Daily Archives: January 23, 2008

China finds 100,000-year-old human skull


Map showing Xuchang in Henan where a human skull dating 80,000 to 100,000 years was unearthed, according to reports in the state media Wednesday.

AFP | Jan 23, 2008

BEIJING (AFP) – An almost complete human skull dating back 80,000 to 100,000 years was unearthed in central China, state media reported Wednesday.

The skull, consisting of 16 pieces, was dug out last month after two years of excavation at a site in Xuchang in Henan province, the China Daily said.

The pieces were fossilised because they were buried near the mouth of a spring whose water had a high calcium content, the China Daily said.

It is rare to find a nearly complete skull of that age.

Besides the skull, more than 30,000 animal fossils and stone and bone artifacts were found in the past two years in an area of 260 square metres (2,800 square feet).

The oldest human fossil found in China so far was a tooth unearthed in 1965 in Yuanmou county in the southwestern province of Yunnan that dated back 1.7 million years, said Wu Xinzhi, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Internet teen suicide craze sweeps through small town

A memorial website was set up within hours of Miss Randall’s death

Police fear internet cult inspires teen suicides driven by a desire to achieve prestige by having a memorial website set up in their name.

Telegraph | Jan 23, 2008

By Nick Britten and Richard Savill

Detectives fear a bizarre suicide craze is sweeping through teenagers in a small town fuelled by chat on social networking sites after seven friends took their own lives.

As well as the deaths during the last 12 months, several more have attempted suicide and police fear they are being driven by a desire to achieve prestige by having a memorial website set up in their name.

Many of the victims had their own web pages on the social networking site Bebo, which they spent hours on each day. After their deaths a special site is set up where friends can leave messages, photographs and videos.

Police have visited the parents of every member of a 20-strong group who they are most worried about warning them to keep a close eye on their children.

The latest victim is Natasha Randall, 17, who was found hanged at her family home last Thursday. Within 24 hours two of her friends had tried to kill themselves. One 15-year-old girl was on a life support machine yesterday while the other, also 15, was recovering after slitting her wrists.

Police, who are investigating a possible suicide chain, fear the teenagers think it is “cool” to have an internet memorial site and are killing themselves to achieve kudos among their peer group.

Within hours of Miss Randall’s death, a tribute site called “R.I.P. Tasha” had sprung up with photos, videos and messages. It has 345 members been viewed more than 2,100 times.

Her death follows those of Gareth Morgan, 27, Liam Clarke, 20, Thomas Davies, 20, David Dilling, 19, Dale Crole, 18, and Zachary Barnes, 17. Like Miss Randall, all lived in and around Bridgend in south Wales and all are being linked.

Miss Randall was in her first year on a Care and Childhood Studies course at Bridgend College. Her stepmother, Katrina, said the teenager spent hours every day on her computer using the name “Wildchild”.

She said: “The police have been and taken Natasha’s computer away to help with their investigation. This has come as a shock to all of us. We’re just too upset to speak about it, her dad especially.”

Thomas Davies’ mother, Melanie, 38, said: “It’s like a craze – a stupid sort of fad. They all seem to be copying each other by wanting to die.

“I think the problem is they do not know how to speak like adults about serious issues like this. They can speak to each other on the computer but do not know how to express their emotions in other ways.

“He did go on Bebo and apparently he had a page on there. He must have discussed his other friends dying on there because it had upset him.

“Like most parents, I have no idea how to get on these sites or what other kids are talking about. But I would warn other parents to beware and to keep a close eye on their children.”

A police source said: “Parents should keep a close watch on what their children are doing on the internet and what they are talking about.

“It’s often easier for them to disclose their real feelings on a computer rather than face to face with an adult or even their friends, and social networking sites are the ideal way to do that.”

Madeleine Moon, Bridgend MP, has met with senior police officers to discuss Bridgend’s alarmingly high suicide rate. The Bridgend and Glamorgan Valleys Coroner, Phillip Walters, has also raised his concerns and a special “task force” has been set up in the town to investigate the problem.

Consultant psychiatrist Tegwyn Williams, director of mental health services for the NHS Trust, said: “Unfortunately there’s a culture where men don’t tend to talk about how they feel. It comes to the point where they can’t see any way out.

“The key is to break down the stigma attached to suicide in the community so that people aren’t afraid to talk to someone of they feel depressed.”

It comes after the deaths of three teenagers in a suicide pact in a small village in Northern Ireland in the summer.

