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Taliban kills eight soldiers at army HQ in northern Afghanistan

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan: At least eight Afghan soldiers were killed and 11 wounded on Friday when Taliban gunmen dressed in uniforms talked their way past checkpoints and attacked a military headquarters in northern Afghanistan, officials said.

The attack occurred near a mosque on the base in Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, as soldiers were leaving Friday prayers, said army spokesman Nasratullah Jamshidi.

Six attackers in two military vehicles told guards at the base gates that they were carrying wounded soldiers and urgently needed to get in, he said.

After killing at least eight soldiers and wounding 11 others with rocket-propelled grenades and guns, one attacker was killed and the other five arrested, Jamshidi said.

The Western-backed Afghan government is locked in a prolonged war with Taliban insurgents as well as other militant groups.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the fighters set off an explosion, allowing suicide bombers armed with small arms to breach the base.

“Our fighters have inflicted heavy casualties on the Afghan army stationed there,” he said.

Other army officials confirmed that the attackers entered the base in disguise.

The base is the headquarters for the Afghan National Army’s 209th Corps, which covers most of northern Afghanistan, including Kunduz province where there has been heavy fighting.

A number of German and other foreign soldiers are based in Mazar-i-Sharif, including about 70 who advise the corps headquarters as part of a NATO-led multinational mission to advise and train the Afghan security forces.

German military says no German or international troops were involved in the attack.

“To our knowledge, no Germans were affected. Nor were any other soldiers in the multinational force harmed,” said a spokesman for the German Operations Command.

The NATO command in Kabul called the attack “murderous and reprehensible”.

(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Alison Williams)

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One dead in suspected rebel attack on Indian Kashmir army camp

NEW DELHI: Suspected militants fired on a military camp in Indian Kashmir late Sunday (Oct 2) killing one trooper, police said, two weeks after a similar deadly attack that spiked tensions between arch rivals India and Pakistan.

An unknown number of militants tried to break through the camp’s perimeter in Baramulla town but were repelled by soldiers and paramilitares in heavy exchanges of fire, an army official said.

“One BSF man has been killed and another injured,” senior police superintendent of Baramulla, Imtiyaz Hussain Mir, told AFP, referring to the Border Security Force (BSF).

The incident that lasted more than two hours had been brought under control and firing had now stopped, the army’s northern command and police said.

The attack comes after India last week launched “surgical strikes” on militant posts across the de-facto border that divides the Kashmir region with Pakistan, prompting a furious response from Islamabad.

Indian and Pakistani troops regularly exchange fire across the disputed border known as the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir, but sending ground troops over the line is rare.

Islamabad has dismissed the talk of surgical strikes across the heavily militarised LoC as an “illusion” and said two of its soldiers had been killed in small arms fire.

The strikes followed the deadly attack on one of India’s army bases in Kashmir that New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based militants, triggering a public outcry and demands for military action.

The raid on Sep 18 on the Uri army base by militants hurling grenades left 19 Indian soldiers dead in the worst such attack in more than a decade.

Early on Monday morning, soldiers were searching for the militants outside the Baramulla camp, located some 50 kilometres from Srinagar, and it was unknown if any had been killed or captured.

The militants were hurling grenades during the attack, according to the Press Trust of India, although this could not be confirmed. Residents told local media of loud gunfire coming from the camp.

“Terrorists opened fire on an army camp in Baramulla town,” army spokesman Colonel Rajesh Kalia earlier told AFP.

Since last month’s attack at Uri, India has been on a diplomatic drive to isolate Pakistan.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since they gained independence from Britain seven decades ago, two of them over Kashmir. Both claim the region in full.

A number of armed separatist groups in the Indian-controlled part of the picturesque territory have for decades been fighting to break free from New Delhi.

Even before the Uri attack, tensions were high in the heavily militarised Kashmir region, with weeks of deadly protests in response to the killing of a young, popular militant leader.

The Kashiri separatist was killed during a gun battle with security forces in July.

More than 80 civilians have been killed, mostly in clashes with forces during protests against Indian rule, in the worst violence in the region since 2010.

Islamabad has repeatedly accused India of committing human rights abuses in the Muslim-majority state.

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As Pakistan army chief's tenure nears end, PM faces key choice

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif faces a key choice in the coming weeks about who should run Pakistan’s powerful military, one that will have a major influence on the country’s often strained relationships with the United States and nuclear rival India.

With Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif saying he will step down when his tenure ends in November, the top post is up for grabs, and the prime minister decides who gets it.

Overshadowing the process has been speculation in the media and by some government officials that the general, no relation to the premier, may seek to hold on to some or all of his powers even after his term is finished.

The general is immensely popular among ordinary Pakistanis, who see him as a bulwark against crime, corruption and Islamist militant violence.

He has also strengthened the military’s grip over aspects of government, including the judiciary and areas of security policy.

Yet the military flatly rejects the possibility of an extension.

“I will request you to avoid speculations, because we have already taken a position very clearly,” Lieutenant General Asim Bajwa, the army’s main spokesman, told a recent press briefing.

The military declined to comment further and said General Sharif was not available for interview.

In a country prone to military coups, including one in which Nawaz Sharif himself was ousted from power in 1999, suspicions that the general will remain in his post persist, including among some of the prime minister’s senior aides.

Reuters has no independent evidence to corroborate this view.

“Army chiefs soon begin to think they are invincibles-in-chief,” said a close aide to Nawaz Sharif, requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to speak about military appointments.

What happens at the top of Pakistan’s armed forces will be closely watched overseas.

With nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan fighting the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups, Washington is losing patience with what it says is Pakistan’s failure to hunt down insurgents who launch attacks on Afghanistan from Pakistani territory. Pakistan denies this.

India has ratcheted up rhetoric against Pakistan, alarmed at an escalation of violence in the disputed region of Kashmir, including an attack on an army base there that killed 18 soldiers. Islamabad denies accusations it was behind the raid.

LIST OF CONTENDERS

According to three close aides to the prime minister and a senior military official, the military high command has sent the prime minister the dossiers of four main contenders.

The premier’s favourite, the aides said, was Lieutenant General Javed Iqbal Ramday, commander of XXXI Corps who led a 2009 operation to drive the Pakistani Taliban militant movement from Swat Valley near the Afghan border.

The three other dossiers are for Lieutenant General Zubair Hayat, Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmad, commanding officer in the eastern city of Multan, and Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who heads the army’s Training and Evaluation Wing.

Ramday is considered among the front-runners, in part because his family has been associated with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) party for many years.

He is also seen by some security officials as popular with General Sharif.

“He’s perhaps as liked by Raheel Sharif as he is by Nawaz Sharif,” said a senior security official based in Islamabad, declining to be named.

Neither the prime minister nor General Sharif have commented publicly on his chances.

Hayat oversees intelligence and operational affairs at the army’s General Headquarters, and before that headed the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which is responsible for Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

Retired and serving officers who have served with Hayat see him as a compromise between the military and civilian government.

Ahmad has extensive experience with military operations, especially against Pakistan’s Taliban insurgency, and was previously the Director General Military Operations.

Several past army chiefs had served as DGMOs before being promoted to the top post.

A serving brigadier who has worked with Bajwa said he was the general “most similar in temperament to General Raheel”, adding that: “His chances are also very good.”

The army’s media wing did not respond to requests to interview the four contenders.

WRESTING BACK POWER

If Nawaz Sharif appoints a new army chief, it could allow him to claw back some of the influence he has ceded since coming to power in 2013, analysts said.

In 2014, the prime minister emerged in charge but weakened after protests demanding his resignation, and that year the army also went against his wishes for a negotiated settlement with Taliban militants by sending troops into North Waziristan.

“Nawaz has lost a lot of ground to the military during Raheel’s tenure,” Talat Masood, a retired general and political analyst said. “He will try and retake certain space by asserting himself. I think he would like a change in leadership.”

Sharif has been quiet on the issue of the military’s ascendancy in public.

But a statement from his office late last year, issued after the military urged the government to match its efforts in fighting militancy, said “all institutions have to play their role, while remaining within the ambit of the constitution.”

Under Raheel Sharif, the army tightened control over the battle against militants, including creating military courts that have sentenced dozens of people to death.

The courts have been criticised by lawyers and families of defendants for denying basic rights, and some are challenging the courts’ rulings through the civilian judiciary.

The military has also taken a lead role in policing the southern city of Karachi, a broadly popular operation that has reduced rampant crime but also been denounced as heavy-handed and open to abuses including extra-judicial killings.

“If Raheel Sharif hadn’t been chief, these militants and criminals would have destroyed Pakistan,” said Bismillah Khan, a bus driver in the southwestern city of Quetta. “I hope whoever replaces him will be just like him.”

(Additional reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Kay Johnson)

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