In the eyes of the Syrian authorities Ferzat Jarban was a rodent who had to be exterminated. The 35-year-old florist had transformed himself into a citizen journalist, filming scenes that depicted the brutality of the regime and posting them on YouTube.
His footage included the bodies of men and women, and some particularly shocking images of a young boy who had been shot in the head.
Jarban was soon one of the most wanted men in his native al-Qusayr, a rural town of 30,000 people near the rebellious city of Homs in the west of the country. He went on the run from the intelligence services, never spending more than two nights in any one place.
Every month, however, he risked everything to see his wife, Khalidja, and their three children. He would savour half an hour with them before disappearing underground again.
It was during one of these fleeting visits, as he stepped out of his car and into his front yard, that the secret police pounced. Armed men in plain clothes bundled him into the back of a black police van.
Jarban’s cousin, who was looking after the family, rushed out of the house, shouting, and tried to pull him away. According to two witnesses interviewed by The Sunday Times, one of the officers drew his pistol and shot the cousin at point-blank range.
Twenty-four hours later Jarban’s body was dumped in a puddle in the town square, where his wife was taken to see him. The marks of torture testified to the cruelty of his final ordeal.
The men who carried his body from the square said police had gouged out one of his eyeballs with a knife and then forced it back through the empty socket into his brain.
Those who washed the body for burial found that he had a broken nose, a large, bloody flap of skin hanging from his neck and severe bruising to his arms, legs, back and chest.
A relative fought back tears as she described his tireless work for the revolution against President Bashar al-Assad.
“He rarely slept. He was at the forefront of every demonstration. He wasn’t scared of showing his face,” she said. “He photographed every protest, every murder, every destroyed building. His weapon was his camera. His memory will live on for ever.”
Jarban’s murder has made him a martyr in al-Qusayr, which thrives on cotton, fruit and vegetables from the surrounding fields in normal times but is now ringed by an estimated 2,000 soldiers from the Syrian army. His image is carried aloft by demonstrators at daily rallies in the square.
Local people say he is one of 96 civilians killed here since the start of the popular uprising last March.
They rely for their security on perhaps 200 rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), mostly former members of Assad’s forces who defected. The rebel army, which provides the town with a lifeline by keeping open a single route in and out, is well organised but lightly armed and vastly outnumbered.
Last week the Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy and I were smuggled into al-Qusayr along this route, giving us access to the men and women who have been defying Assad’s crackdown for 10 months. Read the rest of this entry »
A failed escape attempt by the only American soldier held by the Taliban has left him facing his third Christmas in captivity.
Bowe Bergdahl, 25, from Idaho, made a daring break for freedom by jumping from the first-floor window of the mud-and-brick home in which he was being held in Pakistan, say Taliban commanders.
He ran for cover in forested mountains nearby, but his captors — from the notorious Haqqani network — launched a manhunt as soon as they realised he had got away.
Bergdahl evaded capture for two nights and three days as he searched desperately for villagers who might be able to offer him protection and send word of his whereabouts to American officials, but there were few civilians in the area, which is regularly targeted by missiles launched from US drones.
Bergdahl’s captors eventually found him almost naked and covered in leaves in a shallow trench that he had dug with his bare hands.
He was weak and exhausted, having had no food or water during his entire time on the run, but was nevertheless able to put up a vicious fight.
“He fought like a boxer,” a militant called Hafiz Hanif was told — it took five insurgents to overpower him. Read the rest of this entry »
The burly figure of Sabar Lal, a 49-year-old gem dealer with a salt and pepper beard, loomed in the arched doorway of his home. Facing him in the garden, a team of US special forces and Afghan commandos levelled their assault rifles.
As helicopters buzzed overhead, five bullets fired from one of the soldiers’ automatic weapons thudded into Lal’s chest and head and sent him reeling. Blood oozed onto his grey marble patio, forming a large pool around him.
The killing, in Jalalabad three months ago, provoked outrage among tribal elders, MPs and government officials. They depicted it as the cold-blooded execution of an innocent man at the hands of ruthless American aggressors who had relied on faulty intelligence to target their prey.
The Sunday Times has established that Lal once received cash from MI6 to counter Taliban insurgents, fought against them alongside British special forces and helped the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to eradicate poppies used to make opium.
But this newspaper’s investigation also found that, for at least the past two years, Lal had worked as an undercover Al-Qaeda operative — and that he paid the militant commander responsible for the kidnapping of Linda Norgrove, the British aid worker who died during a failed rescue attempt last year.