Heterosexual married couples no longer the social norm

Telegraph | Jan 23, 2008

By Sarah Womack, Social Affairs Correspondent

Heterosexual married couples are no longer regarded as the “norm”, the largest survey of social attitudes in Britain shows today.

Government support for gay couples and single parents, the rise in cohabitation and an official failure to support traditional marriage are said to have resulted in previously unconventional lifestyles becoming widely accepted.

But people hold less tolerant views of family set-ups in which children are involved, it is claimed.

The British Social Attitudes report, by the National Centre for Social Research, is significant because the questions it asks are developed and paid for in collaboration with Government departments to inform social policy.

The survey, based on the views of 3,300 adults, has been running since 1983 and is an important barometer of opinion.

The annual report says marriage – once the bedrock institution of British society – is seen by two thirds of people as virtually indistinguishable from cohabitation.

Only one in four people thinks married couples make better parents than unmarried ones, while a third believe that gay male couples are as capable of being good parents as a man and a woman.

Most people – 61 per cent – also think that single women should be allowed to have a baby as a result of sperm donation.

The survey exposes the decline in the importance of marriage with the finding that most people see weddings as an excuse for a party rather than a public declaration of lifelong commitment.

The average cost of a wedding may have soared to £17,370, but 53 per cent of people regard it simply as a celebration.

Despite a Government-funded media campaign three years ago, half of adults still wrongly believe there is such a thing as “common law marriage”, which gives cohabitants the same rights as married couples.

Simon Duncan, the professor of social policy at Bradford University and co-author of the report, said: “The heterosexual married couple is no longer central as a social norm, but views are more traditional when it comes to bringing up children. Alternative family arrangements are seen as less acceptable.”

While four in 10 people think one parent can bring up a child as well as two parents, a similar proportion, 41 per cent, disagree.

Four in 10 people also disagree with the view that a gay male couple are as capable of being good parents as a man and a woman, compared to 31 per cent who agree.

Almost a third of people think it should be harder for couples with children under 16 to get divorced. The report comes after research showing that divorce and unmarried child-bearing increase the economic vulnerability of children and mothers.

The head of David Cameron’s social justice policy unit, Iain Duncan Smith, identified failing families as a key force in social breakdown.

He claimed that children from broken homes were more likely to fail at school, fall foul of the law or turn to drink or drugs.

Jill Kirby, the director of the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank, said: “Married couples still represent 85 per cent of all couples, so it is still the norm and easily the majority choice at present.

“Most couples are married couples, ‘same sex’ couples are a small minority, and cohabitation – while increasingly popular – will often lead to marriage.

“The worry remains that family break-up is more associated with cohabiting couples than married ones and to encourage cohabitation is to risk the security of children. The Government needs to signal its support for marriage.”

Mr Duncan Smith said there was a lack of honesty in the political debate.

“Family breakdown is a major cause of social exclusion,” he said. “For years this debate has been stifled, with Government research papers even excluding marriage as a special family category.

“Small wonder that the cost of family break-up grows, estimated at £20-£24 billion.”

British national ID card agenda delayed until 2012

Telegraph | Jan 23, 2008

By James Kirkup, Political Correspondent

The Government’s national identity card scheme was “in the intensive care ward” after leaked documents showed plans to issue UK citizens with the cards have been delayed until after the next election.

Amid growing doubts that the multibillion pound scheme will ever see the light of day, a confidential Home Office report suggests that the widespread introduction of cards for British nationals will not come until 2012 at the earliest.

That is two years later than the Government has previously stated. It would also ensure that the general introduction of ID cards took place well after the next election, which must be held by May 2010 at the latest.

The Home Office paper, entitled “National Identity Scheme Delivery Strategy” and marked “Restricted” was prepared for senior officials on 20 December 2007.

It sets out “a high level roll out strategy for the National Identity Scheme” and shows a timetable for implementation.

It shows that “Borders phase II (UK citizens),” the project for issuing cards to UK nationals in large numbers is now slated to begin in 2012.

The Government has said it plans to make ID cards compulsory, but only after a “voluntary” period during which anyone who renews a passport or driving licence will be automatically issued with a card.

Last night’s leak follows Gordon Brown’s apparent hesitation over the future of ID cards in the Commons earlier this month.

