Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is scheduled to retire June 30, visited Afghanistan for a farewell tour and met with coalition troops in bases around the country. Gates said troops were about to deliver a “decisive blow” to the Taliban and that they were preparing to “turn a corner” in the nearly decade-old conflict.
As he prepares to leave office, Gates is facing pressure from within elements of the Obama administration to speed up the pace of troop withdrawals, scheduled to begin in July, but said at this juncture it is necessary to maintain the pressure on the Taliban.
There are roughly 100,000 U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan.
Syrian Town Fears Retaliation After Weekend Violence
In other news Monday, government forces in Yemen went on the offensive, trying to recapture a town seized by Islamic militants. At least 30 militants, civilians and soldiers have been killed in fighting there since Friday. In Syria, protesters have begun to fight back with guns and grenades after government troops attacked two towns Sunday.
KWAME HOLMAN: Government forces in Yemen went on the attack today trying to recapture a town seized by Islamic militants. Warplanes attacked Zinjibar in the south. At least 30 militants, civilians and soldiers have been killed there since Friday.
Meanwhile, amateur video from another city, Taiz, showed masked men with rifles shooting from rooftops at protesters. One doctor reported at least 20 people were killed there today. The protesters have demanded that President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down. Instead, Saleh increasingly has used force to crush the three-month-old uprising.
Protesters in Syria have begun fighting back with guns and grenades. Activists reported armed resistance today in two towns in the central part of the country. Government troops had attacked the towns on Sunday. The reports today said at least 14 people have been killed in the fighting and hundreds have been arrested.
Northern Sudan warned Southern Sudan today to withdraw from a disputed border region, but the South refused. The standoff raised new fears of a wider conflict, with thousands of people already displaced.
I spoke earlier with Rebecca Hamilton of the Pulitzer Center, who’s in the southern city of Juba.
Rebecca Hamilton, thank you for joining us.
Where are you now and what’s happening there on the ground?
REBECCA HAMILTON, Pulitzer Center: Just got back to Juba from several days further north up toward the north-south border in Sudan.
Yesterday, I flew over Abyei, which was the place that the Sudanese government attacked last weekend. And I also have been traveling in the areas around Abyei, where upwards of 80,000 people fled to after the attack on Abyei.
KWAME HOLMAN: What’s going on with the fighting Abyei and the talks in Khartoum to try to reach a settlement?
REBECCA HAMILTON: Well, the fighting at the moment has stopped because the Sudanese government has actually seized control of the town. And the critical issue right now is the humanitarian one, with over 80,000 people and the rainy season coming.
I met displaced this week who were taking shelter under the cover of trees in the pouring rain. And these are mostly women and children. Health workers are extremely concerned about disease. I spoke to a woman just this morning whose little two-year-old son had died on the walk from Abyei to Wau, where she was, it took three days, and he died of dehydration on the way.
So, the humanitarian consequences are severe. And if we see any deaths, it will be as a result of those. But in Abyei town itself now, the fighting has stopped. Politically, this is going to be very difficult to resolve, because the position of the South is that the northern government must withdraw from Abyei. And, right now the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, is continuing to say that Abyei is northern land, and he won’t withdraw.
KWAME HOLMAN: Rebecca, how is the humanitarian aid effort going?
REBECCA HAMILTON: It’s a very difficult humanitarian aid operation, because there is a huge fuel shortage in South Sudan right now. That makes transportation of relief goods very, very difficult.
And it’s something that the South Sudanese government is struggling with. And it’s something that the United Nations is struggling with as well.
KWAME HOLMAN: Southern Sudan is due to become an independent state on July 9, after years of civil war.
There was more international pressure today for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to leave office. In Bulgaria, the NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said, “Gadhafi’s reign of terror is coming to an end. Even those closest to him are departing, defecting or deserting.”
South African President Jacob Zuma arrived in Tripoli, hoping to broker a peace deal and to persuade Gadhafi to step down. The Libyan leader wasn’t among the dignitaries who greeted Zuma at the airport. Later, Libyan state TV showed Gadhafi meeting with Zuma and his delegation.
Germany has announced it will close all 17 of the country’s nuclear power plants by the year 2022. The decision today came on the heels of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in March. It marked an abrupt about-face for the center-right government.
But Chancellor Angela Merkel said it’s also an opportunity.
ANGELA MERKEL, German chancellor (through translator): As a country, we think that we can become pioneers on the way to create an age of renewable energies. And we can, as the first industrial nation, a big industrial nation, accomplish such a turnaround to high-efficient and renewable energies, with all the chances for exports, for development, for technology and for jobs.
KWAME HOLMAN: Before the Japan accident, Germany had produced about one-quarter of its energy from nuclear power. It has since shut down seven of its oldest reactors.
Authorities in Saudi Arabia today released a woman who has defied the kingdom’s ban on women driving. Manal Al-Sharif was detained May 21 after she posted video of herself behind the wheel. It was part of a campaign for a mass protest next month against the driving ban. There had been mounting international pressure to free Al-Sharif, but officials gave no reason for the decision today to let her go. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bars women from driving.
Hackers struck PBS overnight, posting a fake story on the NewsHour website. The posting claimed rapper Tupac Shakur, who died in 1996, actually was alive and in New Zealand. The story was taken down this morning.
The hackers said that it was in retaliation for a documentary about WikiLeaks that aired on the PBS program Frontline last week. And, late today, the Frontline website was attacked. The executive producer of Frontline called it a disappointing and irresponsible act.
Those are some of the day’s major stories.