The curious life of Sabar Lal raises as many questions as his death and offers an unusual insight into the shifting allegiances that make Afghanistan such a volatile and unpredictable place. Read the rest of this entry »
By Nicci Smith and Miles Amoore
Pakistan gave the go-ahead to American airstrikes last weekend that inadvertently killed 24 of their own troops, according to new claims from US officials.
The account is the latest twist in the blame game surrounding the worst friendly fire incident in the history of the 10-year war in Afghanistan, an event that has plunged America’s already precarious relations with Pakistan into a new crisis.
US officials speaking to The Wall Street Journal said that an Afghan-led assault force that included American commandos came under fire from a camp in Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal region, a lawless border area that adjoins Kunar province in Afghanistan.
Afghan intelligence said the force was searching for a senior insurgent commander, but they stumbled onto a unit of Pakistani soldiers dressed in plain clothes, who shot at them first.
“The reports show that the Americans thought these guys were insurgents, so they opened fire on them,” a senior intelligence official told The Sunday Times.
The “militants” now appear to have been Pakistani border troops who had established a temporary base.
An initial American account based on interviews with the commandos claims the team requested aerial back-up to strike the camp, contacting a joint border-control centre to establish whether Pakistani forces were in the area. The centre is manned by US, Afghan and Pakistani officials to coordinate information to prevent clashes.
When called, the Pakistani officials at the centre allegedly said they had no military forces in the area, clearing the way for the airstrikes.
The US has acknowledged mistakes were made on both sides. To protect troops, officials working in the centre need to know whether NATO forces are planning operations, but no advance warning had been sent of the 26 November operation.
US officials have been reluctant in the past to share information for fear of it leaking out to insurgents.
Washington has expressed its regret over the “ tragic accident”, but pointedly stopping short of an apology.
But its condolences have been rebuffed by an unforgiving Pakistan, where the military and government have united to angrily condemn the incident as an “unprovoked act of blatant aggression.”
The Pakistani military categorically denied the latest American version of events, claiming Pakistan had been fed “wrong information” and was contacted only after the strike began. Read the rest of this entry »
The US has expressed regret and offered its “deepest condolences” after 24 Pakistani soldiers who were killed in cross-border Nato air strikes were buried on Sunday, calling the attacks a “tragic unintended incident”.
Pakistani troops fired mortars at American ground soldiers patrolling the Afghan border, triggering Nato air strikes, according to Afghan officials and western sources. The killings, which occurred in the early hours of Saturday when Nato bombs smashed into two Pakistani military checkpoints, threaten to further damage the already shaky relationship between America and Pakistan.
Pakistan has responded to the killings by ordering the closure of a CIA drone base and by cutting Nato’s supply line into Afghanistan.
Details of what happened remain murky. Pakistan said the air strikes took place in the Pakistani tribal agency of Mohmand. Pakistani officials called the bombardment a “grave infringement” of the country’s sovereignty.
But The Sunday Times has learned that the two checkpoints hit by the air strikes were in fact constructed on Afghan soil, in Kunar province’s Khas Kunar district between the villages of Shaley and Shrunkey.
When American ground forces, who were conducting a night time patrol on Saturday morning, approached the two Pakistani checkpoints, the Pakistani soldiers stationed there responded by firing mortars at the Americans, according to local intelligence and western officials.
Standard operating procedures dictate that Nato forces must withdraw when fired upon by Pakistani troops, an occurrence which takes place more often than reported, according to western analysts who monitor security developments in the east.
But, on this occasion, Nato called in air strikes to stop the mortar teams from firing at the American ground troops.
“In the early night hours of this morning, a force consisting of Afghan forces and coalition forces, in the eastern border area where the Durand Line is not always 100 per cent clear, got involved in a fire fight,” said Nato spokesman, Brigadier General Carsten Jacobsen.
Pakistani troops have made an increasing number of cross-border incursions into Afghan territory since the beginning of the year, according to western and local Afghan officials.
Part of the problem is that the exact location of the border between the two countries, known as the Durand Line, remains disputed and ambiguous.
“It is still not clear if the Americans knew that the people attacking them were Pakistani military forces or whether they thought they might be insurgents. But the firing must have been intense for them to respond like this,” said one western official.
It is possible that the Americans may have mistaken the Pakistani soldiers for Taliban insurgents, especially because the operation took place in the dark. But officials said that the Americans would have known the location of Pakistani military bases along the border.