Pressed repeatedly whether he stands by plans to make ID cards compulsory for all UK nationals, the Prime Minister said only: “It is the Government’s policy to move ahead with this but subject to a vote of Parliament, depending on how the voluntary scheme works.”

Downing Street has since insisted that Mr Brown’s position on the scheme has not changed, but opponents detect waning Government commitment to the project in the light of recent damaging losses of sensitive data by the public sector.

David Davis, the Conservative shadow home secretary, last night said the document cast fresh doubt on the future of the ID card project.

He said: “It is in the intensive care ward. There are clear flaws in the whole government strategy for data protection.

“There is a clear fracture in public confidence in ID cards. And there are weaknesses in every single major IT system in the public sector. This is a political nightmare for the Government.”

Further fuelling suspicions of a Government climbdown on ID cards, a major review of the scheme appears to have been shelved.

James Crosby, the head of the HBOS bank, completed a review of the potential private sector uses for ID cards last year. But the Treasury has now confirmed there is no date set for its publication.

The leaked Home Office document makes clear that some British nationals like teachers and care workers could get cards as soon as next year.

An ID card could be made a requirement for holding a job in a “position of trust” such as teaching or social care from 2009.

It says: “Our first priority should be to issue cards to those who are employed in positions of trust where identity assurance is critical to determining their appropriateness for that employment.”

The Home Office refused to comment on the leaked document.

An Identity and Passport Service spokesman said: “We have always said that the Scheme will be rolled out incrementally.

“As stated in the Strategic Plan for the National Identity Scheme published in December 2006, we will begin issuing ID cards for foreign nationals this year, and the first ID cards for British citizens in 2009.”

British teacher ‘zapped love rival with stun gun’

Telegraph | Jan 23, 2008

By Duncan Gardham, Gary Cleland and Malcolm Moore in Rome

A British teacher has been arrested in Italy after he allegedly kidnapped his love rival, tied him to a chair and zapped him with a high-voltage stun gun.

Brian Avery, 47, from Ramsgate, Kent, is said to have become embroiled in a love triangle with one of his students, Chinese-born Shao Ling, 45, in the Italian town where he taught.

Tensions started to rise and Avery is alleged to have approached her 40-year-old husband in the street, pressed a gun into his back and told him to walk down a ramp into the underground car park of the apartment where the couple lived.

A spokesman for Italian police said: “He threatened the man with a gun and tied him to a chair in the victim’s own private parking space. He then hit him and stunned him with electricity.

“The ordeal ended after 10 minutes, when a car drove into the area. The victim was admitted to hospital.”

The alleged attack happened at around 8.30pm on the evening of Jan 13 in the centre of the northern Italian town of Como, where Avery had been working as a private English tutor for the past three years.

The couple who drove into the Via Einaudi car park told police they had seen a man with a gun, but that they could not see his face as he ran away. Avery was allegedly identified by the victim, who has claimed to have seen him before with his wife.

He was arrested 20 minutes after the attack at his house in the Camerlata district on charges of kidnapping, assault and illegal possession of a firearm.

Police say they found “several” stun guns at his house, but no pistol.

The teacher has protested his innocence and told Luciano Storaci, the judge in charge of the case: “I did not do anything, you must believe me.”

But Mr Storaci decided Avery should be detained in custody while the investigation continues. This means that Avery will remain in prison for up to a year while the authorities investigate.

Caroline Ingham, the British vice-consul in Milan, visited Avery on Tuesday in Bassone prison.

A spokesman for the British consulate said: “He was in good shape, considering the circumstances. However, he did have a broken foot, which he sustained before the alleged incident.”

Avery, a former pupil at St John’s School in Margate, has lived a nomadic life, at one stage alternating between living in Rotterdam, Holland, and Southern England, where he helped to develop a friend’s distribution company.

Before that he had lived in the Canary Islands for several years and wrote on a social networking site after his return: “I’m planning to stay around for another year or possibly two, and will then be moving somewhere warmer again, possibly South Africa.”

He went on to live in various parts of the country before settling briefly in Ashford, Kent, adding: “I can’t remember what possessed me to move here! Studying hypnotherapy and psychotherapy, struggling to write a book and paying for it all by selling the odd car here and there.”

Avery’s father, Brian, did not answer the door at his terrace home in Margate on Tuesday night. Neighbours confirmed that he had a son who lives in Italy.

Malaysian state separates shopping sexes

AP | Jan 22, 2008

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia’s only state run by the Islamic opposition party will get stricter about enforcing separate lines for men and women at supermarkets, an official said Tuesday.

