recalled how all faiths encourage people to help the poor. Simple was a religious man, but in his own way. He believed in God and always tried to do what he thought would please the Almighty. But he did not spend much time bothering about religious differences.

“We must do something about these homeless people,” he often said to other cabbies. “I know we cannot do much but we can at least feed a certain number of them every night.” He also suggested setting up a fund for this purpose.

Simple’s thoughts were interrupted by another knock at the window, louder than the previous.

“What do you want?” he asked, sliding his window a little. The man gave him a piece of paper with an address written on it.

“Drop me there. It is too cold. I cannot walk,” he said and showed him a 10-dollar bill. “I will pay you.”

Simple looked at him. The man was not much different from the homeless he bought coffee for. He opened the window a little more and immediate felt a strong odour. He looked closely at his dirty clothes and drove away.

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia's grand mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh branded suicide bombers as “criminals” who will go to “hell,” Al-Hayat daily reported Thursday.

Suicide bombings are “great crimes” and bombers are “criminals who rush themselves to hell by their actions”, Sheikh said during a lecture in Riyadh a few days ago, according to Al-Hayat.

Sheikh described suicide bombers as “robbed of their minds... who have been used (as tools) to destroy themselves and societies”.

In Feb 2010, Sheikh denounced terrorism as un-Islamic and condemned the killing of civilians, saying such attacks have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.

His latest remarks come after a preliminary inquiry into a Dec 5 suicide car bombing and assault on a Yemen defence ministry complex found that most assailants were Saudis. Fifty-six people were killed in the attack.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap), which was formed from a merger of the jihadist network's Saudi and Yemeni branches, has claimed responsibility for the attack.

On Tuesday, a Saudi court jailed an Al Qaeda-linked jihadist for 16 years for plotting to kill Sheikh and other clerics.

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