Pakistan’s army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said map references of all of the force’s border posts had been given to NATO several times. Read the rest of this entry »
Britain is drawing up plans to pull its forces out of Afghanistan much sooner than had been intended after high-level indications from Washington that American troops may leave early.
Sources in London and Kabul suggested last week that President Barack Obama was considering accelerating the withdrawal from Afghanistan in the run-up to presidential elections in November next year.
“The Americans need to pull out early for financial and electoral reasons,” said a source. “It’s all part and parcel with the decision to pull out of Iraq by the end of the year.”
With British troops in Helmand now a small part of an American-dominated Nato force, Ministry of Defence planners have been forced to look at speeding up the withdrawal of UK troops. MoD officials insisted that any British withdrawal would be “conditions-based” and dependent on an agreement with the Afghan government.
“The Americans are now looking to pull out much faster than previously planned,” said a senior British official. “We have no choice but to dovetail our planning with theirs.”
At present Nato plans to withdraw the vast bulk of its troops by the end of 2014, leaving a small contingent of conventional troops and special forces. As part of the process, the Americans are due to withdraw 33,000 troops by September 2012.
That would leave 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan. But a Nato official in Kabul said the chances of there being anywhere near that number by the end of 2013 were “slim to none”.
Although no final decision had been taken, it was “highly likely” that American troops would be pulled out more rapidly and in far greater numbers than previously discussed, said sources in London and Kabul. Other Nato countries are as keen as the Americans to bring their troops home early. Read the rest of this entry »
Documents obtained by The Sunday Times cast new light on how one of London’s most respected accountancy firms was hoodwinked
The largest private bank in Afghanistan, hailed as a success story by the West, was deliberately designed to help its politically well connected shareholders and executives plunder about £622m.
Documents obtained by The Sunday Times cast new light on how a complex fraud set up by Afghan executives allegedly hoodwinked one of London’s most respected accountancy firms, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), which in February last year found no wrongdoing at Kabul Bank.
Months later it emerged that executives and shareholders had spent years looting the bank’s coffers. The scandal forced the Afghan government to raid its reserves for £528m to bail out the stricken bank.
As a result, Britain and other countries suspended millions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world. President Hamid Karzai blamed western advisers for failing to spot the looming disaster.
Referring to PWC’s February audit, the American government said at the time: “This ‘clean audit’ opinion from a professional accounting and auditing firm with worldwide operations demonstrates the difficulty of identifying fraud at Kabul Bank.”
However, the documents show that the bank’s structure was created for the prime purpose of committing fraud on a massive scale. Investigators have identified 114 fictitious companies set up by the bank, according to the minutes of a recent meeting between Afghan officials, leading donor countries and employees of Kroll, an investigations agency that began a £6.2m audit of the bank earlier this year.
Loans were then made to these fake businesses with the cash dished out among the main shareholders and the bank’s senior executives. The bank also paid off 10 accounting firms (but not PWC) to create a mass of documents that supported the existence of these fake companies.
Between them the bank’s executives and shareholders spent about £93m on luxury villas in Kabul and Dubai and a doomed property venture in the United Arab Emirates.
Among those under investigation in the scandal are Mahmoud Karzai, the president’s brother, and Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a warlord and brother of the country’s first vice-president.
Relatives of Fahim also bought shares and obtained loans worth millions from the bank. Mahmoud Karzai, who had a 7% shareholding in the bank, and the Fahim family deny any wrongdoing.
The shareholders and executives spent a further £37m of the bank’s money on travel and luxurious hotel rooms as they jetted around the world spending depositors’ money.
“Shareholders and management were motivated by loans they could receive rather than by the performance of the bank,” the minutes quote a Kroll official as saying. “Layers of governance in regard to compliance, internal audits and the audit committee were non-existent.”
There are also allegations that bank officials bribed Afghan cabinet ministers to ignore the bank’s fraudulent dealings and gave millions of dollars to President Karzai’s 2009 election campaign, which was itself tainted by accusations of widespread voter fraud.
Questions remain over how PWC failed to spot the massive fraud. The company declined to comment.
“The independent audit that was carried out on Kabul Bank by PWC will be scrutinised, as their audit cleared the bank of all illicit dealing when actually this was not the case at all,” the minutes state.
A Kroll official present at the meeting said the agency would be “looking into this very closely”.
So far just £46m — 8% of the missing funds — has been recovered. Shareholders have apparently signed agreements to repay a total of £203m. A further £249m is still in dispute, raising the possibility that the Afghan government will never get the bulk of its money back. Read the rest of this entry »