Authorities in the northern state of Kelantan — governed by the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party — will fine supermarkets and shops if they let men and women use the same lines at checkout counters, said party spokesman Anual Bakri Haron.

Chief Minister Nik Aziz Nik Mat has called for stricter enforcement “to safeguard the ladies” from being harassed and to avoid close proximity between opposite sexes while lining up to buy groceries, Anual said. “He wants the enforcement to be looked into thoroughly.”

Kelantan is the only Malaysian state governed by the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party. The rest are ruled by the National Front coalition, which is made up of various parties representing Malaysia’s different ethnic groups.

The coalition is dominated by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s United Malays National Organization party, which draws its support from the ethnic Malay Muslims who account for 60 percent of the country’s 27 million people.

The Islamic opposition party, which has ruled Kelantan for more than 17 years, imposed the separate lineup rule as part of its agenda to promote Islamic values. In recent years, however, people ignored the regulation, and there was little enforcement.

US gives immunity to Blackwater guards who killed 17 Iraqis

The Herald | Jan 21, 2008

MERCENARY guards who killed 17 Iraqi civilians when they opened fire on traffic in a busy Baghdad square last September are likely to escape trial or prosecution because of loopholes in US law.

The Blackwater private security firm employees facing indictment by a federal grand jury were given immunity by the US State Department when their company was hired four years ago to escort convoys and provide bodyguards for diplomats.

Despite pressure from the US military to have all security contractors brought under the same rules of engagement as soldiers, Blackwater’s special deal is likely to make bringing the alleged culprits to court “difficult”.

The security company has repainted all of the vehicles involved, removing potential evidence indicating whether they had come under attack.

Blackwater insists its guards returned fire after being shot at, although no weapons were found on any of the civilian victims at the scene.

The Iraqi government has demanded a full investigation, criminal charges where appropriate and the ending of Blackwater’s work in the country.

Human Rights First, a leading US campaigning group, said that existing laws are sufficient to bring prosecutions, despite State Department interference.

They issued a report claiming that failure to bring contractors to account for civilian deaths was the result of a lack of political will by the White House and infighting between US government departments.

. . .


Blackwater in Baghdad: “It was a horror movie”

Culture Fundamentally Alters the Brain

LiveScience | Jan 18,  2008

By Clara Moskowitz

It’s no secret culture influences your food preferences and taste in music. But now scientists say it impacts the hard-wiring of your brain.

New research shows that people from different cultures use their brains differently to solve basic perceptual tasks.

Neuroscientists Trey Hedden and John Gabrieli of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research asked Americans and East Asians to solve basic shape puzzles while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. They found that both groups could successfully complete the tasks, but American brains had to work harder at relative judgments, while East Asian brains found absolute judgments more challenging.

Previous psychology research has shown that American culture focuses on the individual and values independence, while East Asian culture is more community-focused and emphasizes seeing people and objects in context. This study provides the first neurological evidence that these cultural differences extend to brain activity patterns.

“It’s kind of obvious if you look at ads and movies,” Gabrieli told LiveScience. “You can tell that East Asian cultures emphasize interdependence and the U.S. ads all say things like, ‘Be yourself, you’re number one, pursue your goals.’ But how deep does this go? Does it really influence the way you perceive the world in the most basic way? It’s very striking that what seems to be a social perspective within the culture drives all the way to perceptual judgment.”

The results of the study were published in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Hard work

The scientists asked 10 Americans and 10 East Asians who had recently arrived in the U.S. to look at pictures of lines within squares.

In some trials, subjects decided whether the lines were the same length, regardless of the surrounding squares, requiring them to judge individual objects independent of context. In others, participants judged whether different sets of lines and squares were in the same proportion, regardless of their absolute sizes, a task that requires comparing objects relative to each other.

The fMRI revealed that Americans’ brains worked harder while making relative judgments, because brain regions that reflect mentally demanding tasks lit up. Conversely, East Asians activated the brain’s system for difficult jobs while making absolute judgments. Both groups showed less activation in those brain areas while doing tasks that researchers believe are in their cultural comfort zones.

“For the kind of thinking that was thought to be culturally unpreferred, this system gets turned on,” Gabrieli said. “The harder you have to think about something, the more it will be activated.”

Individual flexibility

The researchers were surprised to see so strong an effect, Gabrieli said, and interested in the reasons for individual variations within a culture.

So they surveyed subjects to find out how strongly they identified with their culture by asking questions about social attitudes, such as whether a person is responsible for the failure of a family member.

In both groups, participants whose views were most aligned with their culture’s values showed stronger brain effects.

Gabrieli said he is interested in testing whether brain patterns change if a person immigrates.

“There’s a hint that six months in a culture already changes you,” he said, referring to psychological, rather than neurological, research. “It suggests that there’s a lot of flexibility.”

The big divide

Scientists have long wondered about the biological root of cultural differences.

“One question was, when people see the line and box, do they look different all the way, starting at your retina?” Gabrieli said. “Or do you see the same thing to start with but then your mind focuses on one dimension or another. These data indicate that it’s at that later stage. In parts of the brain that are involved in early vision, we didn’t see a difference. Rather we saw a difference in higher-processing brain areas. People from different cultures don’t see the world differently, but they think differently about what they see.”

Gabireli said he does worry about unintended consequences of his research.

“The downside of these cultural studies is that one ends up stereotyping a culture,” he said. “Are you creating big differences between people? I like to think the more you understand different cultures, the better you understand their perspectives.”

Arab world shivers in worst deep freeze since 1964

Children play in the snow in Amman, Jordan, on Tuesday.

MSNBC | Jan 22, 2008

Jordan’s airport shut down by ice, other nations shiver as well

AMMAN, Jordan – The lone de-icing machine at Jordan’s busy international airport worked frantically on Tuesday to clear planes for take off when a freak snowstorm blanketed this small desert country in a cold snap that has the whole region shivering.

Temperatures have plunged throughout the Middle East, dusting cities with unfamiliar snowfalls and sending residences scurrying for their blankets and jackets to cope with the near freezing temperatures in many places.

While streets in the Jordanian capital, Amman, were icy and dangerous and traffic immediately clogged, farmers have welcomed the much needed precipitation in the midst of an unusually dry winter that has damaged crops and sent food prices soaring. The desert kingdom depends heavily on winter rains for its agriculture.

Snowball-wielding children also welcomed the thick snowflakes and promptly began pelting passing motorists with their rare missiles.

“Heavy fog also hampered our efforts, but we expect the worst to come later today when the temperatures will drop below freezing,” said an airport spokeswoman about the chaotic situation at the airport which has daily flights to Asia, Europe, North America and nearby Baghdad.

Worst cold front since 1964

Meteorologists in the region are calling it the worst cold front since 1964 and attributing it to a high pressure zone in northern Europe that is forcing cold air into the Middle East.

The 10-day old cold front has also destroyed fruits and vegetables in the Jordan Valley, compounding worries that food prices will jump higher amid concerns about skyrocketing fuel prices as the government removes subsidies on basic commodities.

In neighboring Syria, the dry winter had originally prompted President Bashar Assad to call for nationwide prayers for rain, but on Tuesday Damascus received its own blanket of snow, its first this winter.

The cold snap has caused extensive damage to the country’s crops, the official Syrian news agency, SANA, reported, but relief could be in sight with forecasts of rain for Wednesday.

In normally sunny Egypt, rain and the near-freezing temperatures have shocked residents, many describing it as the coldest winter in years.

‘Roads are crazy’

“It’s definitely much colder than ever before,” said Mohammed Ahmed, a shivering delivery driver who had to pilot his moped through Cairo’s rain-slicked streets on Tuesday. “I’m drinking a lot of coffee and espresso to keep warm and alert because the roads are crazy.”

The streets of normally arid Cairo, perched on the edge of the Sahara Desert, have no drains and the cold rain has created pools of standing water, bringing the city’s already torturous traffic to a honking standstill.

Winter in Cairo usually consists of mild sunny days with the occasional clouds and chill wind, but the current cold snap combined with buildings designed for blazing summers have left everyone shivering. Cairenes have pulled out their winter jackets and wrapped their heads in scarves, though many continue to tramp through the wet and muddy streets in thin shoes or sandals.

Temperatures in Baghdad were even colder with the mercury dipping below freezing Tuesday morning, an increasingly common occurrence this month in a city whose average January temperatures are normally 13 Celsius (55 Fahrenheit). Snow even fell briefly for the first time in living memory in Baghdad on Jan. 11.

The cold has residents huddling around their kerosene heaters, even as worries mount about fuel shortages that could add to the battered populace’s worries.

. . .


Global Cooling? Saudi Arabia covered with snow in coldest winter for 20 years

NASA: Solar cycle may cause “dangerous” cooling in a few years time

The deceit behind global warming
The story of how the panic over climate change was pushed to the top of the international agenda falls into five main stages. Stage one came in the 1970s when many scientists expressed alarm over what they saw as a disastrous change in the earth’s climate. Their fear was not of warming but global cooling, of “a new Ice Age”.

Musharraf: Pakistan isn’t hunting Osama

“The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our Number one priority and we will not rest until we find him!”

– GW Bush, September 13, 2001

“I don’t know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and I really don’t care. It’s not that important. It’s not our priority.”

– GW Bush, March 13, 2002

MSNBC | Jan 22, 2008

PARIS – Pervez Musharraf says he still gets the question a lot: When will Osama bin Laden and his top deputy be caught? The Pakistani president insists it’s more important for his 100,000 troops on the Afghan border to root out the Taliban than search for al-Qaida leaders.

That bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri are still at large “doesn’t mean much,” the former general said Tuesday on the second day of a swing through Europe. He suggested they are far less a threat to his regime than Taliban-linked militants entrenched in Pakistan’s west.

Bin Laden and al-Zawahri are believed to be hiding somewhere in the lawless tribal areas along Afghanistan’s frontier with Pakistan.

“The 100,000 troops that we are using … are not going around trying to locate Osama bin Laden and Zawahri, frankly,” Musharraf told a conference at the French Institute for International Relations. “They are operating against terrorists, and in the process, if we get them, we will deal with them certainly.”

A U.S. ally in its war on extremist groups, Musharraf has come under increasing pressure following the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last month and for his brief declaration of emergency rule in early November.

‘Multi-pronged strategy’

Musharraf, who as commander of Pakistan’s military seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, said the remnants of Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime and its Pakistani sympathizers are the “more serious issue” for both countries.

But he said there was “zero percent chance” that al-Qaida, the Taliban and their Pakistani allies could defeat his 500,000-strong army or that Islamic militants could win control of the government in Feb. 18 parliamentary elections.

As part of the “multi-pronged strategy” against terrorists, Pakistan has erected fences “selectively” and set up 1,000 checkpoints along the Afghan border in an effort to stop militants from using the areas to launch attacks inside the neighboring nation, he said.

Musharraf credited cooperation between Pakistani intelligence services and the CIA, both of whom believe that Pakistani militant leader Baitullah Mehsud was the mastermind of the Dec. 27 gun and suicide bomb attack that killed Bhutto.

But in Washington, the State Department’s counterterrorism chief, Dell Dailey, said the Bush administration was displeased with “gaps in intelligence” received from Pakistan about the activities of extremist groups in the tribal regions.

“We don’t have enough information about what’s going on there. Not on al-Qaida. Not on foreign fighters. Not on the Taliban,” he said.

Dailey, a retired Army lieutenant general with extensive background in special operations, said Pakistan needs to fix the problem. He said the U.S. wasn’t likely to conduct military strikes inside Pakistan on its own, saying that would anger many Pakistanis.

Musharraf down plays attacks

Musharraf played down the impact of recent attacks by extremists in the border region of South Waziristan, calling them “pinpricks” that his government must manage — not a sign of a resurgent Taliban.

Attacks on forts in that district over the last month — including a battle Tuesday — have fanned concerns that militants with links to al-Qaida and the Taliban may be gaining control in the region.

Pakistan’s army said fighting at the fort and another clash killed at least seven paramilitary border guards and 37 militants Tuesday.

The border region emerged as a front line in the war on extremist groups after Musharraf allied Pakistan with the U.S. following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Washington has given Pakistan billions of dollars in aid to help government forces battle militants.

Rising violence in the border region and a series of suicide attacks across Pakistan that killed hundreds in recent months have added to uncertainty before next month’s elections, which many people predict will further weaken Musharraf’s grip on power.

Despite turmoil at home, Musharraf defended his visit to four European countries, saying he wasn’t concerned about the stability of his regime while he was away.

“I can assure you that nothing will happen in Pakistan,” he said. “We are not a banana republic.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who met privately with Musharraf on Tuesday, expressed support for Pakistan’s fight with extremists and promised to press for increased European Union aid when France takes over the bloc’s rotating presidency in July, Sarkozy’s office said.

. . .


Musharraf: “We Are Not Looking” for Bin Laden